When Hate Went Online
In 1983 hate went online. The source was a small computer bulletin board system (BBS) that carried online articles denouncing Jews and Blacks. Few people noticed. Fewer still even knew what an online computer system was, or how to connect to it. That same year I installed a modem at Midwest Research in Chicago (now Political Research Associates near Boston) to explore the possibility of using online services for transmitting text and data between progressive research organizations. It was a year before I even learned that hate groups were online.1
Today it is hard to imagine that in 1983 the idea of non-profit organizations sending information between computers over phone lines was considered experimental. For instance, the Foundation News published an influential early article in September 1993, "A Certain Electricity in the Air," that included the tentative subtitle: "Although some think the jury on telecommunications is still out, groups like the Telecommunications Cooperative Network are making believers out of more foundations and nonprofits."2
This was before there was easy access to what became the Internet. The national network of linked mainframe computers was still a text-only system (with USENET news groups on the side) primarily available to government defense contractors and academics. There were a few commercial online systems during this period such as Delphi, Genie, and The Source; and starting in 1985 there was The Well, one of the first non-profit public online networks that expanded and merged into the Internet.3
Back in 1983, however, a major form of public online communications involved the use of individual, and usually home-based, computer bulletin board systems. BBSs were developed as a way for persons with a computer and a modem attached to a phone line to allow others with the same equipment to directly dial up and log onto a directory of files for downloading. Other features such as posting public messages, reading text, and exchanging groups of files were quickly added.4
George P. Dietz, a well-known publisher of racist and antisemitic literature, was the first White supremacist to launch his material into cyberspace. Dietz recalls that his BBS, called variously Liberty Bell Net or Info. International Network, went up sometime in 1983 on an Apple ][e.5 Dietz, through his Liberty Bell Publications located in West Virginia, had been sending printed neonazi publications throughout the US, and to Europe where much of his material was banned. The early text on Dietz's BBS consisted of articles from his monthly Liberty Bell magazine, published in print form from September 1973 until February 1999. 6 One of the major contributors to both the print and online outlets was Revilo P. Oliver--expelled from the John Birch Society (JBS) for making antisemitic and White racist comments in a speech at a JBS rally in 1966.7
In June of 1985 Dietz's BBS carried the following sections:
Under the section headed "Prof.R.P.Oliver's Postscripts" were the following subtitles:
The better-known Aryan Nations "Aryan Liberty Net" went online sometime in the summer of 1984. The network was implemented by Louis Beam, a leader of various Texas Ku Klux Klan (KKK) factions who worked closely with Richard Butler, the leader of the Aryan Nations Christian Identity compound in Idaho.8 The network consisted of two KKK BBS's at sequential phone numbers in Texas, an Aryan Nations BBS in Idaho, and a KKK BBS in North Carolina. These systems were built around Apple and Radio Shack computers running standard BBS software. Next to come online was the White Aryan Resistance BBS in California, under the auspices of Tom Metzger. It ran on a Commodore 64.9 Around August 1984 a one-page flyer circulated in Canada announcing remote access, through the Aryan Liberty Net, to racist material otherwise banned under Canadian laws against hate speech.10 The US-based race hate BBSs allowed people in Canada and in European countries (where distribution of hate literature is restricted by law) to gain access to these texts through their computer. This was a major goal of the early racist BBS operators.
In June of 1985, the Aryan Liberty Net system was heralded by this next message. The original message was transmitted in all caps and formatted for text viewing on a plain computer terminal, unlike modern web browsers that reformat type for display on a modern color monitor. Scrolling through the message in this archaic format approximates the experience of viewing early BBS messages:
MSG LEFT BY: SYSTEM OPERATOR
Various sections on the system included:
The system signed off with this message:
The late racist leader Bob Miles explained the code "33/5." He wrote that:
Thus the code for the Fifth era of White supremacist resistance to equality in the U.S. is 33/5.11
A new book by Louis Beam was promoted in another posting:
The basic tenets of the racist and antisemitic Christian Identity movement can be found in this 1985 post:
We've posted a longer collection of excerpts from the 1985 bigoted BBS's online.
