The Web's new tribal warfare

Machine-gun lovers and vegetarians clash online -- and at the end of the rumble, a site lies in ruins.

Published May 26, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Jeff and Sabrina Nelson, founders of the popular vegetarian Web site VegSource, stared at their computer, transfixed and helpless. Page by page, directory by directory, their site was disappearing, dismantled by an unknown online enemy. And there was nothing they could do.

The trouble started on May 21, around 5:30 p.m., when Jeff Nelson lost his connection to the VegSource Web server. Perplexed, he called his technical administrator -- who had just discovered to his own shock that he, too, could no longer control the machine. Next, the front page of the Web site disappeared. Then, with dismaying inexorability, the rest of the site's content began to vanish. Finally, the guts of the server's operating system imploded. To make matters worse, the Nelsons discovered that, for reasons beyond their control, their site hadn't been properly backed up.

VegSource had been destroyed. But by whom?

The Nelsons don't know exactly who assaulted their Web site, and despite the involvement of the FBI and the hard work of their tech admin and ISP, they may never know. But they have a pretty good idea: They believe the culprit is a gun advocate who disapproved of the Nelsons' banning of gun discussions from the message boards at VegSource.

For the three weeks before the attack, the Nelsons and VegSource had fought a running online battle with a group of vociferous pro-gun ideologues intent on disrupting debate at VegSource and harassing the Nelsons. According to the Nelsons, not long after they started deleting what they considered inappropriate posts to their message boards, they began to receive obscene phone calls and threatening e-mail. They saw their own physical address and phone numbers posted to message boards at pro-gun sites, along with threats to send the Nelsons a destructive computer virus. At one site in particular, "Tom Bowers' Politically Incorrect Machine Gun Pages," aka "Subguns," the message board participants reveled in whipping each other into a frenzy of anti-vegetarian and anti-VegSource fervor.

Submachine gun groupies on the warpath against animal-loving vegetarians? At first glance, it looks like just another wacky slice of Net life. And we haven't even begun to discuss the role of talk show host Rosie O'Donnell in all of this. Or the pistol-packing vegans popping out of the Web woodwork. Or the attack on Subguns itself by demented white power racists hailing from a Web site devoted to Adolf Hitler.

But to the Nelsons, the loss of three years of work -- three years of interactively created content generated by an entire community -- isn't in the least bit ludicrous. Instead, it's a depressing indication of where the Web is headed, mid-1999.

As the Web matures, it reflects ever more closely the stresses and shocks that radiate through the offline world --- and its edges seem to sharpen. The VegSource trauma, for example, was a direct outgrowth of the Littleton high school massacre. Increasingly, the Web is where people are turning to voice their outrage and act out their passions in the wake of galvanizing current events.

At the same time, the Web is accelerating the creation of ever more specialized "communities of interest" -- gathering places for more or less like-minded people, united by their love for dairy-free diets or Thompson submachine guns. These communities are fast becoming online tribes. Which means that what happened to VegSource may represent something more than just run-of-the-mill social friction: It could be a sign of burgeoning online tribal warfare.

The two central players in the guns vs. veggies drama, Subguns and VegSource, could hardly seem more different. In one corner, we have a bunch of card-carrying NRA members who like to share pictures of themselves firing lethal weapons. In the other, we find a flood of Gaia-worshippers who flaunt photographs of pet kittens. At Subguns, the regulars ask each other arcane questions about legal restrictions on high-caliber ammunition; at VegSource, the search is on for the perfect recipe for vegan chocolate eclairs (no eggs, please!).

But there are similarities, too. It's not just that passionate gun rights activists and animal-liberation freedom fighters can be capable of nearly identical forms of arrogant intolerance. Or that both Web sites employ the same freely available Web conferencing software on their message boards -- a program that makes anonymous and forged postings fairly easy. Both sites feature numerous topic-oriented message boards where there is little tumult -- but each has at least one board in which political discussion regularly leads to flame wars.

Most significantly, Subguns and VegSource are both excellent examples of one of the most salient recent developments in Web life: they're topic-specific online communities that have settled next to quasi-commercial hubs. Subguns belongs to Tom Bowers, a federally licensed firearms dealer who sells rifle silencers and equipment for modifying semi-automatic weapons. VegSource is a non-profit organization, but it sells ads to support its operation and features numerous links to other commercial, vegetarian-oriented Web sites.

Both sites exploit the Web's greatest strength, its nurturing embrace of niche communities. The Web makes it easy to create a home for any point of view, any particular predilection or prejudice. But the fallout from such niche-ification doesn't have to be friendly: It's just as easy to brew hate as love. Jeff and Sabrina Nelson found that out the hard way in early May.

Last fall, says Jeff Nelson, he and his wife set up a forum in which VegSource regulars could discuss politics. The Clinton impeachment provided the inspiration, says Nelson, and at first the experiment seemed to work well.

