Archive/File: people/l/lauder.matthew/extremist_websites.0109 Last-Modified: 2001/09/24 Matthew Lauder, Director Anti-Racism Program Guelph and District Multicultural Centre Guelph, Ontario The Importance of websites to the Extreme Rightwing The success of websites as a recruitment tool for the racial- nationalist movement remains a topic of debate among anti-racist researchers and activists. For many, websites are recognised as an incredibly successful recruitment tool because it is inexpensive and provides access to a large audience (in relation to traditional means such as flyers) by circumventing geographic, financial, and legislative limitations. In other words, increased access to hate literature via websites simply means more members. However, David Goldman, the former director of HateWatch, and Chip Berlet, from Political Research Associates, ardently disagree. Instead, they suggest that hate-based websites do not translate into more members because they fail to create a sense of community. That is, websites do not increase a group's membership because they do not satisfy the psychological and social needs of the individual. Increased access as a measure of success For several years, experts have warned policymakers that the proliferation of hate-based websites directly results in increased group membership because they provide greater access to group literature. Mark Weitzman, from the Simon Weisenthal Centre, argues that access to the Internet and the increase in the number of hate-based websites has given "extremists the largest potential audience for recruits and for propaganda that they have ever had."<1> Moreover, Ross Davidson notes that websites are "playing a central role, allowing hate groups to recruit, network and plan events more easily than in pre-Web America."<2> Davidson notes that, in the pre-web period, a racialist, "would have to go to a great deal of effort and spend quite a bit of money and find a sympathetic printer in order to produce a pamphlet that might reach 100 people."<3> Raymond Franklin, the director of the Hate Director, agrees: "[The Internet is] the new mimeograph, the new poster, the best way to get the word out - a way to literally broadcast to the entire world."<4> With a website, even a single racialist organiser has the potential to reach millions of people. Richard Martin succinctly notes, "Web sites are cheap, they're easily produced, and they don't have to compete for shelf space or viewers."<5> The concern that the presence of hate-based websites encourages greater involvement may be warranted given that a recent survey indicates use of the Internet has increased among all age groups and family types and that approximately 5 million Canadian households now have access to the world-wide-web.<6> In addition, the survey notes, "access rates are particularly high among households with children" and that two-thirds of those who responded to the survey expressed concern about Internet-based material "by household members under the age of 18."<7> In addition, a study conducted by NUA Internet Surveys indicates that there are more than 171 million Internet users worldwide and that the United States and Canada accounts for more than 97 million users, indicating that a hate-based website has tremendous potential for reaching a broad and new audience. Even the racialists agree with the idea that the websites are a highly successful mechanism for recruiting new members and expanding the movement. Don Black, the administrator of the world's largest racialist website, notes: It's been a tremendous boon for us. That's why I dedicate most of my time to this. I feel like I've accomplished more on the Web than in my 25 years of political activism. Whereas before, we could reach only people with pamphlets or holding rallies, now we can reach potentially millions.<8> In an interview with New Times in 1998, Black puts into perspective the use of the Internet by the racialist movement: The Internet is a means of planting seeds for the future. There are a lot of middle-class people who feel disaffected - and in Stormfront they can find what they can't in the mass media. It's about building a community and attracting hard-core supporters. Moreover, Black notes: The Net has provided us with the opportunity to bring our point of view to hundreds of thousands of people who would never have otherwise subscribed to one of our publications or otherwise been in touch with any of our organisations.<9> Likewise, David Duke, who has been involved in the racialist movement for more than 30 years, recognises websites as a valuable tool in furthering the white nationalist movement. Recently, Duke established an office in Russia to develop ties with European nationalists and promote his latest book, but he remains in constant contact with North American racialists through his website and email. In an article he wrote on the white revolution, Duke praises hate-based websites for their accessibility: Millions of people are going online in America. Now, if they want to find out about me and my ideas all they have to do is go to a search engines and search for "David Duke." Hundreds of sources will show up. There they can access my site and read my writings and reference material, and even hear my radio program which is broadcast 24 hours-a-day to the four corners of the earth.