A recent racist killing spree raises a key question: Can Internet propaganda alone drive some people to criminal violence?
The city of Brockton, Mass. was rocked in January when a 22-year-old woman from the West African archipelago of Cape Verde was raped, shot and wounded in her home. Her sister was shot and killed during the incident, as was a homeless man on the street minutes later. Like the sisters, he was from Cape Verde and was black. Their alleged assailant: a white loner named Keith Luke. He said he was "fighting for a dying race" and "fighting extinction," police said. Luke, 22, had a history of mental illness and reportedly arrived at his racial views purely through repeated visits over a six-month period to racist websites. "Luke told us that people on these sites spoke the truth about the demise of the white race," police wrote in a report. One of the sites investigators say that Luke visited was the white nationalist website Podblanc, which celebrates racially motivated murder, along with "lone wolf" domestic terrorism, and features videos of skinheads in several countries beating to death non-white immigrants.
The effect on viewers of depictions of violence in electronic media has long been debated, of course. When 15-year-old Ronnie Zamora was placed on trial in 1977 for murdering and robbing an elderly neighbor in Miami, his attorney argued that Zamora had been insane from "television intoxication." Zamora was convicted and served nearly 27 years in prison. Zamora's crime occurred before the advent of violent, racist video games and Internet sites, whose content can be far more graphic than anything on television. Indeed, some Internet sites such as Podblanc not only glorify hating and even killing blacks, Jews, Latinos and others — they encourage it. The potential effect that has on young people, in particular, concerns many experts. The American Academy of Pediatrics calls media violence "the single most easily remediable contributing factor" to youth violence. In many countries, including Canada and several European nations, hate speech can be punished with criminal sanctions, but that is not true in the United States, where most speech, even that advocating violence, is protected by the First Amendment.
In separate interviews, the Intelligence Report asked four experts for their take on what the Brockton shootings might explain about hate propaganda and its effects. Elizabeth Englander has a doctoral degree in psychology and is director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts. Randy Blazak has a doctoral degree in sociology, is an associate professor of sociology at Portland State University in Oregon, and wrote Renegade Kids, Suburban Outlaws: From Youth Culture to Delinquency. Phyllis Gerstenfeld has a doctoral degree in social psychology and is a professor at California State University, Stanislaus, where she is the chair of the criminal justice department; she is also the author of a textbook, Hate Crimes: Causes, Controls, and Controversies. Kathleen Blee has a doctorate in sociology, is a sociology professor and department chair at the University of Pittsburgh, and has written and edited several books, including Inside Organized Racism: Women in the Hate Movement.
Can reading violent, racist material online make one more prone to commit a violent act? Or is a person who behaves violently after exposure to this kind of material somebody who already has those propensities?
Elizabeth Englander: I think, actually, it goes both ways. We know the kind of influence that violent material has on people depends on what they bring to the plate. People are not blank slates. This is true of children, and it's true for adults. There are plenty of people who could read these materials and not be particularly affected by them. We know that children are more vulnerable, often, than adults, but not always. A lot of it has to do with issues like how often you're exposed, how much you're exposed, what other problems or issues you're bringing to the table.
Randy Blazak: There's no solid research that links the viewing of violent images with real-world violence. The danger is in people who are already predisposed to racial violence. They may find the validation and justification for criminal behavior within an online peer group of anonymous hatemongers.
Phyllis Gerstenfeld: I suspect very few people would feel violent by what they read on the Internet. What I think happens is somebody who already has a predisposition, it serves as a justification, or maybe an incentive or incitement more than anything else.
Kathleen Blee: One thing we know from studying hate violence on the Internet and other media is that when people have violent or racist ideas, they are often very vague, very amorphous. What the Internet does is get people to focus, to make their racist and violent ideas much more coherent and much more targeted toward particular kinds of people. If you have somebody who is predisposed toward violence or predisposed toward racism, even vaguely, this can really gel [his or her] ideas. They [racist websites] give people a sense that violence is not only possible for somebody to commit, but laudatory.
Does the enormous reach of the Internet provide people with extremist views contact with like-minded others that wouldn't have been possible pre-Internet? And does that contact give them an empowering feeling that they aren't alone, that others share their ideas?
Englander: Absolutely. One of the things they're always looking for is validation, for evidence they're right, that their thinking is not crazy. Without the Internet, without global instant communication, you might have a few people in a community with a very extremist view, but there wouldn't be anybody else who shared their view. They might come to the conclusion that these extremist views are wrong or incorrect or kooky. With the Internet, they can always find others who share their views. Suddenly there is a community that says, "You're not crazy, you're right." That's very powerful.
