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.


  1. Jessie Author

    The approach in Germany – and throughout the EU, Canada, Australia – is much more of the idea that rights must be “balanced” against one another. The “right” to speech has to be weighed against the “right” to freedom from hate speech.
    Here in the U.S., people have a kind of knee-jerk absolutist response that’s fostered by the ascendancy of libertarianism and is actually not in line with what the SCOTUS has ruled, for example, in Virgnia v. Black – the burning cross case I linked to above. The reality is that the courts restrict speech *all the time* – but that doesn’t soak in to people’s consciousness for some reason. Included in that, of course, are people like front-line law enforcement personnel who are often the ones to make a judgment call on whether or not certain speech is protected or not.

  2. siss

    The problem with limiting hate speech (oral not written) is the problem of enforcement. It would be very difficult to prove what was said, unless an officer, etc. heard it. It would be a never ending argument of he said she said – without other evidence to the contrary.

  3. Here’s what I don’t get when it comes to this discussion of hate speech on the terrorist acts like yesterday. – Doesn’t the FCC regulate this stuff?
    And in considering all Constitutional rights, why does it seem like most Americans don’t get the “balance” of rights, ie right to speak hate vs my right to be free of it.
    What I think I lost most about the German model is their understanding that words are powerful . . . the pen more mighty than the sword . . . (and another issue I have with conservative Christians who protect hate speech) life and death is in the power of the tongue. What is wrong with America? The truth is if the stuff that’s said about minorities were said about white people, especially male, we’d see all kinds of regulations! -Hence why it’s important to have a judge with empathy and why one would certainly hope a wise Latina would come to a better judgement than a (notice the absense of the word “wise” here) white man without her life experience. You would hope a wise Latina is aware of cultural racism, whereas a white male may or may not be, and you’d especially hope she wouldn’t be an accomplice.
    So anyway. It seems odd to me that the American populace more readily accepts restricting voting rights than controlling speech.

  4. siss – You’re talking about a he said-she said between two ordinary individuals right? Because when it comes to the purveyors of the Limbaughs and Medveds, we have records of what they say.

  5. EricNguyen

    Here’s a link to a Southern Poverty Law Center piece about online racist material containing interviews with various academics:

    Obviously, the second point of your argument – how online hate leads to real-life violence – is possibly the centerpiece in the debate for removing hate speech on the Web and prosecuting the source(s). According to one of the people interviewed, there’s “no solid research that links the viewing of violent images with real-world violence.” It’s reasonable to believe that people who commit violent crimes are predisposed to doing it prior to viewing online hate material, which the academics agree provides some type of justification or validation for criminal behavior.

    There’s no question the Internet allows for large-scale networking for one hate group from one country with another group elsewhere. However, something the academics said that may run counter to the argument that viewing or reading violent material leads to violent behavior is that it allows the white supremicist to read and post on Web sites anonymously, giving them a venue for which to release their thoughts without actually risking their reputation and safety by attending a public KKK meeting, or the like. If so, then it’s possible that the publishing of hate speech online may be limited to the Internet without resulting in very many efficacious instances, aside from the very high-profile criminal cases that receive coverage from the national media. It may be that the connection between recent politically, racially and religiously-motivated murders and the link of these crimes to the accused murderers’ consistent usage of online hate material is enough to pass the interpretation (from the Virginia v. Black article Jessie provided) that the government could pass laws to protect citizens from hate material with the “intent to intimidate,” i.e. burning crosses, which usually leads to violence. I’m curious to hear what others feel about this majority ruling – would posting videos promoting racism YouTube style (Podblanc, for instance) be enough to lead people to committing violent crimes? If it only leads to people acting by posting more racist videos, then I’m not sure if the government could pass laws to remove these while still keeping the element of free speech (which protects the KKK’s “message of shared ideology”).

  6. siss

    Kstate: Even though I don’t always agree with the views or commentary of the far right pundits, I wouldn’t nesscesarly classify what they say as “hate speech”. They are often untactful and ignorant but not hateful.

