Six years ago, I declared in an article for a Yale University magazine called the New Journal that "the Internet may be the best thing that has ever happened to help the struggle to spread the word of white power."
I concluded the article by referring readers to a then recently created Web site called Hatewatch, a watchdog site that indexed and linked to hate groups on the Internet in order to expose them, while also linking to sites devoted to debunking hate propaganda. Citing a statement by essayist Logan Pearsall Smith -- "How it infuriates a bigot when he is forced to drag out his dark convictions" -- Hatewatch operated on the principle that the best way to combat hate was to expose it for what it was, to fight hate speech with more speech.
So I was shocked last month to read that Hatewatch was shutting its doors. First started in 1995 by a Harvard Law School librarian named David Goldman, Hatewatch was the first major site to track online hate groups -- the neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Holocaust deniers, Klansmen, black nationalists and gay bashers who saw the Internet as their chance to spread their messages to the world. It attracted incredible media coverage, helped to focus public attention, provided a reference for law enforcement and attracted 1 million visitors a year.
But Goldman thinks that Hatewatch has done its job. "We have succeeded in fulfilling the mission we set for ourselves," he wrote in a farewell message posted on the site. After six years of heading the volunteer-run organization, Goldman was ready to move on. Bolstered by news that hate sites simply weren't proving to be such powerful recruitment tools as many had feared and by indications from other anti-hate organizations that the prognosis wasn't as dire as once believed, Hatewatch's founder argued that while hate groups once flourished in the shadows, they simply couldn't thrive under the bright lights of the Internet:
From the beginning, these organizations' self-proclaimed desire to create a digital "white revolution" was carefully monitored and documented by civil rights organizations, Hatewatch among them. The standard and often repeated quote was that the "Internet is the greatest thing to happen to hate." Much to our joy it has in fact been one of the worst.
Goldman says the slumping Internet economy was not a factor in the decision to shut down Hatewatch. Although Hatewatch was a registered nonprofit agency, it got scant funding. At the same time, it required very little money to run. Hatewatch benefited from the efforts of hundreds of unpaid volunteers every month, and Goldman and the four other employees never drew a salary. It was simply time to pass the torch.
"I felt as if I needed to step back from the material itself -- and, hopefully, for people to see the vacuum that was left by Hatewatch to step into that. I'm not a professional civil rights activist. I'm a librarian by trade."
Goldman's decision to shut down Hatewatch was roundly criticized by other anti-hate organizations, like the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. If hate sites had turned out to be less threatening than expected, wasn't that due, in large part, to the efforts of sites like Hatewatch? A closer look at how hate groups use the Internet suggests that, if anything, Hatewatch was due for an expansion.
Hatewatch has always been controversial. Film critic Roger Ebert famously attacked it, and debated Goldman at the Conference on World Affairs. By linking to hate sites, Ebert argued, Hatewatch gave free publicity to haters, providing a "virtual supermarket" of hate tools for bigots of all stripes. While other sites, like the ADL's, flagged the lies and distortions on hate sites, Hatewatch merely provided links to sites -- where the groups could describe themselves however they wanted.
Still, Hatewatch was an effective tracking tool. If the Internet was going to turn small, isolated groups into a large, organized movement, Hatewatch was going to ensure that such an expansion took place in the open. And it succeeded in that goal, drawing thousands of visitors a day and extensive media coverage.
But Hatewatch's success was limited by its own design. In fact, Hatewatch was based on a number of largely unfounded fears about the way that hate on the Web would proliferate.
Until recently, common wisdom held that the Internet would cause the number of hate groups to grow out of control. A recent advertisement sponsored by the Simon Wiesenthal Center reads, "On the day of the Oklahoma bombing, there was one hate site. Now there are over 2,000."
But many critics have questioned these numbers. For starters, they make no distinctions about the nature and severity of individual sites -- from hardcore white supremacy sites to sites that include racist jokes or a recipe for a pipe bomb. Second, it has always been hard to differentiate between the Web sites of major hate groups and organizations consisting of a lone member. How many people does each of these hate sites represent? Third, the increase in hate sites -- like the increase in the overall number of Web sites -- partly reflects the fact that more and more people and organizations are getting online. Adding to the confusion is the fact that many groups have more than one domain name and operate multiple sites. Taking all of these factors into consideration, a more conservative estimate by the Southern Poverty Law Center puts the number of hate sites closer to 400.