Blazak: Before the Internet, there was a certain risk involved in attending a Klan rally. You had to worry about both your reputation and your safety. Now, someone, especially a sociopathic personality, can be plugged into a fairly extensive community of racists, most who would never attend a Klan rally. It should also be said that the online racists may also provide an outlet for haters, reducing the actual violence. Instead of acting out, they can go to their chat group and kvetch about the Zionist-controlled world. We have anecdotal cases, like Keith Luke, but it's not enough to make a causal argument.
Gerstenfeld: The Internet creates the illusion of a larger community than really exists. You don't know if that chat room consists of one person or 1,000 people. [But i]t can help justify their beliefs or to underscore their beliefs.
Blee: I think clearly it gives people a sense that there are other like-minded people out there. Without the Internet and chat rooms, these people would not really come into contact with racist activists, and ordinarily would have no idea how to find them.
Keith Luke apparently has a history of mental illness. Do you think persons with certain mental illnesses may be more susceptible to these websites?
Englander: If you have a severe mental illness that leads to delusions, then you could read something on the Internet and say, "That was written to me individually." It's a secret message. This is not to suggest that people who commit hate crimes are necessarily associated with mental illness. I certainly think that many people who commit hate crimes don't fit the criteria for being mentally ill.
Blazak: The overwhelming majority of hate crimes are performed in group settings … a performance to show off for others. In the case of lone actors, there is first of all a mental health issue — what we call antisocial personality disorder, what we used to call a sociopath. The world of hate is a great place for a sociopath because you can do what you want without remorse.
Gerstenfeld: There are several types of mental illness that tend to make people believe in conspiracies, become more paranoid. Like schizophrenia. People who are bipolar sometimes get these paranoid fantasies going. Websites can give them the content to put in there. Then, instead of hating the government or something, they hate immigrants.
Blee: One thing people learn from the Internet is a conspiratorial way of thinking that has characteristics of mental illness. But whether people are mentally ill, I'll leave that to the psychologists.
Is violence and racism on the Internet more problematic than that on TV because there is no Federal Communications Commission to censor content?
Englander: I think the point is that the culture that children grow up in, from movies to gaming to the Internet, is saturated with violent imagery. More than that, saturated with abusiveness, which is sort of a gateway to hate crimes. It's only a step from being abusive to other people to deciding you are superior and they are inferior and you are justified in hating them.
Blazak: The impact of violent and racist images is a hard thing to quantify. It only holds up if you live in a laboratory. There is a desensitization that happens that lessens empathy. Most of us empathize. It [violent, racist imagery] can undermine that empathy. We know that people become immune to the shocking nature of violence if they see repeated violent images. Similarly, people become immune to bigotry with increased exposure. We don't want this stuff to just be the normal background noise of society. People need to respond.
Gerstenfeld: I think it is more problematic, but not because of the FCC. I think it's problematic because, at least in my own experience, people are not used to critically evaluating the information they find on the Internet, especially younger people. They see something and assume that it's true. I think people are less likely to do that with television. A lot of these websites try very hard, at least on the surface, to appear mainstream and reasonable. They underplay their violence. They say, "We just love white people." On the surface, they seem to be concerned about crime and poverty and the economy and that sort of thing.
Blee: I think it is extremely problematic. I'm not saying it [the Internet] should be banned, but it gives people a sense of titillation, some kind of acceptance, some kind of feeling of their own self-importance. My guess is that's particularly true of people who are loners and adolescents.
The Internet and the First Amendment aren't going away. What, if anything, can be done to mitigate the potential harm these websites might cause?
Englander: We're not teaching children how to use this technology. We're just sort of unleashing it. There is a generation gap, and the people in charge of deciding what should be taught don't really understand how central this issue is to the lives of people. I think the only hope is we are going to produce a generation that recognizes that the management and consumption of information is going to be the skill of the future, and nobody is teaching it right now. Education is critical because I don't think the information is going to go away.
Blazak: Young people are pretty skeptical of things, but too many believe what they see just because it's on a computer. There is so much manipulation of facts and images on the Web. For example, a student may be assigned a paper on the Holocaust. If they use the Internet instead of the library, they may end up writing a paper about how the Holocaust never happened. Teaching youth to think about their sources is very important in today's media-based society.
Gerstenfeld: Critical thinking in general is a difficult thing to teach young people. It's a skill a lot of them don't have, especially on the Internet. It's certainly impossible to police the Internet in general. Look at child pornography. It's illegal, but it's still out there. I think a better thing to do is focus on individuals who may be susceptible to messages on the Internet. There are certain profiles of people who are at risk. People who are spending a lot of time on their computers and who don't have a lot of social ties and may have a history of mental illness. He [Keith Luke] sounds like one of them.
Blee: I think that's absolutely right that young people are very uncritical about the Internet. The most important thing to do is to educate people. Not just about the Internet, but about the underlying ideas. Young people are more critical of content if they have another way of understanding what's wrong with that content. I think trying to educate people, especially young people, about racism is important to help them be a better [Internet] consumer.