Cyber racism, and panic about these threats, spread across a high school in Louisiana last week. Facebook messages threatening violence against black students at Assumption High School in Napoleonville, Louisiana led to increased campus security, hundreds of parents taking children out of school early and concerns that the situation could strain race relations among the school’s students. The threats, which contained racial slurs, references to lynchings and some names of potential targets, were posted on a Facebook page belonging to “Colins John” according to reports from students. Word quickly spread among students, parents, school administrators and authorities late Tuesday night about posts made by, whose profile picture featured a person in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood. The threats also caused about half of the 1,200 students to leave before the end of the school day Wednesday. Another 200 did not go to school at all.
But the racist threats were not posted by any member of the KKK, nor by any member of a white supremacist organization. The next day, a 17-year-old student at the high school, who is also black, confessed to creating the threatening Facebook page. The student is now charged with terrorizing, cyber stalking, hate crime and theft of utility service. He is being held in jail without bond.
Individual Acts of Cyber Racism. This is not the first time that an individual young person, not affiliated with any kind of a hate group, has engaged in an individual act of cyber racism. In my book, I talk about the case of Richard Machado, then a student at UC-Irvine, who used the student directory’s pull-down menu of names to select emails of students he designated as having “Asian-sounding” names. He then sent an email to a list of students saying that he was going to kill all of them. Machado’s crime was newsworthy because he used the Internet to send threatening hate messages and there were unique technological features of this crime. And, there are lessons from the Machado case for the Louisiana case.
The fact that the student accused in the Louisiana case is African American and that Machado (a recently naturalized American citizen from El Salvador) suggests some important elements about how race and racial identity figure into cyber racism. Machado was not, according to published accounts, involved in an organized white supremacist group, nor was he known to have visited white supremacist sites online. Similarly, the young student in Louisiana was not a member of any organized hate group and is African American. Yet, the language of Machado’s email and the high school student’s Facebook page clearly contained quite literally worded hate speech.
White Racial Frame. One explanation for this type of action is that both these young men, no less than most other people in the U.S., have adopted the dominant white racial frame. Part of what’s useful about this theoretical framework is that it situates individual racist actions, like these, within a larger system of racial oppression rather than in either individual identity (not only whites adopt the white racial frame) or individual pathology of racial prejudice tied to a personality disorder. Neither of these young men needed to have been white to engage in individual acts of white supremacy online. Nor, did either need to be mentally ill to engage in such acts, and there is no indication from the published accounts that either is mentally unstable. Instead, they merely needed to grow up in the U.S. and adapt to the dominant culture’s white racial frame.
Emails, and Facebook Pages, that Wound. Placing the victims’ story at the center of an analysis of hate speech via email or Facebook, as critical race theorists suggest, is difficult because of the way this story and others like it are reported in the mainstream news accounts. Press accounts mainly leave out the perspective of those who are the targets of hate speech. In the Louisiana case, we get some limited reports that students (and their parents) were frightened and left school (or didn’t attend), but there aren’t interviews with any of these students. In the Machado case, the the UC-Irvine students included on his list of recipients for the hate-filled email messages appear nowhere in the public record of reporting about the story. So, mainstream press accounts are also written from within the white racial frame and thus leave out the systemic pattern of virulent racism that might offer more context and understanding about the impact of such online speech. In California, Asian students on UC campuses have been targets of virulent anti-Asian telephone calls, graffiti and e-mail at the time of Machado’s attacks. In Louisiana, anti-black racism has a long history, much of it interwoven with Klan history, and that might be enough for some parents to keep their children home from school upon hearing about KKK-themed threats on Facebook.
The Myth of Online Anonymity. Many people believe that when you’re online, you’re completely anonymous. There’s a rather famous (in computer-geeky-circles) New Yorker cartoon from the early Internet era that shows a dog, sitting at a computer keyboard, the caption reads, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” In many ways, that notion of anonymity on the Internet – that “nobody knows you’re a dog” – is a myth. And, it’s a myth that fuels these sorts of individual acts of cyber racism because people think that they can’t be identified when they’re online. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The casual Internet user is completely track-able online. Covering your digital footprints takes pretty high level skills that most of us don’t possess.
The high school student in Louisiana confessed to creating the hate-filled Facebook page, but not before law enforcement found him. They did this through a coordinated effort. The local sheriff’s office in this case worked with the state Attorney General’s Office and the Louisiana State Police during the investigation. They requested information from Facebook’s corporate offices, as well as from Yahoo and Charter Communications (an Internet Service Provider) to determine the identity of the Facebook poster and make an arrest. So, just as this form of hate speech can be facilitated through the Internet, it can also be countered through the same technologies.
The way that Machado was ultimately caught also reflects some of the possibilities of the Internet for addressing cyber racism. Upon receiving the racist hate email, several students responded with email of their own to the Office of Academic Computing (OAC). The staff at the OAC was able to identify Machado as the sender by tracing the emails he sent using SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol). Then, they identified the lab and located the individual computer from which they were being sent. When staffers went to this machine, they found Machado still sitting at that particular computer in the lab, and asked him to leave. Surveillance cameras in the computer lab later confirmed that Machado was in fact the person responsible for the threatening email messages. Part of what this technological hate-crime-busting story suggests is that there are ways to address such individual acts of cyber racism, if there is a will and an effort to do so. Mostly, in the U.S., there isn’t a will to do anything about such acts.
The Usual Suspects. Machado was the first person convicted of a federal hate crime via the Internet in the United States. The fact that Machado was convicted of a hate crime involving the Internet reveals some features of the law and the Internet in the U.S. Within the U.S., the only time speech online loses its First Amendment (“speech”) protection is when it is joined with conduct that threatens, harasses, or incites illegality. Yet, this case suggests that the law does not appear to be consistently applied to all people in the U.S. The fact that prosecutors vigorously pursued the Machado case, and seem to be pursuing the Louisiana high school student, is consistent with the rest of the criminal justice system in the U.S. in which minority men are viewed as inherently suspect and differentially arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated. So, even when it comes to cyber racism, it’s black and brown men who are regarded as the usual suspects.