Chip Berlet Tracks Computer Networks of the Religious Right

Originally in Afterimage, Feb./March 1995, pp. 8–10.

Interview by Grant Kester

Grant Kester: When did you first begin to track right-wing computer networks?

Chip Berlet: Around 1984. I was online very early with bulletin board systems (BBSs), in part becasue I was writing a column on computer technology and the law for the publication Chicago Lawyer. As I was examining the trend in the legal profession away from dedicated word processing systems. I realized that the cutting edge law firms were developing ways to transfer data between their offices very efficiently. So I went online and started to explore.

In June 1985 I presented a paper 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. The debate over computer networks and BBS's was so new that Jerry Berman of the ACLU got up at this conference and announced that, in his view, all of the BBS's were just public carriers and thus had no First Amendment rights. People's 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 or a new form of public debatee and therefore entitled to Constitutional protections.

When I learned that the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nations were networking via BBSs run through individual Apple II computers, I was so offended that the Klan had beaten the political left into bulletin boards that I got together with some friends in the Chicago area and started a progressive anti-racist BBS in 1985. A hospital electronics technician volunteered to knit together a whole bunch of used Atari computer parts so that they would be powerful enough to sustain a bulletin board. We had the second progressive BBS in the country; the first one was NewsBase started in 1984 by Richard Gaikowski in California who helped us upgrade to a CP/M computer. I also began to give speeches about far right bigotry and bring an old portable remote printer terminal about the size of an attache case. I'd dial into a racist BBS and download text files as I spoke to show how accessible racist hate literature was online.

GK: It's interesting to hear that the right had their foot in the door so early with computer technology. It reminds me of the fact that one of the first radio licenses issued was to evangelist Mary Baker Eddy.

CB: It's very similar. Christian BBSs also started very early. People tend to ignore the fact that Christian evangelicals have always been at the cutting edge of new technologies; whether its the printing press, offset technology instead of letterpress, early radio and TV, or electronic media. We tend to think that because they are culturally conservative they are not willing to utilize technology. But of course if you remember that evangelists' main goal is to spread the message of Christ throughout the world, you'll realize that they will want to use the best technology available.

GK: The rhetoric used by religious and political conservatives regarding communications technologies characterizes the technology as open and accessible. Conservatives claim that they want to use computer networks or cable-cast TV as a way to give voice to the populace. National Empowerment Television (NET), for example, uses this rhetoric. At the same time NET has a component called C-NET, which is a very controlled, subscriber-selected service used to generate activism around particular issues. So it's being used in exactly the opposite way.

CB: The populist rhetoric is the sales pitch. There are so many issues that are bundled together here. One is simply the use of the technology to propagate evangelism. Mostly this is political persuasion based on very strong ideological and theological convictions. If you're a Calvinist (with apologies to Calvin from whom Calvinism diverted, just as Christianity diverted from Christ) then you believe that people are basically sinful and that they will correct their behavior through punishment and discipline. Thus a lot of the rhetoric is designed to convince people that what the country really needs is discipline and that people who do not behave properly need to be punished so that they will change their behavior.

This explains a lot about the welfare debate and a whole range of hot button issues. If you believe that homosexuals are sinful, even if you believe you should hate the sin but love the sinner , you're still going to go after the practice of homosexuality. If you believe that the feminist movement is destroying the God-given structure of the family, then you're going to go after feminism as an enemy of America. Is that propaganda? It isn't false propaganda if you actually believe these things. However it is certainly destructive if you're a woman, a gay man, or a lesbian in the current climate. But I think people underestimate how many people involved in the Christian right actually believe that they're doing the right thing, no matter how destructive it is to other people.

Another issue is the use of the electronic media in a demagogic manner. There are Christians and moral conservatives, and I would include Newt Gingrich in this category, who will say just about anything, without regard to the facts, to advance a political agenda and broaden their own personal power base.

GK: You are describing the various rhetorical levels at which these information systems function. On the one hand there is the proselytizing function of witnessing over the Internet, which would imply a more open architecture. Anyone is free to join a given bulletin board or chat group; you may be a lurker who is drawn in and brought to Christ in this manner. In this context some of the users may not be evangelicals or even Christians.

