Containing Its Spread on the Internet
By Abraham H. Foxman, Christopher Wolf
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2013 Abraham H. Foxman and Christopher Wolf
All rights reserved.
HATE DOESN'T JUST HURT — IT KILLS
In February 2009, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., mounted an unusual exhibit. Building on the museum's mandate to document and memorialize the murder of six million Jews, its exhibit entitled State of Deception focused on the power of Nazi propaganda. It traced Hitler's program of extermination back to its roots in the manipulation of German mass media and popular culture. The exhibit showed how the Nazi propaganda machine used the media of the day — movies, posters, newspapers, magazines, books, pamphlets, and paintings — to skillfully spread lies about Jews and to reignite and perpetuate centuries-old anti-Semitic stereotypes. It also showed how the Nazis crafted racist messages that were more nuanced and subtle than one commonly recalls — messages that were designed to persuade and ultimately desensitize the general population, not just fanatical followers. Thus, State of Deception showed how Nazi propaganda helped create a nationwide climate of hatred, suspicion, and indifference that ultimately laid the groundwork for Hitler's "final solution."
One Nazi-sponsored painting in the exhibit effectively showed the power of deceitful and incendiary words. Depicting a youthful Hitler giving a speech before a handful of captivated followers, the painting was titled, In the Beginning Was the Word — an apt description of the almost magical power of words — of propaganda — to produce unimaginable evil.
The evil of the Nazi regime was vanquished almost seventy years ago. But the power of words and images to propagate hate remains a force of evil in our world. Today, there are powerful new tools for spreading lies, fomenting hatred, and encouraging violence. Ironically, they are the same tools that have enriched society by creating new ways to communicate, educate, and entertain. They are the tools of the Internet.
In a little more than twenty years, the Internet has blossomed as a way to connect the world. But, at the same time, the openness and wide availability of the Internet that we celebrate has sadly allowed it to become a powerful and virulent platform not just for anti-Semitism but for many forms of hatred that are directly linked to growing online incivility, to the marginalization and targeting of minorities, to the spread of falsehoods that threaten to mislead a generation of young people, to political polarization, and to real-world violence.
Hitler and the Nazis could never have dreamed of such an engine of hate. Online anti-Semites are joined by Islamophobes, racists, misogynists, homophobes, and other kinds of vicious haters. Turn over a single rock in this netherworld of the Internet and you may be amazed at the number and variety of repellent attitudes and threats that suddenly become visible. The most virulent hatemongers are joined by a growing number of normally right-minded people who employ the shield of online anonymity to say horrible, hurtful, and hateful things in comment sections and elsewhere across the Internet, adding to the deterioration of civil discourse.
Of course, the new technology of propaganda exhibits some dramatic differences from the old. Instead of being under the central control of a political party or group, the power of the Internet lies in its viral nature. Everyone can be a publisher, even the most vicious anti-Semite, racist, bigot, homophobe, sexist, or purveyor of hatred. The ease and rapidity with which websites, social media pages, video and audio downloads, and instant messages can be created and disseminated online make Internet propaganda almost impossible to track, control, and combat. Links, viral emails, and "re-tweets" enable lies to self-propagate with appalling speed. Hate begets hate, and its widespread appearance makes it seem increasingly acceptable and normal in a world where traditional standards of honesty, tolerance, and civility are rapidly deteriorating.
A few years back, we might have dismissed the anti-Semitic groups, racist organizations, and other vicious haters on the Internet as outliers — fringe elements relegated to obscure websites, not worth taking seriously or responding to. But today we live in the world of Web 2.0, which has transformed the way the Internet is being used. In the interactive community environment of Web 2.0, social networking connects hundreds of millions of people around the globe; it takes just one "friend of a friend" to infect a circle of hundreds or thousands of individuals with weird, hateful lies that may go unchallenged, twisting minds in unpredictable ways. And with the users of Web 2.0 comprised largely of younger people, the impact of the misinformation contained there may persist for generations to come.
In the years since the advent of YouTube, Wikipedia, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and other Web 2.0 technologies, we have seen a sudden and rapidly increasing wave of bigotry-spewing videos, hate-oriented affinity groups, racist online commentary, and images encouraging violence against the helpless and minorities — blacks, Asians, Latinos, gays, women, Muslims, Jews — across the Internet and around the world. Undoubtedly as new technologies continue to evolve, new ways to communicate and connect online will be developed — and as these innovations emerge, new tactics for the promulgation of hatred will also appear.
