Swept up by still more media hype, journalists are calling Kosovo the world's first Internet War. In the process, they advance an inherently creepy notion and manage to distort media, technology, the Internet and war all at the same time.
For days now, the media have been calling it the Internet War. "Now," reported Newsweek in its April 12 issue, "the Web is a vivid mirror of the struggle for Kosovo, a first in war." Serb hackers shut down NATO's website, an alleged war criminal named Arkan chatted on MSNBC.com, an anonymous journalist filed to Slate.com, and an Albanian teenager e-mailed her friend in California, an exchanged excerpted on NPR.
CNN websites said they'd served a record 154. million page impressions for the week following the start of the NATO bombing. The CNN sites, which include CNN.com, CNNfn.com, and Allpolitics.com, said they'd served 578 million page impressions for the Month of March, double the traffic a year ago. Traffic on CNN.com from Macedonia was up 1025 per cent, Croatian traffic was up 946 per cent, Slovenian traffic was up 797 per cent and traffic from Bosnia Herzegovina was up 570 per cent.
The Net, said the New York Times, had become an alternative source for news-hungry Americans as well as Eastern Europeans. The war, said Michael Kinsley, editor of the on-line magazine Slate, "shows the difference the Web can make. "Unless they shut down the whole telephone system, they can't stop information from getting out, or getting back in."
The myth of the Internet war, media's latest over-hyped meme about the Net, was both widespread and wrong. If the war in Kosovo demonstrated anything about the Net, it showed that it's a dreadful medium for covering a war. This was a New York Times and Washington Post and Times of London and CNN story, a military strategy, policy and politics story perfectly suited for journalism in its traditional incarnation - TV networks and reporters stationed in world capitals.
Like most modern wars, this one was fought at least in part on TV. Three images shaped the Kosovo conflict from the beginning: bombs hurtling towards targets; the three beaten and bruised American soldiers, and the streams of battered refugees pouring into Albania and Macedonia.
The anonymous correspondents, monks and teenagers filing reports via various websites were interesting, sometimes even revealing. But none were significant. None shaped the policy that affected the conflict from either side. None influenced or altered public opinion in any measurable way. The Net isn't about making wars, but the complete anti-thesis of it.
CNN may not know what to do with itself most of the time, but it knows how to cover a war. CNN permits all the principals in global conflicts to see the same images and statements at the same time. Bob Dole went on "Larry King Live" to warn Slobodan Milosevic that he was running out of time. And Milosevic or some close aide was almost certainly watching.
Anonymous posters have little credibility precisely because nobody knows who they are. For all their faults, journalists are accountable for the things they report.
The Net and the Web, in addition, are too fragmented to the primary focus of a story like this. At any given time, millions of people are e-trading, e-shopping, or e-lusting online. Millions more are writing programs, working on Linux, or corresponding with their grand-kids. That techno-diversity is what the Net and the Web are really all about.
The world still can't get used to the idea of the Internet. It's continuously either denounced as a plague or hyped to the skies.
Kosovo is no Internet War. It's all too typical a one - brutal and incomprehensible. Technology is about human beings, not machines. There's nothing digital about the days and nights of the captured American soldiers, the people who live in bomb-torn Belgrade, or the hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming out of Kosovo.