CB: You often see interesting philosophical and theological debates taking place on computer networks. There are aslo people sharing biblical passages about specific emotional needs. You also see just pure networking. People use these systems just like they would use internal office calenders to plan appointments and to schedule events ("don't have your camp revival on this date because there is a church festival already scheduled in the next county over"). Much of the community-based activity echoes what's available in print. There have been concordances and Bible study aids for a long time. But now you're seeing that kind of information circulate on-line.

The electronic media have attracted the full range from conservatives to the far right. Conservatives have the "Town Hall" section on Compuserve. There are thousands of local Christian Evangelical BBSs, mostly aimed at local audiences. These even offer computer games for Christians, with Bible study contest questions like "how many colors were in Joseph's coat of many colors?" But it's important to understand that you also have Lyndon LaRouche on line, and you have the Klan on line. There is a tremendous diversity of right-wing and conservative Christian discourse taking place. These activities are not solely based in computer networks, but are also on the radio. People forget that you can receive audio signals through your satellite dish. There's a range of radio programs that exist only as satellite transmissions. To receive satellite radio you dial in on your satellite hook up and turn off the picture on your TV. This is an area of conservative media that is very under-researched because it is so exotic.

Luckily for researchers a lot of these programs are also echoed on shortwave radio. There's a whole range of far right religious radio, World Wide Christian Radio (WWCR), which is very right-wing is an example, as well as all sorts of more mainstream evangelical programs on WWCR. There are also a lot of short wave broadcasts, some of which originate outside the United States. There is such a range of right-wing radio that a progressive shortwave radio station in Costa Rica, Radio for Peace International, has a program called Far Right Radio Review devoted exclusively to monitoring it.

GK: Is there any demographic significance to the predominance of satellite dishes? I imagine that they are predominantly rural viewers.

CB: There are three pre-exisitng constituencies. There are hobbyists, who just get these broadcasts because they are into short wave radio or satellite, there are people who get it because they live in rural areas that aren't cabled and who can't get TV unless they use a satellite dish. And then, oddly enough, there are people who are obsessed with sports. They can pull down sports broadcasts from all over the world with satellite dishes.

GK: You mentioned Town Hall, which requires a membership application process, and I believe that some of the Christian BBS's screen members to determine if they are in fact evangelicals. This implies something very different from the populist "openness" of the Internet.

CB: Town Hall isn't that bad. I have yet to hear of anyone being denied access to Town Hall as long as they had a credit card. They want to know who you are so that they can sell you something. But there are in fact e-mail lists that are private and there are bulletin boards that you can dial up and if you know the magic password you can get into a different security level. I run a private e-mail list for researchers of the right. And my bulletin board has a secret security level password, so that people who work with me can download stuff that the average user can't find. In and of itself there is nothing sinister about this kind of controlled access.

GK: You mentioned that your own BBS has a kind of hierarchy of access. Does that mean that there are researchers on the right who are lurking on progressive lists and BBSs just like those on the left do with Christian and right-wing networks?

CB: Absolutely. After a while you begin to run into each other, or at least you recognize each other's footprints. You have to have a sense of humor about it, because its like "Spy vs. Spy" in Mad magazine. I'm constantly crossing the paths of people doing exactly what I'm doing except from the reverse political position. After a while you get to know them.

GK: Can you give an example of how you encounter these footprints of conservative researchers?

CB: I'd rather not, trade secrets, you know.

GK: This is a question that may or may not relate directly to computer networks. It has to do with the relationship between using the Internet as a form of communication and information exchange, and, on the model of C-NET, using it as a tool for direct lobbying purposes within a controlled audience (For example, "This bill is coming to committee, write your congress person with this information now, etc.") That would seem to raise questions about the 501(c)(3) status of organizations like NET. How can they get away with being a non-profit, and yet still engage in open lobbying for particular political interests?

CB: It is a dilemma. Even if you have 501(c)(3) status you are allowed to do a certain amount of political work. I've read some very compelling arguments that what Paul Weyrich does with NET crosses over the line of what's permissible as a 501(c)(3). But who wants to tell an elephant when it farts? Given Weyrich's clout it is politically inopportune to challenge him right now. I've asked people in Washington why NET's activities aren't being questioned and they say, because he'll roll over and crush us. Plus, its hardly a secret that labor unions do this too. However, I think that labor unions and other liberal or progressive groups, have obeyed the law a little better; they do try to keep the 501(c)(3) information educational They set up other entities to do the political outreach in the form of auxiliary organizations or PACs. They try to play the game within the limits, but I don't believe the Christian right is playing the game within the limits.