The First Online Response
A small group of anarchist hackers tipped me off to the existence of the racist computer BBS's in late 1984, and on January 5, 1985 I issued a one page memo on the "KKK/Aryan Racist Computer Networks," to a group of researchers monitoring the political right.12 On January 24, 1985 The Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith released a six page study on the subject, "Computerized Networks of Hate," as one of its periodic Fact Finding Reports. Following these reports, journalist Wayne King, who covered White supremacists for The New York Times, sparked major public awareness of online hate. His article "Link by Computer Used by Rightists," in February of 1985 described the three-city Aryan Liberty Network and included its self-description as "a pro-American, pro-White, anti-Communist network of true believers who serve the one and only God--Jesus, the Christ." 13
At a March 1985 meeting of the National Anti-Klan Network in Kansas City, there was a discussion of setting up a BBS to counter the White supremacists, and in May I circulated a memo on the subject of a progressive BBS to twenty groups. To a large extent people liked the idea, but nobody wanted to expend the resources to sponsor the system.
In June 1985 I presented a paper on computers and privacy at a national conference on Issues in Technology and Privacy organized by Professor George Trubow of the Center for Information Technology and Privacy Law at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago.14 The debate over computer networks and BBSs was so new that Jerry Berman of the American Civil Liberties Union argued that the BBSs and online systems were just public carriers like telephone companies and thus had no First Amendment rights. Our jaws just hit the floor. Part of my presentation was an attempt to explain that some of the BBSs were just like magazines or newspapers--a new electronic form of journalism, public information, and debate--and therefore entitled to Constitutional protections. I included examples of racist BBS texts in the appendix to the paper, and during the conference discussion suggested that government censorship was not an appropriate solution.15 At about the same time the Rev. Jesse Jackson issued a call for an anti-racist BBS, and several activists at Midwest conference of progressives, including Lyn Wells, director of the National Anti-Klan Network, issued a call for a "populist" computer news service.
With the threat that the government would restrict the civil liberties of BBSs as a major justification, the National Lawyers Guild agreed to fund the venture so it could serve as a legal test case if it became necessary. After a few meetings of Chicago-area activists, the system went up in my basement in late July of 1985 on an Atari game computer. Dubbed AMNET BBS, (as in American Network) it was the second progressive BBS system in the U.S., and the first BBS devoted exclusively to challenging the right.16 Alan Fenske kept the hardware running while I acted as System Operator (SYSOP) and editor. AMNET promoted democracy, pluralism, and civil liberties, while assisting those organizing against racism, fascism, antisemitism, sexism and homophobia. After a few months, we began to upgraded our system, ending up using a reliable refurbished Xerox business computer that lasted for years, before moving to a PC. You can read more about AMNET and early civil liberties issues online.
In 1985 it was difficult to explain to people why they should be concerned about online hate when only a tiny fraction of the population owned a computer with a modem. My solution was to purchase a used briefcase-sized portable thermal printer/terminal with a built-in rubber cuff modem into which one stuffed a telephone handset. With no display, it acted like a portable Teletype machine, printing out the text that would normally appear on a screen. I would lug the terminal to speeches and go online. While I was talking about the growth of far right recruitment of youth in the Midwest, the printer would be spewing out a continuous role of thermal paper filled with antisemitic and racist text being downloaded in real time. At the end of the speech I would invite the audience to tear off several feet and bring it home to read and discuss with their children.
By May of 1986 the Aryan Liberty Net had systems operating in Dallas and Houston Texas, Idaho, North Carolina, and Chicago, and was listing the WAR site in California as an affiliate. Other bigoted BBSs began appearing, and BBS's carrying racist, antisemitic, and homophobic material continued to appear well into the early 1990's. Often the bigotry was imbedded in elaborate conspiracy theories about secret elites. As technology advanced, however, online systems and the Internet were supplanting the BBS's.
