Sol Littman stood up in the back row to harangue the audience at a panel discussion on online hate at the Canadian Jewish Congress’s annual conference in Montreal. It was 1995, and the neo-Nazi propaganda efforts of Jason Smith, Greg Raven, Milton Kleim and others had left the Jewish community deeply disturbed. I shared the panel with Ken McVay, a Victoria, BC-based anti-Nazi activist and the founder of the Nizkor Project. Without wishing to trivialize anyone’s fears, McVay and I explained that on-line hate propagandists were neither numerous nor much of a threat to the security of the Jewish community. They warranted concern, but definitely not panic.

Littman was one of the good guys. A long-time activist against antisemitism, he was the Canadian director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and spoke to the audience with considerable authority. Yet, at the same time, he seemed to miss the point about the Internet. “We need to cut these Nazis off at the source,” he said. “We need tough restrictions on Internet access.” The medium was still young in 1995 and, for many people – particularly Holocaust survivors, and activists like Littman who had been in the fight against paleo- and neo-Nazis for decades – the Internet itself appeared to be the threat.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center had just released a white paper entitled “The Need for Regulation on the Information Highway” that called for a legal crackdown on the Internet and an “international conference to arrive at uniform, world-wide regulation.” To me, that seemed a step too far, an invitation to smother the burgeoning digital commons in its crib, and I immediately identified Littman as an enemy of digital civil liberties, and an agent of repression. Besides, as McVay was fond of pointing out, it’s easier to stomp on cockroaches when they crawl out from the under the fridge, and by moving into the public Internet, the Nazis had made themselves vulnerable.

Almost a quarter-century later, I find that I am less sanguine about the “digital commons” and perhaps a little more sympathetic to Littman’s point of view. While I remain opposed to the regulation of content on the Internet itself, as a common-carrier, the nature of the medium is far different today. The commons has been colonized by vast media corporations, like Facebook  and Twitter which stand to profit from hate propaganda and its propagandists. While the Internet itself remains – and should remain – a free space, those social media giants have a responsibility to de-platform hate-mongers and would-be terrorists.

Moreover, the cockroaches have fled back under the fridge, to dank holes like 4chan, 8chan, and Gab, where their racist screeds have all too often led to terrorist violence. The difference today is that they are a threat to the security of Jewish community, indeed to civil society as a whole. While we must defend the liberties of the Internet, we must also follow the roaches to their dark places and stamp them out.

As a journalist for the Montreal Gazette and Wired News more than two decades ago, I reported on the first manifestations of online hate that have metastasized into the festering horror we suffer today. It was the subject of a chapter of my first book,   Logic: Dispatches from the Information Revolution.

This is the final part of a four-part series republishing that chapter. Rereading those words today, it all seems to familiar. The Nazis are back; they never really went away.

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Paper Brownshirts

The ultra-right’s slick, elaborate Web sites give the impression of a well-organized, mass movement at the cutting-edge of technology. They’re supposed to. Impressive Web pages and heavy participation in Usenet might seem to indicate that the ultra-right is healthy and vigorous, but appearances can be deceiving. The most energetic online propagandists, like Kleim, are usually independent free-lancers, who may be associated with the neo-Nazi movement, but are not directed by it. Moreover, it’s almost impossible to know exactly how many people are behind a Web site, whether it is the work of an organization, or an individual. On Usenet, one person with a handful of different Internet accounts can create the impression of a dynamic movement by having a conversation with himself. The technique — known as “pseudo-spoofing” — is a favorite neo-Nazi tactic. Even one user, using a single access account, can throw a disproportionate weight around the Internet, by spamming, or cross-posting to every newsgroup on Usenet.

The neo-Nazis themselves can’t say if their online propaganda and recruiting efforts have had any real effect for the white supremacist movement as a whole. Smith said he had received some “encouraging e-mail,” but ultimately conceded that he spent most of the time preaching to the choir while those who disagree with his opinions ignore him. In 1994, Kleim blustered “If I can cause one person to open his eyes and just question what the establishment issues, then I have succeeded and my efforts are justified.” However, today he concedes that he probably wasn’t responsible for recruiting more than ten people for the ultra-right, and even they were just people who asked for additional information.

There probably has never been a time when the racist ultra-right was a single, unified movement, and today, despite well documented ties between the Klan, Holocaust deniers, skinheads and white nationalist organizations like the Aryan Nations and the National Alliance, the ultra-right is as fractious and muddled as it has ever been. The expulsion of Willis Carto — reportedly at gunpoint — from the Institute for Historical Review is merely symptomatic of the inability of racists to maintain a cohesive and effective organization.

Most ultra-right groups are ephemeral organizations generated by the socio-economic conditions of the time. Their lack of a consistent program and ideological center beyond the immediate appeal of hatred for the “other” makes them both volatile and fragile. Canada’s Heritage Front, for example, loomed into the media spotlight in the mid-1980s as the reinvigorated threat of fascist direct action. However, after reaching its peak of effectiveness around 1988, it was rocked with defections and scandals — notably the revelation that one of its leaders had been an informant for the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service — that brought the organization to its knees. Today, despite the appearance of a Web site and an electronic mailing list, the Heritage Front is little more than an extremist group on paper and in the minds of its leaders.

The ultra-right’s activities on the Internet are haphazard at best. The neo-Nazi movement on the Internet is an iceberg in reverse, apparently solid and threatening on the surface, but without substance or support below. Despite the best efforts of its few noisy online propagandists, who never number much more than a dozen on Usenet and less than two hundred on the Web at any one time, the ultra-right’s leadership has shown remarkably little interest in the new technologies. “I was never acknowledged by the [National Alliance’s] national office or given resources,” Kleim recalls. “I was never given a dollar to do anything I did. Everything I did was either through the school or on my own funds. I did all of that on my own. I wrote ‘On Tactics and Strategy for Usenet’ on my own. I wrote the ‘National Socialism Primer’ on my own. I was never given any support from the national office. In fact, every time I talked to Pierce, I was made to feel bad. This guy was condescending, it was like I was doing something wrong and he had to correct me. Toward the end, I was trying to convince the national office to officially open a propaganda office focusing on the Internet, and it always fell on deaf ears. I don’t know if it was because they didn’t consider it important enough, or they considered me incompetent. There was an editorial in the National Alliance Bulletin in May that was directed at [online propagandists], about how there were certain people on the Internet who were creating a bad image for the movement.”

Online neo-Nazis are all about image. The principal focus of most of the organizations’ web sites is merchandising. The National Alliance will sell you a paperback copy of The Turner Diaries for $88.00, and Ernst Zundel would like nothing more than to take your money in exchange for one of his videos. For most young neo-Nazis — particularly skinheads — image matters more than ideology. It’s an opportunity to get tattoos, wear taboo symbols and frighten your neighbors. Indeed, in Kleim’s words, most neo-Nazis are simply “hobbyists,” weekend Aryan warriors willing to pay through the nose for a third-rate paperback.

Nevertheless, the ultra-right’s message of intolerance does find resonance in one group of eager listeners, however small. Timothy McVeigh, arrested in the April 1995 bombing of the Alfred Murraugh Building in Oklahoma City, was an enthusiastic fan of The Turner Diaries and has well documented links to neo-Nazi organizations. There are even reports that admirers of Robert Matthews and David Lane’s white supremacist terrorism have resurrected the Silent Brotherhood. The movement itself isn’t going anywhere, but there remains a lunatic fringe bent on violence and destruction. However, it is easy to over-state how important online campaigning and ultra-right ideas are to the bombers and terrorists. As was the case with such quasi-political groups as the the Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1970s, the ultra-right is probably motivated less by ideology than psychopathy and a vague sense of frustration and undirected anger.

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Photo courtesy of the Southern Poverty Law center

 

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