GK: What role are online systems going to play in the political process and how does the conservative right use them now?

CB: Developing online networks exponentially increases your ability to share information and coordinate activism. It's stunning how much easier this makes your work. When I was writing a paper on the Gulf War and the role of LaRouche followers who were trying to infiltrate anti-war coalitions (and this wasn't even on a private level) I just posted a bunch of questions on Usenet conferences asking for e-mail from persons who might have run into LaRouche supporters. I received 50 messages in the first couple of days from all over the country. I don't think people understand the shift in the nature of research and coordination that has developed because of this kind of networking. Certainly corporations are aware of it; you wouldn't have Windows for Work Groups if people didn't understand the way networking can increase your productivity. During the 1992 Ross Perot campaign it was fascinating to see Libertarians on the Net jump into the Perot campaign. The circulation of documents online by the Perot supporters was one reason the Perot campaign was able to build a political support network so quickly. The Civilian Militia and Patriot movements are using on-line systems to great effect. These are rightwing movements with an anti-government agenda that fear impending attack by government or UN troops and the establishment of a dictatorship as part of the creation of the New World Order.

They are probably the first major social movement organized via telecommunications networks. That's the good news, the bad news is that ninety percent of the information they circulate is undocumented rumor and conspiracy theory, some of it based on classic white supremacist legal arguments or allegations of secret plots international Jewish bankers. You can find their posts in Usenet conferences such as <alt.conspiracy>, <misc.survivalism), or <talk.politics.guns>.

I've had discussions with people who study electronic media and computers about the changes in the basis of information flow between Washington and people out in the country. Some talk about the potential for a referendum by keyboard. But my response is that populism comes in a variety of forms and it's not always good. A lynch mob is a form of populism. Democracy is based on informed consent; it could get badly burned by political flame wars.

If you consider James Madison's definition of democracy by "informed consent," "informed" means an opinion developed over time through debate based on accurate information. But now, if you're gullible you can get swayed pretty fast by the kind of rhetoric that you see on the Internet. There is a lot of misinformation, disinformation, and just outright crap on the Internet. Some of it is circulated by far right groups that are pretending to be something else, and some of it is circulated by far right groups that are happy to acknowledge that they think all gays should be exterminated. Much of the political debate on the Internet takes place on the level of myth. That's not good for democracy. The Internet will need to grow up and develop the kind of social norms that characterize other democratic communications systems. Our social institutions are going to have to understand that if you want to play politics today, you've got to be online. And people need to realize that no matter how outlandish a claim posted online may be, it needs to be confronted and answered.

GK: When you talk about the Internet "growing up" are you suggesting some internal regulation of dialogue and information?

CB: Technically there is a way for local system operators to "twit" people off a given conference, so that their names are placed on a list of proscribed users and they are unable to post messages. But the kind of internal regulation that has already taken place with the Holocaust deniers is a good example of the type of norm I prefer. The Holocaust deniers managed to offend so many people in the Usenet conference section of the Internet that essentially they were confined to prosyletizing from one storefront in the infinite "information" mall. Anybody who wants to stroll down the length of the mall and enter that storefront can read the most vile anti-Jewish crap available, along with refutations of it. The Holocaust denial material now is mostly confined to the Usenet conference <alt.revisionism>. But when the Holocaust deniers start seeking Internet forums farther afield there is a lot of complaining from other users and they are forced back to <alt.revisionism>.

GK: This raises very interesting questions regarding the way in which the Internet is seen to function as a kind of miniature public sphere or encapsulated democracy. Do you think that the state will eventually step in in the form of some kind of FCC devoted to computer communications, or do you think that the self-regulatory processes of the Internet will mature to the point to which they become recognized and accepted.

We're already encountering debates about child pornography and stories with extreme violence and sadism on the Internet in the "Jake Baker" case, in which a University of Michigan student allegedly posted a violent and pornographic description of the torture of another student, using her full name.

