Web of hate

Are Internet hate sites "the main culprit" behind the epidemic of hate crimes?

Published October 16, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

The savage killing of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo., is focusing national attention on the rising incidence of hate crimes, and the groups and institutions who may be encouraging them. Experts say the Internet is playing a central role, allowing hate groups to recruit, network and plan events more easily than in pre-Web America. Consider the following:

  • Rev. Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., is using his Web site, www.godhatesfags.com, to organize a picket of Shepard's funeral Friday in Casper. "Fags preach tolerance but practice intimidation," the site proclaims, with a graphic combining a pink triangle with a swastika. Other features include Fag Facts, an encyclopedic list of purported gay sex practices; Fag Churches, a list of which denominations allow gay members, ordain gay clergy and bless gay marriages; and a rundown of the church's media appearances. The church claims more than 300,000 people have visited its site.

  • The same day as Shepard's beating, several newspapers reported an innovative hoax perpetrated by Internet-savvy white supremacists: They purchased 10 Internet domains with addresses that sounded like mainstream newspapers -- www.philadelphiainquirer.com, for instance -- but that actually led unsuspecting readers to the nation's oldest white hate site, Stormfront: The White Nationalist Resource Page. Run by Don Black, an ex-Ku Klux Klan official who married David Duke's ex-wife, Stormfront is probably the most sophisticated hate site, featuring sound, graphics, a White Singles page, a regular column by Duke and multiple links to other hate sites. Black denied responsibility for the hoax.

  • Stormfront recently launched itself as the server for multiple hate sites, including the White Nationalist News Agency, a 2-month-old site that is running stories on Shepard's killing and the reaction to it, as well as regular features on crimes by blacks and Latinos and the progress of hate-crimes legislation around the country. The Agency relies heavily on reprinting news stories from the Associated Press and other mainstream news outlets -- stories that, at least in the case of AP, it is using without authorization. Editor Vincent Breeding says his news site gets about 1,700 hits a day.

"It's a complete change of the battlefield as far as the lunatic fringe is concerned," says Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which monitors hate groups. "We spend about 70 percent of our manpower now monitoring online hate."

To understand the rise in hate crimes, and Internet hate sites, Salon turned to Mark Potok, who edits the Southern Poverty Law Center's annual report tracking the world of hate groups and their Web sites. The SPLC estimates there were 400-plus hate groups operating nationwide last year, up 20 percent from a year earlier, and well over 200 Internet hate sites, up from just one -- Don Black's Stormfront site -- in 1995. There were 8,759 hate crimes reported to the FBI in 1996, compared to 7,947 in 1995 and 5,932 in 1994. And the SPLC says there were 21 gay hate murders in 1996 -- men and women slain, like Matthew Shepard, because of their sexual orientation.

Potok calls Internet hate sites "the main culprit" in the rise of hate groups and hate crimes in America.

How do hate sites contribute to hate crimes?

The Internet does a couple of things for hate groups. First of all, it raises the impact that a single hate-monger can have. Not too many years ago, a single Klansman would have to go to a great deal of effort and spend quite a bit of money and find a sympathetic printer in order to produce a pamphlet that might reach 100 people.

Now the same Klansman, for almost no money, is able to very quickly put up a Web site that has the potential to reach millions. The other thing the Internet does is let haters network easily. Many of these people are on listserv programs, so if something of interest happens in one part of the country, very soon people all over know about it. Or very often sympathizers just see information posted in announcements on other people's Web pages.

How much is homophobia a part of hate Web sites?

It's very much part of them. Anti-homosexuality has spread out from a small number of core hate sites to the point where it's on most neo-Nazi, Christian Identity and even some militia sites. Like abortion, homophobia has become a mainstream issue for the extremist right. There are now people who think that homosexuality is a capital offense, that practicing homosexuals should be punished with death.

Are these hate Web sites sophisticated in technical terms?

There's no question that many of them are spiffy, very slickly presented. Don Black, for instance, is very good with computers. He learned his skills courtesy of American taxpayers, when he was in jail for a planned invasion of Dominica by white supremacists. Then he got out of prison and became a computer consultant in addition to running his Stormfront Web page. He's trying to teach computer skills to the movement.

And some of the sites are very deep: 70 or 80 pages, with all kinds of links. Many of them have very good-looking graphics, and some have video graphics. Many have a lot of memory, which allows you to play white supremacist rock 'n' roll music, for instance.

The white power rock 'n' roll is helpful in recruiting, isn't it?

Yes. The rise of white power rock 'n' roll has been very important to the racist movement. Currently there are more than 50,000 [white power] CDs being sold every year in America. It's extremely violent in its rhetoric and lyrics. The songs call for murdering black people or creating a racial holy war or a whites-only revolution, and they're increasingly being sold to teenagers and people in their early 20s.

You can also sample racist music through the Resistance Records site. There's a racy little number on it right now called "Aryan Love Song." Is this exposure changing the sort of people that hate-mongers reach?

Yes. The racist rock music helps to recruit white middle-class and upper-class kids, which is something that the movement is very interested in doing. It's very attractive to kids, particularly brighter, more affluent kids who are on the Internet. The movement for ages has been interested in getting brighter people into its ranks. It doesn't just want street thugs who can beat up black people in bars. What it's really looking for is its future leaders, its tacticians and strategists who can create a second revolution, as opposed to those who can just beat up a few people. And this is something the Net may really be helping with.

How else are they using sites to recruit?

Some of the sites are specifically designed for young children. The most dramatic example of this is the World Church of the Creator, a neo-Nazi group with a great many chapters which cites the Bible to justify racism and anti-Semitism. In the last several months they've put up a site called Creativity for Kids. It looks for all the world like a "Sesame Street" for haters. It's done in a sort of colored crayon look in script. It takes you a while to understand what it's all about, except that in its introductory page it says: "World Church of the Creator. Kids. Creativity for Children. Purpose. The purpose for making this page is to help the young members of the white race understand our fight."

What do you make of the Internet hoax that led would-be newspaper readers to Don Black's site?

This is new. But it's another example of hate-mongers crashing into the homes of people who would never consciously read their material. It's like what the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan has been doing in at least four areas recently, for example the San Jose, Calif., area. They take free newspapers from boxes, insert Klan literature and then toss the papers onto door stoops or lawns so people open what they think is an advertiser and find something inside advocating violence against blacks. The American Knights have taken responsibility for this. They think it's a very groovy way of reaching people.

By Ros Davidson

Ros Davidson is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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