Is the Internet somehow to blame -- again? The murderous racist rampage by Benjamin Nathaniel Smith last weekend has reopened the question of the role of the Internet in promoting hate -- and even hate crimes -- among impressionable youths.
News reports note that Smith -- who killed two and injured nine before killing himself during a three-day, two-state shooting spree -- was a former member of a white supremacist group that calls itself the World Church of the Creator. The group, which has more than 40 chapters across the country, has built up its membership online, advocating a racial holy war. Its leader, 27-year-old Matt Hale, runs the group from his parents' home in East Peoria, Ill.
According to such monitoring groups as Hatewatch and the Southern Poverty Law Center, the loose-knit organization is among the fastest-growing hate groups in the country, with several hundred active members and thousands more who pay electronic visits to the "church" and its dozens of affiliated Web sites.
There's no evidence directly linking Hale's group to Smith's shooting spree, but critics argue that while its violent anti-Semitic and racist rhetoric is protected by the First Amendment, the World Church of the Creator not only promotes hate but incites violence.
Web sites like the one run by the World Church of the Creator -- usually found at www.creator.org, it has not been accessible during the reporting of this story -- appear to be shaping a new, upscale cadre of white supremacists extending even to tony New England prep schools.
As Don Black, the ex-con and computer whiz who runs the white supremacist Stormfront.org site (which was also inaccessible during the reporting of this story), told USA Weekend on March 28: "We're not trailer-trash people with bad teeth or high school dropouts. We are not illiterate, unsophisticated people." (Black declined to answer e-mail and phone requests for a Salon Technology interview.)
"What the Net does for the [supremacist] movement is amplify its propaganda and recruiting reach," says Mark Potok, the editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Watch. "It's the perfect venue for recruiting middle-class and upper-middle-class young people. They're looking for those kids to build a political movement and a revolution."
For those kids and young adults drawn to these Web sites -- and the people who run them -- the Internet can offer new vistas of hate. But Web surfers aren't turned into hate-mongers overnight.
There was no instant conversion for 16-year-old Alice (not her actual name). She says she grew up in an affluent household; both her parents graduated from Harvard. Today she attends a ritzy Northeastern prep school. But this curious teenager has a worldview that is likely to be radically different from that of many of her classmates.
"I got interested in white heritage, and started searching out sites on the Internet," says Alice, whom I met through a Stormfront mailing list and then interviewed by phone. "From there, I found any number of sites that provided me with solid information about why blacks are inferior. These Web sites led me in directions I couldn't have found otherwise."
Alice speaks analytically and unemotionally on these subjects, seemingly unaware that they might be objectionable to her listener -- yet she's also careful to keep her views hidden from friends and family. She clearly recalls how she arrived at this point in her life: It began four years ago as normal teenage rebellion, when she challenged her parents' views on affirmative action (she was sent to her room for arguing with them). She began wondering about the attention devoted to black history in school, and turned to the Internet to learn more about white history.
Now this college-bound young woman is a regular visitor to anti-Semitic and racist Web sites and discussion forums. Alice points to more than a dozen sites she visits that feature white-power or "white heritage" information, along with private and secure chat rooms for regular users to contact each other.
Some sites use "white power" rock music and high-end designs to pull in Web-savvy kids. For younger children, there are sites that use basic games as a lure -- the World Church of the Creator's "Kids Page" invites kids under age 12 to play word games and crossword puzzles that push the white heritage perspective. Another World Church-related page caters to teenagers, using the slogan "Spread Creativity on the Web!" to promote tenets like "The inferior mud races are our deadly enemies, and the most dangerous of all is the Jewish race. It is our immediate objective to relentlessly expand the White Race, and keep shrinking our enemies."
"I find these sites extremely valid," Alice says of sites that, for instance, compare blacks to monkeys (on a Web page called "Whites & Blacks: 100 Facts and One Lie") or contend that Jews control the world. She regularly visits Stormfront -- with its slogan "White Pride World Wide" -- which features direct or indirect links to some of the more extreme sites on the Net, featuring neo-Nazis, skinheads, bomb-makers and assorted Christian-identity type groups that offer a potent brew of racism, anti-Semitism and skewed Christian fundamentalism.
"I now feel free to think," she says, "and my ideology and thoughts are slowly changing. I'm getting more and more information." But her descent into extremism, one Web link at a time, has been conducted in secret from her friends, classmates, parents and teachers. "I live in an area where these ideas are unacceptable," she says. "You can't go to the library to take out 'The Turner Diaries,'" she says, referring to the racist novel that inspired Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
But she can find "The Turner Diaries" and similar extremist literature -- along with instructions on building bombs -- on the
Web. Recently, she's been flirting with the notion that the Holocaust never happened, after viewing a number of sites that purport to include "evidence" that almost none of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis ever occurred.
Alice puts her white supremacist discoveries simply: "I think it's important that white people reclaim our world."
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Today, according to Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, over 1,400 Web sites spread racist propaganda, promote violence or offer how-to pointers on everything from guns to bomb-making. Once, hate groups were limited to poorly printed flyers and small ads to promote their cause, but now they have a potential worldwide audience. "We're seeing this stuff in the mainstream of our culture," says Cooper. "For racists and bigots, this is a gift they couldn't have invented."
The Web can not only bring people into an extremist orbit but offer them moral support and encouragement as well.
"It's empowering," says the SPLC's Mark Potok. "Instead of isolated pissed-off people who could only shake their firsts at the sky, they can turn on their computer and find eight different listservs with messages for them. They now feel like they're in a movement."
But while the Net may make it easier for groups of all persuasions to spread their word, online free-speech advocates argue that the Net itself can hardly be blamed for educating people in the ways of racism or violence. "Historically, there's been bigotry and hate; it's not an Internet problem, per se, but it shines a big light on it," says Tara Lemmey, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Ultimately, Lemmey says, "more discourse makes a society better" -- but she does advocate that parents monitor their kids' Web time.
Of course, Internet filtering software, like the Anti-Defamation League's HateFilter, which blocks hate sites, can help parents keep their kids away from racism when they're surfing from home. But, just as laws and rules don't keep kids away from porn, alcohol or anything else they're curious about, such measures won't necessarily stop kids from discovering white supremacy or anti-Semitism. As Alice puts it, going online is a personal matter; she usually surfs in the privacy of her bedroom or when her parents aren't around.
Some anti-hate activists want Internet service providers to stop selling Web page space to hate groups or bigots -- in the same way that newspapers refuse ads for hardcore porn -- but concede that isn't likely to happen. In fact, a number of businesses, like WhitePower88.com, have sprung up specifically to host white supremacist sites.
That will keep providing the Alices of the world with what they're looking for on the Web. "What I have found reading these sites," she says, "led me in directions I couldn't have found otherwise."