CB: Yes, but the important point in the Baker case is that he allegedly named that student. There is a real problem on the Internet with people not knowing what criminal law is all about. There is a serious lack of understanding about libel. People say things about other people which, if it were in print, they could be sued for. It's not clear yet how these laws apply to the Internet. I've had people say things about me on line that are legally actionable. But what can I do? They are probably posted by someone sitting in their basement who doesn't know any better. You really can't legally say that I am a secret agent of the FBI or Anti-Defamation League when I'm not, or that I'm a communist when I'm not. People don't understand that when they post a message that can be read by four million people it is a form of publishing. So there is a lack of responsibility there.

Anyone who accesses the Internet is technically signing an NSF document an agreeing to abide by certain rules. Everyone's forgotten that they were asked to read this document the first time they logged on to the Internet, and that they are obliged to abide by its rules, but it's there. I think that as time goes on there are probably going to be things added to that document about access, and the ability of parents to turn off certain conferences, through a simple code. I think that's appropriate. I think that if you're old enough to move out of your parent's house and buy your own computer, then you're old enough to look at the pornography conferences.

I think what you'll see is less external regulation than the development of appropriate self-regulatory policies. Everyone deserves a conference, but you can't start sending your messages all over the Net. Some people recently tried to do this by sending advertising to everyone on the Internet and they were blasted in oblivion. As the Internet develops and matures and more people get online who aren't the slide rule set, its going to have to develop some tighter polices. But I hope that they can be self-regulatory and deal with access by age and choice.

I think I should have the right, when visiting a conference on constitutional issues, to not be inundated with posts on alternative health information. If I want to see that I can go and look at it in their conference. This should be an electronic privacy right. Users should have the right to filter out unwanted information, whether its commercial or propagandistic. Also parents need the ability to say that certain conferences are off limits to their kids. And when people violate the rules by posting outside their conference, the sanctions need to be there to exile them back to their conference.

GK: But these are extreme cases, how would this model apply to "family values" rhetoric for example?

CB: Look, 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. What needs to be confronted is the logic and argments of the Religious and secular right, and the anti-democratic ideas underlying many of their proposals. We need better rhetoric not bigger regulations.

Because there are no visual or audio cues in online posts, it is more difficult to evaluate sources of information. If someone on the right posts a message full of innacuarate 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 innacurate or objectionable, just like print editors. I hope there will always be forums that are completely open, but I think the future will see more online versions of magazines and moderated discussion groups where the industrious crackpots and liars are filtered out. And there will be moderated discussions between persons of differing political outlooks who agree in advance to certain civilities. The Utne Reader hosts 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 keeps democracy alive and well.

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Public Eye BBS is still running at (617) 221-5815. :-)

Sysop: Chip Berlet

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Excerpt from Chip's 1985 conference paper

PRIVACY AND THE PC:

Mutually Exclusive Realities?

By Chip Berlet

June, 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

INTRODUCTION

Access, Speed, Storage - as they increase in the world of the Personal Computer (PC), has there been a related decrease in individual privacy as it has traditionally been understood?

Yes, but...

The crucial issues in privacy and PC's revolve around the nature of individual privacy as it has "traditionally been understood" in the courts, in the streets, in government and corporate offices, and in our homes. Once again the wisdom of those who crafted the Bill of Rights is being tested; not on the basis of their essential grasp of fundamental principles of human dignity, but on our ability to come to grips with rapidly advancing technology and apply the principles embodied in the Bill of Rights to the problems posed by that new technology.

A WORD IN FAVOR OF THE BILL OF RIGHTS

In the age of microcomputers and 2400 bits per second modems it is easy to forget the Bill of Rights was drafted to protect individuals from governmental violations of person, property and dignity such as those by the British troops a few decdes earlier when England was vainly trying to assert control over the boisterous colonials. This is a lesson we should not fail to consider when devising laws and guidelines dealing with computerized data bases and telecommunications systems.

Today's Bulletin Board System Operators (SYSOP's) are merely the modern incarnation of the pesky and audacious colonial period pamphleteers like John Peter Zenger and Thomas Paine. And if it pains you to compare SYSOPS to Zenger, remember that time romanticizes our heroes of history. Read Paine's revolutionary rhetoric and look at Zenger's cartoon depicting apes in British soldier uniforms. Today Zenger might well be a political dissident running a controversial BBS while listening to audio tapes of "The Police" singing about surveillance.

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