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Fear and Loathing

Returning to a subject he last visited for The Guardian five years ago, author Nick Ryan reveals that extremism is continuing to thrive online

ON A LATE Friday evening two weeks ago, I sat in a radio studio. I had been invited to take part in a talk show discussing the extreme right. The night previously the BBC had put out its programme The Secret Agent, in which an undercover reporter exposed criminality within the far-right British National Party (BNP). Several party members had been arrested and its main bank accounts closed as a result.

Having spent six years travelling among such extremists for my book Homeland, as well as helping to produce the BBC1 drama England Expects, the host was expecting a lively debate.

Just before we went on air, my mobile phone rang. I left it. When I later checked, a familiar voice (belonging to a long-time BNP member) crackled: "Hehe, hear you’re going on the radio? Watch what yer say!" At about the same time, 'mercian_valkyrie' posted a message onto Stormfront, the world's first and probably largest "white nationalist" website and online community:

"Discussion currently on Talksport with Ian Collins," it said, "- he has Nick Ryan, the author of that bilious book about the 'far right' (can't remember what it was called) and 'infiltrator' of the BNP working for [anti-fascist group] Searchlight. Talking about the BNP, saying nasty things about NG [Nick Griffin, BNP leader]. Anyone care to speak to him???"

I had already warned the host that it was likely extremists would adopt such tactics. It dovetailed with a new strategy adopted by groups such as the BNP, after Cambridge-educated Nick Griffin took over its leadership in 1999: get sympathisers to contact media, preferably without revealing their affiliations. And it works.

In April this year I had seen the BBC drama and Guardian Unlimited messageboards flooded with right-wing comments after the airing of England Expects, a gritty social drama about the extreme right. Few posters openly identified themselves. I had received hate email and death threats myself – a German extremist posted to one messageboard that "someone should knife this c**t" – and read wildly inaccurate and often paranoid comments about my work. I had also sat on anarchist and left-wing email lists, aware that a female white supremacist (she and I had swapped contacts years before) was monitoring and passing on every word to her friends. Since I first wrote about online extremism in this paper five years ago, right-wing and other extremists have become increasingly sophisticated in their use of online media.

The scale of the problem has got so bad that international experts met in Paris last month to try and combat the spread of online anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic propaganda. Haters have found the Net a potent tool, spreading fear with such grisly images as the beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002. France last year banned a website responsible for thousands of daily racist messages, one of which claimed responsibility for dousing mosques with paint in the colours of the French flag. The Anti-Defamation League in the USA pointed out how one student on a blog at Brandeis University described playing an Net-based video game against a rival who had nicknamed himself "Jew Killer." Jewish groups have been up in arms at the presence of the site Jewwatch on Google.

"Our responsibility is to underline that by its own characteristics – notably, immediacy and anonymity – the Internet has seduced the networks of intolerance," said French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier in opening remarks at the two-day Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) conference. France, which is spearheading the effort, has faced a surge in anti-Semitic violence in the last two years. Some fault the growth of Internet use among hate groups.

Websites expressing extremist, racist or religious-hate views have shown a huge increase since the start of this year. Sites promoting hate against Americans, Muslims, Jews, homosexuals and African-Americans have increased by 26 percent since this January – almost as much as the 30 percent rise during the whole of 2003, according to web- and mail-filtering firm SurfControl.

Sites offering anything from scholarships to dating services for white supremacists, promoting the murder of homosexuals, offering revisionist versions of September 11 (ironic that neo-nazis as well as militant Islamists love the idea of a "Zionist conspiracy") and other extremist content have grown by about 300 per cent since SurfControl began monitoring the Net in 2000.

Surges have occurred following political or cultural turmoil. The release of the Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ, for example, served as an excuse for some extremist Christians to promote hatred of other religious groups.

Authorities on both sides of the Atlantic have committed themselves to tackling the problem, with the FBI announcing a crackdown and Len Hynds, head of the UK's National Hi-Tech Crime Unit, calling for a zero tolerance approach to "abhorrent websites" of all kinds.

One of the most famous (or infamous) purveyors of this material has been Don Black. He founded and runs Stormfront. We met at a business convention of white supremacists in a Holiday Inn in North Carolina three years ago. I had dinner with him, met his son, marvelled that this tall man in a smart business suit could really be the figure behind such an enterprise. Yet he'd been a former 'Grand Dragon' of the Texas Ku Klux Klan, under Nick Griffin's close friend David Duke (America's leading white supremacist, a KKK leader-turned-politician, just recently released from prison). Black had also served prison time after trying to take part in an invasion of the island state of Dominica. We'd been introduced by the BNP's main fundraiser in America, a man with strong connections to Northern Irish Loyalism. Stormfront was set up in 1995, just one week before Timothy McVeigh's Oklahoma City bomb.

"We had nothing to do with that," claimed Black when we spoke. "Yet some of the American media tried to make much of that, as the Internet was just becoming known at that time to the American public. So Stormfront lended [sic] itself to that. There was even an attempt to suggest we provided bomb-making materials, which we never did."

