A Political Reawakening: Internet Stirs Citizen Passions

This is a slightly updated version of a lecture I gave at Hadassah, a Jewish civic organization, in 1999.

In the bowels of the Internet, in the spring of 1995, I found my political reawakening. I had not been a serious political activist for nearly 20 years, since college. But surfing message boards, web sites, and Usenet newsgroups, I saw messages that shocked, angered, frightened and energized me:

“Clinton’s a murderer!”
“Die, Clinton, die!”
“Blacks are animals.”
“The Holocaust never happened.”
“Jews are rodents grubbing for money and power.”

A few weeks later, the Oklahoma City bombing occurred, and was quickly attributed to right-wing zealots who viewed the government as the enemy. Though no connection was ever established between those Internet messages and Timothy McVeigh, the chief perpetrator of the Oklahoma City bombing, after reading those messages on the Internet I can’t say that I was completely shocked when the bombing did occur.

As a writer and reporter, I have always been a strong advocate of the First Amendment to the Constitution and Freedom of the Press. But in the early days of the Internet, it was disconcerting that every right-wing and left-wing nut, from neo-Nazis and militia groups to unabombers and neo-communists, could publish their bile for almost no cost and reach a world-wide audience with messages of hate and paranoia.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center studies and tracks online hate groups. He estimated in 1999 that some 2,000 Web sites contain hate, racism, terrorism and bomb-making instructions, up from only one such site in 1995.

Reading so many hateful words over the Internet, I frankly was not as shocked as many Americans were a few weeks ago, in July 1999, when Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, a former member of an online white supremicist group called the World Church of the Creator, went on a three-day shooting spree, killing two and wounding eight Asians, blacks and Jews. I was well aware that white supremicists and anti-Semites were using the Net to recruit followers.

Nor did it surpise me greatly when anti-abortion zealots murdered a doctor in New York who performed abortions. The doctor’s name and home address had appeared on an anti-abortion web site, the Nuremburg Files, with the words “WANTED, DEAD OR ALIVE” under his name. Web surfers found his name crossed out moments after the shooting occurred.

“What is to be done?” I asked myself. There’s no evidence yet that the Internet has actually inspired any violent conspiracies, and extremist Internet postings for the most part are probably meaningless rants of nuts and kooks. Still, the question remains: how can free speech be preserved in the new medium of the Internet without leaving our society vulnerable to domination by extremists?

Extremists aren’t the only citizens more politically active because of the Internet. If political participation is defined as publishing an opinion, more Americans probably participated in politics in 1996 than ever before. Thousands of citizens built web pages to express their political views, and thousands if not millions more surfed political sites on the Net, discussed politics in online forums and through e-mail messages.

Forty percent of World Wide Web users report that they are more involved with politics since coming online, according to a survey by the Georgia Tech Research Corporation. Their most popular online activities are writing government officials (31 percent), discussing political issues (23 percent), and signing petitions (22 percent). More than a quarter (27.2 percent) of Web users reported that they have contributed to or solicited money for political campaigns.

This great burst of publishing, and the rapid pace of change in computer technology is sometimes called “the big bang” into the Information Age. It has left many people feeling dizzy, disoriented, resentful, frightened. In many ways, people today can probably sympathize with the people of the Middle Ages, who experienced the first Information Revolution. Johann Gutenberg introduced moveable type to Europe in 1440, and printed his famous Gutenberg Bible in the 1450s. Printing lowered the cost of education, made newspapers and literature accessible and affordable to the common man. It also placed demands on people to conquer their own illiteracy. With their curiosity sparked, they learned to read. An explosion in intellectual curiosity occurred that shattered unthinking customs and ushered in an age of creativity and individuality we now call the Renaissance.

Many believe the Internet is doing something similar. It almost seems we are back where we started in the 1600s. “…All the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth,” John Milton wrote in his famous Areopagitica. With no mainstream media to set boundaries or filter out the “good” ideas from the “bad” ideas, the people will have to rely on their own critical thinking skills to avoid tyranny.

To preserve free speech in this new medium, in this new age, I believe we have to trust as John Milton trusted. If “truth be in the field,” we injure it by seeking to license and prohibit free speech or free press. We should not “misdoubt her strength,” he wrote. “Let truth and falsehood grapple. Whoever knew truth put to the worse, in an free and open encounter?”

The answer is NOT to become hysterical, to exaggerate the menaces on the Internet, and their numbers, and rush to pass unconstitutional, ineffective, stupid laws like the Communications Decency Act of 1996. The Internet knows no national or international boundaries. It cannot be effectively regulated by the nation-state. Computer-makers, and retailers, as well as Internet users, can install software that blocks offensive material. If a few crazies and malcontents want to post deeply offensive messages such as “the Holocaust never happened” or “the blacks are taking over America,” we can monitor their activities. Such diseased thinking is at least out in the open now, where it can be refuted and discredited, rather than germinating underground, unobserved and unchallenged. People have the right to think and meet in a free society, as long as their activities do not pose a clear and present danger to the rest of us.

This new Information Age may require us to ask again the question, “What is Truth?” To me it has less to do with modern journalistic convention and belief in “objectivity” and more to do with quiet reason, dialogue, and the honest articulation of personal experience. There is plenty of that on the Internet, too.

What We CAN Do to Counter Ideas We Oppose

And so, when I was confronted with those virulent hate-filled words on the computer screen, I decided the thing we need to do in the chaos of the Internet is to start building networks of the good guys. For anyone who has aspirations to be a political or community activist, the Internet is a powerful new tool, clearly evidenced by many examples of effective Internet activism that I’ve collected. I’m also trying to do my part by working for progressive organizations online, and encouraging the development of neighborhoods online, using the Internet to build networks of “caring communities.”

Over the last several years, I have discovered vast networks of people who are working hard to create a better world, and more than a handful of whom I have since had the delight to meet face to face.

No, we can’t stop the haters and the character assassins. But we can overwhelm them with our vastly larger numbers, and shine light in some dark corners. Let them vent their spleen. We don’t need to feel helpless about it. With this new technology, we can network together to build communities of shared interests, shared goals, and stronger relationships. We can use Internet technology to easily participate in politics, in fact to create a new kind of participatory democracy. Virilant, hateful, extremist web sites and online groups can serve as an “early warning sign”; they can energize us and make us realize how much harder we need to work. Reading just the mainstream media, listening to waffling politicians who avoid conflict, it’s easy to become complacent about politics.

In their book, Taking Control: Politics in the Information Age, Morley Winograd and Dudley Buffa estimate that more than 30 million Internet users around the world engage in over 20 million conversations a day in at least 14,000 on-line conferences. There can be little doubt that this new form of participatory democracy will significantly influence and alter the world’s civic culture.

During the Irish civil war, the poet William Butler Yeats wrote that his country had entered a time “when the best lacked conviction, while the worst were filled with passionate intensity.” If we do not do embrace this powerful new technology as a way to advance our civic life and culture, we may be leaving it to those with darker motives who have already embraced it.

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