E-mail, Sept. 11, and the face of the Internet

Since the events of Sept. 11, 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: a communication device that can spread information either important or misleading in the wink of an eye to millions of people.

The first e-mail came about two days after the attacks. Its 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 attacks was a ruse. 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.

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 (not true), and that the networks were playing fast and loose with truth.

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.

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 an Afghan-American writer of children's books who lives in San Francisco. Although he has lived in the US for more than three decades, he always kept in touch with the events of his homeland. He had to write something that spoke to the reality of Afghanistan.

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.

One friend passed it along to a larger group. Literally hundreds of thousands of people have seen it. As a result, Ansary's essay has contributed a great deal to the understanding of Afghanistan for many Americans.

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