Diana's Death Brings Out the Good, Bad and Ugly on the NetBy Victoria Shannon
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, September 8, 1997; Page F19
The death of Diana, Princess of Wales, has brought to the fore the very good and the very bad of the Internet.
The good is clear enough. Tapping into Web sites run by the BBC, CNN and other reputable news organizations, people all over the world got minute-by-minute updates last week as the story of Diana's death in a Paris auto crash unfolded. They posted countless messages of grief and information-swapping to each other. It was a classic creation of an ad hoc electronic community, binding people of common interest together, regardless of where they were on the globe.
But, like most members of the vilified press these days, I want to focus on the bad, because I am intrigued and perplexed by it and want to raise our collective conscience.
To me the bad side is the millions of bytes already being devoted to material that, to my mind, is written without any regard for truth. Yes, a tragedy such as this is just what it takes to get the conspiracy theorists into action.
We've seen it before with Internet sites about Waco, Oklahoma City and TWA Flight 800. Now, sites are popping up that argue that what happened in Paris was an assassination, not an accident. The royal family, we're told, arranged Diana's death to reclaim sympathy for the picked-upon monarchy.
The Diana gossip sites are the Internet's equivalent of the paper-and-ink tabloids that have drawn so much attention lately. They usually are put up into cyberspace by people with absolutely no experience in investigating, reporting or publishing. They are taking speculation where no one has brought it before.
Consider the unusual juxtapositions of Diana's death, asks one Web site (http://www. healey.com.au/~themagic/di.htm).
". . . Such a sudden but very final death; in a foreign country, but handy enough to get her body back (within a few hours); car accidents are `common' (just like Di?) and cars are easy to tamper with; the boys just happened to be with the Queen and Prince Charles at Balmoral when the news came. . . ."
One question that needs to be asked, intones a writer at another site, is whether the American tourists who showed up on the crash scene were connected with U.S. security services.
Still another interprets Diana's death as vindication for an oracle named Sollog who is said to have forecast it:
"Sollog has been GUARANTEEING major world events in US Federal court records and on National US radio shows, to prove what he says about the future of 13 large cities is real. He says 13 cities have been GUARANTEED to be destroyed by the year 2001!"
As has been noted countless times before, online services and Internet software make everyone a publisher. Sollog can get the same screen space on your computer that Dan Rather does, but the resources, the quality and the degree of the sources are at opposite ends of the spectrum.
Online communications is a great democratizer. But if you are in search of the truth, you don't want to treat everything as equally valid. As an online explorer, you have to make yourself into an editor to filter other people's output as publishers. You have to train yourself to know which sites are trustworthy and which to just laugh at.
Sometimes credible agencies end up being forced to report some loopy things. Here's a United Press International report I found:
"TRIPOLI, Aug. 31 (UPI) -- A Libyan human rights commission has accused Britain of plotting to kill Diana, Princess of Wales because of her relationship with an Arab citizen.
"The BBC has translated a report by the Libyan news agency Jana saying that the National Commission for Human Rights in the Great Jamahiriyah accuses Britain and the security services of other countries of a plot to kill Diana because of her relationship with Dodi al-Fayed, an Egyptian citizen."
Libya being what it is, news services have to report what its official media is saying.
The other folks, however, have no such excuse.
Victoria Shannon can be e-mailed at Vshannon on America Online, CompuServe and Microsoft Network.
PLACES TO GO
For news about the recent death of another world figure, Mother Teresa, go to http://headlines.yahoo.com/ Current_Events/Mother_Teresa_Dies/". The page will also lead you to a variety of Web sites that document the Calcutta humanitarian's work and life.
(Editor's Note: Read our special report on Mother Teresa).
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