By Linton Weeks
When the 500-page summary of independent counsel Kenneth Starr lands on the Internet possibly this afternoon it will hardly be the start of any online dissection of President Clinton.
Despite what Congress or party leaders might decide, hundreds of thousands of people have been conducting "impeachment hearings" on Clinton in newsgroups and on Web sites for months.
There has been a sea change, caused by the vast global network of computers, in the way our society views its public affairs. A similarly thorough and profound shift occurred in 1954 when another new technology, a vast network of televisions, altered public opinion during the live broadcasts of the Army-McCarthy hearings. In that case, it allowed Americans to see their representatives at work. In this case, the twist is that the Internet encourages millions of citizens to simultaneously process the accusations and implications at the speed of light, and together.
This time, the stately pace of special prosecutors and House committees and impeachment proceedings appears absolutely quaint compared with the warp speed with which the drama is unfolding online.
It's the hive mind at work, a collective group-think making snap judgments (good and bad), swapping opinions (educated and not) and jumping to conclusions (right and wrong).
From here on out, the Internet's immense influence on the public mind is incontrovertible. But is it a good thing?
Is this massively parallel processing or merely pack psychology?
Is this an intelligent, positive, deliberative force or a destructive, deconstructive lynch mob?
There's a change in quantity and speed that's unprecedented. But are we heightening the quality of debate or heaving it back into the swamps?
Anti-Clinton and impeachment-oriented Web sites and newsgroups abound.
The newsgroup labeled alt. impeach.clinton (available through www.dejanews.com), for example, has been a hub of hubbub. Don't look there for keen insight, however.
"Clinton is great Impeach the Republicans," wrote one loyalist yesterday.
To which someone replied, "Impeach them all, especially if they fail to impeach Clinton."
This spot and others like it are littered with illiterate ramblings and dirty-word diatribes.
One adult site, Thee Underground, has launched a poll titled "Should Clinton Be Impeached?" With nearly 1,200 votes in, by the way, 61 percent of the respondents said he should be impeached. Can such polls on other sites be far behind?
Regardless of the outcome of Starr's report, one thing is certain: The Internet has been a major factor in this snowballing scandal.
From Matt Drudge's early leak of a Newsweek story about Clinton's affair with an intern to Monica Lewinsky's alleged home page on America Online to Starr's report itself, lots of folks have watched the saga unravel on their computer screens. Along the way, public outrage has ebbed and flowed on message boards, in chat rooms and in online political discussions.
Sherry Turkle is fascinated by the way and the pace at which the Internet affects shifting of political winds. Turkle, a sociologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the Internet "increases the volatility of opinion because not only can you get the primary document, which I think is important, you can get what everybody thinks about the primary document. Very quickly."
In a way, she says, what people think about the facts has become more important than the facts themselves.
On public opinion, she says, the Internet has a multiplier effect. "I think that's a problem," she continues. "People are looking at what other people think before they think for themselves. There's a temptation to take less time to look at the real information."
She says the same mistakes are made when we pay too much heed to talking heads on TV. Used to be, she says, television gave you the facts; Walter Cronkite would say "That's the way it is," and viewers were given a decent interval to form their own opinions. That's changed.
Today, the Internet has become one gargantuan McLaughlin Group, with people shouting over one another and arguing and pushing each other out of the Tower of Babble.
There are, however, moments of clear debate.
On the Salon message board (www.salon1999.com) a man named Walter wrote, "Some of us know the difference between real 'perjury' and this 'perjury.' "
To which someone replied, "And who are those 'some of us,' Walter? And how will we recognize them in the street? And will they also 'know' that same dividing line between real and unreal perjury the next time a perjury charge is launched against a public official? And will that line be the same even if the official then is a Republican (you know, say, someone like Bob Packwood, or Clarence Thomas)? And how will the rest of us, the unelect, know whether the perjury classifiers of the future are the same 'some of us' we are supposed to trust now?
"Look up the word antinomian, Walter," the writer said.
It turns out that on the Web you can find people who in the midst of scandal can debate the true meaning of perjury and who know that an antinomian believes that faith alone and not obedience to the law leads to salvation.
That word, the writer added, "has a long and disreputable history in our republic."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company