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Harvard Law School Librarian Discusses Cyberhate

David Goldman, long-time monitor of Internet hate sites, argues that these sites are less important to extremists than is commonly believed.

In the summer of 1995, a Harvard Law School reference librarian named David Goldman put up an Internet page of his own called "Guide to Hate Groups on the Internet."

Early the next year, after some media accounts of his page, Goldman changed the name to "HateWatch" and began to expand. Goldman's site was notable because it provided critical commentary from an antiracist point of view but also included links to most hate sites — a fact that drew some criticism from those who thought the links would help build up hate groups.

But Goldman always stuck to his view that it was better to expose the nature of hate groups than to censor them. This attitude was summed up in HateWatch's motto, from Anglo-American essayist Logan Pearsall Smith: "How it infuriates a bigot, when he is forced to drag out his dark convictions."

On Jan. 16, Goldman, who is now 37 and a librarian at a Boston law firm, finally shut down HateWatch, which he had run almost single-handedly for most of its life. The Intelligence Report interviewed Goldman about what he learned in that time.

INTELLIGENCE REPORT: After six years of monitoring hate sites on the Internet, what's your assessment of the Net's importance to the radical right?

GOLDMAN: When hate groups on the web really started coming to the attention of the public in 1996, the quote that was used most often was, "The Internet is greatest thing to ever happen to hate."

This was because of the low cost of running a web site, because of the immediacy of information on the web, because that information was available 24 hours a day and because the Net is worldwide.

Even [former Klansman] David Duke wrote an article called "The Coming White Revolution" that talked about how the Internet was going to be the tool for the white revolution.

In retrospect, I think we were all a bit naïve. As time went on, it became clear that while the Internet offered extremists certain advantages, it was not going to be this fantasy of goodness that they expected.

It is difficult for any organization to get people to come back and to participate in its web site, and to have a successful web site, you have to create a community of users who do return.

People want to feel that there's a reason to come back to the site, new information or people that they might encounter there. But Klan and neo-Nazi group members simply have not felt these sites were communities, and that's why the hate groups have had a hard time increasing their numbers through their sites.

Extremists also have found that being on the web put them on the public's radar screen in a new way.

IR: And how did that affect them?

GOLDMAN: They were not prepared for the [negative public] reaction, and specifically for the increase in activism among ordinary people that was seen as a result.

These hate sites started coming into moms' and dads' homes now, and one result was they really began to create a new brand of soccer mom activist.

IR: Did improving the look of hate sites help extremists?

GOLDMAN: Around 1998, a lot of these sites began to get extremely high-end graphics, beautiful looking designs with audio and video and all the bells and whistles. Certainly, Ryan Wilson's ALPHA HQ site was the first example of that.

The idea was that if you create this professional image on the web, that will bring people back to your site. But that's simply not the case.

So today, the web sites of these groups act much more as a kind of brochure, a propaganda tool to get people who are already committed all juiced up. I do not think the web site has been a very good tool for recruitment of uninitiated people into extremist groups.

That's hard to quantify, certainly, but one instructive example is [former Klansman] Don Black, the grandfather of these sites. [Black's Stormfront page, which went up in March 1995, was the first major American hate site on the web.] Black has not changed the look or feel of his site in two or three years, and there's a reason for that: It doesn't pay to invest the time and energy.

IR: What about other aspects of the Net, like chat rooms, E-mail lists and discussion groups? Are they more useful to extremists?

GOLDMAN: Number one is E-mail, E-mail, E-mail. E-mail lists are a fantastic way to pull people together because you can talk to one another directly.

And one-to-one E-mail is a powerful tool, particularly when somebody of the stature of a Don Black sends you a personalized E-mail message. So I think what we're seeing now is a return back to older technologies based on text rather than images or graphics.

There are other examples of this. In chat rooms, which are populated mainly by young people, you can swear and use racial epithets with a certain amount of ease, and that helps to support your own stereotypes and racial bigotry. Unlike hate sites, these chat rooms create a sense of immediacy and community.

IR: What effect has the anonymity of the Net had?

GOLDMAN: Unfortunately, it has emboldened anonymous racists to participate. An individual who will probably never join an organized hate group or attend a cross-burning may feel secure attending a virtual cross-burning, or harassing and intimidating somebody because of their race, ethnicity and so on.

The Net allows the anonymizing of a person's race, gender, age and even where the person is. With that anonymity, they can easily harass someone on line, to the point where the victim may really fear that someone out there is trying to kill him or her.

IR: Has the Net's inexpensive communications capabilities helped extremists create a more unified international movement?

GOLDMAN: The Net does make conversations cheaper than before, but it doesn't help bridge different political cultures and concerns. I remember a story about [U.S. neo-Nazi] Tom Metzger going to England to talk to members of [the British neo-Nazi group] Combat 18.

What he saw was a bunch of drunken soccer hooligans, not the committed racist Skinheads he was used to in the United States. In England, they all went to a strip club together and were watching a black woman strip. Combat 18 members were hooting and hollering and thinking it was a great thing.

Metzger was just disgusted. It was an example of very different political cultures.

IR: Does the Internet pose a physical danger to some people?

GOLDMAN: The Internet allows the extremist to put up a dossier on somebody and say, "I'm just printing this because this person is Jewish, this person is subverting white nationalism, and so on. And this is where he lives, here's a map, and if you happen to be in the area why don't you just let him know that he's not doing well by white people?"

That is incredibly intimidating. The concern is not with the person posting the material, but from unknown persons who may be in the area.

IR: Much has been said about the targeting of young people by extremists on the Net. What do you make of this phenomenon?

GOLDMAN: When the [neo-Nazi] World Church of the Creator for Kids page came out, there was a huge amount of press about it. But if I were a kid 9 or 10 years old, would I really want to go to a kid's page? I would want to go to the adult page, to the good stuff, the hard-core stuff.

In fact, I talked to the guy who designed the WCOTC kids' page. [WCOTC leader] Matt Hale had asked him to build that page because he knew that it would play in the media. And it did. WCOTC never did anything with that page, never updated it, and yet the press was able to say that, "WCOTC is targeting your children."

It was excellent PR, a media circus. The far more important way kids get into this movement is through the music.

IR: You're talking about racist white power music.

GOLDMAN: Yes. That's why [neo-Nazi National Alliance leader] William Pierce bought Resistance Records [America's leading distributor of racist music]. Once you start listening, buying CDs, maybe it's time to take that next step and go to one of the concerts.

That's where the next step, actual recruitment, takes place. It's real life, not just logging on to a web site. Now the kid has taken a step in real life.

The irony about Pierce is that his music operation is going to be compromised by Napster or other music-sharing software that allows the free sharing of music.

As a result, all these groups selling racist CDs to finance their operations may find that it becomes a money-losing proposition. The technology [to swap music via the Net] is already there, and stopping it is like trying to put the genie back in the bottle.