<10> Experts are also concerned by the use of carefully crafted child-friendly websites designed to recruit young people into the racialist movement. In just a two-year period, several groups have started websites explicitly tailored for youth users, including the World Church of the Creator, Stormfront, Women for Aryan Unity, and Mothers of the Movement. By offering children's stories, video games, music, comics, colouring books, crossword puzzles, and home school educational materials, all of which are designed from a white nationalist perspective, the leadership hopes to indoctrinate young minds into the racialist movement. Gail Gans, a director at the Anti-Defamation League, notes that the world-wide-web provides greater access to young people: "It used to be, in order [for a racialist group] to attract a kid, somebody would have to mail stuff to them or go to their neighbourhood. Now a kid can sit at the computer and type in 'Nazi.'"<11> Cyber-racists lack community Not everyone agrees with the argument that websites are successful in recruiting new members. For example, David Goldman and Chip Berlet suggest that websites have largely failed to bring in new members because they do not satisfy the psychological or social needs of the individual. The Intelligence Report notes, [A] flashy site on the World Wide Web is no guarantee that people will continue to visit your site to buy products - or ideology. Students of the Net have found that in order to flourish, Web sites must create a sense of community, a feeling that you will find new ideas and people who will engage your mind and interests. Otherwise, visitors may view a site on one or two occasions, but find little reason for returning regularly.<12> Furthermore, Goldman argues: As time went on, it became clear that while the Internet offered extremists certain advantages, it was not going to be this fantasy of goodness that they expected. It is difficult for any organisation to get people to come back and to participate in its web site, and to have a successful web site, you have to create a community of users who do return. People want to feel that there's a reason to come back to the site, new information or people that they might encounter there. But Klan and neo-Nazi group members simply have not felt these sites were communities, and that why the hate groups have had a hard time increasing their numbers through their sites.<13> In other words, Goldman argues that simply accessing a website does not make an individual a committed member, or even encourages membership, rather the person becomes a member after finding a likeminded community and engages in direct communication with others, most notably the leadership. This argument is not new. Goldman, in fact, questioned the value of websites to the development of the racialist movement in 1998, just three years after the first hate-based website went online, noting "if you're an angry white male you still need someone in your face to bring you into one of these groups, to talk with and make you an active member."<14> While discarding websites as insignificant, Goldman and Berlet argue that interactive forums (i.e. discussion boards and chat rooms), are essential in the recruitment process. Unlike that of static websites, Goldman and Berlet argue interactive forums create an environment where like-minded individuals can meet, exchange viewpoints, learn about each other, and decide to join a particular group. The Intelligence Report notes, There is a growing consensus of experts who study hate on the Web that the presence of such sites is not nearly as important as another aspect of the Internet - the more private, text-based venues such as e-mail, discussion groups, chat rooms and the like. While many people still visit a hate site once or twice, even the committed typically want to move on to venues where real discussion takes place.<15> The crux of the argument is based on whether or not the mode of communication satisfies the needs of the individual - that is, does the forum provide an opportunity for the individual to engage in personal contact with others? Goldman and Berlet contend that hate-based websites, by nature, act in the same manner as traditional flyers or brochures and simply offer information; although the information is frequently be updated, the mode of communication lacks intimacy. While it is true that websites provide unmitigated access to information, they are incapable of creating an environment whereby potential members are welcomed into a community and engage in group-oriented behaviour designed to reinforce a specific mode of thinking. In other words, human contact (along with intimacy and sincerity) is essential to the creation and maintenance of the group: Chatters engage in direct, unmediated discussions that flesh out their pre-existing views. For those who are not members of the hate groups, these venues allow a safe exploration of extremist ideology.. For people who are members, discussion groups haven been likened to a virtual cross-burning - a kind of hatefest in which participants reinforce one another's racist views.<16> Goldman elaborates on the need for human contact, "Extremists need to be told that what they do is good and right and true. These interactive groups, even more than the Web, let them feel hope, like they're participating in a community bigger than themselves."