Can the Internet Prevent War?

By Timothy M. O'Brien
December 10, 2008 | Comments: 6

Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio won the Nobel Prize for Literature in his Nobel Lecture in Stockholm yesterday, he commented "if the Internet had existed at the time, perhaps Hitler's criminal plot would not have succeeded -- ridicule might have prevented it from ever seeing the light of day".

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It is certainly a rosy idea, that a world with more dialog and discussion would've prevented the carnage and slaughter that accompanied World War II and the Holocaust, but the pessimist in me thinks that technology is a neutral player when it comes to world peace. Give every child in the a world a laptop, and we'll end up with a world just as constrained by economic, social, and ethnic divisions. Technology can certainly be used as an educational tool, but the ability to communicate does not, in and of itself, encourage communication. More eyeballs on a news story doesn't always translate to a more reasoned discussion.

The idea that the Internet would have been prophylaxis to tyranny ignores the role that the Internet played during the build up to the Iraq war. I congratulate Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio on his Nobel Prize, but I also wonder if he and I are looking at the same "Internet". Exhibit A...

The Drudge Addiction

After the 9/11 attack, I think many of us had the same addiction: The Drudge Addiction. I would reload it often: maybe eight or nine times a day. Even though I disagreed with the unspoken, paleoconservative subtext of the site itself, after the 9/11 attacks, I tended to view Drudge as beating the established broadcast outlets. News would break, and you could almost bet that it would show up on Drudge first. Then, without fail, the same stories would start to show up on CNN and the networks. Agree with his bias or not, his simple static site was often ahead of the news cycle and you didn't have to wade through a sea of annoying popups or bland USA Today / CNN-style reporting. Of the sites I would check over a lunch break (nytimes.com, slashdot.org, etc.) Drudge was always on that list.

I always viewed Drudge as an imperfect fit, but, even with Drudge's indeterminate rightward bias and penchant for sensationalism, the simplicity of his design were subconscious reassurance in a time of heavy world conflict. Drudge certainly doesn't provide "community" (his site is static HTML), but he did provide a sort of shared context for a shell-shocked nation. For a few years, Drudge's sensationalist, reactionary headlines shaped the newscycle. More recently, I've sensed a collective "recovery" from the Drudge phenomena. I couldn't tell you exactly why, but I have the sense that Drudge's constant alarmism doesn't fit the times. If you check out the Alexa statistics, you'll notice a three month decline of 20%.

What Drudge Wrought

War and fear.

Drudge wasn't "my community", and I suspect that a number of people had a similar experience with the Drudge Report. It was an interesting accident, it was an attention grabbing train wreck, but it certainly wasn't "a community". It was a scandal and jingoism and fear mongering, and I think that, along with other parts of the Fourth Estate, it played a part in taking the US into war. It was the Drudge Report which was trumpeting "Mushroom Clouds" before the invasion of Iraq, remember this?

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Drudge from 9/9/2002

Five year later, in 2007, Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times described Drudge as "a potent combination of real scoops, gossip and innuendo aimed at Mr. Drudge's targets of choice". Rutenberg's 2007 article was all about how Hillary Clinton had to learn how to navigate the influence of Drudge in order to win the nomination. For years, Drudge was something of a king maker, but if you go back and look at Drudge via the Wayback machine, you'll see a disturbing picture of ranting, lunacy. The site we were all paying attention to was trumpeting the craziest headlines... If the Sept. 9, 2002 weren't enough, take a look at the next day's page:

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Drudge from 9/10/2002

Does that bring back memories? This was the defining site of the newscycle. Now, am I arguing that Drudge was responsible for the war? No. I'm making the argument that much of the country was focused on this web site, and that this web site served as something of an "echo chamber" for fearmongering. Our standards, our fear, led us to the point where stories without evidence trumpeted on Drudge became the conversation. The internet was an immediate delivery device for propaganda, leaks, unsubstantiated rumors, and fear. This technology, to which Le Clezio has assigned magic peace making power, was used to beat the drums.

Would the Internet have prevent Hilter via some sort of collective ridicule mechanism? My answer would have to be no. While the internet has certainly helped to expose wrongdoing throughout the world, it has done little to reduce conflict in the world. On the contrary cyberattacks in Estonia demonstrate that the Internet may actually increase the potential for conflict making economic and information warfare much more accessible than it was in the 30s and 40s. The modern equivalent of a Tokyo Rose is likely a blogger on the government payroll. I'm not arguing that the Internet brings us closer to war, I'm only saying that Le Clezio's idea that the internet is a form of perfect discourse is a mistaken idea and it would be too easy to see it trumpeted by the technorati as a truth.

The Post-Drudge Internet and the Future of Collective Discourse

Drudge was the legitimizing "force" shaping discussion and discourse, and I'm convinced that it is growing irrelevant. (Or, at least I'm hoping it grows irrelevant.) I think that as the Drudge brand ages, you'll see it become less and less relevant to the newscycle, but what comes next could be more "interesting" and more "powerful". Will there be an analog of something like the Drudgereport on the collective web (or Quantum Web™) characterized by collaborative filter sites like Reddit. Will the increasing segmentation of the audience lead to new opportunities for the dissemination of propaganda?


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6 Comments

Shouldn't it just simply say Internet != War?

Silly. a red circle with a cross is not the bang operator. Internet != War isn't the same as Internet == absence_of( war ). It's just like you programmers to try to compile story graphics :-)

I think your eagerness for your hatchet job caused you to lose a causal connection somewhere.

In other words, this doesn't make a lick of sense, other than to connect Drudge, Iraq, and Hitler in the search engine indices.

Drudge didn't get the US into Iraq. Military and political leaders weren't reading random pseudo-news sites on the internet. They were busy dusting off invasion plans prepared 10 years earlier.

All the Drudge Report really provoked was the Huffington Post and a lot of talk about the Fairness Doctrine on the internet.

(Though I think they probably mean "the Web", the idea of counting packets for partisan bias or something would mean full employment for out-of-work hedge fund quants and AI academics.)

This article is not very intelligent. The Iraq war is not a conflict that can be compared to the Second World War.

Of course Hitler's megalomania would have not gone that far if the people were already subject to the heavy information bombardment that Internet provides.

Internet makes people smarter because it makes them critical. It encourages analysis of information received. It also creates fragmentation, so the hive thinking that is required to lure millions of young men to war is simply not possible today.

Today's conflicts are all about tactics, strategy, and less about raw carnage. Today's wars are fundamentally different.

Pessimism needs to be balanced with an equal dose of optimism to be a good critical.

I repeat that this article seems just stupid to me. It's just a troll, and I bit the bait, so maybe I'm even stupider.

That's a fairly shallow read of the article; of course the Iraq War can't be compared to the Second World War. What can be stated empirically is that the Internet was used as an effective delivery mechanism for the same sort of naked propaganda that was present in the earlier part of the century.

Remember the Maine? You probably don't, it was a older generations' version of the 9/11 attacks. My argument rests on the fact that sites like Drudge (or even community sites like Free Republic) certainly had a prominent role in building support for the war. They did such an effective job precisely because of the fragmentation you describe.

Well, it certainly is a bit of a flimsy article .. as you quote at the very beginning, Mr Clezio said only "perhaps Hitler .." wouldn't have succeeded: I'd say it's hard to argue that point - but you've then banged on solely about Drudge for an entire article .. (and not many people outside of the US pay any attention to it anyway ..).

I'd certainly dispute your basic assertion that more knowledge about a situation makes little difference: at the first opportunity they had (with the exception of the US..) the countries involved in invading Iraq on false permises had replaced the leaders who did it.

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