The scariest thing on the Internet today may not be the ILOVEYOU virus worming its way around the world, but a virtual road map for online organizing drawn up by white supremacist David Duke.
The erstwhile political candidate and grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan spells out for his readers why the Web is the most powerful medium the world has ever known for disseminating the message of the radical right.
"The alien, anti-White media has been my unrelenting enemy," Duke writes in an essay posted at duke.org/writings/internet.html.
Duke may be preaching to the converted. For long before the world was Internet-ready, hard-line conservatives were taking advantage of each era's latest technology, using it to turn public fear into commercial opportunity. They built a rich and wide-ranging network of talk radio, think tanks, and mailing listsa network progressives can't afford to ignore.
And for years now, right-wingers have labored to move that network, intact, onto the Web.
At times, voices of extremists like Duke have threatened to drown the political discourse, dashing hopes that the Net would spark a more democratized debate. "The Internet won't have that much effect," says Charles M. Kelly, author of The Great Limbaugh Con. "And there are so many damned right-wing think tanks producing so much material."
Left-wingers may yet be able to push aside the colorless, centrist, corporate liberals of today and add a truly populist voice to the political arenaboth the real one and the one that exists online.
But be warned: There is no nice way to do it.
Power of Babble
There were yahoos before the Internet. Like the Reverend Billy James Hargis, the most colorful religious-right crusader of the 1950s and 1960s. Hargis and his Christian Crusade battled immorality, Communists, homosexuals, the Beatles, liberals, journalists, and the National Council of Churches. Before Hargis lost his empire in 1976 in a highly publicized sex scandal, the beefy, belligerent, and highly skilled orator had created his own multimedia propaganda mill, peddling his hate and resentment through radio, TV, record albums, pamphlets, newspapers, barnstorming musical tours, and trips around the world.
Aside from his faithful, who regularly sent him money, most people removed from his Ozarks base made fun of him as a perfervid hick. But Hargis was a great promoter, aided by a young marketing wizard named Richard Viguerie, an early enthusiast of computerized databases. Viguerie devised mass mailings for Hargis, attacking commies and liberals. The two of them built up a large list of donors and potential donors, establishing a technique the far right continues to perfect and ensuring a steady flow of money and publicity.
Viguerie, driven by ideology and marketing, went on to create fund-raising appeals for gun lobbies, antiunion movementsa host of right-wing candidates and causes from George Wallace to Orrin Hatch to Rudy Giuliani.
Owing its existence to a keen sense of digital advantages, and backed by wealthy conservatives, the movement Viguerie helped start was poised to seize the next great technology: interactive satellite TV. In the early 1990s, brewing heir Joe Coors threw his financial support behind National Empowerment Television, an ambitious attempt to create a virtual community of far-flung activists. Small groups of people would gather around the country to watch a satellite feed of conservative leaders talking with other right-wingers in the studio and by phone. NET taught people how to work on local and federal issues, even providing extensive instructions on writing letters to the editor.
Though the lure of satellite hookups faded, talk radio continued to draw conservatives by the millions. Right-wing talk programs, like those headlined by Rush and Dr. Laura, became a thriving industry carefully nurtured not only by the Heritage Foundation, founded in 1973 on Coors money, but by the Republican Party.
By the mid '90s, the conservative network had gathered enough might to alter legislation almost instantly. They claimed a major victory in 1994, when radio evangelist James Dobson's worldwide Focus on the Family empire, now online at fotf.org, flexed its muscle in favor of the home-schooling movement. Congress had considered requiring certification for teachers of stay-at-home kids. After appeals to action on Dobson's show and other radical-right talk shows, including Pat Robertson's 700 Club and Rush Limbaugh's show, 800,000 phone calls blistered members of Congress. The home-schoolers won.
Now, in the midst of the supposed Internet Revolution, sophisticated and well-financed right-wing activists are weaving that same kind of superstrong web in the ether. They're even taking media into their own hands, producing news sites like DrudgeReport.com and NewsMax.com [see Ridgeway] and creating online portals with easy access to dozens of conservative think tanks and outlets.
The Heritage Foundation, for one, has made a smooth and powerful transition to the Web at heritage.org, serving once more as a sort of umbrella for other associations as well as generating the usual flood of documents and reports. Its TownHall.com site has allied a score of groups like the Concerned Women for America (cwfa.org) and the old-school American Conservative Union (conservative.org) and mixed them together with radioland's Ollie North, the conservative elite's Weekly Standard newsmagazine (weeklystandard.com), and the Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Washington Times (washtimes.com), whose former editorial-page editor became editor of Heritage's own magazine, Policy Review (policyreview.com).
Right-wing radio talk-show hosts are racing to reach audiences over the Internet, using streaming audio. But they're looking for more than the new, new technology: They want respectability, which could help them hook young listeners as the faithful corps of Dittoheads ages. So they're going after journalists like Joseph Farah, who veered to the right and became a harsh critic of the press and Hollywood, founding TalkRadioNetwork.com in 1997 as a Web-based haven for talk shows. Another conservative news operation, WorldNetDaily.com, recently snared David Goodnow, the bland and familiar face of CNN Headline News for 17 years.
The same tools that allow longtime journalists to reach ideological kin across great distances give extremists like Duke a bully pulpit to the world. "When there is a free and open discussion of the race issue, fact and reason will triumph," Duke writes online. "My friends, that free and open discussion is coming, and it comes by way of the Internet."
