September 5, 2002

One year later: September 11 and the Internet

The most cataclysmic events of the Web era were the 9/11-terror assaults on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in Pennsylvania before it could reach its target in Washington. For tens of millions of Americans, the Internet became a channel for anguished and prayerful gatherings, for heartfelt communication through email, and for vital information.

A year later, the impact of 9/11 is being felt in several ways. First, a survey in July by the Pew Internet & American Life Project shows that even people who favor wide disclosure of information online support government policies to remove that information if officials argue it could aid terrorists. (At least 13 federal agencies and three state governments have removed material from their Web sites, citing concerns about previously posted information that might be useful to terrorists.)

  • More than two-thirds of Americans believe that the government should be granted wide privileges in deciding what information to post on government agency Web sites and what information to keep off government sites for fear it will help terrorists. Some 69% of Americans say the government should do everything it can to keep information out of terrorists’ hands, even if that means the public will be deprived of information it needs or wants. Similar percentages of Americans approve of officials’ steps to remove information from government Web sites that could be useful to terrorists.
  • Even those who back the general idea of online disclosure of important information say they would support a government decision to remove that information from the Web if the argument is made that the material could help terrorists. For instance, 60% of those who believe the government should post information about chemical plants and the chemicals they produce say that material should be removed from the Internet if the government said it could help terrorists. And 55% of those who believe the government should post information about nuclear plants say that material should be removed from the Internet if the government said it could help terrorists.
  • Though they demonstrate a willingness to cede power to officials over what to disclose online, a plurality of Americans believe that taking government information off the Internet will not make a difference in battling terrorists. Some 47% say that the act of withholding or removing information from government Web sites will not make a difference in deterring terrorists; 41% say that taking information off government Web sites will hinder terrorists.
  • In addition, citizens are sharply divided on the question of whether the government should be able to monitor people’s email and online activities. The opinion breakdown on the question is 47% of Americans believe the government should not have the right to monitor people’s Internet use and 45% say the government should have that right. A majority of Internet users oppose government monitoring of people’s email and Web activities.

Second, the Pew Internet Project survey provides evidence about how some Internet users have changed their online behavior in the year since the 9/11 attacks.

  • 19 million Americans rekindled relationships after 9/11 by sending email to family members, friends, former colleagues and others that they had not contacted in years. Fully 83% of those who renewed contact with others have maintained those relationships through the past year.
  • Notable numbers of American Internet users say they are using email more often, gathering news online more often, visiting government Web sites more often, giving more donations via the Internet, and seeking health and mental health information more often because of the 9/11 attacks.

Third, the survey shows that about a tenth of Americans (11%) feel their lives are still far from normal since the 9/11 events – and of that group, half use the Internet. These hard-hit Americans are more willing than other Internet users to agree with government decisions to remove or withhold information from the Internet. They are also more likely to say they have increased their use of email because of the terror attacks.

These are among the highlights of the Pew Internet Project survey. At the same time, this report draws upon another kind of research to explore the impact of 9/11 on the people and organizations that create the Web. Using material cached in an archive of nearly 30,000 Web sites that were identified and monitored in the weeks after 9/11, a team of researchers led by Steven M. Schneider of the State University of New York Institute of Technology, and Kirsten Foot of the University of Washington, has begun the first systematic study of how the content and structure of the Web changed in the period after the attacks.

Among the key findings of this analysis of the Web:

The Web was dominated by reactions to 9/11 events

The rapid development of new content and features on the Web affected how many Americans responded to the September 11 attacks by providing structures through which they could obtain information, provide assistance, share their reactions, and convey their policy preferences to government bodies.

In a cross-sectional sample of Web sites produced by organizations and individuals:

  • 63% provided information related to the attacks
  • 36% allowed visitors to provide some form of assistance to victims
  • 26% allowed individuals to seek assistance from others and from relief organizations

Many sites adapted rapidly to the crisis. Government Web sites retooled quickly to allow individuals to provide tips in the terrorism investigations and to help people find means to provide assistance to victims and their families. Religious, educational, and personal sites were particularly active in helping people provide assistance to others or obtain assistance. By contrast, very few Web sites enabled political advocacy (e.g. signing a petition, or communicating policy preferences to government officials).

