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Sunday November 28 1999
News & Opinion

Roger Ebert: Critical Eye

When the Web is in the headline

When is a Web story not a Web story? When it's about racist sickos, for instance
Roger Ebert

The DIVX home video format collapses, and its opponents saythat their Internet-based campaign brought it down. Jesse Ventura is elected governor of Minnesota, and we learn that the Web helped it happen. Michael Crawford's fans wage a Web campaign to win him the lead in the film version of Phantom of the Opera, and the Los Angeles Times says the producers are taking it seriously. A nut job from Illinois shoots at minorities in the streets, and journalists write about his hate organization's Web site.

What do these events have in common? All of them would have happened even if the Internet had never existed. DIVX would still have failed, Ventura would have been elected, Crawford fans would have petitioned the studio, and the loonies would still be with us. Lee Harvey Oswald didn't have a Web site.

Whenever there's a story linking the Web to the news, I ask myself if the Web was truly involved in the event—or if it simply reflected it. Usually the Web is an accomplice or an observer, not a prime mover. When thousands of people visit eBay, that's a Web story. When hate killer Benjamin Smith belongs to a group that has a Web site, that's not a Web story.

There's a reason for the Web hype. Reporters are forever trying to convince editors of the importance of their stories because they lust for bigger play. If they can cite "Internet campaigns" or "thousands of Web sites," the implication is that millions of readers hunger for the reporter's story. The Web is convenient for this purpose because it creates a crowd out of lots of isolated people. If I am a fan of the films of Errol Morris (and I am), I can truthfully tell my editor that Morris is huge on the Web. True enough. Of course, the total Web activity devoted to him may represent a fraction of 1 percent of the interest in Jennifer Love Hewitt. But, hey—down the hall somebody else is telling an editor about how big Hewitt is on the Web.

This process is mostly harmless. Sometimes, however, it is not. I was disturbed by the coverage of the Web presence of the hate group that counted Benjamin Smith as a member. It might have been enough to say that he belonged to a racist organization. By naming it, reproducing its Web pages, and even printing its URL, were journalists reporting a news story or a Web story? By quoting some of the site's racist language, were they demonstrating that the group was vile (which we already knew), or were they doing its work for free by redistributing dangerous and harmful language?

We hear a lot these days about how many hate sites there are on the Web. Are there, really? My best guess is that Nazis on the Net are at least 1,000 times less popular than porn. The latest figures from the NEC Research Institute show that pornography sites represent a mere 1.5 percent of the estimated 800 million Web pages that exist. Regular users of Web hate sites may number in the hundreds—although the hit count is inflated by curiosity seekers who visit after finding the URLs in breathless news coverage. The situation is further clouded because groups opposed to hate sites have a vested interest in exaggerating their popularity; that makes their own work seem more important.

Yes, there are racist Web sites. And it's sexy to think that vast conspiracies are being promoted online. But, like the majority of people who have their own Web sites, racist creeps with hate sites must face the inevitable reality that most of the visitors are none other than themselves.

Today's world might be much the same without the Web. People would still be fascinated by genealogy, auctions, celebrities, money, and sex. They would just indulge their passions in different ways. And a comparative handful of sickos would still be fascinated by racist fringe groups. The ways the world has truly changed because of the Web would make a good story. But most of the time, when a news story cites the Web, that's not the story it's covering.

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