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Hate On The Net

The tragic and horrifying events that unfolded on April 20 this year, in Littleton, Colorado – the coldblooded murder of 12 Columbine High School students and a teacher by two fellow students, who subsequently killed themselves – generated both revulsion and soul-searching among millions of Americans.

The Littleton incident was the sixth and worst such school-based "massacre" in less than two years. As the facts began to emerge, much of the analysis, discussion and criticism focused on guns and their easy availability; the responsibilities of parents and teachers in watching for trouble signs amongst an increasingly alienated youth; and the supposedly desensitising effects of video games, violent films and rock lyrics.

Yet soon the media was talking about the killers’ links to the Internet; how their teachers described them as Net experts; and their numerous visits to white supremacist and neo-Nazi web sites, helping them build an arsenal of weapons and military knowledge.

A short time later, 21-year-old student Benjamin Smith went on a three-day shooting spree across Indiana and Illinois, killing two people and wounding half a dozen more. Smith, who turned the gun on himself, belonged to an infamous white power organisation called the World Church of the Creator. The Church is one of the most proactive white supremacist groups on the Net today, with a sophisticated web site which particularly targets the younger generation.

If you believe the scare stories, the Net is a hive of hate, from anti-abortionists promoting hit lists, to an international trade in white power music CDs – and even a British far right with an increasingly active web presence.

Such concerns about online extremism are not new. In January 1985, America’s best-known anti-hate pressure group, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), released a report entitled Computerized Networks of Hate. Years before the Internet became a household word, the report exposed a computerised bulletin board created by and for white supremacists and accessible to anyone with a modem and a home computer.

Aryan Nations, a paramilitary group affiliated with the "Identity Church" pseudo-theological hate movement, sponsored the bulletin board and named it "Aryan Nation Liberty Net." The project was the work of two individuals: Louis Beam, then a Knight of the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nations leader, and George Dietz, the man behind the largest neo-Nazi publishing mill in the United States. Beam went on to join a neo-Nazi group called The Order, which robbed banks and murdered a prominent Jewish radio host, before dissolving in a hail of FBI bullets. His ideas of “leaderless resistance” – the formation of autonomous cells of “Aryan” fighters – have seeped into neo-Nazi ideology around world, partly thanks to the Internet.

Beam’s bulletin board was a forerunner of extremism on the Net. Computerized Networks of Hate detailed five ways the "Aryan Nation Liberty Net" served the white supremacist movement, all of which remain important to extremism on the Internet today. First, the bulletin board was designed to draw young people to the hate movement with appealing propaganda. Second, the network helped stir up hatred against the "enemies" of white supremacy. Third, the bulletin board was a means to make money. Fourth, the system offered the potential for circulating secret, coded messages among extremists, and finally, it bypassed embargoes that nations outside the United States placed on hate literature.

The same month that ADL released Computerized Networks of Hate, white supremacist Stephen Donald (Don) Black was released from prison. While serving just over two years, Black had learned to use computers.

It was Black who would launch Stormfront, the first extremist hate site on the web. "There is the potential here to reach millions," Black said at the time. "I think it's a major breakthrough,” he added. He likened it to having his own TV show, saying: “I don't know if it's the ultimate solution to developing a white rights movement in this country, but it's certainly a significant advance."

Initially, Black could find only a handful of other sites that reflected his anti-Semitic, racist message. Today, hundreds of bigotry-laden sites promoting a variety of philosophies have joined Stormfront on the web.

“The growth of hate on the Net since then has been dramatic,” says Jordan Kessler of the ADL. “Hundreds of hate sites are now available at the click of a finger...these groups use it to spread propaganda, recruit new members, communicate with each other, sell their wares, and threaten their enemies.”

Hate groups approach the web in different ways, depending on the type of group, says Kessler. “For instance, racist skinhead sites tend to focus on brief, graphic information related to music: album reviews, band photos, and downloadable (often MP3) songs. In contrast, Holocaust Deniers [including Britain’s David Irving, a revisionist historian] post thousands of pages of detailed text filled with lies and distortions.”

Though it is not always easy to draw a connection between online speech and violence, extremist groups with histories of violence have extensive web sites. “Words can lead to action,” according to Kessler. “The Williams brothers in California, who are charged with killing a gay couple and are primary suspects in three synagogue arsons, reportedly learned about Christian Identity on the web.”

Additionally, extremists have used the Internet to comment favourably on violent acts. One web site calls John William King, convicted murderer of James Byrd, an "American Hero" and asks readers to "give thanks to God" for King's act. Another site's "Memorial" to a gay murder victim Matthew Shepard claims he "got himself killed" because of his "satanic lifestyle" and "will be in hell for all eternity."

And it’s not just the web that the far right and others target. USENET is popular for posting thousands of off-topic messages, and has been used for years by a wide variety of neo-Nazi and far right sympathisers. Chat rooms on mainstream web sites are often used to proselytise unsuspecting Internet users. Mass, unsolicited email is another popular tool of white supremacists – in effect, spamming for hate. “Haters are using the technology as it develops, just like mainstream web users,” according to Kessler. “The web, USENET, listservs, email, ICQ, IRC and encryption – though how much is difficult to ascertain.”

