Group therapy
A global audience. Minimal costs. Unlimited space. The attractions of campaigning in the Usenet newsgroups are obvious. But that is nothing new for the world's activists, who have been filling with doom-laden warnings and protests for ages.

A quick glance reveals postings on human rights abuses in East Timor, the environmental impact of China's Three Gorges Dam and criticism of Labour MEPs for not turning up to a debate on the Dounreay nuclear reactor. And there is much, much more to worry the globally concerned citizen.

From Venezuela comes news of a battle over two national parks which threaten the last six condors in the country. Ten birds were introduced at the beginning of the year and four have been shot dead since May.

The writer quotes a report blaming the birds' deaths on the local mayor. Allegedly, he "promoted the death of the condors" to discredit the reintroduction project because he wants to curry favour with his constituents by handing over the park lands for agricultural and mineral development.

Thousands of miles away, the Alternative Information Centre (AIC) in Israel complains of continuing intransigence and double-dealing by the authorities in their policy towards Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem. If they do not take up Israeli citizenship and live outside East Jerusalem for any length of time, they forfeit their right to live there again, according to the AIC. It sees the policy as a way of reducing the area's Palestinian population by stealth.

No one can pretend that newsgroup activism has the same impact as a concerted television or newspaper campaign. One problem is the lack of editorial control - there is no way of judging the validity of the claims. Moreover, not enough powerful people read the newsgroups or fear being exposed in them. Not yet, anyway.

But this has its advantages, too. Activists know they are less likely to have an injunction slapped on them or suffer other consequences if they publish controversial material in a newsgroup. And if they are really scared, they can cover their tracks with an anonymous posting. It is a kind of global leaking system and it is an ideal channel for activists in authoritarian countries to get information into the public domain. Of course, these characteristics also make forums such as a great place to smear people and organisations. Never take a newsgroup too seriously.

You certainly have to take a different attitude to its sister, or brother, newsgroup next door, misc.activism.militia.

This provides a home to a disparate collection of US militia groups, neo-Nazis and right-wing conspiracy theorists. It is outlandish stuff - not least the Global 2000 plan to curb world population levels and get rid of "undesirables". In response to fears that civilisation would collapse after the year 2000, the United States government and others allegedly hatched a plan to release a microbial disease among the general population. They would administer "a cure to the survivors when they decide that enough people have died". But the plan has been shelved and suppressed, it says here

Andrew North