This is the first time there has ever been a war--or an anti-war movement--in the Internet age. Witnessing wars through the prism of new media isn't new to the American public. In Vietnam, it was television, with the continuous broadcast of casualties spurring an unprecedented peace movement. In the Gulf War, it was CNN, with the U.S. military effectively taking the reins of the 24-hour news broadcast. It's unclear what role the Internet will play in reporting armed conflict in Iraq, but new media has already made an impact on anti-war activism.
The anti-globalization movement was the first widespread progressive movement to take advantage of the Internet, and the movement itself has resembled its medium of choice: Decentralized, autonomous groups from all over the social spectrum are able to network and share information both locally and globally. The other important element that the Web has added to this movement is the presence of alternative media. By using the relatively cheap and simple technology of blogs, message boards, digital photography, audio and video and good old text, activists have grasped the power of multi-media to cover the news from the protests themselves. So while TV news has become less and less enlightening, the Internet offers more perspectives on the war question than ever before.
The reach and speed of email makes it a potent tool for organizing. Emails have been piling up about the upcoming Feb. 15 peace rally in the state capitol. North Carolina activists used email and the Web to organize 32 buses to taking an average of 45 people per bus up to Washington, D.C., for the Jan. 18 peace march, according to organizers at Southerners on New Ground. Of those, three buses were from Raleigh and nine were from Durham and Chapel Hill combined. Back in the Triangle, a quick email campaign organized a peace rally in Brightleaf Square that drew more than 1,000 people--with about a week's worth of planning.
"I think that the successes of the anti-globalization movement really showed everyone how useful the Internet could be for organizing," says Ruby Sinreich, a Chapel Hill resident who builds web sites for area nonprofits and advocacy organizations. She isn't a professional organizer, but she is a professional techie who participates in a variety of social causes and sits on the board of the Internationalist book store, a center of the anti-war movement. "Using technology, and especially the Web, has a lot of advantages and disadvantages." Sinreich says. "When someone's looking at a Web site, it's not as engaging as someone talking to them. People have the option to move on at any moment and ignore it. But on the upside, the technology allows you to give so much more information than you could in person or on the phone."
It's also a less intrusive way to get the word out. "That's one of my favorite things about it," Sinreich says. "I pick the exact amount of information that I get."
Not only has the anti-war movement learned the advantages of the Internet, she says, it's also learned the drawbacks. Because the World Trade Organization and World Bank protests have relied so heavily on the Internet, they've drawn mostly white, college-educated people under 30--the people most likely to be wired. "The anti-war movement has been sensitive to that by using the Internet extensively but not totally relying on it," Sinreich says.
By all accounts, the growing peace movement has drawn a much more diverse crowd. "On the buses [to Washington] when we met up at the Internationalist, it looked like over half the people were over 30 or 40 years old. I'm used to, at 31 years old, being one of the oldest people," she says.
But Sinreich thinks the reach of the Web has also grown since the mid-'90's. "You wouldn't expect your mom or your grandma to go online to find out about the rally. But that's exactly what's happened," she says.
Media activism is also growing here, thanks in large part to the opening of the North Carolina Independent Media Center. Twenty-three-year-old filmmaker Brandon Jourdan co-founded the center, which opened in Chapel Hill in April 2002. IMCs are a hybrid between grassroots activist networks and journalism outlets, with an element of online community thrown in. Anyone can post stories or calendar items to the open-access Web site, or use it for more ambitious projects like full-length documentaries. The physical site hosts events and screenings, and volunteers teach each other journalistic and technical skills. "Activists know they can use the site to get their information out there," Jourdan says, "and other activists know that if they want to find out more about what's happening, they can go to Indymedia."
The first Independent Media Center opened in Seattle in 1999 during the historic anti-World Trade Organization protest. Activists uploaded text, pictures, video and audio footage onto an elegantly designed web site that allowed people to publish material instantaneously. The footage of arrests, tear gassing, speeches and performances drew approximately 2 million hits in the first two days. Since then, IMCs have opened in cities across the globe.
"I think it's proof that something like that works when you see 120 of these pop up all over the world and it's continued to grow and it's continued to stay non-corporate," Jourdan says. "No one is making money from this. It takes a lot of time and a lot of money."
Relying on free office space and broadband Internet access from the Internationalist Bookstore and using free Web space from ibiblio, the local IMC has about 30 members and relies on the volunteer work of approximately five or six core staff. A sister center just opened in Greensboro, and one is slated to open its doors in Wilmington in March. The Chapel Hill outpost will host the state's central site, but the individual centers will have their own pages.
Anyone who's ever attended a protest and later on seen news coverage that bore no resemblance to the event can appreciate the need for and potential of the IMC. But it faces the same question that the Web as a whole does: How reliable is the information? Open access means no quality control. At its best, an IMC offers unfettered democratic access to media. At its worst, it's a soapbox for knee-jerk politics--or an easy target for right-wing spam.
Soon after the NC-IMC was launched, people began flooding the site with racist right-wing postings. Torn between its democratic principles and the needs of the community, the organizers decided to step in and begin moderating their open Newswire. Volunteers now monitor the postings to make sure there's no hate speech, and they edit the content of the front page of the site by consensus.
Sinreich is glad the IMC made the decision to moderate the Internet site. "That's the drawback of the free flow of information," she says. "I'm not saying it's bad, but it's a challenge that they've had to face."
N.C. Peace Hub
United for Peace
(national site with listings by state)
Independent Media Center
Southerners on New Ground