BOSTON — Since the events of September 11th, we've seen that the Internet has fulfilled many important functions for people. Yet two e-mails, widely disseminated on the Internet, have shown us the real 'face' of the 'Net: as a communication device that can spread information that can be either important or misleading in the wink of an eye to millions of people.
I first saw the 'misleading' e-mail about two days after the attacks. The e-mail's author, who claimed to be a Brazilian student, said a professor had told him that the news film that showed Palestinians celebrating in the streets in the first few minutes after the attack on the World Trade Center was a trick. The student said the professor had copies of film from the Gulf war and when he had checked the film, he had found the very same footage as that being used by US networks. In other words, the e-mail continued, the networks had used footage of celebrations that had occur r ed during the Gulf War.
The e-mail flew around the world like a cannonball. Most people were originally inclined to ignore it, but for those who were open to the idea of a conspiracy, the e-mail was like oxygen.
Then a curious thing happened. An American professor who studies the Middle East sent out an e-mail commenting on the story of the videotape. Another person then added a comment to the American professor's original e-mail saying this professor also had a copy of this Gulf war tape, and this proved for sure that the networks were playing fast and loose with truth. But nowhere in the American professor's e-mail, which was still included in this newest version, did she say that she had any such tape. Once again, the e-mail shot around the world.
Well, the e-mails were wrong. The celebration repeatedly shown on TV really did happen. But the colleague of a journalist who was at the scene, who confirmed it for me, also said that the story not being told was that the 'spontaneous celebration' was more a photo - op instigated by Islamic Jihad. Still, it shows how e-mails can lead people in wild directions.
The other e-mail showed how the Internet allows individuals to make key contributions to the national conversation at moments of great importance.
Tamim Ansary is a Afghan-American writer of children's books who lives in San Francisco. Born in Kabul to an a Afghani father and an American mother, he moved to the US when he was a teenager. Although he has lived in the US for more than three decades, he always kept in touch with the events of his homeland. As he heard repeated calls for the US to 'nuke Afghanistan back to the stone age' on talk radio, he felt he had to write something that spoke to the reality of the country.
So he composed an e-mail for a few friends that compared the Taliban to the Nazis, Osama bin Laden to Hitler and the people of Afghanistan to the Jews of the concentration camps. He wanted people to know the reality of the situation, without advocating war or peace.
One friend was so taken with his essay that he passed it along to a larger group. And from there it has frown until literally hundreds of thousands of people have seen it. B oth Salon and Slate, the Internet's two most influential Web-based magazine s , have copies of the essay on their sites. It's no lie to say that Ansary's essay has contributed a great deal to the understanding of Afghanistan for many Americans.
So how do we separate the wheat from the chaff? It's not always easy. Even the media itself has been known to publish stories based on false information.
Perhaps the best advice one can give is to be open, yet skeptical, about information received in this manner. If it seems too good to be true, or too wacky to believed, it most likely is. But occasionally, great wisdom can be found, and shared among us all. Like Tamim Ansary's e-mail to a small group of friends.