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
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
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
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