HOW HATRED PROLIFERATES ON THE INTERNET
The ways in which the Internet is being used to disseminate and promote hateful and violent beliefs and attitudes are astounding, varied, and continually multiplying.
Websites Promoting Extremist Groups
Every extremist organization has its website — often more than one. Such websites are sources of hateful propaganda, lies, and incitements to violence that would otherwise be relegated to the shadows.
Organizations dedicated to promoting tolerance and freedom, including ADL, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and others, have made it part of their mandate to keep tabs on the ever-changing landscape of extremist politics in the United States and around the world. There are dozens of groups, large and small, many with overlapping memberships, parallel agendas, and sometimes shared leadership rosters. From time to time, these groups fold, merge, splinter, or rename themselves, meaning that tracking their current configurations can be quite a challenge. They include neo-Nazi organizations, offshoots of the Ku Klux Klan and other racially centered movements, rabidly anti-government militia groups (which often identify themselves using code terms such as "survivalist," "constitutionalist," and "sovereign," among others), quasi-religious groups that cloak their racist and ultra-conservative agendas in rhetoric about "Christian identity" or "religious freedom," and many other variations.
Some of the most notable organizations in this rogues' gallery of hatemongers include:
Stormfront, one of the earliest extremist websites with a sizeable Internet presence, claiming an active membership well over 250,000. Founded by Don Black, a Klan veteran who spent three years in prison for participating in an armed attempt to seize power in the Caribbean island of Dominica, Stormfront maintains an Internet forum with over nine million posts, an online radio program, a site that hosts user-generated blogs, and a large library of propaganda resources. Some of those who visit the site and participate in its myriad opportunities for online sharing, chatting, blogging, and organizing do more than just talk about their beliefs. Some apply them to violent actions in the real world. In a 2009 shooting, Richard Poplawski, a poster on the site, was charged with ambushing and killing three Pittsburgh police officers and attempting to kill nine others.
Hammerskin Nation, the most violent and best-organized neo-Nazi skinhead group in the United States. Launched in Texas in the late 1980s, Hammerskin Nation has spread to include skinhead groups in locations around the United States, focused mainly on recruiting disaffected young people through music and racist propaganda. A number of its members have been convicted of harassing, beating, or murdering minorities. Many popular racist rock bands are affiliated with Hammerskin Nation, and the group regularly sponsors concerts. The well-designed Hammerskin Nation website, coordinated by the Eastern Hammerskins in New Jersey, features concert reviews, chapter listings, and local contacts.
The National Socialist Movement (NSM), currently the largest neo-Nazi group in the United States, with members in forty-seven states. With roots dating back to the 1970s, NSM is currently led by Jeff Schoep, who has made an effort to link the movement to separate skinhead and Klan organizations. The NSM promotes its virulently anti-Semitic and racist ideology at rallies throughout the country. Between 2009 and 2011, the group's rallies focused mainly on anti-immigration rhetoric. The group promotes its message through its website, a white power music company, and violent, propagandistic video games.
The New Black Panther Party for Self Defense (NBPP), the largest organized anti-Semitic and racist black militant group in America. The group is led by Malik Zulu Shabazz, a Washington, D.C.–based attorney who has been active with the NBPP since the mid-1990s. By taking on racially charged issues under the guise of championing civil rights, the NBPP has received national media attention for its efforts, garnered some support from prominent members of the African American community, and attracted followers. However, although the NBPP's website and other outlets make an effort to appear mainstream (for example, with a message offering President Obama "Congradulations [sic]" on his re-election victory), the vast majority of African American and civil rights groups and leaders have rejected its racist orientation and its calls for revolution against "the hells of Amerikkka."
The role of the Internet in propagating violence extends beyond the way it provides fodder for the distorted worldviews of individual fanatics. It also allows anti-Semites, racists, and bigots to communicate, collaborate, and plot in ways simply not possible in the offline world. Online recruiting has allowed many hate groups to increase their membership. In fact, Don Black, former grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, noted that, "as far as recruiting, [the Internet has] been the biggest breakthrough I've seen in the 30 years I've been involved in [white nationalism]."