"Regulars seemed to have fun sparring with each other over the dealings of Clinton, Starr, Tripp, Lewinsky and the rest of the gang," says Nelson.

On this board, any topic was fair game -- and on the Net, open debate almost inevitably leads to arguments over gun control. According to several regular posters to the VegSource message board, including at least two vegetarian gun-owners who also regularly frequented the Subguns site, the tenor of discussion, while spirited, generally remained within civilized bounds.

But then came the Littleton massacre. Suddenly, says Nelson, "some very disturbed-sounding people began showing up."

Gun-rights enthusiasts are well-known for being vigorous online debaters. But to the Nelsons, it seemed that the newcomers had arrived solely to stir up trouble.

"Someone would ask a question about taking care of their cat," says Sabrina Nelson, "and one of these guys would respond: 'Why don't you shoot your cat and eat it?' That's not the way we want people interacting at VegSource."

"It was bizarre," says Sabrina Nelson, "and totally out of the blue. All sorts of people showing up on the site as though they had been personally attacked by our site, and posting pictures of assault rifles, talking about masturbating, making jokes about killing their neighbor's pets and murdering homosexuals."

The boards at VegSource are moderated -- "it's a family site," says Sabrina Nelson. So the Nelsons began deleting posts they considered particularly obscene or harassing. But as anyone who's been involved in an online "gun thrash" knows, the one thing most likely to drive gun rights activists to a frenzy is limiting their freedom of speech.

Never mind that there is no such thing as a First Amendment right on a privately-owned Web site. The gun advocates responded to the deletion of their posts by posting in ever greater numbers. Soon the Nelsons discovered, from analysis of their site logs, that the invasion of VegSource was actually being coordinated and organized at other, gun-related Web sites -- notably Subguns and another machine gun-friendly Web site, F.J. Vollmer & Company.

A typical message exhorting gun owners to cause trouble at VegSource read as follows: "FUN!! No shit! Go look. You can't use profanity but you can say ugly stuff. FUCK 'EM!!!!"

Finally, Jeff Nelson decided that enough was enough. In an announcement posted on the VegSource political board, he stated: "We've added a new guideline for removing posts and posters from this board. We've decided to ban people who are a-holes and who argue with us when we tell them to drop it. And for those who send us letters saying 'You banned me! You don't believe in freedom of speech!' Well, that just proves that you don't know how to behave yourself, so don't expect any return letter."

Nelson says that the mass deletions resulted in an intensified reaction, including a barrage of obscene phone calls and some physical threats in personal e-mail messages. But after he contacted the police, the Internet service providers of several of the most egregious posters and the owners of Subguns and F.J. Vollmer, the thrash eventually subsided.

If the ruckus had ended there, it might serve simply as a typical example of the kind of crank-infested hot air outbursts that afflict so much online discussion. But then came the direct attack on the Web server -- strongly suggesting that the threats posted at the various pro-gun Web sites (and mostly removed since then) were far from empty.

VegSource is not the only nonprofit site hosted on the server that was assaulted, raising at least the possibility that it might not have been the target of the attack. But there's no question that it was an attack: According to the server's administrator, the assailant took advantage of a known bug in a popular mail-server program that, if carefully exploited, gives an outsider the chance to change the passwords controlling access to the machine -- and then wreak whatever havoc they like.

Even if it wasn't gun advocates who launched the server attack, the pro-gun partisans on the Subguns site certainly saw the "veggies" as their enemy.
What drove them to such rage?

It's all Rosie O'Donnell's fault, says Gary Zimmerman, a regular poster on the Subguns message boards.

On the day following the Littleton massacre, O'Donnell, a longtime proponent of gun control, directed some harsh words at gun owners during her broadcast, stating that only police should be allowed to have guns, and everyone else who owned a gun "should go to prison."

Not long after that, says Zimmerman, gloating anti-gun posts that he says could be traced back to the VegSource message boards began to appear on the pro-gun sites. The gun owners, he says, naturally felt the need to strike back, both at O'Donnell and at VegSource.

Gun advocates are nothing if not insanely organized. In the case of O'Donnell, they targeted a free home page service offered by O'Donnell via her own Web site, a spinoff of Warner Brothers' Acmecity complex. At last count, gun rights activists had created at least 100 "Rosie" pro-gun Web sites, boasting provocative titles such as "Rosie's Second Amendment Right to Keep and Bear Arms Defense Center."

It's not hard to understand why the pro-gun activists mobilized so quickly. If you judge by the high-strung anxiety visible on the message boards, the nationwide tide of anti-gun sentiment set in motion by the Littleton massacre had them running scared. They were rightfully fearful that their gun-owning rights would soon be under sustained attack. So they lashed out -- and Rosie O'Donnell aside, what better venue for antagonism could they find than a site like VegSource?

Sure, the politics of vegetarianism might appear to be light-years removed from the philosophy of gun ownership. But polar opposites attract, says Chris Reynolds, a self-styled vegetarian and supporter of "RKBA" -- "the right to keep and bear arms."

