Racism in International Context: Nigerian “Scam Baiters”

As I’ve written about here before, the contours of racism in a global, networked society are changing. Old forms of overt racism now exist alongside emergent new forms of cyber racism.   One of those new forms of cyber racism is the phenomena of white Americans pursuing Nigerian email scammers, a practice known as “scam baiting.”  If you’re not familiar with this practice, there have been a couple of stories in the news recently that shed a some light on this new form of vigilantism.   Here’s a brief description from a recent piece at CNN/Money.com:

These self-described Web vigilantes go after alleged e-mail scammers claiming to be Nigerian princes, U.S. soldiers in Iraq or Chinese businessmen. They say they need your help (i.e. your money) to access fake multi-million dollar accounts or palaces full of gold. Most people recognize these e-mails for what they are and delete them without replying, but enough victims actually fall for these scams to keep them coming. And then there are the scambaiters who answer the e-mails and feign genuine interest in sending money, as a ploy to send the scammers on a wild goose chase.  Mike Sodini, a firearms importer and owner of the Web site ebolamonkeyman.com, says he started scambaiting in 2001, when he worked at an Internet real estate marketing firm that got inundated with scam e-mails. Sodini started writing back out of curiosity “to see how the operation would go” and he said it soon became a hit with his co-workers, who would gather around his computer to read his farcical dialogue. “I started it to make my friends laugh and see what was going on,” he says. “I didn’t have a motive of, ‘Let’s get these guys.”

Sodini and other “scam baiters” like “Rover,” a scam baiter since the 1990s who owns the scambaiting site 419eater.com, get alleged scammers to make fools of themselves by posing in photos and holding signs with offensive statements. He says he would get them to do this by claiming it was “for tax purposes,” which was a ruse, since he never intended to send them money. He says he’d also convince them to make numerous trips to airports and Western Unions, lured by the promise of money packages that never arrived.

These photos are called “trophies” in the parlance of the scam baiters, and in many ways are reminiscent of the photographs of lynchings that were once popular in the U.S.   The radio show This American Life did an episode about the men (yes, they’re all men) who do this. Perhaps not surprisingly, neither the CNN/Money.com report nor the This American Life episode mention race as even a factor at play in, if not an underlying motive for, these transnational vigilantes.  Certainly none of the reporting that’s been done about this to date mentions any similarity with lynching photography.

My colleague at John Jay-CUNY, Dara N. Byrne, is doing some really interesting work on this phenomenon.  Combining the concept of “vigilante” with the digital era, she examines a range of what she calls “digilantism.”    Dara presented a paper called, “Digilante Culture: The Rhetorical Performance of Justice and Punishment on the Wild Wild Web,” at the eastern regional sociology meetings (ESS) in Boston on a panel I helped organize.  Here’s the abstract:

This paper focuses on the rhetorical performance of justice and punishment in digilante culture. Digilantism is the term I use to refer to the growing practice amongst some netizens, mostly based in the United States and the United Kingdom, who mete out extrajudicial punishment to cyber-criminals such as scammers, hackers, and pedophiles. Although digilantism is a growing internet subculture, short of legal research on cyber-crime, little attention has been paid to the rhetorical, cultural, and socio-historical dimension of this widely practiced do-it-yourself form of justice. The paucity of digital media research is particularly surprising given the explosion of popular and scholarly rhetoric on cyber-terrorism, digital surveillance, and internet security and safety. The purpose of my paper then is to address this gap by developing a typology of digilante justice. I focus on responses to real cyber-crimes on a range of sites, including Nigerian 419 and Russian romance scam-baiting sites, pedophile watchdog sites, and texasborderwatch discussion groups.

So, in trying to understand ‘racism in an international context’ as we’ve been doing here this week, one of the things to keep in mind is that the international context has changed with the digital era.  While in the early days of the digital era, there was much speculation by respected sociologists that nation-states would lose control because the Internet, along with globalization, would undermine sovereignty.   More recently, however, other scholars have argued that it is an illusion to think that we are living in a borderless world and that nation-states do still matter very much, despite trends of globalization and the Internet.   The rise of scam baiters and this particular expression of cross-border digilantism – with its echoes of lynching photography – point out one of the ways that old forms of overt racism are re-mixed with new forms of racism in our globally networked society.