Moving onto the Internet
As networking and access to the Internet grew, so did online hate.17 In the early 1990s before a graphic interface produced the World Wide Web, hate online was often posted to the USENET news groups, a system of message-based topical conferences. There was vigorous debate over policy within the USENET community, often by critics of hate, but also among far right activists.18 One online skinhead conference was dominated by neonazi skins, but their views were attacked by anti-racist skins.19
On the USENET news groups, Holocaust revisionists could be found posted in <alt.revisionism> where they were soon isolated by the majority of Internet netizens (citizens of cyberspace) who wished to preserve intellectual freedom but who refused to allow Holocaust deniers even the smallest space to spread their views on other conferences. In <alt.revisionism> there were also rebuttals to the deniers posted by early online human rights activists such as Ken McVay, Jamie McCarthy, Danny Keren, and others. Ted Frank posted scores of carefully-researched rebuttals to hard right and conspiracist legal arguments on <alt.conspiracy>. By 1992 McVay had collected over 35 megabytes of rebuttal material available for downloading from his Canadian Nizkor Internet site using "gopher" software, and he also maintained a e-mail list server on the subject. McVay later set up the Nizkor website where rebuttals to Holocaust deniers are collected globally.
As the graphic interface for the Internet grew into the World Wide Web, a few sporadic web pages carried racist, antisemitic, or other bigoted material appeared, and in May 1995 Don Black set up the neonazi Stormfront site, the first major website by a national race hate organization.
A few bigots also managed to post messages in discussion groups on the commercial services such as America Online (AOL), although the rhetoric was often muted or coded. A common tactic on both online services and the Internet was to suggest the purchase by mail-order of specific anti-government or conspiracist books and pamphlets with innocuous-sounding titles. When the material arrived in the mail it was often accompanied with a list of other materials with White supremacist or antisemitic themes. This attempt to hide or encode overt race hate and antisemitism is a common tactic of the ultra-right.
Consider the following excerpt from the Pennsylvania-based Christian Posse Comitatus newsletter The Watchman was found in 1995 on the World Wide Web home page of Stormfront:20
An average reader might miss the neonazi subtext of this posting. The "Aryan Nations, militias and the Posse" are lumped together and portrayed only as victims of demonization whose free speech rights are threatened. The Aryan Nations and the Posse Comitatus promote Christian Identity, a vicious antisemitic religious philosophy that often overlaps with neonazi beliefs.21 The phrase "fourteen words" is a coded reference to the racist phrase "To secure the existence of the white race and a future for our children."22
Advances in electronic technologies have given dissident voices across the political spectrum an increased ability to reach larger audiences in faster time frames.23 This in turn accelerates the ability of organizers to mobilize people into issue-orientated campaigns and more durable movements. Increased access to mass media by people currently left out of the political system is a positive change for those who value the democratic process.
Lack of education regarding the use of false propaganda and the process of scapegoating, however, does create problems. Much of the material circulated by the hard right is undocumented assertion, rumor, and conspiracism, some of it based on classic White supremacist legal arguments or allegations of secret plots by international Jewish bankers. When demagogues, conspiracists, hucksters, and lunatics compete on an equal intellectual footing with persons of all political stripes whom value civil discourse and documented arguments, informed consent is eroded. Censorship is not the answer, but education can be an important tool against hate online and off-line. One curriculum that teaches young people about the manipulative techniques used by the enemies of democracy is Facing History and Ourselves which uses as examples the Nazi genocide of Jews and the Roma (Gypsies), US slavery, and the genocide of Armenians by ethno-nationalist Turks.24 Those who object to sites like hatewatch.org linking to the actual web pages of the hate groups fail to understand the importance of openly confronting these ideas with actual examples.
Conspiracist mania needs to be confronted as a form of scapegoating, and all campaigns to demonize and dehumanize need to be challenged by persons across the political spectrum. The practice of field-testing scapegoating and marginalizing rhetoric in right-wing alternative media before moving it into the corporate media deserves further study as one way the secular and theocratic right have been able to manipulate and dominate public discourse.