  7. Victor Ray

    Jessie, this is an excellent posts and you have convinced me to go buy “the book.” I think your comments about the possibility that this kind of online commentary fueling real life crimes is important, and often overlooked by knee-jerk reactions by people who believe in compeletly unregulated speech.

    On a side note, Democray Now is reporting that the FBI has know of this guys writings for a while but never openend a criminal investigation into him. Not that I am a big supporter of (so-called) intelligence services, but I do think that it is apparent that there is a double standard in who the FBI is likely to regard as a terrorist, and given the killings of Dr. Schiller and now this guard, it is apparently not crazy-ass white people.

  8. I just watched the morning news and most of it was about all the killings in Chicago. A few people said it seemed that every day roblems seemed to be solved with a gun now when in the past it was an argument or possibly a fist fight. 26 children have been killed since the 1st of the year in Chicago and with all the police patrolling last night, someone was killed last night and another this morning.So, to answer your question, yes I feel not only the federal government each individual should be as concerned with domestic terrorism as foreign.

  9. Jessie Author

    Just catching up here, interesting discussion everyone.
    siss, yes – enforcement would be difficult but that’s rarely a persuasive reason for not passing legislation.
    No1KState – no, there’s no FCC regulation of hate speech online.
    Eric – thanks for that link, I hadn’t seen that discussion before. Yes, as you suggest, there’s a very complicated relationship between online involvement at a website (of any kind) and offline activity. I explore this in great detail in the book, but the very shortest possible version of it is that real harm in real life happens but it’s rare. That’s little consolation to someone like the widow of that guard who was killed at the Holocaust Museum. Still, I’d reiterate that what I see as an equally important threat is the challenge such speech represents to democracy and civil society. It’s not only a question of ‘are people being harmed.’ It’s also a question of ‘what kind of democracy do we want to have?’
    jwbe, agreeing again with your comment about ‘protecting democracy.’ I think that one of the key ideas that gets left out of that discussion in the U.S. is the notion of ‘equal protection’ (guaranteed by the 14th amendment) which would mean a protection from hate speech.
    Victor, delighted to hear you’re buying a copy! I look forward to your comments. 😉 Yes, there’s quite a tension, isn’t there, between not wanting to encourage further surveillance, on the one hand, and wanting to encourage a greater vigilance against hate speech. There are other things people can do short of government intervention, however. One of the strategies that I highlight in the book is about individual efforts to combat white supremacy online. There are individuals who have worked on their own to get ISP’s and web hosting services to live up to their TOS and stop providing services to hatemongers. “Freedom of speech” doesn’t mean a guaranteed right to services, and most Internet companies have TOS agreements that explicitly state “no racial hatred” or some such. They just don’t usually take action unless other customers complain.

  10. Well, I don’t think that “Freedom of Speech” applies when it targets groups and individuals who have a history of being oppressed by the “protecting” government. Especially when treaties are ignored, apologies never made, and histories of genocide are involved perpetrated by the sources of hate, which are generally members of the “Oppressor” and dominant class. You don’t have a right to degrade or dehumanize an individual or group based on gender, race, religion or sexual orientation. And I can’t think of one individual or group or government that has ever used the cloak of free speech in terms of racial bias or discrimination as a benefit to the targeted class and never has never benefited such classes on any level. These classes have no protections from the Oppressive individuals, why should these individuals benefit from the protections afforded by Free Speech and held to the same criteria that those who have stood for freedom have fought and died for?

  11. Joe

    Well put, Yellowhorse. Oppressive governments write laws to legitimate and protect their oppression, and then insist they get to decide what are the “liberal rights”–and to whom they apply, and how. International Human Rights law today condemns and rejectshate speech–and thus trumps our first amendment if international law (and morality?) is the standard.


  1. Internet Technology and White Supremacy : Asian-Nation : Asian American News, Issues, & Current Events Blog

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