A tangled web

Does blogging, uncensored and grassroots, authentically reflect the events of the current war?

computer cartoon 88 (photo credit: )
computer cartoon 88
(photo credit: )
Tuesday, August 01, 2006 This is our own Broadway show, what else is there to do around here? It's 2:05 a.m. and I just got back from the bomb shelter. Just like yesterday, we heard a whistle and then a huge explosion. Then, the siren went off. We decided to go into the bomb shelter because after yesterday, who knows what might happen here? An hour before that, we went up to one of the neighborhoods in Metulla that face Lebanon in order to get a "private show" of the war. Yes, I know, we are crazy Metullaians... We were sitting there, watching the sky being lit up as the tanks are firing, what an incredible yet sad view. After a while an officer who's also a resident of Metulla advised us to leave. It turned out Hezbollah was shelling mortars at Metulla. It's so hard to tell the difference and which is which between all the explosions. It's 2:30 a.m. now and I just came back from another 'round' at the bomb shelter... It's probably a sign to end this post. This is really getting old. Who knows if I'll get any sleep tonight? Wish me luck." This first-hand account of life on Israel's northern border was written by 23-year-old Daphna Zilber, a student at New York State's University at Buffalo, who returned home to Metulla to spend the summer with her mother. "I wanted to present my side of the story, using facts and personal experience," explains Zilber, whose weblog address is ubisraeli.blogspot.com. "I'm sure I am biased at some level - it's impossible not to be under the circumstances - but I try to present an accurate picture of life on the northern border of Israel during the war." While her blog started as a direct response to what she describes on her Web site as "the amount of Lebanese/Arab blogs on the internet that mostly showed a very one-sided biased picture of the situation," Zilber says it is a form of therapy too. "I think it helps me to write everything down and let all my emotions out," she says. "I am feeling a level of stress that I haven't felt before." While Zilber is using her blog for personal documentation of the conflict, many use similar forums on the internet to override traditional mass media, whether that be writing their own commentary, analysis of what is going on in the situation or presenting alternative information via links to other websites and uploading photographs and other graphic imagery. Short for "weblog," a blog is a type of website where entries are made on a daily or regular basis, much like a journal or diary. The content of a blog can vary to include commentary by an individual or a group effort, news or simply personal feelings. Photos are often added, as well as links to various websites of interest. According to the on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia, blogs first started in the early '90s, "evolving from an on-line diary where people kept a record of their personal lives." The first blogger - or person to keep a blog - is believed to be Justin Hall, who began his blog in 1994 while a student at Swarthmore College, a private liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. Blogging - the verb for keeping a blog - started fairly slowly, but has gained popularity in the past few years. Wikipedia states that "the Web site Xanga, launched in 1996, had only 100 diaries by 1997, but over 50,000,000 as of December 2005." It also states that, "since 2003, blogs have gained increasing notice and coverage for their role in breaking, shaping, and spinning news stories. The Iraq war saw bloggers (people who blog) taking measured and passionate points of view that go beyond the traditional left-right divide of the political spectrum." "In recent years, academic research has been studying whether blogging incites and inflames the public or works as a dialogue between two conflicting parties," commented Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig, chairman of the Political Studies department at Bar-Ilan University. "There is evidence for both arguments. In the present case it is not two mortal enemies writing to each other, so there is a possibility of dialogue." For Vitali Gueron, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee student who is in Israel on a media fellowship at the Israel Project (an international non-profit organization devoted to educating the press and the public about Israel while promoting security, freedom and peace), keeping his blog is a way of getting the message to the world of what he believes is really happening. He shares with friends, family and whoever happens upon his writing recent trips to the country's troubled border towns and his meetings with some high-profile decision makers. "Israel has taken a hit PR-wise," comments Gueron, who has helped prepare media kits and distribute information to foreign journalists now reporting from Israel. He also says that he documented first-hand accounts from his relatives living in Haifa and passed them on to the international media. "People believe first-hand accounts over what the media says," continues