Key Findings

By Adrienne Massanari
University of Washington, Department of Communication

A “Webscape” of examples for this section can be found at:

Government Web sites are more important now to Internet users than they have ever been. The newest Pew Internet Project survey from June 26-July 26, 2002 shows that more than 70 million American adults have used government agency Web sites. That is an increase from the 60 million who had used government Web sites when the Project surveyed on the subject in the summer of 2001.

An analysis from the September 11 archive of public agency sites shows why they are significant sources of information to Internet users. Government sites provided a wealth of information and important services to Internet users in the days and weeks following September 11. The sites became clearinghouses of information for those directly or indirectly affected by the attacks, individuals interested in donating to the relief efforts, and the agencies’ own employees, who, in some cases, were victims of the attacks or the later anthrax scares.  Some government sites highlighted the historical roots of terrorism and tried to place the attacks in some sort of political context.  Few, however, entered into a dialogue with their visitors about the issues underlying the events of September 11, and fewer still encouraged individuals to offer their own opinions as to what response should be taken.

Types of actions enabled on government Web sites

Research sample

Some 53 government sites from the September 11 Web Archive were examined for this sample. The overwhelming majority of these were U.S. federal government Web sites (41), a small minority were city or state sites (3), and a few were international government sites (9).  The sample included the first impression available after September 11 that had content related to the attacks.  The sample did not include sites that were unavailable in the public archive or those that were unavailable in English.

Content related to September 11

To assess the activities in which visitors could engage on government Web sites after September 11, sites were coded for seven different types of user actions.  These included:

  • Getting information about the agencies’ activities or other important news relating to September 11
  • Providing information about suspected terrorist activities
  • Getting assistance (information or direct links to victims’ benefits, financial assistance, or emotional support)
  • Providing assistance through links and information about volunteering and donating blood, food, or clothing
  • Expressing personal opinions or reactions to the events by signing condolence books or sending messages of support via email
  • Accessing personal opinions or reactions to the events by reading statements from public officials or condolence books
  • Advocating for a particular policy response to the attacks

Each government Web site was reviewed to determine the types of user actions it enabled directly and any special features about the action were noted.  Sites were also examined for links to external sites that allowed visitors to engage in one or more of these actions. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, providing access to information about the attacks was the role most frequently performed by Web sites of government entities (76% of sites enabled this action).  Sites also allowed individuals to get assistance (28%), access opinion or reactions to the events (23%), express their own opinions and reactions (21%), and provide assistance to the victims (19%).  Very few sites allowed Internet users to provide their own information related to the attacks (9%) and none of the examined Web sites allowed individuals to advocate for a particular policy response to the events.  Perhaps surprisingly, fewer than half of the government sites linked to other Web resources where visitors could provide assistance (45%) or get assistance (43%).  No government Web sites linked to external sites where individuals could advocate a particular response to the attacks.

Informing the public

Many of the government sites pointed to the FirstGov portal, subtitled “Your first click to the U.S. government.”  This site compiled a comprehensive list of links and information relating to the tragedy.  These included a list of sites that accepted tips and information about the attacks, organizations accepting financial and blood donations and those providing victims’ benefits, and information about September 11-related scams and frauds. The site’s October 15, 2001 impression also listed other ways in which individuals could show their support of the country, through flying the American flag, sending letters and cards to US troops, and volunteering.48

Besides linking to FirstGov, individual agencies also provided information on their own sites about the attacks.  Some provided special sections about terrorist activities and/or tried to place September 11 into some sort of historical context.  The CIA added a special part called “The War on Terrorism” that provided information about Osama Bin Ladin and his previous terrorist activities. On October 5, 2001 the CIA site contained statements about the potential terrorist use of biological and chemical agents, statements from the CIA director, George J. Tenet, to his employees and the American public, and links to other agencies involved in counter-terrorism activities.49

Many sites were updated quickly in the days following the attacks.  Since so much new information was available on a daily (and sometimes hourly) basis, some agencies chose to insert an interstitial page with the most up-to-date information about their response to the attacks in front of their usual home page.  The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was one such site.50 The page notified the public that the Reagan National Airport was still closed, provided a list of frequently asked questions regarding air travel, and included links to statements made by the Secretary of Transportation.  While this page had a stripped-down look unlike the rest of the FAA site, it provided critical information about the status of the nation’s air travel for domestic and international travelers.  The page also included a time stamp in the top left corner, since it was updated several times each day during the weeks after September 11.

Government agencies’ Web sites also played a significant role in providing information to their employees, many of whom were detached to crisis-related duties, displaced from their normal chores, or otherwise affected by the attacks.  One such organization was the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which had offices in the 7 World Trade Center building.  From a small link on the home page that read, “Information for SEC NERO staff,” employees who worked for the SEC’s Northeast Regional Office were taken to a Web page that asked them to call a toll free number to check in, provided information on counseling services available to employees and their families, and encouraged to communicate with one another about the tragedy.51

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) site also played a key role in informing government employees and managers about emergency procedures, coping with the tragedies, and how they could help with the relief efforts.52 This site also listed a contact phone number and email address for former federal employees who desired to return to government service because of the attacks.

