White Fortresses in Cyberspace
by Les Back
The face of racism changes on the Internet as preppy professionals join the ranks of the “classic” tattooed skinheads. Will they prove even more dangerous?
After celebrating the Internet as a digital nirvana in which democracy and free speech flourish, we are finally uncovering the dark side in which racists and xenophobes not only broadcast their propaganda in cyberspace but also ply their paraphernalia and hate through international networks. However the spate of scare stories about the burgeoning tide of racist online materials ignores the ultimate question: is the face of racism changing?
Most articles focus exclusively on the number of websites, virtual discussion groups and chat rooms spreading the messages of white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, White Aryan Resistance and the British National Party, which first seized the Internet as an unregulated and relatively cheap media in the mid-1990s. While there is no doubt that these sites and groups are growing, accurate estimates are difficult to calculate. To investigate hate on the Net, you must combine the skills of a detective, a lie detector and propaganda code breaker. For online materials are part of a digital masquerade that conceals as much as it shows. You cannot simply count and record web addresses because of the frequency in which pages are posted and taken down. However, experts agree that there are hundreds of sites, perhaps as many as 3,000.
Much of the debate about hate on the Net has revolved around censorship. Internet Service Providers (ISP) may voluntarily prohibit use of their servers and install filters along with web browsers to prevent access to key racist sites. But it is almost impossible to regulate the Net as a whole. The debate about censorship has become a cul-de-sac because of the seemingly irreconcilable tension between the libertarian ethos of free speech and the difficulty in defining the limit of what is morally acceptable to say or write. To some extent, the polemic overshadows the critical issue: what is drawing people into the racist Net world?
“WHITE PRIDE WORLDWIDE”—with this slogan, Don Black of the U.S. launched the world’s first and most notorious racist website Stormfront on March 27, 1995. Black, a former Klansman, learned his computer skills in a federal prison in Texas where he compulsively worked on the prison’s Radio Shack TRS-80 computer at U.S. taxpayers’ expense. Once out of jail, Black put his new skills to work to build an international system of followers by offering a trans-local notion of race.
A common language of race and white solidarity
Consider this passage from an e-mail sent to Stormfront: “I am a 20-year-old white American with roots in North America dating back 300 years and then into Europe, Normandy, France. Well anyways, I am proud to here [hear] of an organization for the advancement of whites.”
Racists like Black are basically using the Internet to foster a notion of whiteness that unites old world racial nationalisms (i.e. in Europe and Scandinavia) with the white diasporas of the New World (i.e. United States, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand and parts of South America). Despite the diversity of racist groups in cyberspace, they share a common language of race and white solidarity. Firstly, this notion of whiteness promotes a racial lineage that is plotted through, and to a large extent sustained in cyberspace. The Internet is the technology of globalization, interconnecting permeable human cultures. Yet in the racist Net-world, the Internet is used to foster an ethos of racial separation. With the goal of establishing “white fortresses” in cyberspace, these racists are forging new connections between ultra right-wing sites in North America, Western Europe and Scandinavia at a considerable pace. Yet, it is still the American websites and news groups that are the most sophisticated and the most active.
The big question remains exactly how many people are being drawn into racist activism by the Net? Recently, Alex Curtis—self-proclaimed “Lone Wolf of hate” from San Diego and producer of the extremist magazine The Nationalist Observer—claimed to “reach 100s - 1000s of the most radical racists in the world each week.” However, it is dangerous to over-estimate the level of activity. The number of white racists regularly involved in the Internet globally is somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000, divided into 10 to 20 clusters. Once again, it is impossible to offer anything other than an educated guess. The number of “hits” on a web page, for example, need not indicate “sympathetic inquiries,” rather they could include opponents, monitoring agencies and researchers. The key point is that these relatively small numbers of people can have a significant presence.
Not only are they using the Net for recruitment, but attempts are also being made to combine cyber-activism with that of the “real world.” For example, the RaceLink web page offers a list of activists’ contact details and locations around the world. Additionally, The Aryan Dating Page (now posted on Stormfront) offers a contact service for white supremacists. While most of the profiles are American, there are also personal ads from a range of countries including Brazil, Canada, Holland, Norway, Portugal, U.K., Slovakia and Australia as well as from white South Africans.
Lonely hearts in search of their own kind
One of the interesting things about scrolling through the personal ads is that the faces that appear are nothing like the archetypal image of “The Racist.” There are very few skinheads with Nazi tattoos: these white supremacist “lonely hearts,” mostly in their twenties and thirties, look surprisingly prosaic. Take 36-year-old Cathy, who lives in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania, which is far from an ethnic melting pot, but who is “desperate to move to a WHITE area!” She appears in the photograph in a rhinestone outfit with glitzy earrings: “The picture of me is a little overdone,” she explained. “I had photos done with the girls at the office … I look like an Aryan Princess when I get dressed up. But I am really the girl-next-door type.” Or, 19-year-old Debbie from New England, who wrote: “I am [a] young white power woman who seeks someone seriously devoted to the white power movement. A person whose commitment is undaunting. I would like to speak with men who share the same values as I.”