"I think the main reason that the topic was popular on the VegSource site," says Reynolds, "is due to the political polarity of each group. Most pro-RKBA activists are conservative and hunters. Most vegetarian activists are liberal and anti-RKBA -- partly due to an obvious connection with the hunting culture."

Robert Johnson, another Subguns regular, says the uproar at VegSource began as a protest against what the gun owners saw as an unfair, cowardly censoring of unpopular pro-gun political views.

"I don't remember what day I found the vegan site but it was the night before the banning and deleting started," says Johnson. "I saw what I believed to be ignorant views about crime and the average gun owner, so I started two new posts on the board."

Johnson says his posts were unexceptional in tone, but that they were deleted and he was then blocked from posting to the system, along with anyone else who asked why Johnson had been "booted."

Retaliation was in order, says Johnson: "We started searching for ways to get back on their board. Also, by searching their site we were able to find all of the veggies' e-mail addresses, and then someone on [another] board came up with actual addresses of the vegan board owners. This was quite enough information to totally destroy the veg-Nazis' entire existence."

"Many board people started posting what someone should do, could do, and how to do it without getting caught," says Johnson. "It was quite impressive. We stacked up a few hundred posts that night and when the veggies saw what was going on they got the shit scared out of them. After that it got boring."

Jeff Nelson vehemently denies that the vegetarians provoked the Subgun onslaught.

"That is total BS," says Nelson. "We didn't know anything about that site until May 10 when we checked our logs, long after these bozos had shown up on our boards. While some of the pro-gun people on VegSource apparently knew about the Subguns board, those people came over from those sites to us, not the other way around. No one from our site that I know of ever went there, except after the threats were made, to look at the place."

"Any time people have freedom there's a tiny percentage of those who will abuse it," says Tom Bowers, the founder of Subguns.

"Basically, some overzealous individuals took it upon themselves to behave poorly on the Internet," says Jim Keung, Bower's counterpart at F.J. Vollmer. "When you have a medium such as the Internet and are dealing with millions of people, there are going to be actions from those who are less than civilized."

Keung apologized publicly on the VegSource board for the actions of some of the pro-gun posters. As for Bowers, when asked whether it was possible that people who participated in his message boards had organized the destruction of the VegSource server, he first questioned whether the Web server had really been attacked.

"But if indeed that is what happened, then that is totally fucking chicken shit and out of line," says Bowers. "Anybody who would do something like that because somebody disagrees with their opinion is a piece of shit."

Bowers says his Web site offers one utterly unmoderated message board for general discussion of gun-related matters where "you can post any kind of offensive crap." (That message board, which was operational throughout the period during which this article was researched, went offline at almost the exact same time Salon published this article. A note Bowers posted on another message board at his site offers no explanation but says "it's going to be a few days" before the board is back up again.)

"It's a service to the community," he says. "There are very few places where you can go on the Net and put anything you want up there without any form of censorship at all. Unfortunately, because it is unmoderated, it is open to trolls," says Bowers, referring to participants in an online discussion who post comments designed purposely to spark outrage. "We are getting hammered by the Nazis and the Antis [anti-gun advocates]."

Nazis? Few veterans of online discourse would dare contradict the truth of Godwin's Law: the longer an online discussion grows, the more likely it is that a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler will be made. But back in 1990, when Mike Godwin formulated his law, few people (excepting Godwin himself) might have imagined that before the decade was over, actual Nazis would be raiding Web sites on a regular basis.

Perhaps it was just a twisted form of Web karmic retribution that sent the white power nuts from trolling over to Subguns. Certainly there was no shortage of absurd irony to be found in watching the Subgun regulars complain about jerkish behavior by outside invaders. The whole thing could also have been a farce -- an up-to-date version of the infamous attack on the Usenet newsgroup rec.pets.cats by alt.tasteless back in 1993.

Or maybe the most cynical Subgun suspicions are true, and the so-called Nazis are in reality sneaky vegetarians impersonating "white gun owners." In the aftermath of the destruction of the VegSource server, the chaos overrunning the Subguns board -- a welter of forged posts, imposters and anonymous trolls -- obliterated any chance to make sense out of the mess.

You never really know what's going on out there in the uncharted wastelands of the Web, anyway. Hitler, guns and veggies; fakes, frauds and trolls: Life on the Net often seems baroque and bizarre, weirdly unrepresentative of how real life works.

But all too often, online explosions can be traced back to offline catastrophes. A massacre here, an annihilated Web server there -- it's all connected.

And it doesn't paint a pretty picture.
In the utopian vision of virtual community, more communication can only be a good
thing. But maybe more communication
between pissed-off people will just lead to heightened levels of outrage. As
ever more people flood into cyberspace seeking affirmation for their own
world-views, whether twisted or angelic, peaceful coexistence may be a mirage. What if the future of online discourse is one big melee -- nasty, brutish and endless?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Community Gun Control Guns