Involving the public in the investigations

Many government sites not only provided information about their agencies’ involvement with the rescue and recovery operations, but also elicited information from their visitors about the attacks.  Numerous sites linked to the Internet Fraud Complaint Center (IFCC), a site that usually encourages visitors to report incidents of Internet fraud, but was restructured in the days following the attacks to allow individuals to report suspected terrorist activity.  The impression from September 14, 2001 included information about the IFCC and its mission, as well as a prominent link that read, “Report Terrorist Activity” which sent visitors to an online form.53

Offering assistance to the victims and others touched by the tragedy

Assisting victims of September 11 became a critical role that government agencies filled in the weeks following the attacks.  Impressions of their Web sites from the weeks after the attacks reflect this mission.

For individuals residing near Ground Zero, perhaps the most useful site was the New York City Web site.54  Within days of the attacks it provided links to information about how families could help identify victims by providing DNA samples, contact information for missing persons hotlines, and phone numbers and addresses for shelters throughout the Manhattan area.  The site also provided extensive assistance to affected business owners, including information on building access, power, utilities, and postal service outages, and financial and tax help.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also provided an extensive list of assistance organizations.  Their list from September 25, 2001 contained contact information for 28 different agencies providing services such as legal representation, financial assistance, counseling, temporary housing, and medical treatment.55 The list also linked to these organizations’ Web sites, where appropriate.

Providing suggestions for direct action

A large number of government sites provided lists of resources for those looking to support the relief efforts, either financially, or through donations of food, clothing, or blood.  Many of the government agencies linked to the American Liberty Partnership, a Web site that collected donations for a variety of organizations, including the September 11th Fund, the American Red Cross, and the Salvation Army.  The impression from September 20, 2001 provided visitors with information about the ways in which charities were helping the recovery efforts and connected them to an online form where they could financially contribute to these organizations.56

While many sites encouraged their adult visitors to donate to organizations after September 11, the White House made a direct appeal to children.  In October 2001, the President created “America’s Fund for Afghan Children” and asked American children to send in $1 each to help feed and clothe the children of Afghanistan.  This call-to-action was echoed on the White House’s Web site.  On October 31, 2001, the site included a short fact sheet about the rampant starvation and poverty in Afghanistan and linked to audio and video versions of the President’s statements regarding the program.57

Although other government Web sites provided information to adults about supporting the emotional needs of children following September 11 (such as the Department of Education’s Web site on November 10, 2001), the White House site was one of the few that directly addressed children or the role that they could play following the attacks.58

International responses of condolence

Only a few international governmental Web sites were included in this study, primarily because English versions were either unavailable or not identified for inclusion in the archive. However, the international sites analyzed focused overwhelmingly on providing messages of support and condolence to Americans.  The Canadian government’s Web site encouraged Canadians to write messages of condolence, which were then posted to the site for a short time.  On September 25, 2001, the Web site also included a message from the Canadian Prime Minister, encouraging solidarity and tolerance in the face of the attacks.59 The North American Treaty Organization (NATO) Web site posted a special section about the attacks that included press releases and statements from members, photographs of the NATO flags at half-mast, and condemnation of the September 11 attacks.60  NATO’s home page on September 14, 2001 also contained information about international meetings resulting from the events.61 Additionally, site visitors could access articles and other resources about the organization’s structure and member countries.

Responses from other countries’ Web sites focused more on the political issues resulting from the attacks.  The Islamic Republic of Pakistan’s site contained many statements from President Pervez Musharraf condemning the attacks and offered condolences to the American public.62  British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Web site provided a statement regarding the terrorist attacks which visitors could download in a number of languages.63 The statement offered condolences to the U.S. and British victims and outlined his views on what the international community should do to respond to the terrorist attacks.64 Additionally, other areas of the site provided information about Blair’s domestic and international agenda in light of the September 11 events.

“Where do we go from here?”

The Peace Corps’ Web site encouraged individuals to participate in their programs after September 11, calling on them to “continue our work.”  Messages of support from colleagues in host countries were posted, and Peace Corps volunteers serving during the attacks responded that they felt supported and comforted by host villages.  One individual serving in Bulgaria wrote the following:

I am not in America to see and experience what Americans are truly facing, but as an American serving abroad, I see and feel the support of the world, who is standing beside us with amazing vigor. America shall overcome this, one step at a time. And, as America rises to victory, hundreds of Peace Corps volunteers are scattered in nations throughout the world, serving and forming relationships and bonds with millions of people, who are all standing behind a much-admired country of freedom, opportunity, and security 100%. Both mine and Bulgaria’s thoughts and prayers are with you all.65

The site encouraged its visitors to get involved – especially returned volunteers who had first-hand experience with learning about and living in another culture.  Additionally, the site provided links to the FirstGov and American Liberty Partnership sites for more information about how individuals could help.

What’s missing?

Some government Web sites, like those for the Senate and the House of Representatives, provided minimal information about the attacks outside of their press release section.  During the anthrax attacks, the House of Representatives’ site had a small notice containing information about the building’s safety and provided links to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Postal Service, but this was the only indication that the site’s producers had updated it since September 11.66

The Web sites of two committees heavily involved in the aftermath of September 11, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee had little or no content about the attacks.67 These omissions are surprising in light of these organizations’ high visibility in the public sphere. However, individual members of U.S. legislative bodies, like Senator Hillary Clinton from New York, were quick to respond to the attacks, providing a plethora of information on their sites for victims and for those interested in donating to the relief efforts.68

Interestingly, none of the government sites that reviewed for this study allowed visitors to advocate for a particular political response to the attacks.  While some sites did provide email addresses for government officials, no government-produced site encouraged individuals to contact their representatives and express their opinions or policy preferences in the aftermath of the attacks.