The Intifada and the Information Society

Johannes Schneider Johannes.Schneider at
Fri Nov 3 07:58:26 MST 2000

>From Telepolis

The Intifada and the Information Society

John Horvath   31.10.2000

The use of information distribution as a sophisticated means of propaganda
is a very real threat

Often, an event from the real world is needed to wake those for whom life
has become nothing more than an extension of virtual reality. And even then,
this "reality check" sometimes fails to go deep enough to revive those who
are hopelessly caught in a dream. Online discourse vis-a-vis the intifada is
a case in point.

The latest intifada has not only caused a major crisis in middle east
politics, but for the purveyors of the "information society" as well.
Surprisingly, the level of violence has generated little online discourse
when compared to past events, such as the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia or even
the street protests in Seattle against the WTO. Even the formation of a
government in Austria, which included the far-right Freedom Party, seemed to
draw more opinions and analysis in online forums than the on-going conflict
between armed Israelis (army and settlers) and rock-throwing Palestinian

For some, it would appear that online discourse about what is happening in
the middle east should not be considered important unless there is a
specific technology (i.e., the Internet) aspect to it. Geert Lovink, in a
post to  Nettime, put it as follows:

 "I not am sure if everyone is so happy, to see nettime turning into a
general debating club about the world's problems - particularly the complex
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I would propose that there should at least be
a media angle of some kind to the analyses people post. [...] I would
therefor [sic!] propose to the moderators [...] to filter out those messages
that only debate general characteristics of the conflict. [...] Let's at
least try to contextualize our debates with material from independant [sic!]
media, NGOs, net initiatives, people who are doing research into the
technological media/cyber aspect. That's at least what I would expect from

Others, meanwhile, have found it hard to digitize the conflict. In this
respect, it is difficult for them to find any kind of contributions from
individuals involved, especially those dubbed as "net artists". Molly
Hankwitz, also in a post to Nettime, lamented this fact when she noted that
there were so few Palestinian artists that could be reached.

Finally, there are those who are so intellectually paralyzed by the intifada
that they are unable to comment on anything about the events taking place.
These pundits are strangely silent, and limit any opinions on the matter to
a quick side-comment or within the context of a much larger and general
topic, such as recent liberation struggles that include Kosovo and East
Timor. As a result of this, the atrocities taking place seem to be rendered
to a pre-determined outcome and can only be discussed within a
historiographical framework.

For the information society, the present intifada is a unpleasant reminder
of the shortcomings and failures of the so-called "digital age". For the
likes of Lovink, the information society was to make the question of
nation-state politics and national identity irrelevant. This, of course, is
nothing but a wishful notion: throughout the world, nationalism is still
very much alive and is something which has to be dealt with, and not just
simply ignored as a relic of the past or "just eternal historical truths."
Unfortunately, this is why Africa remains a "dark continent" to many, for it
is more or less under a perpetual corporate news blackout, except when
extreme levels of violence take place. And even then, these events are given
the media spotlight for a short time only.

In conjunction with this, for those who are waiting for a digitized version
of world conflicts to appear, it still somehow incomprehensible to them that
in this day and age the Internet does not reach everyone everywhere. What is
more, many critics and artists from affluent industrialised nations are
unable to fully comprehend that real change can only come about when a
person gets out of their armchair and takes real risks to their person and
property. It this level of commitment that is missing when users sit focused
in front of a keyboard and monitor, and are able to disengage themselves by
simply switching off their machine or pointing their browser elsewhere.

Although it may be true that for some forums like Nettime, which has as its
stated focus net art and media critique, simply regurgitated conventional
media coverage of an event is not enough and can be distracting. Yet, in
some of the discourse that has thus far appeared, there has been
constructive media critique -- albeit this has been few and far between (cf.
Eduardo Cohen's "What Americans need to Know - but probably won't be told -
to Understand Palestinian Rage" and Hannan Ashrawi postings on Nettime,
October 18,2000 and October 20, 2000 respectively).

At the same time, the way in which the intifada is handled (or actually, not
handled) reveals how the "new" media often mirrors the "old" media, both
intentionally and unintentionally. This can be seen in the use of editorial
practices which end up obscuring what has been really happening. For
instance, in his post Lovink refers to the recent events in the middle east
as "complex"; while mid-east politics is generally a complicated matter, the
issues surrounding this latest intifada is actually quite straightforward,
and can be reduced to the Israeli use of excessive force.

Another instance of the online discourse mirroring mainstream corporate
media is the use of misinformation. In the case of the Palestinians, it is
what Ashrawi pointed out as "blaming the victim". Hankwitz, in her post to
Nettime, ended up levelling the Palestinian protest to that of the Israeli
use of excessive force, in that it was regarded as "aggression". To be fair,
she was unaware of this semantic slip, in that her intention was to appear
"holistic" or, put in another way, moderate and seize the middle ground. Yet
this type of misinformation clearly has a negative effect in two ways: on
the one hand, for those not uncomfortable with the use of excessive force by
the police or military, what the Israelis are doing appears not to be
excessive and is seen as a strong response; on the other hand, for those
taken aback by such levels of violence, the Palestinians are made to appear
just as extreme as the Israelis, which subsequently ends up decriminalizing
the actions of the latter against the former.

While the present intifada may not be as Internet savvy as other past
events, it nevertheless raises fundamental questions regarding the very
nature of the information society itself: that of the reliability of
information. For instance, a post by Joseph Farah entitled "Myths of the
Middle East" (forwarded to Nettime by Douglas Rushkoff) highlights the
problems surrounding the authenticity of information; in this case, Rushkoff
seems to question the validity of the original post.

Unfortunately, as more of our knowledge of world affairs is based on the
quick digestion of information, the use of information distribution as a
sophisticated means of propaganda is a very real threat. This was apparent
during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, when the concept of "information war"
(a euphemism for "propaganda war") became mainstream.

Aside from propaganda, the fundamental weakness of the information society
is that it exploits -- and even reinforces -- our increasingly short
attention span. Moreover, events like the intifada conflict sharply with the
"attention economy" of our brave new world. People are not multi-tasking
machines: thus, for every minute attention is focused on politics, it's not
focused on buying something online.

While it would be nice to view and control events through the click of a
mouse, simply sidelining or even ignoring real-world problems is no
solution. Yes, it may give us some peace of mind in our virtual world -- but
it won't lead to peace within the real one.

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