<17> This may be why many racialist organisations, like that of the National Alliance, have recently undertaken a multifaceted approach to recruitment by augmenting website access with traditional means of propaganda distribution (such as flyer drops), meetings, personal email messages, chat rooms discussions, and access to racialist music. Statistics indicate increased access to information A close look at the numbers indicates that websites provide greater access to hate-based material for potential participants. For example, since 27 March 1995, Black's website has received more than 5 million visitors with a (current) daily average of nearly 5,500 users (in 1998, Black's site received a daily average of 1,700 users). Even Stormfront's website for children (supposedly created and maintained by Black's 11 year-old son, Derek) has received more than 400,000 visitors since it came online. Marc Lemire, Canada's equivalent to Black, reports that his website (the Freedomsite) has had more than 10 million visitors since it went online in 1996 and currently contains more than 2000 pages of information. Certainly, traditional means of outreach, such as flyer distribution (that reaches a limited number of potential members or the printing of a newsletter at a substantial cost to the group in question), cannot match the capabilities of a website. Furthermore, the sheer number of hate- based websites in operation is, quite possibly, the best indication that cyberspace plays a vital role in the development of the racialist movement. That is, as based on a cost-benefit analysis, racialist groups would not spend the time or the money creating and maintaining a website if it does not translate into quantifiable results. Currently, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre has a database of 3000 hate-based websites18 in operation and the Southern Poverty Law Centre tracked more than 300 websites in 1999 alone.<19> But does all of this access mean greater membership levels? The problem with assessing the impact of hate-based websites on the development of the far right movement is that a formal study has not been conducted that quantitatively measures the association between website access and member recruitment and retention. Gail Gans notes that it is difficult to verify the impact of the Internet, arguing, "the Net allows them to exaggerate their numbers and gives them a sense of well-being. It allows them to hide what in fact may be a disintegrating organisation. I don't think that they are actually growing, but they Internet gives them a chance to proclaim to the worlds that they are."<20> Although a conclusive study has not yet been conducted, we can draw upon two preliminary test cases and three working examples that offer quantitative support to the assertion that websites do have a significant impact on the development of the far right, in particular the recruitment process. The first example is that of the now defunct Knights of Freedom (KOF). This neo-Nazi group, based out of a residence room at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, grew from relative obscurity to international prominence in less than a year due to its website. The KOF, which recruited members online, grew from less than 15 members in 1998 (in its pre-web phase) to more than 600 newsletter subscribers and 150 full-time members in 1999. Although the KOF attempted to hold a series of real-life meetings, it primarily existed in cyberspace and its website operated as the main contact point with much of the communication being unidirectional (essentially top-down from the leadership to the membership with little or no feedback). In fact, much of the membership learned about (and subsequently joined) because of its online presence. Another real-life example is that of the Canadian Heritage Alliance (CHA), an anti-immigrant and white-rights nationalist organisation based in Kitchener, Ontario. The group, which started off with only two members, officially went online in November 2000 (the website was originally hosted by the Freedomsite). By the end of the first month of operation, the group had more than 35 newsletters subscribers and approximately 10 paying members and, within a five-month period, the group expanded to more than 130 newsletter subscribers and members, almost all of whom learned of the group's existence from its website. In addition, the CHA access report from December 13 through 20, 2000 (after just a month in operation), indicates that the group had 63 novel clients accessing nearly 6,400 pages of information. The third real-life example is that of the Heritage Front, a racial separatist organisation based in Toronto with several chapters across Canada. In 1994, after it was discovered that a government agent infiltrated the group, the Heritage Front suffered mass defections and was reduced to less than 100 members from a high of approximately 600 a year earlier. Since 1996, the organisation has primarily used its website as a method of outreach and recruitment (using traditional methods of literature distribution in an extremely limited manner), which has proven an invaluable tool for recruitment. For example, during a 30-day period in 2000, the Heritage Front received more than 20 requests for information regarding membership, many from young people in secondary school who learned of the group via the world-wide-web. Wolfgang Droege, then leader of the Heritage Front, stated in an interview that the organisation receives hundreds of inquiries a year regarding membership as a result of its website, indicating that the group does not have the funds to produce a regular newsletter. In 2000, two test cases were conducted to measure the impact of the world-wide-web on the development of the far right movement. The first was an impostor website (that purported to be a part of a larger