But such extremism is not simply linked to the US. Stern magazine in Germany recently revealed that young neo-Nazis were pretending to be left-wing or anti-fascist activists on various chat rooms. Using pseudonyms and ‘denouncing’ their far right colleagues, they managed to trick other young activists into parting with their telephone numbers, and from there managed to track down their addresses. One 20-year-old, nicknamed DavidLane after an infamous US member of The Order, is suspected of posting at least two death threats on the Net, offering substantial rewards for the murder of named individuals. Another German neo-Nazi posts his target names and addresses on a US web site to circumvent local laws. Meck88 says: “This is a page where I publish the names, addresses, telephone numbers etc of people who have earned a proper beating. If an activist who is prepared for violence sees this, then he doesn’t need to hesitate in finishing off these people in any way he can.”

German Oi! even offers a page called “The Small Explosives Master”, an extensive programme giving tips on how to fabricate and use explosives. There’s a search facility for different types of explosive and an illustrated guide to making various devices. The homepage was placed on the Net via US provider Geocities.

Although such extremism is illegal on UK sites, UK hate and far right groups are already learning much from their foreign counterparts. The National Socialist Movement (NSM), a hive-off from our most notorious neo-Nazi gang, Combat 18 (C18) already advertises via a US web site. It is linked to some of America’s most notorious neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Several UK members have already been recruited via this site, including those since connected to extreme acts of violence. Others are known to have accessed military information via US web sites, such as Death 2 ZOG (Zionist Occupation Government), which posts bomb-making instructions. The Shropshire-based Order of Nine Angles, one of the world’s most extreme Satanic cults (which advocates assassinations and a ‘culling’ of opponents) has links to the NSM and advertises on the US Satanic Syndicate site. It ran links and posted email addresses to many other groups around the world, until it was exposed by investigative journalists. Another group, calling itself White Action88, said “well done” to the Brixton nailbomber on its front page.

America’s largest neo-Nazi organisation, the National Alliance, has an extensive web site which links to the British National Party (BNP) over here. The BNP’s deputy leader, Cambridge graduate Nick Griffin, has close links to the Alliance’s Professor William Pierce, the man who wrote the infamous Turner Diaries (about a mythical white power uprising around the world) which is alleged to have inspired Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh. Griffin is known to be a keen fan of the Internet, and the party already has three sites offering sales of merchandise, streaming video and numerous press releases and essays.

According to Nick Lowles, of the anti-fascist Searchlight pressure group: “The BNP are politically marginalised in society – they can’t stock their material in libraries and bookshops, for example, nor do they hold many public meetings or rallies any more. So the Net is a perfect way for them to get their message out, in whatever form they want. It makes it more difficult to expose the lies and scaremongering. But if you want to know what they’re really about, just take a look at some of the links they have – you’ll find some of the most extreme neo-Nazi groups in the world up there.”

Extremist sites the world over also specifically target younger individuals. The BNP already has a “Young BNP” site. This latter area is aimed at secondary school pupils, urging young people “to stand up for the rights of your fellow Britons.” It encouraged pupils to put pressure on their teachers to insist the BNP was included in mock European elections which took place at schools across the country. Other hate groups such as the World Church of the Creator, with about 3,000 members, have posted sites filled with simple propaganda devoted specifically to wooing children. Its leader, the self-styled “Reverend” Matt Hale – a 27-year-old who has degrees in music, political science and law – advertises the site as “one of the finest White Power pages on the web”. On the home page is an advert for a White Man’s Bible. As well as links to the children’s site, it also includes the Women’s Frontier, a site devoted to “the White Sisters in the Church worldwide.”

There are other Aryan web sites devoted specifically to women, including a number of white-only dating services. In the UK, too, Sharron Edwards writes on the BNP site, encouraging "less faint-hearted women to stand as candidates" for public office.

The sprawling Oi! and skinhead music scene is another way to target the young – and their pockets. British gangs such as Combat 18 made hundreds of thousands of pounds selling illegal CDs by hand and via PO boxes; now a young British nazi can simply visit an infamous US site such as Resistance Records and pay via a credit card, or download MP3 files from sites such as Skrewdriver and Blood And Honour, named after infamous white power bands and music organisations. Many are devoted to Ian Stewart Donaldson, a near mythical figure in the far right; Donaldson was the British lead singer of Oi! band Skrewdriver and created Blood and Honour (taken over by C18) before dying in a car crash in 1993. The violent US music organisation, the Hammerskins, already has a British chapter proudly boasting its existence from a colourful web page.

Practically and legally, combating this online extremism is enormously difficult. In the US, the First Amendment's protection of free speech shields most extremist propaganda, and ISPs are free to choose whether to house these sites or not. Often the sites simply migrate easily to other ISPs if banned. Organisations such as Hatewatch try and expose such groups for what they are, linking to their sites and interviewing their leaders online. The ADL has even introduced HateFilter, a filter for parents worried about their kids accessing hate groups on the Net. And in February, the Nuremberg Files, a US anti-abortion site which included a ‘hit list’ of doctors who performed abortions, was fined over $100 million by a federal court.

Yet such actions are, according to Jordan Kessler, “a drop in the ocean.” The problem looks only likely to get worse before better.

This story first appeared in The Guardian© 1999

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