In today’s New York Times “Room for Debate” series, The Editors have an online forum about the “Internet angle” on the recent acts of domestic terrorism ( photo credit: pasukaru76 ). In both recent cases – the murder of Dr. Tiller and the attack on the Holocaust Museum – The Editors write that “the suspect arrested was well-known among fringe “communities” on the Web” (the quotes around “communities” are in the original from The Editors). I’m going to leave the Tiller case for now, and focus on an examination of the Internet angle in the von Brunn case. I return to the Tiller case at the end of this post.
After von Brunn was released from prison he went to work for a Southern California bookstore affiliated with the Institute for Historical Review (IHR) a Holocaust-denial group.
I refer to the IHR site (and others) as “cloaked” sites because they intentionally disguise their intention in order to fool the unsuspecting web user about their purpose. As I’ve written about here before and in the book, the cloaked sites draw millions of readers each year.
Following that, von Brunn created his own virulently anti-Semitic website called Holy Western Empire (link not provided). If you’re curious about his web presence, several writers at TPM have posted screen shots of von Brunn’s overtly racist and antisemitic website and other online postings here, here and here. Von Brunn’s sites appear to be “brochure” sites – that is, one-way transfers of information (rather than interactive sites where users can add content).
I’ve spent more than ten years researching hate and white supremacy online and in my new book, Cyber Racism, I discuss both kinds of websites: the “cloaked” sites like those of the Institute for Historical Review and the overtly racist and antisemitic websites like von Brunn’s Holy Western Empire.
There is no denying that white supremacy has entered the digital era. And, the overt racist and antisemitic sites have proven even more popular in the Age of Obama.
Avowed white supremacist extremists, such as James von Brunn (and David Duke), were early adopters of Internet technologies. White supremacists were among the first to create, publish and maintain web pages on the Internet. The reality that von Brunn and other white supremacists were early adopters of the Internet runs counter to two prevailing notions we have: 1) that white supremacists are gap-toothed, ignorant, unsophisticated and uneducated; and, 2) that the Internet is a place without “race.”
In fact, neither of these notions is accurate or supported by empirical evidence. There’s plenty of data to show that some white supremacists are smart, as well as Internet savvy. And, the Internet is very much a ‘place’ where race and racism exist.
So, what’s at stake here? What’s the harm in white supremacy online?
I argue that there are a number of ways in which white supremacy online is a cause for concern, namely: 1) easy access and global linkages, 2) harm in real life, and 3) the challenge to cultural values such as racial equality.
With the Internet, avowed white supremacists have easy access to others that share their views and the potential at least to connect globally, across national boundaries with those like-minded people. I highlight potential because so far, there hasn’t been any sign of transnational border crossing to carry out white supremacist terrorist acts, although while there is a great deal of border crossing happening online.
There is also a real danger that ‘mere words’ on extremist websites can harm others in real life (e.g., Tsesis, Destructive Messages: How Hate Speech Paves the Way for Harmful Social Movements, NYU Press, 2002). And, for this reason, I’m in favor of a stronger stance on removing hate speech from the web and prosecuting those who publish it for inciting racial hatred and violence. In my view, websites such as von Brunn’s constitute a burning cross in the digital era and there is legal precedent to extinguish such symbols of hate while still valuing free speech (see Chapter 9 in Cyber Racism for an extensive discussion of efforts to battle white supremacy online transnationally). There is, however, lots of ‘room for debate’ on this subject and that’s the focus of the NYTimes forum today.
It’s important to highlight the cloaked websites I mentioned earlier. The emergence of cloakes sites illustrate a central feature of propaganda and cyber racism in the digital era: the use of difficult-to-detect authorship and hidden agendas intended to accomplish political goals, including white supremacy.
The danger in the cloaked sites is much more insidious than the overt sites, and here’s why: even if we could muster the political will in the U.S. to make overt racist hate speech illegal – admittedly a long shot – such legislation would do nothing to address the lies contained in cloaked sites.
The goal of cloaked sites is to undermine agreed upon facts – such as the fact that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust – and to challenge cultural values such as racial equality and tolerance. And, these sites are the ones that are likely to fool a casual web user who may stumble upon them and be unable to decipher fact from propaganda.
I’ll give you one other example of a cloaked site and connect this back to the Tiller case. A student of mine a couple of years ago made an in-class presentation in which she included the website Teen Breaks to illustrate the concept of “post-abortion syndrome.” Now, as savvy readers and those involved in pro-choice politics know, there is no medically recognized “post-abortion syndrome.” This is a rhetorical strategy of the anti-abortion movement used to terrify women and keep them from having abortions. This pro-life propaganda is effectively disguised by the cloaked site Teen Breaks which appears to be one of many sites on the web that offer reproductive health information for teens.
This cloaked site takes a very different strategy from the “hit list” websites that publish the names, home addresses, and daily routines of abortion providers. Whereas the “hit list” not-so-subtly advocates murder, the cloaked sites undermine the very agreed upon facts about the health risks of abortion. These are two very different, but both very chilling, assaults on women’s ability to make meaningful choices about their reproductive lives.
Similarly, the holocaust-denial sites and the overt racist and antisemitic websites are two very different, and both chillingly effective, assaults on racial equality.