Man Arrested for Threats on White Supremacist Website

A man has been arrested for making threats on a white supremacist website against the President and First Lady (via @BlackInformant).  This arrest is good news, in my opinion, although I’m sure that some of first-amendment-absolutists will howl that this is an infringement of free speech.   Here’s the story and the screenshot via the Associated Press:


“A Kentucky man has been arrested and charged with posting a poem threatening President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama on a white supremacist Web site.

The U.S. Secret Service said Johnny Logan Spencer Jr. of Louisville wrote and posted the poem, titled “The Sniper,” on a site called NewSaxon.org.

Special Agent Stephan M. Pazenzia (PAH-zen-zee-ah) said the poem describes a gunman shooting and killing a “tyrant,” later identified as the president.

Spencer is scheduled to appear before U.S. Magistrate Judge Dave Whalin on Friday for a detention hearing. He’s in federal custody charged with making threats against the president and threatening to kill or injure a major candidate for the office of the preside. “

There seems to be some awareness, at least when it comes to the president, that racist language online is not protected speech.   A jury in Roanoke, Virginia recently found white supremacist William A. White guilty on four counts of threatening and intimidation via email and online postings (as well as threats made through older technologies  such as letters and phone calls) to journalists.   When I was finishing my book, I made note of William White for his racist website attacking the young men in Louisiana known as the “Jena 6.”  He had posted a website with their addresses and phone numbers suggesting that (white) people take violent action against them, yet he was not arrested for this.   While I’m glad to see that White is finally getting his just due (he faces up to 35 years in prison for his recent convictions), it seems like a bit of justice delayed.

This is not the typical view in the U.S. of racist speech online.  For the most part, most people believe that anything that’s said online is protected by the First Amendment.    As I noted here back in November, the opinion in the U.S. about racist speech online usually follows along the line of this piece in the AtlanticOnline (a mainstream to left publication).  In the U.S. is that many people here want to argue that the First Amendment, which is designed to protect dissent against the government, protects all manner of racist speech.   This simply isn’t true.

The reality is that there are lots of legal restrictions on speech that apply to speech on the Internet, like threatening the president’s life.  We in the U.S. have to begin to think more critically about our notions of “free speech” in the digital era.

HP Webcam: A Case of Cyber Racism?

In case you’ve missed it, there’s a lot of discussion whirling around the web these days about a HP-designed webcam that seems to read the faces of white people and not the faces of black folks.  Some are accusing HP of racism.  Is this a case of cyber racism? It all got started by this, rather funny, video (2:16):

I have to agree with Angry Black Woman (and cross-posted at Alas, a Blog) ~ I see a case of “privilege and blindness” with regard to race rather than intentional racism.

“Guess I’m a Racist” : Anti-Health Care Ad

In the last day or two, an “unknown political group” has created a video (and loaded YouTube), called “I’m a Racist,” and it’s been getting a lot of attention. The short description posted with the video states ‘We believe the health care system needs to be fixed. However, government intervention is not the answer, nor should we be called racist for not agreeing with Obama’s health plan!’ Fortunately, Rachel Maddow and Melissa Harris-Lacewell, provide a thorough critique in this clip (8:01):

Harris-Lacewell makes an excellent point here when she points out the way the ad reinforces an individualized notion of racism, as a personal trait, rather than an understanding that racism is systemic.

This “Guess I’m a Racist” meme jumped to Twitter and people began updating using the hashtag #youmightbearacist. (Using hashtags (#) on Twitter is just a way for people to have a conversation around a theme, so on an evening when the BET Awards are on, people might use #BET as a hashtag to talk about the awards. But the racism prompted by that hashtag is another story.)

Some of the updates to Twitter with the #youmightbearacist hashtag were meant to be funny and skewer racism, some were not so funny deeply racist. Almost all reinforced the point that Harris-Lacewell makes about the anti-health care ad, which is that they assume that racism resides in an individual rather than operates systematically.

There are a couple of things that are interesting about all this for me. First, the video opposing health care is a fairly slick politlcal ad yet it’s created by an “unknown” political ad. In this way, it’s similar to the cloaked sites that I’ve written about here (and in my recent book, Cyber Racism) in which people disguise authorship of websites in order to conceal a political agenda. This ad is slightly different because it’s being pretty overt about part of their political agenda (opposing health care reform), but because the identity of the group that created the ad is hidden, we don’t know how their stance on this one issue may (or may not) be part of a larger political agenda.

