In Cyber Racism, I examine the many ways racism is being translated into the digital era from the print-only-era of newsletters (such as those I explored in my earlier book, White Lies). I also spend some of the new book exploring ways of fighting cyber racism (see Chapter 9). There is a recent example that illustrates both the pernicious threat of cyber racism and an effective strategy for combating it.
Allen McDuffee is a NYC-based freelance journalist whose writing has appeared in The Nation, Mother Jones, DailyKos and HuffingtonPost. McDuffee as well as for his own site, Governmentality. Here’s McDuffee’s account of how this incident began (from July 15, 2009):
Last night as I looked at the results from my statistical gathering software program, I was disgusted to learn that an individual had posted and linked to some content from my blog. Most writers and bloggers work hard to get their work linked to, but when I saw the content of this individual’s blog, I literally became sick to my stomach.A white supremacist, with a screen id and blog called Kalki666, found a post I had written critical of Israel and decided to repurpose it for his anti-Semitic agenda. He also used me as his research assistant for the main part of that same post when he found this post on my blog from May 21 and just re-posted it yesterday. And then there are the swiped images, too. Not only had he posted my content and linked to me on his blog, he further linked on white supremacist discussion boards. In no way, shape or form will I allow him to attribute his agenda to my reporting and blogging. I fully condemn Kalki666’s actions and everything that he, his blog and his community stand for. Yes, I am critical of Israeli policies. I am also critical of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. But beyond that, it needs to be clear that being critical of Israel does not make one anti-Semitic.
This kind of “re-purposing” of content intended for a white supremacist agenda is one of the characteristics of cyber racism. In the book, I talk about the way other white supremacists have used this same strategy to re-frame material from the Library of Congress archive of WPA recordings with freed, former slaves to make their argument that slavery was “sanitary and humane” rather than the brutal and de-humanizing institution it was, in fact. Lifted out of context and re-posted on a white supremacist website, the oral history of slavery becomes part of an arsenal of web savvy white supremacists. In McDuffee’s case, text he authored critical of Israel – but not intended as antisemitic – ends up re-posted on a white supremacist forum to further their antisemitic agenda. On the web, as in print publishing, context and authorship matter; but, unlike printed-media, the copy/paste technology of the web makes the migration of ideas from one context and author to another several orders of magnitude easier.
Then, McDuffee’s story gets even more interesting. He writes:
Now, upon further research, I learned that Kalki666 was surfing and posting from an IP address registered to Wheaton College (IL)–a conservative, Evangelical Christian college. [And...] I’m writing to Dr. Duane Liftin, the President of Wheaton College. He should be made aware of the types of activities that are occurring on the Wheaton College IP address. If it’s an employee, I’m sure this violates the usage policy of the College. If it’s a student, well I suppose this opens a whole host of other issues.
I’m also going to bring it to the attention of WordPress, where the blog is hosted. While the post that I’ve described here probably does not violate their usage policy, I’m certain that I saw several others that do–ones that, in my mind anyway, provoke violence. To me, this is the difference between free speech and injuring speech that ought be censored. As a journalist, I take this issue very seriously and, again, I think this deserves its own post where I will elaborate in the next few days.
So, while the form of this digital-era white supremacy is thoroughly web-based, so is the response. First, McDuffee identifies the IP address (the unique identifier for each computer) and locates it geographically and institutionally to a suburban Chicago college. He then uses email to contact the president of the college and the software company that runs the blog software. McDuffee smartly invokes the “usage policy” (sometimes called “TOS” for “Terms of Service”) in place at the college. Indeed, most institutions, software platforms, and Internet Service Providers (the company that provides your Internet service) have some sort of TOS that prohibits explicitly racist / antisemitic language that encites hatred or violence. I’m often asked if fighting cyber racism isn’t “impossible” because of “free speech protection” – and the answer is no, it’s not impossible. This sort of hate speech over the Internet is a “TOS” issue, not a free speech issue. However, enforcement of these policies is almost entirely left up to individuals – like McDuffee – to pursue the issue and demand action.
Furthermore, McDuffee deftly uses his blog to document and post the responses from the college president, the blogging software and from the white supremacist in question. McDuffee was understandably horrified by this turn of events, and he was tenacious in his quest for a just resolution. And, his efforts paid off. Within 48-60 hours (approximately 2 days) of the initial discovery, McDuffee posted this:
UPDATE #9: Wheaton College President Duane Litfin emails me (July 17 1:44pm)
The culprit has been found and escorted off campus. More details to follow shortly.
As it turned out, the culprit was neither a student, nor an employee of the college, but was an interloper who had accessed one of several free-to-the-public computers in the college library. He was identified as Merrill Sech, 38, of Westmont, IL. When the campus police and a local Wheaton police confronted him on the college campus to escort him off campus and issue a do not return letter because he violated their computing policy, he assaulted the officers. So, Sech was arrested. According to McDuffee’s FOIA request, Sech also has a history of other criminal offenses and is currently in DuPage County Jail. For more info, there’s also this podcast about the incident. According to McDuffee, the story is still unfolding in various ways, so you’ll want to check his Governmentality blog (or follow him on Twitter @allen_mcduffee) to catch all the updates.
For my purposes here, I want to highlight that in order to effectively fight cyber racism, you need people who are 1) committed to the value of racial equality, 2) web-savvy and 3) willing to take action. McDuffee embodies all these qualities as an individual. On what might be called the structural side, you need laws and policies in place that regard hate speech as unacceptable (as the college did in this case), and officials that are willing to take action against these sorts of violations (as the college president, campus and local police did).
McDuffee’s encounter with this white supremacist illustrates several of the points that I make in Cyber Racism, chiefly that the threat from white supremacy online is less a threat of “recruiting” and more a threat to ideas and values of racial equality. McDuffee’s encounter also illustrates that the political struggle for racial equality is one that requires us to be committed, web-savvy and willing to take action and demand a response from institutions and organizations that may be unwitting perpetrators of white supremacy.