The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran an article recently about the website about Martin Luther King that white supremacist Don Black publishes (h/t Charles Cameron). The site is what I refer to as a cloaked site, that is, a website published by an individual or group who conceal authorship in order to deliberately disguise a hidden political agenda. In the case of Don Black’s website, the goal of the website is akin to what one scholar has called the discursive construction of uncertainty. In other words, the site is intended to make visitors to the website question the contribution of Dr. King to civil rights, and indeed, to question the goal of civil rights as a worthy goal. In my research with young people (ages 15-19), I’ve found that stumbling upon the site through a search engine frequently is confusing for novice web surfers. (I’ve written about this in a number of publications and this research also appears in my forthcoming book, Cyber Racism.)
Part of what was intriguing to me about the Atlanta Journal-Constitution article is that the reporter, Ty Tagami, takes up the comparison of the cloaked site and the legitimate King Center site, a comparison that I address in my research. What I found in comparing traffic to both websites using the web traffic site Alexa is that at this time of year, around Martin Luther King Day, there’s a big increase in the number of visitors to both sites. Here, in a graph generated by me via Alexa, traffic to the legitimate site appears in blue, the traffic to the cloaked site appears in red. The time period covered is the first six months of 2006; and, the website traffic is graphed here in terms of “Daily Reach (per million)” along the left, and the months across the bottom.
There are several things worth noting in this graph. First, and perhaps most alarming, the traffic to both websites peaks in mid-to-late January, around the time of the national Martin Luther King holiday. I interpret this to mean that people are interested in learning more about Dr. King around the time of the annual holiday, and log on to find more information. Relying on a typical search engine, they find both sites and inadvertently end up at the cloaked site. Second, what’s telling about this year in particular is that 2006 is the year that Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow, passed away (January 30, 2006) and the traffic for the King Center reflects a rather dramatic jump around that time. This is the only time that the traffic for both sites is noticeably different. Mostly, the two sites have very similar patterns.
This suggests a rather profound shift in the terrain of racial politics. Using a standard search engine and the search terms “Martin Luther King” this website regularly appears third or fourth in the results returned by Google. Before even viewing the content of this site, the URL makes it appear to be legitimate, in part because the main web reference is made up of only the domain name “martinlutherking,” and the URL ends with the suffix “.org.” The decision to register the domain name “martinlutherking.org” relatively early in the evolution of the web, was a shrewd and opportune move for advocates of white supremacy; failure to do likewise was a lost opportunity for advocates of civil rights. Recognizing that domain name registration is now a political battleground, a number of civil rights organizations have begun to reserve domain names to prevent them from being used by opponents of racial justice. For example, the NAACP has registered six domain names that include the word “nigger” and the ADL has registered a similar number of domain names with the word “kike.” However, registering offensive epithets is only a small part of the struggle. The move by opponents to equality to register the esteemed symbols of civil rights as domain names, such as Martin Luther King, and use them to undermine racial justice is one that was clearly unanticipated by civil rights organizations.
To be effective, cloaked sites with seemingly legitimate-sounding domain rely on the naïveté of their target audience. This naïveté is about both new media literacy and about a racial consciousness that recognizes and resists the white racial frame. Cultivating both of these is important as we once again approach the national King Holiday and millions of web visitors look for information about Dr. King.
wow! really interesting and a great post. thanks for bringing this phenomenon to our attention. what are your thoughts about how we might encourage folks (e.g., high school and college administrators) to take new media literacy seriously?
I am surprised this cite hasn’t said anything about the Oscar Grant shooting yet. Here is the video, info., and a way to get involved.
Hiya Julie, Victor ~ (V. see the post on top this morning in response to your query). Julie, thanks for your kind words about the post. I think that, increasingly, there are lots of people in higher education taking new media literacy seriously. For example, the link I included in the post above is from someone at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and Howard Rheingold recently pointed to social media literacy as one of the key trends in 2009. So, that idea is out there. The thing that most all of these leading thinkers miss, however, is the importance of what we might call a racial literacy to go along with the new media literacy. That’s the crucial bit for being able to accurately parse the cloaked sites from the legitimate ones. In my interviews (and in the classroom), when I ask young people to make sense of the cloaked sites, the young people with some awareness of racial politics are a step ahead in being able to do this successfully, regardless of their new media skills. So, just knowing who David Duke is, and that he’s a white supremacist, helps students recognize the cloaked MLK site for what it is. And, once young people are aware that cloaked sites exist, they’re much more quickly able to suss them out. What’s crucial is having both kinds of critical ability – new media and racial literacy.
Hi Jessie, I want to agree with Julie that this is a great post and I look forward to reading more in your book. There is extreme importance in sharing this type of information with my students. All too often they simply go to one of the first sites listed for information and there an numerous opportunities for unknowing students and others to fall victim to these cloaked sites.
Jessie–thank you for sharing. I know that some libraries (I know ours at UT Austin) has a literacy program for determining the content, etc. of sites. I wish more elementary, middle, and high schools had similar programs to help students do this.
Also, I’ve wanted to start a blog called “My Racist Uncle” to illustrate how much literal GARBAGE there is distributed over email. Particularly with this past election, I cannot tell you how many disturbingly racist rants, images, etc. my partner and I received from family members.
Do you cover this in your book? Very excited to see it in print!
Thanks Lou, Danielle for comments, glad you liked the post. Lou, In interviews (and in my classes), none of the young people I spoke with understood how Google (or other search engines) work, but instead, has some vague notion that people at Google HQ were in an office evaluating the sites, rank ordering them as each request came in, and then sending them out on the web. So, they have an implicit trust in the sites that appear on the front page, near the top, like this MLK site. And, as one respondent said, “I, like, never go past the first page of results.” Good to know. Danielle, that sounds like a great idea for a blog ~ you should do it! I don’t address anything like that in the book, but that sounds like a rich source of data. I’m sure that UT has a fabulous Internet literacy program (it being my alma mater and all), the problem with most of these types of program is that they stress a skills-based approach rather than a critical-thinking approach. In a skills-based approach, “evaluate the URL,” is one of the key skills. Unfortunately, this only makes the cloaked MLK site seem more legitimate, rather than less. The other thing that the skills-based approaches tend to do is stress “looking for bias” without acknowledging that “bias,” or point of view, is often precisely what makes a site worthwhile. So, for example, one of the respondents in my study said that she wouldn’t trust the legitimate King Center site because it was “created by his widow, so you know, it might be biased.” So, just teaching skills-based Internet literacy doesn’t adequately equip young people to be able to decipher these hidden political agendas.
Wow, this is just disturbing:
So, for example, one of the respondents in my study said that she wouldn’t trust the legitimate King Center site because it was “created by his widow, so you know, it might be biased.”
You’re absolutely right about the critical thinking skills necessary for evaluating the biases in these sites… something our educational settings, sadly, are lacking for so many young people.