At the American Jewish Committee annual meeting on the evening of Sept. 10, the AJC’s expert on anti-Semitism and extremism, in a somewhat synchronistic and unknowingly prophetic way, delivered a keynote address on “Hate and the Internet: Free Speech, Civil Rights and Public Safety.”
Even though Ken Stern is recognized as an international expert in the field of hate groups, he could not have foreseen what was to happen in America the very next morning.
But with his laptop at the ready that Sunday evening in downtown Seattle, he surfed through Web site after Web site of some of the most bigoted Web addresses in the world — from white supremacists to Arab extremists — while those in attendance watched the projected images on the stage behind him.
According to Stern, the actual threat from these sites is, in his view, somewhat overrated, but they do provide a virtual setting for the philosophy to thrive.
“The question is ‘How many hits do they get?’” said Stern. “The evidence is they’re getting very few hits, maybe a few hundred a day. It facilitates communication but I have yet to see a case where something happened as a direct result of a Web site. The far right were way out ahead of using computers for Holocaust denial in the 1990s. Then the militia movement popped up in Montana. The early Internet gave them a feeling of community and illusions of power.”
The Aryan Nation, Christian Identity, Radio Islam, White Supremacy, Stormfront.org, Aryan Graphics, The Blacks and Jews Newspage and many other sites that are linked to those are available at the click of a mouse to any Internet user, says Stern. And the more innocent you are to the technology, the more at risk you will be to inadvertently ending up on one of these many sites by just typing in a corresponding word similar to their address. Children are obviously an innocent and vulnerable audience, and because of that, Stern advocates education for the user as the front-line defense against exposure to these sites.
“You need to be able to show children how to evaluate the accuracy and quality of the information they view on the Internet,” said Stern. “Teachers need to provide librarian-like skills to children and teach them how to evaluate and follow the links on that site to see who they are associated with. Filters may make sense for some children, but they also filter out some of the good material.”
But when you seek to censor certain kinds of information, warns Stern, you are risking infringing on all of our First Amendment freedoms. Even though a group may advocate violence toward another group, as in the case of abortion provider Dr. Barnett Slepian, who was assassinated while at home with his family in Buffalo, N.Y., and whose name was then crossed off an abortion provider list displayed on a Web site called the Nuremberg Files, how can you prove the so-called “hate speech” caused the murder?
“How do you walk the line between threats and constitutionally sanctioned opinion speech and what kind of responsibility does the Internet service provider have?” asked Stern. “AOL has taken the stance that they’re not the government, but if you want to promote hate speech, go somewhere else. That’s not a guarantee, but it’s better than nothing.”
The AJC, founded in 1906, was the first Jewish organization in the United States to focus on eliminating hate toward the Jewish people and all groups through bridge-building and intergroup relations. Richard Harkavy, executive director of the AJC in Seattle, sees an eerie similarity between the most recent terrorist attacks in America and the kind of hate spread on the Internet through Web site content.
“For me, the Internet is faceless,” said Harkavy. “These terrorists are faceless. They are anonymous. These are people who are in the shadows. Before Sept.11, most people in this country minimized the danger of these terrorist cells but these groups are a lot more cunning than we thought. Our enemy is not going to be as visible. This is the true enemy of the 21st century and the Northwest is not immune. The white supremacists are very anti-Israel and they are in cahoots with certain Arab groups. White supremacists by definition hate Semitic people. But for the time being they will put away their hate for each other to hate the Jews.”
There are Web sites that provide an antidote for the revisionist history and the racist rhetoric of hate groups. According to Stern, one of the better models for fighting hate on the Internet is a Web site called The Nizkor Project, which is “dedicated to the millions of Holocaust victims who suffered and died at the hands of Adolph Hitler and his Nazi regime.” Another site, called HateWatch, offers a public dialogue for those interested in discussing bigotry online and using their comprehensive library of “Hate By Category” to investigate hate on the Internet.