Actually, the Internet wasn't that new. It had been around for years as DARPANet, a creation of the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. While working on Capitol Hill in the 80s, I helped out on legislation that transferred DARPANet to the National Science Foundation where it became the Internet. Don't recall seeing then Tennessee Senator Al Gore in the room although he would later claim to have invented the Internet.
The meeting, which grew into a monthly series of gatherings, became an idea exchange on ways to use the 'Net to help spread information. Somebody had already coined the phrase "Information Superhighway."
In 1994, most people didn't have 'Net access. Web browsers were crude tools that displayed text in rudimentary forms. A fast modem speed was 2400 baud.
But the general consensus around the room was that the 'Net could become a way to spread information quickly, debunk rumors, and correct other forms of misinformation.
Such discussions led me to start Capitol Hill Blue in October 1994. At the time, only the Raleigh News & Observer (NANDONet) has a news site online.
Blue is still around even though NANDONet bit the dust a few years ago. Gone two are many other grand political news experiments that followed Blue: Politics USA, American Politics, etc.
Gone, too, I'm afraid, is the pipe dream of the Internet becoming a trusted source of information.
Instead of the "Information Superhighway," the 'Net has become the "Misinformation Superhighway," an ever-engulfing sea of extremism, fringe web sites, paranoia and outright lies.
We saw firsthand how the Internet could be used to spread lies and innuendo during the Clinton administration when a host of right-wing bulletin boards and purported "news sites" sprung up with claims that Bill Clinton and his wife masterminded the murders of enemies, Fringe sites like FreeRepublic claimed the deaths of some 90 individuals close to the Clintons died "under mysterious circumstances."
No proof, actually, but just enough innuendo to keep tongues wagging.
When TWA Flight 800 crashed into Long Island Sound, conspiracy web sites appeared on the Internet, claiming that either terrorists with a stinger missile or a wayward missile from a Navy ship brought down the plane. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation found the plane exploded because of gas fumes and bad wiring in a center fuel tank but that didn't satisfy the conspiracy buffs who screamed "government cover up!"
Some of the best investigative reporters on the planet looked into the TWA 800 claims and no one could find evidence to support the wild-eyed paranoia of the conspiracy nuts. Only former John F. Kennedy Press Secretary Pierre Salinger, living out his final days as a TV correspondent in Europe and suffering from Alzheimer's, supported the outlandish theories.
Lame conspiracy theories like this are nothing new. People to this day swear U.S. astronauts never set foot on the moon - believing the government staged each and every moon landing in a TV studio somewhere in Texas or Arizona.
There are times when the 'Net can get to the truth. Bloggers who uncovered Dan Rather's use of forged documents in his "investigation" of President George W. Bush's service in the Air National Guard provide a good example. So were the recent efforts by bloggers to uncover a record of plagiarism by a right-wing blogger hired by The Washington Post.
But all too often the Internet fuels extremism, paranoia and tin-hat conspiracy theories at cyberspeed. It also fosters hate, bigotry and racism.
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