Computer Column



The suicide of 39 cult followers in a Southern California mansion has stimulated a new round of debate about the Internet and its effect on society.

Many of those who died were engaged in the cult’s successful software development business, which created World Wide Web pages for clients.

And the cult itself maintained at least two Web sites one promoting its software services, the other, “Heaven’s Gate,” spreading the cult’s exotic beliefs.

Between the recent Supreme Court argument over pornography on the Internet and the involvement of the Heaven’s Gate cult in the World Wide Web, many parents may be thinking the Web a dangerous place for their children and perhaps themselves to go exploring.

In fact, the Internet is much like the world itself huge, varied and overflowing with every sort of material.

Some prominent journalists have declared the Internet such a wide open place that they would not use any information found there. Too unreliable, they say.

Nonsense. Suppose you were doing research, for example, on the Consumer Price Index. The government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics maintains a Web site on that very subject ( It provides a straightforward and official explanation of how the CPI is compiled, with a list of all the products that make up the “market basket” of goods the CPI uses to measure the cost of living.

You can get to this Web site and hundreds of others in seconds without leaving your desk. You can have the most authoritative information available coming out of your printer in a matter of minutes from the time you sit down and turn on your computer. It is free.

So is the information available from nearly every major newspaper in the country. They all have Web sites, most with their own “search engines” to assist you in finding exactly what you want from recent editions of their publication.

Innumerable libraries make their computerized data available free over the Internet. Countless corporations and public service organizations maintain World Wide Web sites that provide information on everything from the price of a new car and the nearest dealer that has it to the best place to find out where your family came from. World Wide Web search engines, themselves free Web sites, do much of the work for you in finding what you want.

That is not to say, however, that there isn’t a lot of wacky stuff out there. The AltaVista search engine (, for example, produced a list of sites with information about the Heaven’s Gate cult that included one called “What’s Hot In Features” ( This site specializes in articles about alleged conspiracies, with prominent display given one called “Heaven’s Gate: Was it Suicide or Governmental Murder?”

It begins as follows: “AMAZING how access to is being blocked by order of the US government.”

In fact, the Heaven’s Gate Web page has been so bombarded with hits from Web users in the aftermath of the cult suicides that it has been nearly impossible to get on because of the traffic. Persistent news organizations, including several TV networks, did manage to get on, however, and displayed the site’s home page on the air the day after the bodies were found in Rancho Santa Fe. Newspapers and wire services reached the site as well, and carried detailed reports about its contents.

Yet this article insists that attempts to reach the site result in a “not listed” message. In fact, users who fail to reach the site get a “Too Many Users” message, and are encouraged to try again later.

If that were not enough to convince you that the “What’s Hot” site trafficks in balderdash, only a few paragraphs later comes further proof in the form of this observation: “Interesting to note … SATAN appears in the name of the tragedy Rancho Santa Fe. Santa is anagram of SATAN …”

This is, obviously, swamp fever stuff and ordinary common sense should protect nearly everybody from taking it seriously. It may be true that the Internet has given people attracted to such ideas more ways to communicate, and faster, than they’ve ever had before, but it makes little sense to argue that the Internet is to blame for some people’s belief in bizarre conspiracy theories.

Parents who wonder if their children might fall under the wrong influences while Web surfing should recall the photographs and video clips of Heaven’s Gate cult leader Marshall Applewhite.

Here was a gaunt figure with bulging, unblinking eyes announcing in an eerie monotone that the world was about to be “recycled,” and that the only way to escape was with him and the others about to get aboard a UFO traveling behind the Hale-Bopp comet. If you’re susceptible to that message, avoiding the Internet probably won’t help much.

T.R. Reid is Rocky Mountain bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at [email protected], or Brit Hume at [email protected].

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