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Michael Dartnell gets $45,000 grant to study anti-government groups on the Internet

Tracking the revolution online

by Tim Horyak

DartnellDecember 17, 1996: Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement forces infiltrate the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima, Peru, capturing hundreds of party guests and international headlines. Where did thousands of readers go to learn about the guerrillas, unfiltered by the news media? The Tupac Amaru homepage on the World Wide Web.

Anti-government groups around the world are embracing the Internet as a vehicle for their messages, says Michael Dartnell, a lecturer in Concordia's Department of Political Science. Dartnell has just received a one-year $45,000 grant to study the phenomenon from the United States Institute of Peace, a prestigious Washington-based institute created by Congress in 1984 to promote peaceful resolution to conflicts around the world.

Dartnell says he will use the funds to research and create "Insurgency Online," a permanent electronic archive about Internet-active groups that share an anti-government stance in both democratic and non-democratic societies. Beginning in August, he will establish the new Web site, research trips, and gather his findings into a book and a political science course.

An expert on terrorism and political violence, and author of a 1995 book on France's Action Directe terrorists, Dartnell is no stranger to the Web. His current homepage features his Online Guide to Political Inquiry, a library of hundreds of links to political science resources.

"One way of looking at the Internet is as television that you can read," Dartnell said, pointing to the increasing importance -- and size -- of cyberspace. "We're going to face an oversupply of information, and there's going to be a fair amount of what I call 'cognitive dissonance.' I think we are in the process of being overwhelmed."

Yet studies have shown that despite its lack of structure, children prefer the Internet to television, partly because the former is more controllable by both sender and receiver, a quality that makes it the perfect medium for politics, protest or revolution. Anti-establishment tracts will move from basements and streets to Web servers, which can reach an audience of 70 million.

"That's going to be a big change for us as a culture," Dartnell said, "because in terms of communication, we are no longer going to be passive subjects."

One of Dartnell's favourite sites is the multilingual Tupac Amaru homepage. Its English version was created the day after the Peruvian hostage crisis began, and is hosted by Burn!, an anarchist server run by students at the University of California in San Diego. While Peruvian authorities blocked the Tupac Amaru's cell-phone transmissions from within the besieged mansion, the guerrillas had a voice on the Internet criticizing the government of Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori.

"The Peruvian government was held up to international ridicule and its really gross violations of human rights were exposed to the world media," due to the guerrillas' use of the Internet, Dartnell said. "Even though they lost the immediate battle, they scored an important public relations victory through the whole incident."

Peru's Shining Path, Mexico's Zapatistas, Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers and Turkey's Kurdish rebels also have Web pages, which Dartnell plans to study, along with a host of other groups from countries such as Iraq, Burma, South Africa and sub-states like East Timor, Tibet and the Basque region of Spain.

"The point is not to examine any of these groups in depth, but to look at how they're using the Internet and what broad messages they're sending -- from the stance of an information consumer," Dartnell said. Insurgency Online will run the political gamut from racism to environmentalism, democratization to nationalism. About half will be separatist organizations, which, Dartnell noted, reflect a worldwide trend toward political and cultural fragmentation.

"Suddenly, the state is less omnipotent, not only in terms of information, but in terms of its economic power, as globalization is doing the same thing to governments," Dartnell said. "What kind of politics is going to come out of this is something that we'll see over the next 20 to 30 years."

Dartnell has just come back from giving a talk in Ireland at an international conference on future trends in terrorism. He spoke at University College Cork about how globalization has influenced the development of international conventions on terrorism. His trip was financed with the help of the Solicitor-General's Office and Concordia's Part-Time Faculty Association (CUPFA).

Copyright 1999 Concordia's Thursday Report.