Racist Groups Online & Off: What the Research Tells Us

The Southern Poverty Law Center released a report this week about the alarming rise in hate groups in the U.S.   In the year 2010, there were 1,002 hate groups, the first time the number was over 1,000.    The number hate groups in the U.S. has increased every year over the last decade.   Because the rise in hate groups has coincided with the spread of the popular Internet, many people conclude the Internet is the cause of this phenomenon.    For example, one news report on the SPLC data said the following:

“The growing epidemic of hate and extremism on both sides of the political spectrum is being fueled largely by the Internet, which provides a forum for the groups to communicate and spread their message.being fueled largely by the Internet, which provides a forum for the groups to communicate and spread their message.”

It’s not the Internet.    At least, it’s not the Internet-only that’s to blame here.   That’s also not what the SPLC report says.    To see evidence that it’s not the Internet that’s fueling the rise in hate groups, you only need to look further in the SPLC Intelligence Report.  The Patriot and Militia Groups declined from 1996 through 2008, key years in the growth of the Internet. Then, from 2008 to 2010 these groups began to rise again (fuzzy chart from SPLC below, original here).

If the Internet were fueling growth of hate groups across the board, then this bar chart would go up as Internet use increased.   But it doesn’t.  Instead, it dips in the middle, even during a period when Internet growth was growing.

Mainstream news reports also frequently suggest that hate groups are using the Internet to “recruit” new members.  For example, an ABC News Report suggests that a cloaked site I’ve written about here before is:

“a testament to how effectively hate groups have harnessed the power of the digital age to recruit new members, many of them young and vulnerable to such overtures, through Facebook, YouTube and other social networking sites.”

Closely tied to this, is an often repeated line that hate groups use the Internet to “broadcast” their message, as in this passage from a 2008 news item:

“The site broadcasts a virtual newscast based on a real crime that morphs a photo of the black suspects into apes and charges that blacks have lower intelligence than whites. …hate groups are using YouTube, Facebook, online games and virtual worlds such as Second Life to target enemies and gain new recruits.”

The problem with this view of hate groups “broadcasting” and “recruiting” via the Internet is that it misunderstands both how the Internet works and how social movement recruitment works.   The Internet, and especially Web 2.0, works by people seeking out content that they want to find.  It’s different than traditional broadcast media, which is based on a one-to-many model. For example, a television network (like ABC) broadcasts programming to a large, mass audience.  Web 2.0 works on a many-to-many model in which people share content they like with others in their network.   Chris Anderson has written about this shift and refers to it as “the long tail.” People go to the websites of hate groups, for the most part, because they seek out the content there (see Cyber Racism for more on this argument about “recruitment”).   Social movement recruitment is a years long, typically face-to-face process.  The research indicates that the Internet is not an effective mechanism for recruitment.  For example, Ray and Marsh conclude that: “Online recruitment efforts are opportunistic rather than aggressive in nature,” and ineffective (Ray and Marsh, “Recruitment by Extremist Groups on the Internet,” First Monday, 2002).

So does this research suggest that we shouldn’t be concerned about the growth in hate groups?  Not at all.  The fact is hate groups are growing offline, in person, and face-to-face.  The people in these groups then use the Internet to stay connected and reinforce their beliefs and connect with still others who share those beliefs.

What the research tells us that it’s the appeal of the racist groups offline that we need to address.

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.

Racism Flourshing Online

The Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) has released its annual report on “digital1936541974_e6e7ba6c9f terrorism and hate” which finds that racism and antisemitism are flourishing online.  Their report asserts that there has been a 25 percent rise in the past year in the number of “problematic” social networking groups on the Internet (Creative Commons License photo credit: rosefirerising).

In assessing the extent of hate online, the SWC casts a wider net than other monitoring organization (such as the Southern Poverty Law Center or the Anti-Defamation League) to include sites that promote “racial violence, anti-semitism, homophobia, hate music and terrorism.”  And, the report encompasses a variety of forms of online communicatio such as  Web sites, social networking groups, portals, blogs, chat rooms, videos and games that promote hate.

While it’s hard to measure such phenomena with any precision, there are other indications that racism, and other forms of hatred, are flouring online.   For example, there’s been growing attention on the rise of racist groups on social networking sites such as Facebook, where roups with names such as ‘get all the Paki’s out of England’ with hundreds of members, are common.   People in the U.S. take racism online (and off) much less seriously than people in Europe and other industrialized Western nations for a variety of reasons that I discuss at length in Cyber Racism.  Typical of the European attitudes is indicated by a British MP (Labour) Denis MacShane, who told The Daily Telegraph recently:

“The way you defeat extremism, intolerance, prejudice and racism is to atomise it and make people feel that even if they think racist thoughts they can’t say it openly. But websites like Facebook have unfortunately allowed people to come together in one space and say, ‘there are people out there like me’. That is something that worries me greatly. For all the good social networking sites do, they also allow people to express prejudice that in a civilised society should be kept under lock and key.”

Although I certainly agree that racism online is flourishing, I take issue with the way that this typically gets reported.   For instance, this Reuters story about the SWC report that’s being widely quoted in a variety of other news sources, starts this way:

“Militants and hate groups increasingly use social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and YouTube as propaganda tools to recruit new members….” [emphasis added]

Calling what happens with the growth of hate online “recruiting” is to misunderstand the way the Internet works.   People are not recruited into hate groups online any more than paying customers are recruited by sex workers (aka, prostitutes) on Craigslist.    This sort of discourse (“recruit”) is often used alongside words like “lure,” and this is often used when describing the oddly coupled threat of white supremacists and child pornography online.    When reporters and others talk about using the Internet to “recruit” or “lure” unsuspecting innocents online, they misperceive a fundamental feature of the Internet: the search engine.   People go online and search for information.  The reason online racism (and other forms of hate) are flourishing is because lots of people are searching for that sort of content, and a smaller group of people is creating racist content.

If we really want to do something collectively to address the growth of racism online, then we need to address the underlying appeal of racist content by those who create it and those who seek it out.