Gueron, when asked about the importance of blogging for this war. "It all comes from the grassroots." On Gueron's blog, (http://jofgold.blogspot.com/) the August 2 entry features a live-streaming video of a Katyusha rocket striking a direct hit on a house in Haifa. He also links to an Australian Herald Sun photograph of Hizbullah fighters standing proudly on top of a Katyusha rocket launcher. "A blogger is free to share his own experience and include whatever he wants," says Gueron. ISRAELI-BASED blogger Dave Abitbol, who along with seven other individuals posts his personal comments on the Web site jewlicious.com, agrees: "We do what we want to do, that is why we are so popular. There is a certain truth to what is on the blogs." Jewlicious started its operations two years ago and today, Abitbol estimates the site has between 8,000 to 10,000 visitors a day, much higher than for the same period last year. Abitbol's is one of the many weblogs that has been examining Hizbullah's PR war. In a section on the blog labeled "The Story of Hizbollah Guys Abusing Children's Corpses for Photo Ops," Jewlicious bloggers write, "As best we can, we have pieced together the jumble of evidence which surrounded the production of the iconic photographs which were published around the world, and put them in perspective.…" The site then links to a separate page entitled "Qana - a director's cut" and examines how the same child's corpse was used several times by several different people during the filming of the tragedy. The blog also has a separate section referring to a Reuters photo of an IAF aerial bombardment of Beirut. Bloggers were among the first responsible for revealing that this photo had been doctored. After lobbying Reuters to remove the fake photo, the news agency on Sunday issued an apology on its Web site. "It's a war and a theater aimed at manipulating the media," says Abitbol. "The mass media focuses on the war itself - the soldiers, the explosives, the rockets and the victims - blogs bring the conflict into perspective," he says. Blogging in the context of conflict allows people to "humanize the war." "It is a lot harder to hate someone you can relate to on a human level. While the conflict has brought out all the nutters - anti-Semites and haters, I have also been pleased by the postings from individuals from the other side," Abitbol says. "They have been nice, reasonable and engaged in active dialogue." One active Lebanese blogger known only as Rena (see box) writes in an email interview: "Writing a blog helps me cope and straightens out my thoughts. It allows me to think of things that I might ignore otherwise and it helps me stay sane, to try and understand by writing." She continues: "[It is] just a way for people to know what we are feeling and how we are coping and how it is to live in an environment when we do not know what will happen next. People need to know that we are not fanatical, that we are human and we are normal, leading normal lives. We do have feelings and can communicate like everyone else." Dialogue from both sides of the border has been very common even as the conflict rages. Some bloggers attract hundreds of responses to their postings, while websites such as Myspace and Yahoo allow forums for real-time discussions. Even many traditional media outlets - the Jerusalem Post, CNN, and Sky News - are promoting their talkback features on articles posted on their website. Lehman-Wilzig, however, downplays the impact of on-line "chats" and "blogging," saying that their influence on the outcome of the war is limited. It is reserved for those with a "higher level of socio-economic means," he says, adding "most of the Islamic and Arabic-speaking world cannot access the Western media. Those on the web represent a relatively narrow slice of the Middle East," he points out. "They are the more rational and less critical people. It is in no way indicative of the general Arab population," which he says is largely computer illiterate. "There is no way blogs can compete with the traditional media on any level," says Abitbol. "However the media has been paying a great deal of attention to what has been written about in the blogs." Both Zilber and Rena are also modest about whether their personal diaries, posted for all to see, are going to encourage any significant change. "I am not going to change the world with this blog but if it helps one person to see things differently then I have at least done something - at the very least - and that is good enough for me right now," writes Rena. And for Zilber in Metulla, keeping this blog is all part of a "hasbara effort," she says, "so that people can get a more accurate picture of the facts." Asked about the posterity of blogging, whether these "personal" accounts will be around for generations to come, Lehman-Wilzig answers emphatically that with the massive reach of the internet and with the ability to link websites to one another this could be a war with an overwhelming amount of documentation. "It might not be the first time, but blogging during this war is greater than ever before," he says. "There is a huge amount of good and important information out there reaching all over the globe."