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Friday, April 16, 1999 Published at 19:45 GMT 20:45 UK


Kosovo - the Internet war

The Radio B92 Website is no longer being updated

By Internet Correspondent Chris Nuttall

The e-mail had all the immediacy of a live report from a major breaking story.

"As I write we have just been bombed," it said.

"We weren't warned by sirens before they attacked us. I was standing with some friends in the street when the strikes began. There was a horrible panic.

Kosovo: Special Report
"About 10 minutes later the sirens began. I was on my way home and very afraid. I felt as though I was in some film. There were huge explosions."

The writer said he was a 20-year-old from Novi Sad in northern Serbia.

The first-hand account of the Nato bombings was typical of many hundreds received by the BBC News Website and tens of thousands being sent in an instant around the world to relatives abroad, or posted in Internet discussion forums.

The news was spreading so quickly. It was coming from ordinary people, whose hopes and fears so often go unvoiced in conflicts dominated by powerful armed forces and governments.

Life in Belgrade on the Web

And it was making a direct connection, unfiltered by the media, with others just like themselves but at a distance from the war.

Kosovo Section
On the Website of B92 radio in Belgrade, before the government finally shut it down, it was possible to watch a live Web camera of a street scene in Belgrade - just people and traffic passing by, but again so pure a feed of normal life it was easier to identify with than the packaged news reports of television.

Occasionally, there would be a flashing air raid warning on the site.

The number of e-mails being sent has been overwhelming. If someone could write a software program quickly enough it should be possible to collate them from all over the Net and automatically build up an interactive map of Yugoslavia linking to accounts of the bombings town by town.

It would be an on-the-ground people's history of the war to contrast with the aerial video of the bombings from Nato's Website, or the satellite pictures available on the Web, and amazing databases such as that of the Federation of American Scientists.

It uses maps and links to build up a complete picture of Nato's deployment of forces in the region and to explain the capabilities of its arsenal down to the minutest details on each aircraft.

Determining the truth

But there is one problem with all the personal accounts of the war - how do we know they are true?

It is easy to spot the pointed propaganda of Websites such as those of Nato or the Serbian Ministry of Information, but e-mails are supposedly individual points of view rather than concerted campaigns.

Yet they could be written en masse by government press officers in Belgrade or by hoaxers in California.

Some e-mail addresses end in letters such as ac.yu indicating that they are from academics or students in Yugoslav universities but many more end in names such as hotmail.com - a free Web-based e-mail service which can be signed up for from anywhere in the world.

Many of the messages from the region have that ring of truth about them. But they are far outnumbered by those of the Balkans diaspora, living in the United States and elsewhere who fill chatrooms and newsgroups on the Net with rumour and conspiracy theories that spread like a computer virus.

Threat to Websites

Speaking of viruses, this is the first major conflict where a new kind of infowarfare is being propagated.

Nato has admitted that its Website has been brought to its knees by a malicious bombardment of automated requests for information - they have effectively blocked off access to it.

Also, someone in Belgrade has been sending it 2,000 e-mails a day to try to clog up its networks and many of them have carried computer viruses.

It seems likely that this is the work of individuals opposed to the Nato campaign rather than a co-ordinated operation by the government in Belgrade.

At present, it's not much more than a nuisance to Nato, but the tactic may well be deployed in a more sophisticated way by countries and military commanders if not in this conflict then in the next one.

Expertise is being developed to infiltrate computer networks and bring down essential services such as water, power and air traffic control.

Websites can be taken over and e-mail manipulated and used for psychological warfare and harder-to-detect propaganda purposes.

The Internet may be getting better at spreading information more graphically and quickly, but, in the future, we may not be able to take anything it says on trust.





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