Some hate-oriented websites go so far as to target specific individuals. One familiar example is the infamous Nuremberg Files site, created by anti-abortion activist Neal Horsley, which publicized the names, addresses, and family data of physicians who provided abortion services in a thinly veiled effort to invite physical attacks on these doctors. (We'll discuss this case in more detail in a later chapter.) Another example, less well known, is that of Bonnie Jouhari, a fair housing advocate from Reading, PA, who also happens to be the mother of a biracial child (Jouhari herself is white). Apparently these qualities aroused the ire of extremist Ryan Wilson, leader of a Philadelphia neo-Nazi group called Alpha HQ, which made Jouhari the target of an extraordinary hate campaign:
In March of 1998, a white supremacist Web site in the United States began posting pictures of Jouhari's workplace exploding amid animated .gif flames. The Web site featuring Jouhari was modified a few months later to include hate speech attacking Jouhari's child, describing her as a "mongrel." Soon after, a car began regularly following Jouhari home, she received harassing phone calls at work and at home, and she has moved several times to get away from this ongoing threat to her life and the life of her child.
In 2000, a court ordered Wilson to pay damages of $1.1 million to Jouhari, but this victory was largely hollow, since the defendant had few assets from which payment could be drawn. In a separate case the same year, Roy E. Frankhouser, a self-described "Ku Klux Klan chaplain," was found guilty of participating in Jouhari's harassment and ordered to perform community service as restitution. However, these victories in court didn't end Jouhari's nightmare. She and her daughter fled across the country to Seattle, but the threatening phone calls and harassment followed them. As of late 2008, they were searching for yet another home, wondering whether they would ever find sanctuary from the real-world consequences of online hate.
Thanks to search technologies that are subject to shrewd manipulation, a fringe group's bigoted website can end up being ranked among the leading search results for a given topic on Google and other search engines, thereby achieving the kind of worldwide viewership once reserved for authoritative, mainstream messages. Many extremist groups have taken advantage of this characteristic of the Internet to create what are often called "cloaked websites" — pages that masquerade as impartial sources of factual information about social, historical, or political topics but are actually founts of hate-filled propaganda. The goal is to lure students and other curious would-be researchers into reading and believing content that would almost never find its way onto the shelves of a reputable school, college, or public library.
Cloaked websites are often cleverly constructed to mask both their origins and purposes. They are given URLs (web addresses) that sound neutral, such as www.martinlutherking.org and www.AmericanCivil RightsReview.com (the latter currently inactive). Some, such as the website of the Institute for Historical Review (IHR.org), are sponsored by pseudo-academic groups whose names may sound impressive to the uninitiated but whose work has been repeatedly exposed by serious scholars as shoddy and inaccurate.
The sites' home pages look innocuous; for example, the American Civil Rights Review site had a home page featuring a picture of Malcolm X and the slogan, "Speaking Out For The New Civil Rights Movement." This benign facade was designed to lull students, parents, and teachers into assuming that the site was a legitimate one, perhaps created by a civil rights organization. Only once the visitor began clicking on links that lead deeper into the site was the real nature of the content revealed. In the case of the Review site, the "inner" pages of the site included articles that purported to demonstrate that African American slaves were treated well and actually benefited from slavery, links to information about former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke's political campaigns, stories about the "racism" of Jesse Jackson, and even an article supposedly showing that the famous African American scientist George Washington Carver did not invent peanut butter. (Undoubtedly there were some actual "facts" scattered through these and the many other weird contents of the Review site, but to present this melange as an unbiased overview of the American Civil Rights movement, as the site did, is beyond ludicrous.)
It's not surprising that the American Civil Rights Review site was so outrageously biased. It was created by Frank Weltner, a St. Louis–based member of the neo-Nazi National Alliance organization who also maintains the anti-Semitic website www.Jewwatch.com. Deception on the Internet seems to be part of Weltner's standard operating procedure; in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he ran several phony sites that scammed people out of money they intended to donate to help the victims (a judge in St. Louis had to issue a restraining order against these sites).
Social Media Pages
Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, and other social media sites are used by hundreds of millions of people around the world. The overwhelming majority are decent citizens who enrich the culture of the Internet with positive and often highly creative contributions; their reports of local, family, and civic activities; and their advocacy of charitable, artistic, or social causes. But some are rabid haters who use the largely uncensored, uncontrolled pages of social media sites to spew abuse, lies, propaganda, and vitriol against those they deem less worthy — and to encourage others to do the same. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Viral Hate by Abraham H. Foxman, Christopher Wolf. Copyright © 2013 Abraham H. Foxman and Christopher Wolf. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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