With his thin-lipped drawl and hesitant manner, Black maintained that his Florida-based Stormfront was simply a "service for white nationalists: we provided information, a discussion forum and we certainly did not advocate illegal violence. Of course being unique, being the only white racialist website [at the time] that generated a great deal of attention from both friends and enemies.”

When I looked at the site the day after the BBC's Secret Agent, there were already comments about a BNP member who had helped the undercover team. One talked of the short-life this person should expect, before the moderator hastily closed down the thread. Hardly the words of those taking part in mainstream politics. Yet the anonymity offered by the Internet suits the fantasy world many of these people so readily inhabit.

Such fantasists can inflict deadly results, as Sally Kincaid and Steve Johnson found out to their cost. The first they knew something was wrong was when their neighbour came running out of her house shouting that their car was on fire. The two Leeds-based teachers were anti-racists who had been active in campaigns against the BNP. Their names, address and car registration details had been posted onto a neo-nazi website called Redwatch. It is a form of hitlist for the far right and well-known with those circles, including among many BNP supporters. Anti-racists, left-wingers, campaigners such as comedian Mark Thomas and others have all been targeted. In Kincaid and Johnson's case, their details had been taken down as they protested outside the City Hall against the former leader of the Young BNP, Mark Collett. Collett was recently seen talking about Redwatch on the Secret Agent programme. Most worrying, the real agenda behind Redwatch is revealed on its secret Yahoo discussion list, monitored by anti-fascist group Searchlight and nicknamed "Mole Intelligence":

"This group will provide those activists with up-to-date information on RED TARGETS...now's the time to start a proper campaign of violence and intimidation towards those who seek us silenced." The group operates under the auspices of Combat 18, a violent neo-nazi gang whom I met at the very beginnings of my journey into the extreme right (which also promotes the site Skrewdriver.net). A growing number of politicians, trades unionists and members of the House of Lords have now called for the people behind Redwatch to be prosecuted.

The very 'internationalising' nature of the Net has assisted many groups, too. Just take a look at the BNP website, for example. It bears a crude similarity to that of the Mouvement National Républicain (MNR). The MNR is an offshoot of France's notorious Front National, led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, and to whom almost all European far-right extremists pay some form of homage.

However, while the increase in such sites may seem astronomical, at least part of the rise can be attributed to an overall rise in Internet subscribers: in the fourth quarter of 2003, 12.1 million UK households could access the internet from home, compared to 2.2 million in the same quarter of 1998.

"Back when Stormfront launched the Net seemed to present huge opportunities for propaganda, raising money, selling merchandise in the white supremacist world," says Mark Potok, an expert in the extreme right and director of the Intelligence Project, part of the US civil rights organisation, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

In the 1990s the number of sites exploded, he explains, then began to slow down towards the end of the decade. They now grow roughly at the same size as Internet usage overall. For Potok, hate sites are actually "brochures" – much of the real information is swapped behind the scenes on encrypted email or closed membership email lists. Many of these are watched by the SPLC and occasionally exposed (a famous case involved the exposure of a Confederate heritage group as infiltrated by white supremacists). Shortwave radio is also very popular among white supremacists in the US but "recruiting happens face-to-face, not electronically," argues Potok.

However, the advent of MP3 and the online music scene provided a huge boost and reach for white power bands and their backers to a nascent – and rebellious – teenage audience. There have been a whole spate of ethnic cleansing PC games, too, and much propaganda aimed at converting the potential US college kid.

"You've got to remember, too, that in the 1970s and '80s the average white supremacist was isolated, shaking his fist at the sky in his front room. The Net changed that. That person can now wake up, go to their computer and read a huge number of messages, newspaper headlines and whole array of listings and information from across the country," says Potok. Suddenly the fantasists belonged. Many white power fanatics even set themselves up with their own servers, becoming hosts to other sites (as Stormfront has done).

As for now, the world remains divided over how to tackle the spread of hate online. Groups like Searchlight and the SPLC have set up anti-hate or tolerance sites of their own (StoptheBNP.com, for example). Many sites and servers lie offshore or protected by freedom of speech regulations.

At the recent OSCE conference, Assistant Attorney General Dan Bryant acknowledged that the American approach differed from that of other countries. The best way to reduce hate speech was to confront it, he said, by promoting tolerance, understanding and other ideas that enlighten. Robert Badinter, a former French justice minister, said that of 4,000 "racist sites" counted worldwide in 2002, some 2,500 were based in the United States.

For now the problem is large – and growing. Those who complain often find themselves unwelcome additions to places such as Redwatch. So for the moment the haters still have their day.

A version of this story first appeared in The Guardian newspaper© 2004

To read Nick Ryan's original article which inspired this piece, please visit Hate on the Net

You can buy this article, and seek new commissions, either by contacting me direct or my syndication agency, www.featurewell.com

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