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.

Racism, Anti-Abortion Terrorists and The Murder of Dr. Tiller

The recent murder of Dr. George Tiller by an anti-abortion terrorist raises some complicated questions about racism and the ways that it is interwoven with issues of gender and sexuality (Creative Commons License photo credit: Steve Rhodes).

Dr. Tiller’s assassination happened on the sixth anniversary of Eric Rudolph’s capture, As one of the leading investigative journalists on the far-right, Sara Robinson, writing at Orcinus notes, and “the date was chosen with a message in mind.” In case you’re not familiar with Rudolph, he was arrested in 2003 for a series of bombings in what envisioned as a guerrilla campaign against globalization (by bombing the Olympic park),  abortion (bombing an abortion clinic) and “the homosexual agenda,” (bombing a lesbian and gay bar), all seen as threats to the male-dominance and white supremacy of the “Army of God” group to which Rudolph belonged.

Like Rudolph, the suspect arrested in Tiller’s murder, Scott Roeder, has ties to a right-wing extremist group, the Sovereign Movement.  I would not be surprised to learn that Roeder had a “shopping list” of targets similar to Rudolph’s.

Yet, it’s far too simplistic to locate racism on only one side of the “pro-choice” vs. “anti-abortion” debate.   As Joe pointed out in a post last year, Planned Parenthood has recently been hoisted on the pitard of its own racism.    This “sting” operation was the work of the anti-abortion movement’s latest spokesperson, Lila Rose, a 20-year-old UCLA undergraduate.

While pro-choice advocates are quick to dismiss such tactics as another salvo in the ongoing war between the extremely polarized sides of the abortion debate, the white-dominated reproductive rights movement in the U.S. should not be let off the hook so easily.    Anti-abortion advocates such as Rose are correct when they point out the racist history of early abortion and reproductive advocates like Margaret Sanger who was, in fact, motivated at least in part by eugenics and a desire to see the “right kind of women” (read: white, middle-class) having children while discouraging the “wrong kind of women” (read: immigrant, poor, non-white) from reproducing.   Anti-abortion advocates are also correct when they call out organizations such as Planned Parenthood for their two-faced racism.   However, to do that without also recognizing the deep ties to white supremacy in the anti-abortion movement, is to put it mildly, disingenuous and suspect.   It seems clear that the effort to call out the racism of Planned Parenthood by the likes of Lila Rose is less about a concern for the reproductive rights of women of color and with it racial justice, and more about advancing the cause of denying women the right to safe, legal abortions through a movement with deep ties to white supremacy.

For extremists like Rudolph and Roeder, threats to white supremacy are intricately linked in their view to threats to male privilege and heterosexuality.  And, the battle in the U.S. over women’s ability to control their own reproductive lives, has, as journalist Michelle Goldberg points out, consequences around the globe:

Before the rise of the religious right, the United States had a long and controversial history of bringing contraception and safe abortion services to the developing world, and encouraging changes in cultural norms and desired family size. This was generally driven less by concern about women’s rights than by terror of overpopulation, which was incredibly intense in the 1960s and 1970s. Since then, women’s rights activists have mostly taken over the structures created by the population controllers, and they’re also doing work that helps women around the world challenge prevailing power arrangements. Partly as a result, conservative and fundamentalist forces accuse feminists of being American imperialists. In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista government cloaked its draconian abortion ban in anti-colonialist rhetoric – even though his policy mirrored that of the hated United States! At the same time, both American conservatives and representatives of the Vatican revel in posing as the staunch defenders of traditional cultures under assault by decadent cosmopolitan elites. They really enjoy turning traditional leftist critiques against liberals.

Here, once again, the religious right is engaging in an old strategy of “turning traditional leftist critiques against liberals.”  This time the issue is racism.     While the ties within the anti-abortion movement to white supremacy are strong and well-documented, those in the movement will try to turn the tables and charge racism against those in the pro-choice movement.    However,  the standard liberal response of “colorblindness” and a lack of a critical race lens forestalls any ability to counter these charges except in the most facile and ineffectual way.      And, the almost all-white, mostly straight and overwhelmingly female composition of the rallies in support of Dr. Tiller speak to the failure to build a transracial and inclusive reproductive rights movement in the U.S.

The assassination of Dr. Tiller by someone with alleged ties to a group that advocates white supremacy, male dominance and heterosexuality as divinely inspired, should remind us all of the importance of working toward a just future across these differences.