Another fear was that the Web would become a major recruitment tool for hate groups. But there is no statistical evidence showing that the Web has led to an increase in membership. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that the membership of hate groups has remained about the same over the past few years.
What's more, many people have long worried that the Web would not only provide a forum for hate but could actually provoke people to violence. In 1998, Salon suggested that hate sites on the Internet might be "the main culprit behind the epidemic of hate crimes," citing the murder of Matthew Shepard. A "Dateline NBC" special report called "Web of Hate" reported that Benjamin Smith -- the 21-year-old college dropout who went on a shooting spree in Indiana and Illinois in 1999, firing at African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Jews, and killing two and wounding nine -- had been inspired by the rhetoric he found on the Web site of Matt Hale's group, known as the World Church of the Creator. But aside from a few anecdotal reports, there is currently no statistical evidence to suggest that Web sites directly provoke people to violence. Evidence may yet surface linking Web sites to violence, but so far, that connection is not as clear as people feared it would be.
Hatewatch may indeed have overestimated the number or significance of the hate groups it dragged into the spotlight. But if anything, the group underestimated the task at hand. When Goldman announced the demise of Hatewatch he was, in effect, conceding that Hatewatch had outlived its usefulness. Instead of closing shop, he should have expanded it. Hatewatch's job was far from done.
For one thing, the Internet still provides a virtual community for haters in rural locations. It gives a scattered group of people a means to communicate with one another in secret, trade goods, sell things, publicize their events and potentially inspire others to action -- without the threat of interference from anti-haters. Many haters have trouble finding a place to meet in the brick-and-mortar world where they won't encounter opposition from anti-hate activists. Hale, for instance, can hardly hold a meeting without getting attacked by protesters. And Klansmen are regularly outnumbered at Klan rallies by anti-hate protesters. For these people, the Internet is a safe haven.
Web sites may not offer a reliable count of how prolific hate sites are (or how numerous their members), but they act as introductory brochures to the ideology of a particular group. Most sites don't change much over time, and they aren't places people return to again and again. Instead, people might make contact via a Web site, and then quickly move on to text-based, person-to-person venues such as discussion groups, chat rooms and e-mail. "That is really where you see discussions of ideology, discussion of tactics, things that give you insight into what's going on in the movements," says Mark Potok, editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report.
The anti-hate community overestimated the impact of the Web and underestimated the importance of chat rooms, newsgroups and e-mail. For Hatewatch to focus on Web sites alone -- as opposed to other forms of Internet communication -- was anachronistic. "Everyone was going crazy over these sites," says Ken Stern of the American Jewish Committee. "I think there's a parallel with how the stock market was going crazy over Internet-related things."
Hatewatch should also have expanded to track haters' fundraising. The Internet has proved to be an unexpected financial boon to many white supremacists, particularly those involved in the genre of music known as hate rock, helping them do more business and raise more money for their cause. William Pierce, one of the world's most notorious racists, paid $250,000 to acquire Resistance Records and its Web site. This year he expects to do more than $1 million in business, much of it through Web orders. "There's a whole world of e-commerce out there centered around hate," says the ADL's Jordan Kessler. Sometimes, haters sell items that are not clearly connected to their beliefs, so they can make money without their customers knowing who they're doing business with. By keeping track of how hate groups are raising money, Hatewatch could have helped people who might inadvertently be supporting them.
Hatewatch should also have expanded beyond its exclusive focus on hate groups per se. The latest trend in hate organizations is "leaderless resistance," in which haters are encouraged not to join groups but rather to become "lone wolves" and act alone. The rationale is that by joining a hate group, a hater becomes known to civil rights organizations. By promoting solo activism, hate groups also protect themselves from legal liability they faced in the past, as when Tom Metzger, leader of the White Aryan Resistance, was found guilty of inciting murder and jailed after three members of his group beat an Ethiopian student to death in Portland, Ore. By tracking these exchanges, and free-agent haters, Hatewatch could have provided useful insights into how organizations like the World Church of the Creator operate.
Where hate flourished less than expected, Hatewatch worked, and where hate flourished more than expected, Hatewatch could have done more. As professor Donald Green of Yale University's Institution for Social and Policy Studies puts it, "If a stop sign augments traffic safety, why tear it down?"