Limiting access and increasing surveillance are not valid solutions to the problems created by the use of new electronic media by dissidents, at least not for a country that aspires to be a democracy rather than a police state. We should be especially wary of attempts to panic peddle an erosion of civil liberties through hyperventilated anecdotes about terrorists and bigots who use electronic media. Only a tiny portion of online traffic involves bigotry, and as Devin Burghart has observed, the far right presence is disproportional to their actual numbers and influence.25
Because there are no visual or audio cues in online posts, it is more difficult to evaluate sources of information in cyberspace. If someone on the right posts a message full of inaccurate information, then someone on the left needs to debunk it with accurate information. Eventually the persons who post cybergarbage will be ignored or banished to <alt.dittoheads>. Filters are already being established. Some conferences and e-mail lists are moderated by cybereditors who delete material they judge to be inaccurate or objectionable, just like print editors. There should always be forums that are completely open, but the future will see more online versions of magazines and moderated discussion groups where the industrious crackpots, liars, and demagogues are filtered out. And there will be moderated yet lively discussions among persons of differing political outlooks who agree in advance to certain civilities. The Utne Reader and Salon host online discussions and debates that follow this model. Cyberdemocracy doesn't need to be feared, it needs to be engaged. The norms of the Internet will evolve so that the demagogues and bigots will always have their storefronts, but the auditoriums will be filled with people who value accurate information and who want the type of open and honest debate that nourishes democracy.
Secularists need to accept that there must be space in the public square for persons who wish to express views that are faith-based. People shouldn't whine that the religious and secular right are not playing fair because they have been better at using the new online technologies. At the same time we all must insist that when it comes to the passage of laws and regulations, compelling state interest needs to be demonstrated through facts based on documentation and arguments based on logic. What needs to be confronted is the faulty logic and febrile arguments that sometimes appear in the religious and secular right, as well as the anti-democratic ideas underlying many of their mean-spirited proposals. We need better rhetoric not bigger regulations. We need more citizenship not more censorship.
Here is how AMNET put it in one of its opening screens:
Fight Hatemongering By Confronting It Not Censoring It!
Home of the File Ferrets database research formats & text files.
Complete text of the federal Freedom of Information Act.
Reliable resources for
building democracy, pluralism,
Seeking Files on the Following Topics:
Constitutional Rights, Civil
Liberties, Civil Rights, Human Rights
Epilog: Time to Unplug AMNET
For 15 years AMNET BBS has been online, first in Chicago and currently outside of Boston. Now it is time to pull the plugs and retire the system. With Hatewatch, the Public Eye web pages of Political Research Associates, and numerous websites devoted to challenging prejudice and bigotry and defending online civil liberties, the system is no longer needed or useful.
Hatewatch, Political Research Associates, and the Center for Democratic Renewal are marking this event by launching a joint web page, Building Equality for those who want to engage in the vital task of moving beyond challenging hate to working to expand democracy and defend diversity.
And if you are feeling adventurous, try logging onto AMNET at (781) 221-5815. We will be keeping the system online through the month of September so that it will pass its 15th birthday before going into retirement. You'll need a terminal program, like the one in Windows located by going to the Start menu button, then clicking on Programs / Accessories / Communications, and selecting Hypertrm.exe. Make a new connection and add the phone number, then log on and relive the early days of online communications. Remember that this is a text only system. Pick the default options if you don't understand the questions. See what it was like when hate first went online, and was challenged by those who watch hate online as part of a continuing effort to confront bigotry.
Chip Berlet, on the board of Hatewatch.org, is senior analyst at Political Research Associates in Somerville, MA were he has studied hate groups and hard right social movements for the past 20 years. He is co-author, with Matthew N. Lyons, of Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort, (Guilford Press, September 2000), and editor of Eyes Right! Challenging the Right Wing Backlash, (South End Press, 1995). His byline has appeared in publications ranging from The New York Times, Boston Globe, and Des Moines Register to Mother Jones, The Progressive, and Utne Reader.
