Cyber Racism: Racist Activists Using the Internet

Christopher Wolf, head of the Anti-Defamation League’s Internet Task Force, has an article on the Internet facilitating racist speech, such as that of James Von Brunn, self-proclaimed white supremacist, anti-Semite, and accused murderer at the Holocaust Museum. Such white supremacists were once

relegated to using the mail to communicate his rage with like-minded haters. The only place for him to have his benighted views applauded was in sporadic clandestine meetings. The Internet changed all that. Like his fellow bigots, Von Brunn found the Internet a boon to his warped causes. His maintained a hate Web site, “Holy Western Empire,” where he touted and provided excerpts from his book that denied the Holocaust and praised Hitler.

Wolf assesses what he sees as the operation of the Internet as a new propaganda machine

not under the central control of a political party or group. It gains its power by being viral in nature. Everyone can be a publisher, even the most vicious anti-Semite. . . . Any hater and propagandist can reach a mass audience, even an audience that didn’t think itself receptive to such hateful ideas. . . . Those who harbor anti-Semitic beliefs are comfortable expressing themselves in cyberspace, where they can provoke a reaction from others or find like-minded individuals to affirm their beliefs.

He makes an important point about the impact this has on people’s sense of anti-Semitism’s normality:

The perniciousness of anti-Semitism on today’s Internet is that the more one sees it, the more one is likely to consider it normal, and acceptable. Good people are numbed by the proliferation, and daunted by the task of responding. Others consider it a reflection of what is acceptable in society.

This is certainly true for other forms of racist thinking and framing. Wolf later adds the usual comment on how the first amendment protects most hate speech, and thus calls only for education as a solution:

The First Amendment protects essentially all hate speech, except that consisting of direct threats against specific people. . . . There is a role for Internet users, for Internet companies and for educators. We should speak up when we see hate sites, explain to our kids what they are seeing, and counter the vicious lies.

He accents education, leaving alone the first amendment issues. Well, there is much more that we can do, such as get rid of this antiquated first amendment argument and join most of the world’s other countries in banning extremist hate speech. There is nothing “political” about most of it, and it is political speech that the first amendment protects. As I pointed out before, other countries often have much more diverse and open political speech, debates, and parties than we do – and they enforce laws against racist hate speech. We are behind and primitive in this area of the law and government policy. We are not the world’s leader in many such legal areas, so why do we insist we are. Ethnocentrism squared?

Wolf is mostly on target here, but he does not probe deeply enough. Our own Jessie has a new book out, Cyber Racism: White Supremacy Online and the New Attack on Civil Rights, that goes much deeper into these Internet issues, showing how they are actually integrally linked to and created by the racist system that predates them by centuries. Technology is not as important here as the reality of systemic racism and a very deep white racial frame in this society. They use technology, technology does not drive them.cyber

In her book and posts here Jessie has pointed out too that these white supremacists are no unsophisticated bumpkins, but know what they are doing and use the Internet well. They also reflect and represent the larger racist society. Jessie makes quite clear in her book and posts that the Internet is not some happy technological reality/future that has managed to be developed only by racially liberal and open-minded folks, and thus is without institutionalized racism.

In a recent post Jessie has gone well beyond Wolf in suggesting the need for action to deal with these new white supremacist developments:

There is also a real danger that ‘mere words’ on extremist websites can harm others in real life …. 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).

Jessie’s book expands on all these ideas, and is by far the best thing out there dealing with systemic racism and the new technologies around the Internet.


  1. I was always confused by crit criticisms of the first amendment. They contend society is racist and therefore we are in need of laws banning “hate speech.”

    Who would be in charge of deciding what constitutes hate speech? White politicians and the white voters who make up the majority. Of course this would change periodically as different interest groups and parties took power. There is a 100% that the law would be perverted to censor politically inconvenient speech from those out of power. How do crits respond to the critique?

  2. Joe

    Josh, those are good questions, but social change on hate speech, mostly for the good, is quite clear in European countries–where controlling of vicious attack hate speech is by no means perfect, but it works pretty well there. And , as I have said numerous times, these countries most have much more diverse political speech, organization, candidates. They are freer, thus, on political speech than we are. Take a look at some European countries like the Germany, the Netherlands, etc.

  3. jwbe

    >They are freer, thus, on political speech than we are. Take a look at some European countries like the Germany, the Netherlands, etc.
    I think this is not a question of being freer, but how citizens practice their democratic rights and how likely they are to think outside the box.
    In America the slogan seems to be “love it or leave it”, in Germany it’s more like “if you don’t like it, change it”.

  4. jwbe

    >They are freer, thus, on political speech than we are. Take a look at some European countries like the Germany,
    I agree and also, on average we Germans aren’t so much concerned about the style. On an anti-racist blog like here I don’t understand why a thread (‘swimmingpool-thread) is closed without discussing this with the participating members. What are you afraid of? Why not talking honestly etc.?
    Why not using something like this as a chance to talk about style, which is considered as offending or so because it is using direct/open words, but letting through your filter those racist posts which are subtly racist and condenscending and now nobody even has a chance to respond.

  5. jwbe

    and in addition, this was I mentioned in the now closed thread about the “code-book”, Nquest could it explain a little bit before the thread was closed, I couldn’t post there anymore today, this would adress also your topic “cyber racism”, the typical responses in the typical white way and even that this thread was closed because of *personal attacks* is typical and unfortunately no surprise.

  6. Thanks for this post, Joe and thanks to those of you who came in commented about this post. Here are a few of my thoughts:
    Josh raises the cyberlibertarian view, which sees white supremacy online as a trivial concern compared to the regulation of white supremacy online, which is seen as a more serious threat. This is to vastly over simplify a complex argument (obviously), but the key to my mind is a response that represents a collective, political response on the part of people who (say they) oppose racism to argue that some speech is just not acceptable, not a top-down, government-bureaucrat-politboro style committee deciding what is acceptable and what is not. This is what I find compelling about the European example where in many countries, people have agreed that to “speech which incites racial hatred or violence” is unacceptable. We haven’t gotten there in the U.S., nowhere near there.
    The other danger with the cyberlibertarian view of free speech, also known as the “absolutist” view, is that it’s not consistent with the reality of U.S. laws that are already in the legal code. So, for example, the “burning cross” (as I mentioned in a previous post) has been ruled by SCOTUS as “not protected speech.” In another widely agreed upon restriction to the absolute right to free speech, it is illegal to threaten to kill or harm someone. Flat-out, against the law. Yet, the decision about whether or not to arrest or prosecute someone for threats made online (directed at an actual person) that are also racist is frequently left to the discretion of individual sheriffs, police, and prosecutors. So, when Bonnie Jouhari, a woman I talk about in my book, was being aggressively harrassed both online and stalked offline by a white supremacist, the local sheriff refused to arrest him citing the WS’s “first amendment rights.” That to me seems like a classic case of ‘the government’ protecting hate speech, which is the current system we have now. I want to see that change.
    jwbe says: In America the slogan seems to be “love it or leave it”, in Germany it’s more like “if you don’t like it, change it”. Yes, very much agree. In terms of the stuff about the other thread, I’ve got a draft of a much longer post responding to all that, but want to let it sit for a couple of days so that cooler heads (and tempers) can prevail.


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