racialist group) that offered minimal information and requested visitors to complete a survey. It is important to note that the knowledge of the website amongst racialists was spread by word-of-mouth via the Internet (i.e. traditional methods were not employed). During the test period of 30 days, the website received more than 1,000 hits and of those who completed the survey, 87.5% responded they would join the group, 75% responded that the group should not be entirely web- based (that interaction is essential), and 18.5% said that had previously been involved in the larger racialist group (indicating that the majority of those who responded were new participants and attracted to the group due to its online presence). In addition, many of those surveyed responded that they were frustrated by the lack of interactivity between members and the leadership. Demographic analysis reveals that, of those who answered the survey, 12.5% were under the age of 20 years, 50% were between 20-29, and 37.5% were above 30 years of age. Like that of the first test website, the second website was advertised by word-of-mouth via the Internet. Over a two-month period, the website received more than 1,500 user hits, had approximately 60 frequently returning visitors (3 or more visits), and more than 40 subscribers to a semi-regular, non- interactive, email-based newsletter. The results of the preliminary test-cases and the real-life samples suggest that the world-wide-web leads to higher levels of initial involvement by providing improved access to information, in particular to people who may not have had access to information due to legislative or geographic limitations (such as living in a rural community). In the samples of the KOF, the CHA, and the Heritage Front (post-1996), the majority of members became aware of the organisation, and subsequently joined, due to the organisation's online presence (i.e. it was the website that initially prompted interest). It is important to note, however, that membership retention is likely dependent on a group's ability to create a sense of community. The results of the survey appear consistent with that of Goldman and Berlet, indicating that long-term membership retention is dependent upon the group's ability to offer interactive forums that satisfies certain social and psychological needs. However, counter to that of Goldman and Berlet, it is the website (and not interactive forums), which plays the essential role of creating awareness of the group (in essence, fulfilling the role of ideological advertising) and serves to encourage the individual to seek membership. That is, websites create the initial interest that prompts further exploration (and membership) by offering ideological justification for greater involvement. Lois Dauway, of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, notes, "it [the Internet] provides anonymity and, at the same time, a support base for individuals who take the information, use it as encouragement and act upon it."<21> For example, Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, who went on a shooting spree in 1999, is thought to have been encouraged to the join the group, and subsequently inspired to act in a violent manner, by the World Church of the Creator website. It is therefore imprudent to assert that websites are categorically "less important" than interactive forums. Rather than understanding the dynamics of recruitment and participation as being influenced by two distinct elements (the static website and the interactive forum), it should be recognised as a fluid and complimentary process involving two equally important phases. _______________________________ 1. Staff (July 8, 1999). Child-friendly, racist indoctrination on Internet. CNN.Com 2. Davidson, Ross (November 16, 1998). Web of hate. News Real. 3. Davidson, Ross (November 16, 1998). Web of hate. News Real. 4. Richardson, Sandee (June 28, 1998). Net spreads message, draws in recruits. Montgomery Advertiser. 5. Martin, Richard (February 1998). Web of hate: Soldiers of bigotry march online. Pretext Magazine. 6. Staff (July 26, 2001). Household Internet use survey. The Daily. 7. Staff (July 26, 2001). Household Internet use survey. The Daily. 8. Richardson, Sandee. (June 28, 1998). Net spreads message, draws in recruits. Montgomery Advertiser. 9. Abel, David Schwab. (1998, February 19-25). The racist next door. New Times. 10. Duke, Daivid (no date). The coming of the white revolution: Born on the Internet. 11. Staff (July 8, 1999). Child-friendly, racist indoctrination on Internet. CNN.Com 12. Staff. (Summer 2001). Reevaluating the net. Intelligence Report, p. 54. 13. Staff (Spring 2001). Cyberhate revisited. Intelligence Report, pp. 44-45. 14. Martin, Richard (February 1998). Web of hate: Soldiers of bigotry march online. Pretext Magazine. 15. Staff (Summer 2001). Reevaluating the net. Intelligence Report, p. 54. 16. Staff (Summer 2001). Reevaluating the net. Intelligence Report, p. 55. 17. Staff (Summer 2001). Reevaluating the net. Intelligence Report, p. 55. 18. Bloom, Linda (October 2, 2000). As Internet grows, so does the number of hate sites. United Methodist News Service. 19. Staff (Winter 2000). Hate groups on the Internet. Intelligence Report. Pp. 36-39. 20. Martin, Richard (February 1998). Web of hate: Soldiers of bigotry march online. Pretext Magazine. 21. Bloom, Linda (October 2, 2000). As Internet grows, so does the number of hate sites. United Methodist News Service.
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