They tried using cellular phones to call TV stations after they took more than 500 hostages in Peru, but the government blocked the signal. They let in 20 photographers, and the government will probably make sure that doesn't happen again. But the one unrestricted mass media outlet that the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, or MRTA, can rely on is its Web site.
The left-wing Peruvian rebels - still holding 74 hostages Monday - are among the growing number of rebel groups around the world that apparently have taken their revolutions from the hinterlands and back streets to the global computer network. The Web offers these groups a powerful interactive communications tool that bypasses the editorial control of other mass media and promises to reach far more eyes than a handful of leaflets passed out on a street corner.
But rebel groups face familiar problems on the Web. As U.S. corporations have discovered, it's one thing to build a site and another to attract viewers. Furthermore, Internet users have learned to be highly suspicious of information placed on Web sites because it is so hard to confirm who has published a site and what credentials they have.
The Toronto-based MRTA site has communiques from the rebel leaders inside the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima.
Even though the rebels don't have a direct telephone line to the world beyond the residence, their supporters around the world are sufficiently wired to provide a large amount of online information.
The source of online information, however, is often hard to identify. Steffen Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University, called it the double-edged sword of the Internet.
"One of the fascinating things about the Web is that is lends itself to disinformation, misinformation and mischief," he said.
"During the election, there were all these fake Web sites for Pat Buchanan," he said. "I have a weekly talk show and people were calling me up and telling me that Pat Buchanan was a Nazi and had swastikas all over his Web site. You couldn't tell them apart from the real thing because the technology is so democratizing that anyone can create something almost as good as the professionals can create."
Schmidt said there is no way to gauge whether Internet users are paying any attention to the revolutionary sites.
"Even while the amount of political information is exploding and the Web is a gold mine with veins running in every direction, the number of people who are mining the gold may be the same number who were doing it before on the old stodgy three main TV networks and newspapers," he said.
The siege in Peru began Dec. 17 and the rebels have freed no hostages since New Year's Day. They have demanded the release of 400-odd jailed comrades in return for freeing their VIP hostages.
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