The rise of do-it-yourself journalism

The 9/11 attacks and their aftermath generated the most traffic to traditional news sites in the history of the Web. Equally as important was the fact that many non-news sites were turned into conduits for information, commentary, and action related to 9/11 events.

Do-it-yourself journalism has been a staple of Internet activity for years and the terrorist attacks gave new prominence to the phenomenon. In the days after the attacks, the Web provided a broad catalog of facts and fancy related to 9/11, ranging from eyewitness accounts from New York, Washington, and across the nation, to government reports, to analysis from experts and amateurs. With the eyes of the world focused on a small number of related events, many stepped into the role of amateur journalist, seeking out sources and sometimes assembling these ideas for others. Most striking, perhaps, were the wide number of accounts from those who had seen the World Trade Center collapse, or had in some way gained first-hand knowledge of surrounding events. Beyond that, many people posted their reactions to 9/11. At some sites these accounts, pictures and commentary were compiled and cataloged by Web producers outside the channels of traditional journalism.

Government sites

These sites became important clearinghouses of information for those directly or indirectly affected by the attacks, individuals interested in donating to the relief efforts, and the agencies’ own employees, who, in some cases, were victims of the attacks or the later anthrax scares.  Some government sites highlighted the historical roots of terrorism and tried to place the attacks in some sort of political context.  Few, however, entered into a dialogue with their visitors about the issues underlying the events of September 11, and fewer still encouraged individuals to offer their own opinions as to what response should be taken.

  • 76% of government sites provided information about the 9/11 attacks, agency responses to it, and how people themselves could take action
  • 28% of these sites had information about how people could get assistance and 19% of them allowed people to provide assistance
  • 21% of the sites allowed people to express their opinions and reactions to the attacks
  • None provided features for citizens to advocate for specific U.S. policy responses

Religious sites

The most common needs addressed on 22 denominational sites were the physical and financial needs of  the immediate victims of the attacks and their families.  The denominations have their own standing relief mechanisms in place, so were able to organize their own relief efforts.  Denominations also used their Web sites to respond to the needs of church members themselves. The most extensive collections of links available on the denominational sites sought to provide spiritual and emotional assistance to members dealing with the aftermath of the attacks. Some sites provided linked sections where visitors could get a brief introduction to Islam.  However, the denominational sites did not attempt to provide much material related to visitors deep theological questions, such as: Why does God permit evil?

The Web as a public commons

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the Internet provided a virtual public space where grief, fear, anger, patriotism and even hatred could be shared.  For those whose only contact with the attacks came through a television set, the Internet provided a way to connect emotionally with a virtual community whose ties were not geographic, but bounded by common experience.  While the expression posted to the Web in response to the attacks spanned the range of human emotion, the most prominent were:

  • Expressions of sadness, grief and condolences, which appeared on 75% of the Web sites that allowed Internet users to post comments
  • Expressions of religious and spiritual thoughts, which appeared on 61% of such sites
  • Expressions of anger, fear, and hate, which appeared on 52% of such sites
  • Expressions of shock and disbelief, which appeared on 48% of such sites
  • Expressions of patriotism, which appeared on 46% of such sites

The images that dominated the Web

Some 38% of the Web sites examined in a sample from the September 11 archive ran images of 9/11 events in the days and weeks after the attack. Six distinct types of images dominated the online environment:

  • Informative images – many of which were first captured in news of the attacks
  • Memorial images – which were often used to acknowledge the tragedy and show support for victims and rescuers
  • Signpost images – which were images placed on all kinds of Web sites to show recognition of the importance of 9/11 events even though the function of those Web sites was unrelated to news or memorials (such as e-commerce sites)
  • Storytelling images – which often were bunched together to show how certain elements of the 9/11 story were unfolding
  • Supplemental images – which often accompanied heartfelt written commentary about the meaning of the attacks or the appropriate way to respond to them
  • Logos – which were designed to capture some emotional aspect of a Web designer’s response to the ongoing story.