1 Some of my retrospective research of the history of the political right online was to prepare for an interview by Grant Kester that appeared as "Net Profits: Chip Berlet Tracks Computer Networks of the Religious Right," in Afterimage, Feb./March 1995, pp. 8-10, available online. Some material in this article is pilfered from my chapter, "Who's Mediating the Storm? Right-wing Alternative Information Networks," in Linda Kintz & Julia Lesage, eds., Culture, Media, and the Religious Right. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.
3 For more on the early history of the Internet, see Steven Levy, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984. For a look at the libertarian roots of online systems, see: Paulina Borsook, Cyberselfish : A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech, New York: Public Affairs, 2000.
4 The first BBS was CBBS (Computerized BBS) created in 1978 by Ward Christensen and Randy Suess who had to solder their computer together and write their own software. Christensen wrote the Xmodem software protocol that allowed single computers to exchange files. Their history of CBBS is at Suess's website.
6 http://www.lbp2.com/id18.htm, June 14, 2000.
8 For background on this period, see James Corcoran, Bitter Harvest: The Birth of Paramilitary Terrorism in the Heartland. Revised. New York: Viking Penguin, 1990 ; and James A. Aho, The Politics of Righteousness: Idaho Christian Patriotism. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990.
10 Wayne King, "Link by Computer Used by Rightists," New York Times, 2/15/1985; Ric Bohy, "Hate Mail Sent Via Computer: White Supremacists are now Linked by Electronic Network," Detroit News, 4/28/1985.
11 Robert E. Miles, "33/5," essay, online at http://www.kkk.com/33-5nf.htm.
14 Chip Berlet, Privacy and the PC: Mutually Exclusive Realities? Chicago, Midwest Research [now Political Research Associates], 1985. Prepared for the 1985 national conference on Issues in Technology and Privacy -- sponsored by the Center for Information Technology and Privacy Law John Marshall Law School, Chicago, Illinois, June 21-23 1985. Conference coordinator, professor George Trubow. A project of the National Bar Association Foundation. Funded by the Benton Foundation
16 For more details about the founding of AMNET BBS, see the AMNET online history. The first progressive BBS, NEWSBASE, was set up in 1984 by Richard Gaikowski in California; see Connie Blitt & Dennis Bernstein, "On the Electronic Graffiti Soapbox," In These Times, July 23-August 5, 1986, p. 24.
17 For a detailed look at early Internet presence, see Todd J. Schroer, "White Racialists, Computers, and the Internet," paper presented at American Sociological Association annual meeting, Toronto, 1997. See also, Devin Burghardt, "Cyberh@te: A Reappraisal," The Dignity Report (Coalition for Human Dignity), Fall, 1996, pp. 12-16; Wayne Madsen, The Battle for Cyberspace: Spooks v. Civil Liberties and Social Unrest," CovertAction Quarterly, Winter 1996-97.
20 Newsletter from fall 1995, located and downloaded in early 1996 and posted on private e-mail list for persons studying the far right. Stormfront homepage was at the time: <http://www2.stormfront.org/watchman/watch-on.html>.
22 According to the Coalition for Human Dignity, the phrase "fourteen words" is a coded white supremacist greeting that originated with David Lane, a member of the neonazi Order. Another coded phrase is "88," representing the eighth letter in the alphabet as in "HH" for "Heil Hitler."
24 The curriculum and process of Facing History and Ourselves is analyzed in Melinda Fine, Habits of Mind: Struggling Over Values in America's Classrooms, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995). See Facing History and Ourselve's website.
25 Devin Burghart, "Cyberh@te: A Reappraisal." See also the related issue of government repression in Wayne Madsen, The Battle for Cyberspace: Spooks v. Civil Liberties and Social Unrest," CovertAction Quarterly, Winter 1996-97.
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