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Sept. 11 Changed Americans’ Internet Usage

The events of Sept. 11 changed how many Americans live and think, and a new survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project shows it also changed the way they use the Internet.

Calling the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks the most “cataclysmic events of the Web era,” the July survey, “One Year Later: September 11 and the Internet,” revealed that for tens of millions Americans “the Internet became a channel for anguished and prayerful gatherings, for heartfelt communication through email, and for vital information.”

First, the survey looked at Americans’ views about government disclosure of information on the Web. More than two-thirds of Americans supported giving the government “wide privileges” in deciding what information should appear on government sites. Sixty-nine percent said the government should do all it can to keep information from terrorists, “even if that means the public will be deprived of information it needs or wants.”

Although most Americans said they were willing to cede power to disclose information to government officials, nearly half (49 percent) said removing information from the Web would not make a difference in battling terrorists.

Americans are evenly divided on whether they believe the government should be able to monitor people’s e-mail and online activities. Forty-seven percent said the government should refrain from monitoring Internet use, while 45 percent supported government monitoring.

The survey also indicated some changes Internet users have made in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

According to the survey, 19 million Americans rekindled relationships with family, friends and former colleagues via e-mail after Sept. 11. And a year later, 83 percent have maintained those relationships.

The survey also revealed that more Americans are using e-mail, gathering news online, visiting government Web sites and seeking health and mental health information online since Sept. 11.

The content and structure of the Web also changed dramatically following Sept. 11.

A cross-section of Web sites following Sept. 11 revealed that 63 percent of sites provided information related to the attacks. Thirty-six percent of sites allowed visitors to provide some sort of assistance to victims. And 26 percent allowed individuals to seek assistance from others and from relief organizations.

While the Sept. 11 attacks generated the most traffic to traditional news sites in the history of the Web, many non-news sites also became conduits for information, commentary and action related to the terrorist attacks.

The dynamics of many government sites quickly changed following the attacks. Seventy-six percent of government sites provided information about the attacks, agency responses to it and how individuals could take action. Twenty-eight percent of these sites gave information about how victims could get assistance.

The survey did not turn up one government site that provided features for American citizens to advocate for specific U.S. policy responses, but 21 percent of the sites did allow individuals to express their opinions and reactions to the attacks.

Physical and financial needs of the immediate victims of the attacks were the main focus of 22 denominational sites surveyed. Denominations also used their sites to respond to the needs of their own church members.

Many denominational sites sought to provide spiritual and emotional support to their members, but the sites did not attempt to provide deep theological answers to members’ questions like: Why does God permit evil?

The Internet also provided a “virtual public space where grief, fear, anger, patriotism and even hatred could be shared,” the survey found. The most prominent emotions expressed on the Web were: sadness, grief and condolences (75 percent); religious and spiritual thoughts (61 percent); anger, fear and hate (52 percent); shock and disbelief (48 percent); and patriotism (46 percent).