What intrigues me further about this is the convergence and overlap of media. So, the unknown political group releases a video on YouTube exclusively, and the video quickly goes viral and becomes one of the most viewed videos on YouTube. They do not buy air time on television to get their message out, but they don’t have to, because the video gets picked up by Maddow’s show and she airs the video. Then, the meme travels to Twitter, where people both reinforce and resist (sort of) the notion of what it means to be “a racist.” The political battle over race, and the meaning of racism, has moved into the digital era.

Cyber Hate Divide: Contrasting Responses to Hate Online

In the last few days, there have been two stories in the news which highlight the very different approaches to hate online in the U.S. and in the U.K.    The story from here in the U.S. involves a racist image of Michelle Obama (drawn to look like an ape).   The image first appeared online because someone posted it on their blog (the image has since been removed from the blog).  Once the image was online, it quickly appeared at the top of Google’s results when anyone did a Google-image search for “Michelle Obama.”   Whether or not this was a result of a “Google bomb” (an intentional manipulation of Google’s algorithm) or just a fluke, remains the subject of some debate.   Those on the right in the U.S., such as FoxNews, are pointing out that this Google bomb was quickly diffused, unlike Bush’s Google bomb.  For it’s part, Google (the leading search engine company based in California), bought ads warning users about “offensive results” and apologized, yet still claims no responsibility for the images appearing in Google search results.

Mostly, though, opinion in the U.S. about this incident follow along the line of this piece in the AtlanticOnline (a mainstream to left publication).  Derek Thompson writes:

The Internet is unwieldy boundlessness of content, some of which is utterly depraved. But that’s to be expected when you’re talking about the sum of all knowledge and information in the world. Racist images aren’t illegal. And researching examples of racism online isn’t only legal, it’s can also be useful for journalists, social academics and anybody trying to piece together fragments of the zeitgeist. Google isn’t the editor in chief of the internet, it’s a curator. It’s job is to organize and I hope it doesn’t delete or de-index content just because it’s offensive — and especially not because it’s offensive to important people.

And, Thompson is correct in his assessment of the U.S. landscape around these issues.  The bind, of course, is in the line I’ve highlighted in bold there above: Racist images aren’t illegal here in the U.S.  This one fact makes taking other sorts of action difficult, but not impossible.  And, the reason these images are not illegal in the U.S. is that many people here want to argue that the First Amendment, which is designed to protect dissent against the government, protects all manner of racist speech.   Or, in the line of reasoning above, the Internet simply contains too much information for it to be possible to ever regulate it.   But, the right to free speech and being indexed by the search engine Google are two different things.   As one of the commenters after that piece at the AtlanticOnline points out: being on the Internet and being indexed by Google are two different things.  No one has a constitutionally protected right to have their online content indexed by Google.

Let’s take a look at another example from the U.K.    Two men were convicted  for publishing racist hate speech, including “Tales of the Holohoax.”  These postings of online hate were reported to the police in 2004 after concerned citizens saw them.  This action is possible in the U.K. because it is against the law to incite racial hatred either in print or online.  The two men were sentenced under U.K. law to four years and two years in Leeds Crown Court in July, 2009.  The story is back in the news now because the two men are appealing their convictions saying that the websites, which were hosted on servers in the U.S., would be “entirely lawful” here.  And, they’re right.  Effectively poinitng out that the U.S. functions as a haven for hate online.

What’s still unclear is how the courts will rule in this case.

Racism in Virtual Worlds

Two social psychologists from Northwestern University conducted one of the first experimental field studies in a virtual, online world and found racial biases operate in much the same ways that they do in the material, offline world.   The study’s co-investigators are Northwestern’s Paul W. Eastwick, a doctoral student in psychology, and Wendi L. Gardner, associate professor of psychology and member of Northwestern’s Center for Technology and Social Behavior.  The study was conducted in There.com, which is similar to Second Life, and offers users a relatively unstructured online virtual world where people choose avatars – or human-looking graphics – to navigate and interact.

This next bit gets a little technical, so bear with me.

