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Poisoning the Web: Hatred Online
Internet Bigotry, Extremism and Violence
Table of Contents

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Responding to Extremist
Speech Online:

10 Frequently Asked Questions
Introduction

The tragic and horrifying events that unfolded on April 20, 1999, in Littleton, Colorado the coldblooded murder of 12 Columbine High School students and a teacher by two fellow students, who subsequently killed themselves generated both revulsion and soul-searching by millions of Americans. News analysts, social scientists, political figures, educators, and law-enforcement officials, as well as innumerable parents and students, felt stunned, angered, perplexed and vulnerable in the wake of this brutal attack on innocent people at a typical school on an ordinary day.

This sense of concern is heightened by the fact that the Littleton incident was the sixth and worst such school-based "massacre" in less than two years. As the particular facts about this calamity and these two perpetrators emerged, much of the analysis, discussion and criticism focused on certain by-now-familiar areas (no less worthy of attention for their familiarity): guns and their easy availability, even to troubled young boys; the responsibilities of parents and teachers to perceive and act upon various warning signs of alienation, anti-social attitudes and violence, and the suggestive and arguably pernicious effects of some elements of contemporary teen-age culture rock music groups and lyrics reflecting a preoccupation with gothic images of death; extremely violent and desensitizing movies and video games, and uninhibitedly hateful Internet Web sites, facilitating expressions of bigotry and explanations of bomb-making.

It is to the latter issue of Internet hate, the latest developments relating to it, and constructive responses available to concerned citizens of a democratic society, that this report is devoted.

Concerns about online extremism are not new. In January 1985, the Anti-Defamation League released a report entitled Computerized Networks of Hate. Years before the Internet became a household word, that report exposed a computerized bulletin board created by and for white supremacists and accessible to anyone with a modem and a home computer. Aryan Nations, a paramilitary group affiliated with the "Identity Church" pseudo-theological hate movement, sponsored the bulletin board and named it "Aryan Nation Liberty Net." The project was the work of two individuals: Louis Beam, then a Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nations leader, and George Dietz, the man behind the largest neo-Nazi publishing mill in the United States.

This bulletin board was a forerunner of extremism on the Internet. Computerized Networks of Hate detailed five ways the "Aryan Nation Liberty Net" served the white supremacist movement, all of which remain important to extremism on the Internet today. First, the bulletin board was designed to draw young people to the hate movement with appealing propaganda. Second, the network helped stir up hatred against the "enemies" of white supremacy. Third, the bulletin board was a means to make money. Fourth, the system offered the potential for circulating secret, coded messages among extremists, and finally, it bypassed embargoes that nations outside of the United States placed on hate literature.

Though Computerized Networks of Hate noted little to suggest that Aryan Nation Liberty Net represented a great leap forward in the spread of anti-Semitic and racist propaganda, it warned that "complacency" about this development "would be unwise." At the time, Beam wrote that the bulletin board was a "patriotic brain trust" and boasted that "computers are now bringing their power and capabilities" to the white supremacist movement. "The possibilities," Beam remarked, "have only been touched upon."

The same month that ADL released Computerized Networks of Hate, white supremacist Stephen Donald (Don) Black was released from prison. While serving just over two years, Black had learned to use computers.

Don Black first became actively involved with the white supremacist movement in 1970, a year after the birth of ARPANET, the computer network that later became the Internet.1 Black joined the Virginia-based neo-Nazi National Socialist White People's Party at age 17, while he was still a high school student in Athens, Alabama.

Five years later, following his graduation from the University of Alabama, Black became an "organizer" for David Duke's Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and distributed racist literature on the campus of his alma mater. That year, the first public demonstration of ARPANET took place at the International Computer Communication Conference (ICCC), and E-mail was introduced.2

By 1977, Black had become David Duke's right-hand man, reflecting the new breed of Klansmen that Duke exemplified young, articulate and educated. Duke handed Black the reins of his organization three years later. Toeing Duke's line, Black presented a "toned-down" public image while preaching racism and anti-Semitism to fellow Klansmen.

In 1981, Black was arrested with a group of nine other neo-Nazis and Klansmen in Slidell, Louisiana, and charged with plotting to invade the Caribbean island of Dominica, overthrow its government, and turn it into a "white state." He was convicted, and following an unsuccessful appeal, he surrendered to Federal marshals in December, 1982. With Black in prison, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan splintered.

In the years following his release, Black gradually withdrew from white supremacist activism, eventually becoming a computer consultant. However, he did not disavow his racism.

It was Black who would launch Stormfront, the first extremist hate site on the World Wide Web, a decade after ADL reported on "Aryan Nation Liberty Net." "There is the potential here to reach millions," Black said of the Internet. "I think it's a major breakthrough. I don't know if it's the ultimate solution to developing a white rights movement in this country, but it's certainly a significant advance."

Initially, Black could find only a handful of other Web sites that reflected his anti-Semitic, racist message. Today, hundreds of bigotry-laden sites promoting a variety of philosophies have joined Stormfront on the Web. The propaganda presented by these sites, from subtle to heavy-handed, is aimed at influencing both attitudes and behavior.

Though it is not always easy to draw a connection between online speech and violence, extremist groups with histories of violence have extensive Web sites. Additionally, extremists have used the Internet to comment favorably on violent acts. One Web site calls John William King, convicted murderer of James Byrd, an "American Hero" and asks readers to "give thanks to God" for King's act. Another site's "Memorial" to gay murder victim Matthew Shepard claims he "got himself killed" because of his "satanic lifestyle" and "will be in hell for all eternity."

Many extremist sites target the young. Hate groups such as the World Church of the Creator have posted Web sites filled with simple propaganda devoted specifically to wooing children. Bigotry-laced hard rock and the Internet have proved a natural match for racist Skinheads trying to capture the minds of teens.

Practically and legally, combating online extremism is enormously difficult. The First Amendment's protection of free speech shields most extremist propaganda, and Internet Service Providers, the private companies that host most extremist sites, may freely choose whether to house these sites or not. When providers choose not to host hateful sites, these sites migrate easily to the computers of services without such compunctions. Furthermore, the size of the Web, which contains hundreds of millions of distinct pages, complicates efforts to identify extremist material. Hundreds if not thousands of Web pages, some of which are not listed by search engines, contain bomb-making formulas.

There are no simple answers. Yet, in spite of this, we as a society must find a way to respond to this daunting challenge. We need to recognize warning signs like the Web sites attributed to the Littleton suspects. Internet users need to let responsible authorities know about the threatening, hateful and violent material they find. And the computer industry, educators, parents, civil rights groups and government must work together to develop new and creative approaches to the unprecedented challenges posed by online extremism.

Next: About the Internet


1 A Brief History of the Internet, retrieved from The Internet Society Web site, October 1998

2 Ibid.


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2001 Anti-Defamation League