Contexts Podcast: Cyber Racism

The good folks at Contexts asked me to an interview for their podcast series a few weeks back about my new book, Cyber Racism, and now it’s available online, here.  The description from their website about the podcast:

Cyber Racism is about white supremacist groups online, and Daniels tells us how white supremacy online is important for how we think about education, free speech and multiculturalism.

If you’ve missed any of the discussion I (or Joe) have posted here about cyber racism, this provides a good introduction.  There’s a little bit at the end about the work Joe and I do here on the blog.  One small correction, the scholar I refer to in the piece who developed the phrase “translocal whiteness” is Les Back (I mangled his name).

Cloaked Sites Key to Right-Wing Propaganda

I’ve got to give credit where credit is due and this week it goes to Rachel Maddow – who’s been doing a terrific job with her investigations into the right-wing propaganda machine.  On her show last night, she featured a devastating critique of Richard Berman, a Republican political operative profiled by CBS’s 60 Minutes as “Dr. Evil” for his willingness, even enthusiasm, for taking on politically regressive causes.  He’s the one behind the most recent attacks on ACORN, an organization that mostly does things like advocate for poor black and brown people, get poor people registered to vote, and lobby for raising the minimum wage.  Apparently, rich white people – like the ones that hire Berman – are very upset by this sort of activity.

Also featured in this segment is Peter Dreier, a professor of political science at Occidental College, who has a new research which demonstrates the way that the mainstream media bought into the lies that Berman put forward and missed getting out the accurate story about ACORN, including one finding that about 80% of news stories failed to report that ACORN itself was the group that reported irregularities in voting registration in the first place.

The part of this story that I wanted to call attention to is the bit about the websites that are key part of Berman’s strategy.   Maddow refers to them as “grass roots-ish” which is cute, but I’d like to respectfully suggest that she call these cloaked sites. Cloaked websites are published by individuals or groups who conceal authorship in order to deliberately disguise a hidden political agenda. In this way, these sites are similar to previous versions of print media propaganda, such as “black,” “white” and “grey” propaganda. In my latest book, Cyber Racism, I write extensively about how racist groups are using cloaked websites to further their goals to subvert civil rights and affirm white supremacy in covert ways.  I also write about the range of political movements that use cloaked websites in a recent article, “Cloaked websites: propaganda, cyber-racism and epistemology in the digital era,”  in the journal New Media & Society. While not the exclusive purview of the right-wing, it does seem that the right is amplifying their use of this technique.

Cloaked sites are a key piece of the propaganda machine that Berman is operating, and they’re incredibly hard-to-detect and perniciously effective according to my research.     According to this site which seeks to expose Berman, he has been the force behind dozens of cloaked sites, including “” and anti-ACORN site that disguises the real authorship behind something called “Employment Policies Institute” which is a front group that Berman runs.   Maddow mentions a couple of others, such as “” (with very similar graphics to the previous site) an anti-labor union site, again with the true authorship disguised in order to advance a hidden political agenda.   And, “” a cloaked pro-fishing-industry site that disguises its authorship and corporate agenda.  In my study of how young people made sense of cloaked white supremacist sites, I found that most of the 15-19 year-olds I interviewed as they surfed the web could not easily tell they were white supremacist sites.  It seems very likely that most of those people who visited the cloaked sites that Berman created were fooled as well.

What difference does it make?    Well, it makes a difference in a lot of ways.  If you’re someone like me who is in the classroom, then you’re going to have to deal with students bringing arguments found on cloaked websites into the classroom.   This happens to me frequently and just happened to a friend and colleague of mine the other day.  In a discussion on “racial profiling,” a student in my colleague’s class brought up a report called “The Color of Crime,” which concludes that black people are inherently more dangerous than white people, published by Jared Taylor of the New Century Foundation, a white supremacist organization.   In a recent class of mine, a student did a presentation on “post-abortion syndrome,” not a medically recognized condition – as the student believed – but a rhetorical strategy of the pro-life movement.  She had found information about this supposed “syndrome” on a cloaked pro-life site called “”

Cloaked sites, websites that look legitimate yet disguise a political agenda, are like the Trojan Horses of the digital era.   These sorts of sites make it possible to smuggle in ideas into current debate that have been discredited, and allow right-wing political operatives to undermine organizations, like ACORN, which are doing hard work on behalf of impoverished people of color.    Fighting back takes much more sophisticated critical thinking about the information we find online and good, investigative reporting, like Rachel Maddow’s on this topic.

Here’s the clip from the show in case you missed it:

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The Internet Angle: Cyber Racism and Domestic Terrorism

ValueIn 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 (Creative Commons License 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.

Cloaked MLK Website Draws Millions This Time of Year

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 “” 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.

Cloaked Website Blames Hispanic Group for California Wildfires

(This is a reblog from Thinking at the Interface.)

Linda Beyerstein at Majikthise (and via Alternet) and Katherine Zeleski at The Huffington Post are bringing attention to a website that they are referring to as a “hoax” site, but that I would argue is a “cloaked” site. And, I would argue that this is one of the prime examples of why the term “hoax” is inadequate and less accurate than “cloaked.” Let me explain the story in question and then make I’ll make my case for the term “cloaked.” Here’s the story, first reported by Zeleski (Oct.26):

At first look, “Separatists Claim Responsibility For California Wildfires” appears to be like any other story on The article claims that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger confirmed a radical Hispanic organization has taken responsibility for the fires that raged through southern California this week. The article even says there’s photographic proof “of individuals holding Molotov cocktails, then throwing them into dry brush.”

After the initial shock of the report, it then becomes obvious that it’s a hoax. To start with, the site’s URL is (note the headlie instead of headline). CNN’s url is and the url for its sister network, Headline News, is

Anti-immigrant websites picked up on the story and ran it as fact (follow this url). Before realizing it was a hoax, the author of the site “Americanandproud” declared, “I am going to wait until all the facts are in, but it appears the first major shot of the next Mexican/American war has just been fired.”

A domain name search for “cnnheadlienews” shows the site is registered to a company with a Nashville, Tennessee address called Bleachboy Heavy Manufacturing Concern. The website associated with Bleachboy,, is a homepage that cycles through four different logos. There’s no other information on the site except for a warning on sweatshop products, a note that says “thank you for the traffic,” and the ever-banal phrase, “spring is in the air.”

While this story, like Beyerstein’s, is useful for tipping off the unsuspecting to the disguised URL and the untruth of the story there, by calling it a “hoax” it relegates it to the universe of “fake news” and “truthiness” created by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and misses the hidden political agenda of such a site. As I’ve defined it, a cloaked website is:

“published by individuals or groups who conceal authorship in order to deliberately disguise a hidden political agenda.”

Although it’s not clear who the owner of “Bleachboy” and the fake “cnn” site, by choosing to target MECHA, a Hispanic group, I would argue that the creators of the site had a hidden white supremacist agenda. Using the term “hoax” doesn’t adequately describe this kind of deception, and therefore I think “cloaked” is a better, more accurate term.

These kinds of sites are even more disturbing when you look at them in light of some of the cognitive research on how people remember (or misremember) facts. Researchers found that false claims, if repeated, are remembered as true. (While there is some difference in this by age, the overall pattern seems to hold up.) This has tremendous implications for studying cloaked sites such as this one that publish false claims that are then repeated through the reverb chamber that is the blogosphere.