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
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
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,
"Crusader@NationalAlliance.org" 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.