Christopher Wolf, head of the Anti-Defamation League’s Internet Task Force, has an article on the Internet facilitating racist speech, such as that of James Von Brunn, self-proclaimed white supremacist, anti-Semite, and accused murderer at the Holocaust Museum. Such white supremacists were once
relegated to using the mail to communicate his rage with like-minded haters. The only place for him to have his benighted views applauded was in sporadic clandestine meetings. The Internet changed all that. Like his fellow bigots, Von Brunn found the Internet a boon to his warped causes. His maintained a hate Web site, “Holy Western Empire,” where he touted and provided excerpts from his book that denied the Holocaust and praised Hitler.
Wolf assesses what he sees as the operation of the Internet as a new propaganda machine
not under the central control of a political party or group. It gains its power by being viral in nature. Everyone can be a publisher, even the most vicious anti-Semite. . . . Any hater and propagandist can reach a mass audience, even an audience that didn’t think itself receptive to such hateful ideas. . . . Those who harbor anti-Semitic beliefs are comfortable expressing themselves in cyberspace, where they can provoke a reaction from others or find like-minded individuals to affirm their beliefs.
He makes an important point about the impact this has on people’s sense of anti-Semitism’s normality:
The perniciousness of anti-Semitism on today’s Internet is that the more one sees it, the more one is likely to consider it normal, and acceptable. Good people are numbed by the proliferation, and daunted by the task of responding. Others consider it a reflection of what is acceptable in society.
This is certainly true for other forms of racist thinking and framing. Wolf later adds the usual comment on how the first amendment protects most hate speech, and thus calls only for education as a solution:
The First Amendment protects essentially all hate speech, except that consisting of direct threats against specific people. . . . There is a role for Internet users, for Internet companies and for educators. We should speak up when we see hate sites, explain to our kids what they are seeing, and counter the vicious lies.
He accents education, leaving alone the first amendment issues. Well, there is much more that we can do, such as get rid of this antiquated first amendment argument and join most of the world’s other countries in banning extremist hate speech. There is nothing “political” about most of it, and it is political speech that the first amendment protects. As I pointed out before, other countries often have much more diverse and open political speech, debates, and parties than we do – and they enforce laws against racist hate speech. We are behind and primitive in this area of the law and government policy. We are not the world’s leader in many such legal areas, so why do we insist we are. Ethnocentrism squared?
Wolf is mostly on target here, but he does not probe deeply enough. Our own Jessie has a new book out, Cyber Racism: White Supremacy Online and the New Attack on Civil Rights, that goes much deeper into these Internet issues, showing how they are actually integrally linked to and created by the racist system that predates them by centuries. Technology is not as important here as the reality of systemic racism and a very deep white racial frame in this society. They use technology, technology does not drive them.
In her book and posts here Jessie has pointed out too that these white supremacists are no unsophisticated bumpkins, but know what they are doing and use the Internet well. They also reflect and represent the larger racist society. Jessie makes quite clear in her book and posts that the Internet is not some happy technological reality/future that has managed to be developed only by racially liberal and open-minded folks, and thus is without institutionalized racism.
In a recent post Jessie has gone well beyond Wolf in suggesting the need for action to deal with these new white supremacist developments:
There is also a real danger that ‘mere words’ on extremist websites can harm others in real life …. 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).
Jessie’s book expands on all these ideas, and is by far the best thing out there dealing with systemic racism and the new technologies around the Internet.