Crashing the war debate

Is anti-war hacking any substitute for argument?

Jeremy Hazlehurst

Topics Politics

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There have been many innovations in the reporting of the Iraqi war, from ‘embedded’ journalists to the barrage of 24-hour news channels. Many commentators (mostly women) have also remarked on the near-lascivious glee with which many of their colleagues (mostly men) have drooled over so-called ‘war porn’, the military speak of AC130s and B52s, Warthogs and Bunker Busters.

Less well-reported, but perhaps more important in the long run, is another development – the use of the internet by the interested public to disseminate both information and opinion. This might sound like a modest revolution, but it raises important questions about how we discuss the current war, and the value that we attach to political debate.

In media terms, one of the most enlightening developments has been the launch of Al Jazeera’s English language website. Until now, there has been what Pentagon wonk-babble might call an ‘asymmetry’ in terms of the news that the Western and the Arab worlds receive. Because of the simple fact that many more Arabs can read English than Westerners can read Arabic, the Arab world has been aware of our views, while we have remained ignorant of theirs. Now, for the first time, we have direct access to Arab opinion.

This isn’t the only way that the internet has changed how we get our news. Because of increasing cynicism about the mainstream American media, weblogs have become a useful source for anti-war activists in the USA. These sites often publish views that are absent from Fox, Sky and CNN. And many Americans have been reading the UK Guardian and the BBC’s website for reporting that is more balanced than that in the States.

This explosion of new sources has not been welcomed by all. Almost as soon as it came online, the Al Jazeera site was attacked by hackers furious at the tone of its reporting. As a result, visitors either couldn’t access the site, or were redirected to a webpage with the words ‘Let Freedom Ring’ emblazoned on a Stars and Stripes background.

An American site that showed pictures of dead US troops, which the TV networks had deemed too grisly for viewers, was taken down after individuals bombarded the web host with complaints. Similar tactics have been employed by the anti-war side. In Spain, activists inundated the ruling party’s website with emails and caused it to crash, in protest at prime minister Jose Maria Aznar’s support for the war. Anti-war worm viruses are currently doing the rounds, hiding in attachments with titles like ‘Go USA!’ that are meant to appeal to pro-war types.

This kind of action has opened up a second, unofficial, front in the propaganda war – one fought by ordinary folk. There are a number of reasons for this. Opinions that previously would have had no bigger an audience than the student bar can now be read by thousands. And it has become much easier to close down someone’s website – which often takes less effort than trying to change their mind (after all, you can’t crash people with ‘worms’).

At a time when many believe they are not being listened to, this kind of low-grade guerrilla censorship is tempting. This must be especially true in Spain, where even though 91 percent of the population is against the war (according to the right-wing newspaper El Mundo) a senior minister recently called the anti-war protesters Saddam’s ‘fellow travellers’. Many are understandably angry. But anger rarely gives good counsel. And DIY censorship could be a dangerous outlet for their frustration.

If the hacking and crashing of opponents continues, we risk finding ourselves in a situation where there is no debate – just statement and counter-statement, with nobody engaging with those they disagree with, instead preferring to attack their websites. The worst case scenario is that debate – the very thing that makes the open society open – could become a thing of the past.

That said, it’s important not to overstate the problem. Citizens will never have as much power as a government to control the means of publication. But they can contribute to the standard of debate that does exist. Citizens have a responsibility to allow others to express their views, however odious or silly they might be, and they also have a responsibility to engage them in debate. If you fail to do this, your own position becomes weak; an idea that is not put forward for criticism has no strength.

A point of view is strong in proportion to the amount of criticism it can defeat, and a person’s beliefs are taken seriously in proportion to his willingness to engage with opponents. Those who would rather silence their opponents than debate them shouldn’t be surprised when they find that they’ve waived the right to be listened to.

Jeremy Hazlehurst is a freelance journalist.

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Topics Politics


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