The Internet, it seems, literally drives some people crazy.
In the Southern Medical Journal, we read that the Net has become a popular focus among paranoid delusional psychotics: Where once it was scheming Communists or CIA dirty tricks that obsessed these poor souls, now it is the Internet that is controlling their brains. As a psychiatrist told Wired News, "Whenever there's something in the news, a lot of the psychotic patients will incorporate it in their delusions."
In that same article, researchers pointed out that the affected patients typically got their information about the Net from television: In other words, they're responding to media caricatures of the Internet rather than direct experience. (Direct experience would teach them that, far from controlling anyone's mind, the Internet is fundamentally out of anyone's control; spend an hour trying to hook a new computer up to the Net and you are unlikely to see it as a source of orders, magical power or anything other than frustration.)
These delusions are so cartoonish that it's easy to dismiss them and recognize them as the malady they are. But the notion that the Internet has a peculiar hold on people, that it casts strong spells on our minds, isn't confined to the mentally ill. It drives a lot of the assumptions people make in the debate over hate sites on the Web, rekindled this week by Benjamin Nathaniel Smith's murders.
In case you've somehow missed the media onslaught, Smith belonged to a white-supremacist group, the World Church of the Creator, that propagates its loathsome views on a variety of Web sites. This "church" and similar groups are using the Web to post their propaganda to the world and to entice the curious and the gullible to adopt their perspective.
It's a sign of progress in the media's relationship to the Net from the days of the Heaven's Gate suicides that, so far at least, we haven't been subject to a barrage of stories asking, in essence, whether the Web made Smith do it. Enough members of the media and enough of its audience now have their own direct experience of the Web; any suggestion that it can "make" people do anything sounds, well, crazy.
But there's also a subtler version of "The Web made him do it" lurking in the hate-sites debate. Every time a crime like Smith's hauls the hitherto marginalized and under-visited Web site of some bigoted group like the World Church of the Creator into the spotlight, well-meaning and thoughtful people understandably react with, "Let's pull the plug on these creeps!"
Shutting down Web sites that publish idiotic racist and anti-Semitic ideas might give people a sense of having struck a blow for sanity. But it's not very practical: Close down one Web site and another five spring up. And it tends to backfire, giving racists a chance to pose as martyrs in the cause of free speech.
At bottom, the "pull the plug" response is fueled by people's fear that if hate-filled racists receive any kind of public hearing, they will convert listeners to their views. Under this pessimistic vision of human nature, we are all fragile vessels of good sense, just waiting to be shattered by the first loud-voiced goon.
Optimists -- I'm among them -- aren't so quick to assume that people's brains will roll over and play dead at first contact with the poisonous content of hate sites.
Conveniently, you can read the entire text of what is still, after a century and a half, the most persuasive and valuable study of these issues -- John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty" -- on the Web. In Mill's argument for the free play of ideas, the best way for society to arrive at the truth is to have its dogmas and beliefs "vigorously and earnestly contested"; good ideas will survive and be sharpened, while bad ones won't make the cut.
Mill would have welcomed the way the Web exposes racist propaganda, giving the rest of us a chance to see it for what it is and respond to it. Sure enough, the Web now hosts an impressive array of sites that are dedicated to countering racism and exposing hate sites -- from the Anti-Defamation League to HateWatch to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
These sites are professional, well-organized and full of valuable information: The SPLC offers 'Ten Ways to Fight Hate"; the ADL offers a useful review of the law surrounding hate speech online. If good speech drives out bad, then this is the good speech about this subject on the Web.
Nothing you read on these sites, of course, does anything to make what you'll find on sites like the World Church of the Creator's any more palatable: It's easy to get paranoid about such material even if you're not delusional. But it's important to keep them in perspective: When news reports talk about how "thousands" of hate sites now reach "millions" of people on the Web, you need to keep in mind that there are not thousands of Nazi Yahoos out there. These sites range from a number of ambitious operations to a large number of barren home pages on free services. And their "millions" of visitors are, in virtually every case, potential. You and I can visit these sites, but we don't -- not, at least, until they hit the headlines.
The most substantial fear about racists on the Net is that they will use the network's power to find and organize like-minded people in some clandestine way. But the more clandestine their online activities are, the less useful they'll be for rounding up new recruits. This is the paradox that undercuts our most awful fears about hate-mongering online: If the racists don't go public, they can't grow their ranks, but if they do go public, they incite more opposition than support.
As the quote that serves as epigraph to the HateWatch Web site puts it, "How it infuriates a bigot when he is forced to drag out his dark convictions." The Web actually promotes that "dragging out."
Of course, there will be individual cases in which a hate site message finds a receptive hearing. In the end, though, I don't believe that the Web has much to do with them: The stuff on these sites is typically so loony that you couldn't be enticed by it unless you were predisposed in some way to accept it.
In other words: The Web didn't make anyone do it. It doesn't turn people into racists. People who fall for hate sites were already open to hate, whether it appeared on a computer screen, in a leaflet or on a library shelf. If we knew exactly why, we might have a key to finally uprooting these pernicious ideas from our society. But the reasons, alas, are probably as varied as the individuals.