A growing consensus of experts finds that discussion groups, not Web sites, are where cyber-extremism really flourishes.
For more than five years now, Internet sites promoting racial and ethnic hatred have been in the news. Throughout the Western hemisphere, government officials, parents, educators, human rights groups and many others have loudly warned of the noxious effect of these sites, and many have sought to make them illegal.
And it is true that these sites have had the effect of providing ideology — a kind of moral support — to angry and alienated people looking for an excuse to hate or hurt other human beings. They have brought many who would never have been exposed to neo-Nazism, Klan philosophy or Holocaust denial into a world that has turned out to be attractive to at least some of them.
They may have influenced at least some young people to seek out hate groups in the real world. And they have helped hate groups to sell racist music, propaganda and survivalist hardware.
But in many ways, the real action for extremists on the Internet lies elsewhere. There is a growing consensus of experts who study hate on the Web that the presence of such sites is not nearly as important as another aspect of the Internet — the more private, text-based venues such as E-mail, discussion groups, chat rooms and the like.
While many people will visit a hate site once or twice, even the committed typically want to move on to venues where real discussion takes place.
"Has the Internet been very successful for hate groups for recruitment of card-carrying members into established organizations? The answer is no," says Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates. "But has the Internet helped more alienated young white men focus their anger on scapegoats like Jews or blacks? Yes."
'Community' is the Key
As dot.commers the world over have discovered of late, having a flashy site on the World Wide Web is no guarantee that people will continue to visit your site to buy products — or ideology.
Students of the Net have found that in order to flourish, Web sites must create a sense of community, a feeling that you will find new ideas and people who will engage your mind and interests.
Otherwise, visitors may view a site on one or two occasions, but find little reason for returning regularly.
But while a sense of community is very difficult to engender on static Web sites, it is natural to the lively exchanges that typify Net discussion groups. Chatters engage in direct, unmediated discussions that flesh out their pre-existing views. For those who are not members of hate groups, these venues allow a safe exploration of extremist ideology — one in which no physical commitment is made.
For people who are members, discussion groups have been likened to a virtual cross-burning — a kind of hatefest in which participants reinforce one another's racist views.
"Extremists need to be told that what they do is good and right and true," says David Goldman, an expert who ran the HateWatch.org site until it shut down early this year. "These interactive [discussion] groups, even more than the Web, let them feel hope, like they're participating in a community bigger than themselves."
Expert opinion on these topics is not unanimous. Some believe that Web sites do significantly aid recruiting, and they point to the handful of cases where there is some evidence of this.
Others say the sites have virtually no impact, except perhaps to take people out of active life in the movement and park them at a computer.
The reality is probably somewhere in between, with the sites acting as kinds of brochures to hate groups, but the real energy of the movement found in discussion groups. In fact, some hate sites act as portals, with links to an array of discussion groups.
Behind Closed Doors
Discussion groups are important for a number of reasons, including:
Privacy. Although many lists are open, an increasing number are not, requiring passwords and prior approval by the larger group. For a racist group like the neo-Confederate League of the South (LOS), which poses as a mainstream conservative outfit, this is important. It allows members and even leaders to speak candidly.
"Let us not flinch," LOS President Michael Hill wrote last year on a private list, "when our enemies call us 'racists'; rather, just reply with, 'So, what's your point?'" Hill has not made such remarks publicly.
Persuasion. Discussion groups allow activists to talk personally to potential members who are alienated but not yet convinced racists. "Think about how you convince somebody of a proposition, any proposition," says Goldman. "You have to say, 'Hey, I understand your problems and your concerns. In fact, I have the same ones. Do you understand that these problems come from the blacks, the Jews, et cetera? Why don't you come to a meeting?'"
Anonymity for sympathizers. "It reduces the perceived risk of contacting these groups," says Todd Schroer, a professor at the University of Southern Indiana who studies extremism on the Internet. "If you have to go to a Klan rally or actually write to [groups] to get involved in hate, that's a big barrier to overcome."
Through public discussion groups, the person who may be interested in joining can discuss it thoroughly before committing.
Planning. Groups like the Hammerskin Nation, which puts on several white power music concerts a year, have had consistent trouble with being shut down by antiracist activists. Closed discussion groups or E-mails allow such groups to plan events while minimizing the chances of disruption.
Support. While it's not safe to publicly brag about, say, beating up blacks or gays, there are some people who applaud these actions — even some women who flock to those who carry them out. Discussion groups provide a forum for racists to congratulate one another or urge each other on to violence.
In many ways, these cyber-venues have become the virtual barrooms of the future.
'A Devastating Effect'
These kinds of discussions, especially the ones in closed discussion groups, are important for all of these reasons and more. They also allow the ever more important individual and unconnected activist — the so-called "lone wolf" — to take part in movement debates and even planning without exposing himself.
"The radical right is decentralizing," explains Goldman. "Organized groups are becoming less crucial to the movement, and the lone wolf model is coming forward." Closed e-groups are of particular interest to such people.
Internet Web sites are not going away. On the contrary, they have been growing steadily since Don Black first put up Stormfront in March 1995. But as the movement develops and grows more sophisticated, it seems clear that hate groups and individual propagandists will concentrate on the more private Net venues.
"But it has a devastating effect on the public debate, both in America and worldwide. ... The Internet has allowed the spreading of a conspiracist world view that looks for scapegoats to blame, and ultimately to eliminate."