The world of cyber hate: How anonymity of the Internet allows hate to thrive
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 4, 2010 - Mark Potok paints an interesting picture of the face of hate.
"Twenty-five years ago, the classic white supremacist was a lonely man standing in his living room shaking his fist at the ceiling," said Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, which chronicles bias-motivated crimes and incidents in the United States. "He couldn't very well go down to the corner bar and talk to the guy next to him about it because he'd end up as likely as not with a broken nose."
Today, however, corner bars need no longer be a part of the equation. Aided by the electronic connectivity of a much smaller world, a single racist can now reach -- or hear from -- an audience of millions worldwide.
"Now, it's a very different feeling," Potok said. "The same person who used to be very isolated feels he is part of a movement that is happening, one that is moving forward every day."
That democratizing ethos has been a technological hallmark of the Internet. It also exemplifies the promise -- and the threat -- of an electronic age that has seen an explosion in hate group activity driven by an anonymous World Wide Web. When it began gathering momentum in the 1990s, many thought this communications revolution would mark a rebirth for race-based organizations and the ideological universe they inhabit.
Now, almost two decades after reciting URLs has become second nature to a generation of Americans, has that happened?
The short answer, said Potok, is no.
"In the beginning, the radical right as a whole thought the Internet was going to be their savior," he said. "Their feeling had been for decades that it was the evil editors at the New York Times and the CBS Evening News that prevented them from getting their message out. If only the white masses could hear them, they would rise up in anger, the race war would come and all would be well."
Undeniably, some aspects of the electronic age are a boon to white supremacy. The anonymity of the Internet opened up a new world of prejudice to those who normally might have felt too embarrassed or frightened to search for others with similar views. Still, the reality of the web turned out to be sharply different than its promise. White supremacy saw some increase in membership, but what it mainly got was a lesson in marketing.
"They found out what everyone else who operates on the Internet found out: If you've got a static web page, no one is coming back after a visit or two," he said. "You've got to have a page that changes all the time."
The result, Potok said, was that after explosive growth in the 1990s, the rate of expansion for such sites fell to about the same level as the rest of the growth of the Internet. In 2009, the Southern Poverty Law Center counted 670 active Internet hate sites, which include not just white supremacy sites but also hatred directed at whites or other races or groups.
Rather than the Web itself, it was the interactivity of the medium, barely imagined at the network's beginnings, which has turned out to be the biggest bonus for those trafficking in racist ideas.
Bringing hatred together
Sites like Facebook and MySpace have allowed people from all over the planet to connect and share ideas, events and pictures with a growing audience of friends, acquaintances -- and sometimes total strangers -- worldwide. Not all of those ideas are socially acceptable ones. The networking sites do manage content, and most have guidelines banning activities that promote hatred toward groups or individuals. Still, the sheer size of the virtual world makes effective policing efforts of these sites an imposing -- if not impossible -- task.
"Facebook has an excellent policy on paper," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, which fights anti-Semitism. "Their problem is that they are so huge and in so many different languages. It's the vastness of it."
Cooper said that his organization has been working with Facebook, the largest of the social networking sites, to improve its ability to shield users from hateful postings. The site's policy prohibits the bullying, intimidation or harassment of any user as well as "content that is hateful, threatening, pornographic, or that contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence." MySpace has similar policies, banning material that "is patently offensive or promotes or otherwise incites racism, bigotry, hatred or physical harm of any kind against any group or individual."
"With the various Internet technologies, you are not going to be able to eliminate hate or racism or the message," Cooper said. "The main goal in the case of hate groups is to marginalize them. Yes, it is a problem to have them anywhere, but if they are forced to go into their own milieu that could mean that their reach is not where they want it to be."
In neo-Nazi circles, he said, some sites have already dispensed with the idea of organization, believing it to be too weak, too public and too open to monitoring and infiltration by law enforcement. Instead of using the Internet to consolidate groups by building membership, some have taken a more frightening decentralized approach, while maintaining an arms-length level of plausible deniability for themselves.
"They changed tactics, talking about leaderless resistance," he said. "Be a lone wolf. Don't join any organized group. If you're a true believer, click here and you can learn from another site in a terroristic fashion."
A teaching moment
Combating Internet hate may be a noble aspiration, but futile in reality. That's because policing on social networking sites is largely driven by user complaints, which can lead to sporadic enforcement and a time-consuming effort that all too often yields disappointing results.
