Film critic Roger Ebert gave a thumbs down to online efforts to expose bigotry on the Web Wednesday in a debate with the founder of Hatewatch. Hate-monitoring sites, which link to racist, anti-semitic and homophobic sites, give bigots a "virtual supermarket" of online hate tools, Ebert said at this week's Conference on World Affairs, an annual intellectual talkfest at the University of Colorado in Boulder. "If I were somebody looking for hate on the Web, this would be a good place to start," Ebert said of Hatewatch.
During Wednesday's debate with Hatewatch founder David Goldman, Ebert said he doesn't believe violence directly results from either film or Internet images: "Lee Harvey Oswald didn't have a Web site," he said. Yet it is ill-advised, he argued, to provide hate-seekers an online roadmap to the sites. "It's very easy to find it on the Web, but I don't know that we should make it any easier."
Goldman countered that "anecdotal evidence" shows that thousands of people, from parents to FBI agents, use sites like Hatewatch as an educational resource. "There is no evidence that linking into a hate site either encourages or exacerbates the situation," he told Ebert.
The snippety-yet-thoughtful feud between the two men started in October 1999 when Ebert wrote in his "Public Eye" column for Yahoo Internet Life that the media is exaggerating the power of hate sites. "My best guess is that Nazis on the Net are at least a thousand times less popular than porn," he wrote. "The situation is further clouded because groups opposed to hate sites have a vested interest in exaggerating their popularity."
Goldman, a Harvard law librarian who founded Hatewatch in 1996, fired back a response to what he called Ebert's "snide comment," defending sites like Hatewatch that take the tactic that bigotry should be exposed, not hidden in a closet. "[T]heir threat is not imaginary but very real," Goldman wrote in a letter to the editor of Yahoo Internet Life. The debate continued in an e-mail exchange, which Goldman provided to Salon.
A concerned Ebert wrote: "Why in God's name do you list the URLs of all those hate sites, carefully categorized by country, area of hate, etc.? A racist will find no handier all-in-one source." He advised Goldman that "a little soul-searching is in order. "[T]he most effective thing you could do to combat hate on the Web would be to take down your page. Since a normal person would have no desire to visit any of these sites, who are the URLs being used by?"
Goldman responded that Ebert was "confusing quantity with influence" and emphasized that many bigots, such as Matt Hale of the World Church of the Creator, use their sites to recruit, organize and propagandize. Normal people indeed use sites such as Hatewatch, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center to try to understand where racist evils lurk, Goldman told Ebert. He said, "hundreds, yes hundreds" of concerned citizens use Hatewatch every week to "read in the bigots' own words what their mindset is, what they believe and perhaps what they wish to accomplish."
During Wednesday's debate, Ebert was openly skeptical, saying that it was impossible to determine any Internet user's true motives. He said his own tour of Hatewatch linked him to anti-Arab sites, skinhead propaganda and Holocaust-denial sites and even streaming video of women being raped. Visitors who don't have the software, but want to see the video can download the player right on the site, he added. "[Hatewatch] is extremely well designed," Ebert told the audience. "I hope he is right that it doesn't promote these sites."