ADL conference explores cyberhate

At first glance, the gurgling baby, light-blue background and cursive script of the “White Nationalist Baby” Web site do not seem compatible with the traditional messages of neo-Nazis.

Remove the flowing script, however, and the writing is the same as that of thousands of other white nationalist groups that advocate a “pure white identity.” It is these Web sites – in all their forms – that are creating the hate speech of tomorrow, Brian Marcus, director of the Anti-Defamation League‘s (ADL) Internet Monitoring Department, said Monday.

“These sites look innocent so people look at them and don’t realize that what they are reading is hate speech. This is very, very dangerous, and we are still working on how to find and stop these sites,” said Marcus.

Dozens of experts from Israel and the United States joined Marcus for the first ADL conference on “Hate and the Internet” that was held in Israel Monday. While experts explored the various definitions of hate speech, and how it manifested itself online, the focus of the conference was what should be done to stop “cyberhate.”

“We cannot just say we will shut down all these sites and they will go away, and I don’t think ignoring them will help either,” said Marcus. “I think the best approach could be summarized in a phrase that was said by [US Supreme Court Justice Louis] Brandeis long ago… ‘Sunlight is the best disinfectant.'”

Brandeis, who coined the phrase in 1914 to extol the values of honesty and transparency in public policy, was repeatedly quoted in the conference, as speakers argued over how research and public education could help stem the growing number of hate sites online.

“There has been a marked increase in hate crimes that corresponds to the growing number of hate sites on the Internet,” said Christopher Wolf, chairman of the International Network Against Cyberhate. “Online recruitment to hate groups has been effective, and we have seen an increase in membership to hate groups.”

The connection between online speech and real-world hate crimes has yet to be examined, said Marcus, who added that the ADL was encouraging governments worldwide to conduct research into the area.

“The problem is that each country has its own standard of what constitutes hate,” said Marcus, who recounted that during a recent conference in Europe, Russian representatives believed that Seventh-Day Adventists should be qualified as a hate group because of their views on the army and nationalism. “We clearly cannot adopt a universal standard that everyone agrees on.”

Instead, said Marcus, lawmakers in individual countries should consult with Internet policing units to create legal standards.

“It’s not the decision of the private companies or the international bodies or the international experts to say what is and isn’t good content,” said Meir Brand, director of Google Israel. “It’s the decision of the lawmakers, the people elected by government.”

Where the ADL and other monitoring bodies get involved, said Marcus, is when the hate speech online begins to have real-life consequences.

He points to an example from several weeks ago, when users on the Vanguard News Network started exchanging ideas over how to “infiltrate” Jewish communities to learn more about the secret meetings held by Jews to discuss the “takeover.”

The ADL, he said, only began investigations when one user posted about his own experience in “infiltrating a Los Angeles synagogue.”

“It raised a flag for us because it meant that he had actually gone and done something in the Jewish community there. Now we are looking into it and trying to track this user to see if he is dangerous,” said Marcus.

Tracking individual users is no easier than monitoring Web sites, explained experts at the conference.

Because Web sites are easy to create and relocate, content can be moved from one address to another before law authorities have time to process it.

Organizations like the ADL often store information from Web sites and keep a hard copy in case it is deleted by the group, but many hate sites have begun developing new methods, such as encoding their sites with hidden texts.

On one such site, which has been taken down but is currently being investigated by police, script encouraging users to “spill blood” and “kill” are revealed only after the mouse is held down and dragged slowly over solid color portions of the Web site.

“Now that we know that they encode messages this way we can check other sites for them and inform law enforcement that this is a method being used,” said Marcus.

For a long time, said Marcus, the ADL bought up Web sites with the words “Jew,” “kike,” “defamation” and other terms that could be used by groups popularizing hate messages.

“We discovered that it really wasn’t effective because for whatever we bought there was always some slightly different alternative that they could use. It’s not about the name they use.

That’s not what’s working for them,” he said.

As long as the groups continue to sell themselves online, whether by innocuous image or subliminal text, viewers will continue to visit their content.

“You can’t censor your way out of hate,” said Marcus. “Brandeis knew that a long time ago.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday November 13, 2007.
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