"We don't spend our time calling service providers to try to get people kicked off of Facebook or get their Web page unhosted," said SPLC's Potok. "I'm not suggesting it's the wrong thing but while we list groups, we don't try to get anyone thrown off the Internet as a general matter."
He notes that even when guidelines are enforced on social networking sites, individuals might simply re-register with a new user name. Attempts to remove racially inflammatory sites from service providers can prove similarly frustrating and circuitous.
"You had a pattern where a particular site would show up on a server somewhere," Potok said. "Someone would email whoever was providing server space and eventually get them kicked off. Quite frequently, the site would be kicked off one server, then another a week later, then a third a week after that."
Instead, Potok suggests that such sites can actually be employed as an educational tool. Older children can be shown white supremacist content and told about the dangers of Nazi beliefs and Holocaust denial.
"As a general matter, it is much better for parents to use these websites to inoculate their children than it is to simply hide them from the kids," Potok said. "If what a parent does, especially as the kid gets older, is just to say that if I ever catch you on one of these websites I'll tan your hide, that's not the most useful approach. It's fairly obvious that it makes the site more attractive to a kid of 16 or 17 years old than using it as teaching moment."
Karen Aroesty, director of the Anti-Defamation League, Missouri/Southern Illinois, agrees that knowledge can be power.
In St. Louis, race affects politics, the economy, personal relationships, education – virtually every important aspect of community life. Yet it’s difficult to talk honestly and productively about race.
"There's really nothing new about that," she said. "Education is the oldest story in the book. Frankly it's not terribly sexy, but it's the most effective way."
Meanwhile, some white supremacists have stopped battling to become a part of the mainstream social networks and have begun to create their own mainstream sites instead. NewSaxon, which bills itself as "an online community for whites by whites," is an example of this approach.
"It's basically social networking for neo-Nazis," Aroesty said. "There are online social networking sites for white supremacy similar to MySpace or Facebook. As the Internet has grown and become more sophisticated, the ability of folks in white supremacy to benefit from that has grown. There is much more recruiting online. There is fundraising online."
According to Rick Eaton, a senior researcher at the Wiesenthal Center, other sites like American Renaissance and Nationalist Coalition, have come up with new tactics creating "family-oriented" racist sites that shed some of the harder edged tactics seen with more traditional white nationalist URLs.
Regardless of where people choose to get their white supremacist fix, Eaton notes that sites are becoming increasingly integrated and versatile, often including everything from downloads of Internet radio programming to opportunities to purchase white power music and other paraphernalia.
"One thing we find with those who do join is they get really hooked and live, breathe, eat and sleep the movement 24/7," he said.
What's true and what's not
Aroesty believes the Internet has provided an ideal environment for the spread of paranoia, allowing for the dissemination of not just conspiracy theories but various rumors. Ironically, this isn't just a problem among hate groups, radical ideological elements or anti-government activists. Tolerance advocates often fall victim to the confusion. Aroesty said it's not uncommon for her to receive emails from enraged friends, alleging that a company or group is involved in some type of anti-Semitic activity. She said most people don't take the time to explore the veracity of forwarded messages at fact-checking sites like snopes.com or whatreallyhappened.com, before propagating inaccurate information to others like a virus.
"What happens is they see it and say 'that's extraordinary' or 'that's terrible,' let me send that to 45 of my closest friends, and they'll send it to a hundred of their friends, and all of a sudden everybody thinks that something is the case when it's not," she said. "We've seen some emails circulate for years because that's the nature of the Internet."
In the end, however, the biggest advantage that the Internet age may provide for hate groups isn't social networking, better communications or new way to spread misinformation. It's secrecy -- the anonymity of being one person publicly while being someone else behind closed doors.
"In the privacy of your own home, you can do all the things that anyone would do on the Internet but keep yourself protected," she said. "Your outside face is potentially very benign."
The state of hate
Last November, the Jewish Light received a grant from the Press Club of Metropolitan St. Louis to study hate violence and its affects not just among Jews, but also other groups. The St. Louis Beacon partnered with the Light on two of the stories, as part of our Race, Frankly series.
The series, “The State of Hate,” appears on the Light’s website and in the St. Louis Beacon.
David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis.