by Clay Shirky

As the American public is being sold on the idea of the "Infobahn," it is often suggested that the Internet is ushering in an age of enlightenment, that its structure is inherently leading to a kind of global consciousness raising. In particular, it was (and still is, in some circles) fashionable to suggest that the Net is a tool for erasing prejudice.

This point of view has always been based on the way the Net masks social characteristics. Once characteristics thought undesirable by the majority are hidden from view, the argument goes, oppression based on those factors will disappear. Thus, the Net will function as a meritocracy-- how can there be racism on the Net when no one knows who is black and who is white?

I believed this idea myself for awhile until I came across the Usenet newsgroup alt.politics.white-power in the fall of '94. a.p.w-p is pretty much what you'd expect-- white folks working themselves into a lather over the supposed superiority of European culture and the perceived injustices they've suffered at the hands of affirmative action. I determined that I would wade into this morass and fight the good fight. I believed that the "White Power" movement would not catch on on the Net, and that if there was a concerted enough effort to show that "White Power" rationalizations were just thin masks for naked hate, then the group would wither and die.

I entered with both guns blazing-- firing off posts laden with everything from HUD statistics and recent studies to sarcasm and irony. I made post after post ridiculing racist attitudes, contradicting made-up statistics, and exposing mindless hate masquerading as reasoned conclusions.

I lasted about a week.

People who hate do not care whether their arguments are sensible, rational or consistent. The hate comes first, the arguments follow. Putting these people on the Net does not make them hate any less; in fact, like a bathroom wall, it often gives them a place to spew publicly without fear of social sanction. Any time anyone fighting the prevailing attitudes actually struck a nerve, the argument would shift, but the underlying attitudes would remain the same. "It is a well-known fact that 80% of black men are criminals" would move to "If they're as smart as white people, how come European culture is so much better than African culture" without skipping a beat.

The pattern is the same with the race-baiting in soc.culture.african.american, the misogyny in alt.feminism, and the anti-semitism in alt.revisionism, the homophobia in soc.motss (member-of-the-same-sex). In fact, all that nonsense about the Net reducing prejudice can be easily refuted-- if the advantage of the Net is that no one knows if you're gay or not, then the Net is nothing more than a digital closet. Merely masking characteristics of race or gender does not create tolerance, and in online forums where people have the temerity to be proud of being black, or female, or gay, or Jewish, they are often treated to a steady stream of bigoted invective.

The West Coast utopians who made their money hawking the Net as "an empowering technology" were righter than they knew. A presence on the Net does confer real power. However, power is not goodness. There was a period, back in the pioneering days, when it was possible to confuse the two, because the Net seemed to be doing such good things: online education, extending the borders of collaboration, dissolving national boundaries. It was suggested at the time that the pioneers and visionaries of the Net were shaped by the Net rather than vice-versa, that the Net itself was naturally funneling people into interesting and collaborative work, and would always continue to do so, no matter how much it grew.

The idea that the Net will make all of its citizens into innovative thinkers is a silly as assuming that space travel will make us all astronauts-- you cannot tell what the citizens of a place will be like by looking at its pioneers. Almost all the Net's earliest arrivals (computer scientists and engineers) held an open society in high esteem, but that is changing. Just this past September, "" sent out hundreds of thousands of pieces of email called "The Long March," an anti-Communist, anti-Jew rant of the Old School.

This rant is not unusual in either tone or length; what is unusual is that it is the largest use of the Net for propaganda ever. More importantly, the mail, largely targeted at American users, was sent out from three machines, one in France, one in Germany and one in Italy. These machines were hacked into by a person or persons unknown, and used as cover for sending out copies of "The Long March," thus making their real origin untraceable. In this instance hacking, often linked with anarchism, was used to spread Fascism, and the global reach of the Net, often supposed to be a tool for dismantling racial and national passions, is here used to inflame them.

I do not believe that this means that the Net will necessarily give more comfort to those who want to sow hate and intolerance than those who want to fight it. As an example, the unbelievably dedicated "clean-up crew" in the stomach-turning alt.revisionism may be winning the struggle against Holocaust deniers on the Net, simply because their arguments are concentrated and distributed globally. Once an argument has been definitively refuted in one Net forum, it can't be effectively raised in another.

However, spending even a few days reading alt.revisionism, or any of the other groups where intolerance is the order of the day, is enough to convince one that if there is progress being made in the direction of dissolving prejudice, it is not being made because the Net itself is resistant to hatred, but because some of its citizens are. It would be comforting to believe that the Net will somehow cause humanity to embrace tolerance and reject hate, but it will not. The human condition infects everything it touches, and although there may have been a time where the net was relatively free from ignorant passions, those days are long over.