Previous polling by the Pew Internet & American Life Project during times of high national tension or major news events, like September 11 or the start of the Iraq war, has documented some reasons that people are prompted to turn to the Internet and even adapt it for new purposes.

Following September 11, Internet users took advantage of the Internet as an effective communication tool; 72% of Internet users said they used email to contact friends & family, reconnect with some who were out of touch, share stories, and discuss events surrounding September 11. The “commons” areas, like message boards and chat rooms, became very active and newly popular.1 Many virtual, ad hoc clearinghouses sprang up so people could trade and catalog information about friends and family who might have been affected by events of that day. Unprecedented levels of charity donations given online established a model for unprecedented levels of political donations that followed in the next wave of political campaigns.

In the early days of the Iraq war, large numbers of Americans were turning to the Internet as a source of supplementary, varying, and directed information about the war and its import:  66% said they went to the Internet for the variety of  news coverage, 23% looked for information on the war’s effect on financial markets; 15% looked for information about the  country and people; 9% looked for information on how to prepare for  a terrorist attack.

Overall, the Project’s research has shown the Internet news audience climb from 54 million in our first survey in March, 2000, to 92 million in the survey we completed between May 14 and June 17, 2004. That is an increase of 70%. Moreover, we found in March 2000 that on any given day that month, about 20 million American Internet users were getting news online. The figure jumped to almost 35 million in May-June 2004 – an increase of 75%.

Now, polling done during one of the most turbulent periods of the Iraq war suggest Americans are turning to the Internet for another reason, as a unique source of information they know exists, but has not been covered in the mainstream media.