The male ads provide an equally unexpected set of portraits of white supremacy. Frank (see photo next page), a 48-year-old divorced single parent from Palo Alto California, writes: “Today I’m a responsible parent and have my views but don’t go out of my way to let it be known unless confronted. I have tattoos, and am down for the Aryan race. So hope to hear from you fine ladies in the near future.” Here Frank presents himself as a kind of white supremacist “new man.” This is contrasted with John Botti’s ad, a 25-year-old from Los Altos who presents himself as a preppy, “going places” kind-of-guy. He wrote: “I am looking for some who is as conservative and pretty as hell. Equally as important is someone with a quality education.” These are images of fascism in the information age that bear little resemblance to previous incarnations. This was brought home very powerfully by the image of Max, a 36-year-old Canadian, who described himself as a “long-time Movement activist.” He listed his interests as anthropology, Monty Python’s humour, the Titanic story, Celtic music and [U.S.] Civil War re-enacting. Max chose to have his photograph taken at his computer keyboard, where he presents himself as the picture of technological proficiency. This struck me, the first time I saw it, as a very appropriate image of the face of today’s racism.
However, these postmodern portraits of racism are coloured by fragmented and multiple identities little suited to the disciplined organization of “real world” racist politics. In this mercurial world, can the ideology and commitment to racism be turned off as quickly as the computer? There is some evidence to suggest that Net-racists have a rather chaotic affiliation to white power politics. For example, American Milton J. Kleim, who was once the self-styled “Net Nazi Number 1,” renounced his politics almost overnight.
Shifting from National Socialism to misanthropy
Kleim first became involved through Usenet, a network of online newsgroups, as a student in 1993. But he didn’t have a face-to-face meeting with anyone in the racist movement until he graduated in 1995. Less than a year later, he abandoned racism altogether. In an e-mail interview he commented: “The act of leaving was painful, and the aftermath stressful […] I essentially became a ‘nonperson,’ and I haven’t really been denounced […] I only received two or three harassing phone calls from displeased movement adherents… The saddest part is that my ‘movement’ experience was my most exciting, most rewarding time in my life,” he commented. “I’ve moved from National Socialism to Misanthropy.” Racist culture offered Kleim a sense of purpose through an online identity and a temporary resolution to existential crisis. This same sense of purpose comes through in many interviews with Net racists. What is equally true is that this does not last and the virtual mask of racial extremism can be quickly cast off.
Not only does individual commitment appear shaky, but so do the larger networks of Net-based racist groups. In the “real world,” each group generally revolves around or owes its existence to a charismatic leader who takes on the initiative of forging alliances. These agreements, however, are generally short-lived because of power struggles between the various leaders. In cyberspace, this fall-out seems to be occurring at an even faster pace. Basically, the condensed rate of exchange in cyberspace shortens the fuse for an explosion. The vituperative on-line feud between Harold A. Covington of the National Socialist White People’s Party, William L. Pierce of the National Alliance and both sets of their supporters (in the U.S.) is perhaps the best example of this syndrome. Reflecting on “The Future of the White Internet,” Covington wrote: “The Net is being viciously and tragically abused by a shockingly large number of either bogus or deranged ‘White Racists’ […] I think it is too early just yet to quantify just how the lunacy interacts with, counteracts and affects the impact of the serious political work. It is like panning for gold in a flowing sewer; both the raw and toxic sewage and the gold are there, and the question is how much gold any individual can extract before the fumes and the corruption drive him off—or until he keels over and falls in and becomes part of the sewer system.”
The racist use of the Internet is not about to deliver a mass global racist movement. In this sense, the imitators of fascism and Nazism are not in the same league as the zealots of yesteryear. Yet the significance of this phenomenon should not be sought in the numbers of activists.The fact that those involved remain relatively small should not be read as a comforting statistic. What, then, is the nature of this threat? The real danger is perhaps that in the information age isolated acts of racist terrorism may become commonplace. In this respect the 1999 London bombing campaign conducted by David Copeland—who found his “recipe” for nail bombs on the Net—may be an indication of the form that racist violence will take in this millennium. These acts are perpetrated by individuals whose prime contact with racist politics is via their computer keyboards.
Les Back is acting Head of the Centre for Urban and Community Research at Goldsmiths College, London. His article, an edited except from his forthcoming co-authored book (with Vron Ware) provisionally entitled The Trouble with Whiteness, to be published by the University of Chicago Press in 2001, has first been released by the UNESCO Courier.
(This article was first published by the UNESCO Courier, January 2001)
Texts published in 'Points of View' may not reflect UNESCO's position.
Axel Plathe, UNESCO Communication and Information Sector