Wired Strategies Publications

The Economist
November 13th, 1999
The Internet: Downloading hate
by John Aravosis

washington, dc

A COURT in Wyoming last week sentenced Aaron McKinney to two life terms for pistol-whipping a homosexual college student, Matthew Shepard, tying him to a fence and leaving him for dead. (He later died in hospital.) McKinney could have got the death penalty, but the dead student's parents preferred him to live with the memory of what he had done.

Mr Shepard's killing was the most notorious "hate crime" in a grisly year. The past 12 months have also seen an attack on a high school in Colorado (in which a black was apparently killed for being "that little nigger"), the burning of three synagogues in California, a Fourth of July rampage against blacks, Jews and Asians in Chicago, a shooting spree at a Jewish day-care centre in Los Angeles, and the killing of teenage church-goers in Texas. In all these cases, the violence appeared to be aimed at people who were "different".

Although hatred-inspired violence is hardly a new development (ask Cain), there is a dangerous new ingredient: the Internet. In October, a homosexual group, in the course of investigating an America Online (AOL) policy about "objectionable" speech, discovered scores of postings on AOL advocating violence against homosexuals. Other messages called for blacks to be lynched, Christians killed and Jews burned. The Internet, it appears, gives hatemongers just what they want: a cheap device to reach millions of new recruits.

Although the number of hate groups online is small - maybe between 300 and 1,000, out of 8m sites on the World Wide Web - this is worrying. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a New York-based group that fights anti-Semitism and bigotry, issued a report earlier this year pointing out that a worldwide set of extremist organisations is using e-organising to pool its resources. "Before the Internet," said the ADL, "many extremists worked in relative isolation, forced to make a great effort to connect with others who shared their ideology. Today, on the Internet, bigots communicate easily... Extremists have found a secure forum in which to exchange ideas and plans." The ADL reports that hundreds of web pages contain instructions for making bombs.

One group the ADL particularly worries about, white nationalists (as they call themselves), admits that the Internet has been good for business. Don Black, a former Klansman and the owner of what many consider the Internet's first white-pride website, has boasted online that "The Net has provided us with the opportunity to bring our point of view to hundreds of thousands of people who would never have otherwise... been in touch with any of our organisations." Mr Black says his site, Stormfront.org, has been visited 1m times since it was set up in 1995.

Some of those visitors, he clearly hopes, are children. The site includes a "Kids' Page" containing a history of the white race, an online colouring book, a discussion board and a "white power" version of "Doom", a popular computer game. With about half of all Americans between the ages of 16 and 22 now online, the Internet offers take-your-pick intolerance to a new generation.

Yet there is little demand for sites such as Stormfront.org to be banned. Although independent web-hosting companies in the United States can legally close down hate sites, there is a healthy tradition of free speech on the Internet. Speaking in September in Eureka, Illinois, Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Centre - who has himself been targeted by anti-black and anti-Jewish hate groups - defended the rights of extremists to express their views online. "The Founding Fathers of our country invented the first amendment," said Mr Dees, "and I think they had the website in mind when they did it." At the time of the American Revolution, he went on, people spoke their minds by posting notices on bulletin boards. "The Internet is a giant bulletin board for America and the world, and you can't regulate it."

But you can regulate speech that advocates violence. A jury in Oregon recently decided that the American Coalition of Life Activists and Advocates for Life Ministries should pay $107m for inciting violence against abortion doctors on their "Nuremberg Files" website. Yet the question of when obnoxious speech becomes hate, and when hate begets violence, is anything but clear. AOL has found it difficult even to define hate speech consistently; homosexuals note that the online service bans "nigger" and "kike", but not "faggot" and "dyke". And when Internet providers shut down websites that appear to cross the line, they usually pop up elsewhere within days - as was the case with The Nuremberg Files and with a much-censored anti-gay site, GodHatesFags.com.

As proof of the problem, try searching for "nigger" via the Alta Vista service. It returns more than 150,000 related pages and a suggestion that the search be expanded to "nigger jokes", "nigger-hater" and "nigger women". Some of these websites are racist; others are actually expressions of black defiance against whites. Joseph Conrad's "The Nigger of the Narcissus: A tale of the Sea" is there, too.

The only effective response, as watchdog groups now realise, is to use the Internet itself to resist extremists. "The Internet is the greatest thing to happen to hate," says David Goldman, the executive director of HateWatch.org, a non-profit group that tracks online bigotry. "It's also the worst thing."

Robert Arena, a political Internet expert with Presage Internet Campaigns in Alexandria, Virginia, says the Internet helps fighters for tolerance by exposing the activities of previously shadowy groups. "When you expose hate groups for what they are," he says, "people are enticed to get involved to stop them." During the Fourth of July shootings in Chicago, Mr Goldman says his organisation saw an increase in e-mails, telephone calls and letters from Americans who had visited HateWatch.org's website and were "tired of feeling powerless."

Which side will prevail? Mr Goldman suspects the result may be stalemate. "Unfortunately, hate is part and parcel of what it means to be a human being," he says. "We would be foolish to think that technology will solve the problem of human vice."

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