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The Oklahoma City disaster highlights the Internet’s capacity not only to report a breaking story but to enable the public to become part of it

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When it comes to breaking news, TV is still the swiftest of media, and print the most comprehensive. But as the devastating Oklahoma City blast demonstrated, the Internet offers a dimension that no traditional channel of information has ever provided: interactivity. Only hours after the April 19 bombing, thousands of people could be found on the information superhighway, not only reading reports from the scene and viewing uploaded video footage but also searching for word of loved ones, expressing outrage, and seeking solace in the company of other shaken observers. ”People want to share their responses to traumatic events,” says Mike Godwin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a civil liberties group. The Internet ”provides a sense of community for people who otherwise might feel very dislocated.”

Clearly, the explosion marked a critical moment in the development of the Net: a test of a virtual community in the face of an all-too-real catastrophe. What were the blast’s aftershocks in cyberspace and, more to the point, how did this youngest of mass media respond to them?

It’s a global village, after all. Within minutes of the blast, computer users in Oklahoma City were disseminating information to the rest of the world’s on-line community. Within hours, offers of aid came back. ”If you need to get a message through to Montana, let me know … Our thoughts and prayers are with you all,” wrote one of many on-line Samaritans.

Four hours after the bombing, a company called Internet Oklahoma (ionet) had created a World Wide Web site devoted to the tragedy. Among the services provided were a list of known survivors, hospital phone numbers, and up-to-the-minute news. At its peak, the site was being visited by more than 3,500 users an hour. ”For several hours,” says Phyllis Johnson, ionet’s executive vice president, ”we became the information center for the world.”

The fervor with which people were responding to the site indicated another need: The day after the bombing, ionet set up an on-line prayer service so people could transmit spiritual missives electronically. Over the next week and a half, more than 1,000 prayers were logged.

All the news that’s fit to download … Shortly after the blast, the University of Oklahoma’s newspaper posted a bulletin on its website. With coverage provided by 10 student reporters at the scene, the Oklahoma Daily page quickly became the clearinghouse of bomb-related information for news outlets worldwide. The page was accessed 3,000 times on the day of the blast, and 20,000 times the following day. ”They deserve an electronic Pulitzer for how quickly they got stuff up,” says Gian Trotta, an associate editor at Pathfinder, Time Inc.’s website.

One of the Daily‘s biggest scoops was reporting the possible involvement of domestic extremist groups. On April 20, while people watching CNN heard about a potential Middle Eastern connection, Web watchers read articles on the Daily page suggesting a link with militia groups. ”I thought of the Gulf War, when CNN rose to prominence as the preeminent source of information,” says Mas’ood Cajee, editor of the Daily website. ”In a small sense we supplanted them in this incident, going to the new medium of the Internet and doing a better job.”

… and a lot that isn’t. Despite the quality of the Daily staff’s work, there were signs that ”facts” on the Net should never be confused with the ”truth.” After the arrest of lead suspect Timothy McVeigh, Dateline NBC reported that ”a Timothy McVeigh” had an America Online account and that his member profile contained the chilling quote ”Let us take back the government or die trying. BOOM.” His occupation, NBC reported, was listed as ”Mad Bomber.”

America Online quickly put out a statement saying that the McVeigh account was a hoax, posted after the suspect’s arrest. Predictably, a number of other fake McVeigh accounts followed, including one from ”Gullible, USA” that warned against believing TV reports.

In cyberspace, everyone can hear you scream. ”God: What sort of evil lurks among us?” one Prodigy user asked plaintively. ”Who could be so evil to want to harm so many innocent people, especially your most precious babies?” Unfortunately, some of those on-line reached a premature answer. ”I as an American feel that the only way to stop things like this from happening is to cart up a couple of nuclear devices, fly them over the Middle East and start the world’s biggest BBQ!” said one posting.

As a soapbox, the Internet is devastatingly effective, propagating any shortsighted, two-bit opinion as swiftly as it distributes real news. For days after the blast, the Net was filled with vitriolic messages of hate, every angry voice given equal play. ”I can put a message out on the Internet,” says Thomas Knapp, a supporter of the right-wing militia movement, ”and as long as it’s halfway rational, I can get just as much exposure as the President or Mel Gibson.”

There’s still fear of working with a Net. The mainstream media were seized with witch-hunt-style hysteria after McVeigh’s arrest, when it was learned that he was linked to the extremist militia movement, a movement whose growth has been aided by the Internet. The hatemongers who lurk on the fringes of cyberspace were suddenly thrown into sharp focus. ”[This] information specifically details the construction, deployment, and detonation of high-powered explosives,” read a typical posting from a militia newsgroup. ”It also includes complete details of the bomb used in Oklahoma City, and how it was used and could have been better.”

Suddenly, the Internet, quickly hailed by some journalists as the ”fourth medium,” was just as quickly condemned by others as the ”TerrorNet.” Overlooked in the to-and-fro was the fact that the information superhighway is the medium — not the message. ”Of course the Internet can be used for all sorts of awful, horrible things. So can a telephone,” says HotWired contributor Aaron Dickey. ”I don’t see CBS News doing pieces on why the telephone is a dangerous object.” Or as EFF’s Godwin notes, ”Fertilizer played a greater role in this case than computers.”

The anti-Internet furor did make one thing clear: The Oklahoma City bombing marked the point when a previously reluctant, nonwired segment of the public was forced to take notice of the digital revolution. ”I had always treated the Internet lightly, as just a way to send E-mail and surf the Web,” says the Daily‘s Cajee. But after the bombing, ”it’s become a vital lifeline for me and many around the world who are trying to figure out what has happened and how they can help.” In other words, he says, ”The Internet has just become very real.”

(Additional reporting by Michael T. Rose)