The experiemental study design is referred to as a “door in the face” (DITF) and it works like this:  the experimenter (in this case an avatar) first makes an unreasonably large request to which the responder is expected to say no, followed by a more moderate request.  In the past, researchers have found that people are more likely to comply with the moderate request when it was preceded by the large request than when the moderate request was presented alone, and this held true in the virtual world as well.   In the virtual world, the experiment’s moderate request was: “Would you teleport to Duda Beach with me and let me take a screenshot of you?” In the DITF condition, that request was preceded by a request of the avatar to have screenshots taken in 50 different locations — requiring about two hours of teleporting and traveling.

Still reading?  Good.  What these researchers then did was to vary the skin tone of the avatar making the request, like this:


What’s interesting to note is the way that the skin tone change altered the responses:

In one of the most striking findings, the effect of the DITF technique was significantly reduced when the requesting avatar was dark-toned. The white avatars in the DITF experiment received about a 20 percent increase in compliance with the moderate request; the increase for the dark-toned avatars was 8 percent.

While it may not be surprising to learn that people take their racism with them into these (supposedly) new virtual worlds, this research is still noteworthy both for its innovative methodology and because it challenges the conventional wisdom on two fronts: one that we are living in a post-racial society and that the Internet is an inherently liberatory technology that offers an escape from old hierarchies of oppression.

‘Your Comment Here’: Racism in Online Comments

I’ve written here (and elsewhere) about various forms of cyber racism, including what I’ve called ‘Facebook racism,’ at the popular social networking site.  Now, there’s another form of racism online that’s worth noting: the racism that pours forth in the comments section of many news sources.  Read a news story that in some way, either directly or very indirectly, touches on an issue related to ‘race,’ and then read the comments section.   Almost without exception, the comments sections will be filled with overtly racist remarks from readers.

There’s a recent example of this at the Boston Globe. In a letter to the editor, a reader Heidi Pihl-Buckley, writes in to object to the racist comments posted on the Boston Globe site after an article about the murder of a college student.  She writes:

AFTER READING an article on the fatal stabbing of Jasper Howard, the University of Connecticut football player, I clicked on the online section of readers’ comments. I was so saddened by the hatred and racism that clearly was behind the words people wrote. Talk about blaming the victim.

I am certain that most of the people writing these comments know nothing about this young man. They feel free to write such hateful words as “this is what happens when you take all these undeserving thugs and try to make the world a better place by filling our colleges with them’’ and “colleges are experiencing more diverse problems today.’’ Anyone reading these will see how apparent it is that race is still a huge issue for so many in this country. Another person wrote “get rid of affirmative action,’’ as if that was the cause of this tragic situation.

The story here is the human suffering that this murder has brought to the family and friends as well as every teammate of Jasper Howard. This young man and his team were on top of the world last Saturday evening after celebrating their win. A short time later, lives were forever changed by a senseless crime. If Howard were a white youth from Weston, would there have been the same comments?

Then, adding ironic insult to the original racist comments, the comments following Pihl-Buckley’s letter generate a similar kind of animosity.   The anonymity offered by online spaces provides a kind of anonymity that allows whites to share the ‘backstage’ racism that Feagin & Picca point out in their book, Two-Faced Racism.

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).

Facebook Racism Reaches New Low with Assassination Poll

I’ve written here before about the various permutations of Facebook racism. Over the weekend, it appears that Facebook racism reached a new low with a poll asking “should obama be killed?” Here’s the screen grab from TPM:


The response categories available for those who clicked on the poll to take it were: “yes, maybe, if he cuts my health care, no.”     The good news, if one were looking for it in this story, is that the poll has been removed from Facebook and, according to Greg Sargent at WhoRunsGov, the U.S. Secret Service is investigating.

So much for social media offering a new path to world peace and an end to racism.

The fact this sort of thing appeared on Facebook is connected to the rise in death threats against President Obama (up 400%) and the kind of vitriolic hate speech spewed by radio and tv-talk show hosts such as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Lou Dobbs and Bill O’Reilly.   This sort of speech creates an environment in which extremists are emboldened to act and ‘lone wolf’ assassins feel empowered by the collective hatred of the president.  This kind of speech is rooted in racism and clearly threatens the life of the president.  There can be no first amendment defense for such speech and legal action should be taken against those who created and published this poll.

Fighting Cyber Racism

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.