Power of Rabble
Activists on the left have been out in the cold for so longnot only demonized by the right for the past five decades but marginalized by the corporate liberals who dominate the Democratic Partythat they have no equivalent of the Heritage Foundation to plug them into the Net. It doesn't help that the left wing often lacks the right wing's access to big money.
Leftist zealotsmostly shut out by mainstream media, which prefer coldly sober voices, and radio talk shows, which like loud but conservative onesnow have the Internet as an outlet, and they are not being subtle.
One online outlet, DAMN, the Direct Action Media Network (damn.tao.ca), offers screaming in the streets in streaming video, an alternative paper in multimedia. A recent broadcast of DAMN's Headline News featured 10 minutes of crackerjack material on two hot stories from Chicago: the gentrification and urban renewal of the historic Maxwell Street district and the plight of school janitors, who are about to lose benefits and have their pay cut because of privatization. In both cases, the DAMN collective came up with good, lively hooks. They linked the Maxwell Street story to the fact that the area is the birthplace of electric-guitar blues, used a sound bite of someone mocking the urban renewal as "Negro removal," and then showed some of the protesters playing mean guitar licks. In the labor article, they pointed out that privatization would leave the janitors' estimated 1100 children with no health insurance.
Apart from sites like DAMN, students and faculty around the globe gather on extensive discussion groups such as H-Net, a humanities and social-sciences listserve at Michigan State University (h-net.msu.edu). Moderated discussion groups hold court on dozens of specialized areas, keeping tabs on racists and anti-Semitic agitators. While David Duke tries to dig dirt on anyone who's not a "European American," his targets are tracking his every move on such sites as hatewatch.org and the Southern Poverty Law Center's splcenter.org. Duke crows that the Internet gives him a great audience, but how many of the extremists would invite such scrutiny?
John Aravosis, founder of Wired Strategies (wiredstategies.com) and veteran of several leftist Internet campaigns, takes the optimistic view, insisting that "the free exchange of information always favors the good guys." But instead of waging propaganda wars, some of the most successful left-wingers on the Web so far are those who are just trying to get things donelike the activists who took advantage of cybertools to organize the trade-war protests in Seattle and Washington, D.C.
Starting small is the way the far right did it in the '50s and '60s as it built its networks. Much of its activity looked like grassroots organizing but was actually directed from above, as when Amway distributors funneled a flood of donations to conservative causes and candidates. Since so many leftist activists operate without well-financed organizations, they're building from the bottom up. The trade-war protests may have drawn a lot of attention, but they were hardly the first time progressives have used the Internet successfully at the grassroots level.
In 1997, students in Laney College's Labor Studies group collaborated with dockworkers in Liverpool, England, to fight shipping companies that were trying to replace strikers with scabs.
The students at the Oakland, California- based college honed their skills in a class about online organizing and then trained the Liverpool dockworkers, through a transatlantic phone hookup, to go online, says veteran activist Ellen Starbird, a teacher at Laney.
On other fronts, the Internet is enabling liberal activists to fight propaganda with propaganda. Aravosis organized the campaign against Dr. Laura (StopDrLaura.com), protesting her homophobic rants and causing several advertisers to pull their support from the show.
Perhaps because left-wingers have had to hear, or at least hear about, the nattering of right-wing nabobs for so long, they feared early on that the right would take over the Internet, after already conquering satellite broadcasts and talk radio. Aravosis notes that, when it comes to portals, at least the conservatives have TownHall.com, the Heritage site that leads directly to about 50 other conservative sites. "The left still doesn't really have anything like that," he says.
But some activists on the left are moving into other new technologies, like microradio, a low-power alternative to high-watt radio stations, with their expensive, hard-to-come-by licenses. Such sites as FreeRadio.org lead to other online homes of what's called the free media movement.
Despite what may seem like a head start in Internet infrastructure for the right, left-wing activists have already tasted blood in real political battles, like the Neptune Jade incident. And they're beginning to find natural allies. The way Aravosis sees it, the libertarian leanings of leading Netizens boost the left and may stop some of the moralizing that's gone on.
Leave-me-alone separatists and policy-minded liberals might seem like unlikely bedmates, but they combined to fight off the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which would have severely limited free speech online. That battle, captained in part by the libertarian members of Families Against Internet Censorship (shell.rmi.net/~fagin./faic), was largely waged through discussion lists and e-mail campaigns.
This new breed of self-styled libertarians on the Internet includes everyone from high-octane entrepreneurs with their antigovernment posturing to open-source programmers who believe information wants to be free. Techies who favor independence, Aravosis says, may not care much for the right's puritanical urges. "Is that person going to be more supportive of a gay-rights advocate," he says, "or a look-into-your-bedroom conservative?"
Thanks to the Reagan-Bush years and seeding by groups like the Heritage Foundation, D.C. is now crawling with young conservatives, many of them well-versed in the ways of the Web. But the Internet has made geographic location unimportant. Everybody has a keyboardand a connectionnow. "They tried to jump on the technology," says Aravosis, "but I think we've got a lot of the smart young things on our side."
Other articles from Take Back the Net (Special Section)
RIGHT THINKING by James Ridgeway
Want to Understand Conservatives? Read Them.
FROM THEIR VAULTS TO YOUR DESKTOP by Russ Kick
Finding Documents the Man Wants to Hide
VIRTUAL MARCHERS, REAL RESULTS by Meg Murphy
Fight Back Online
KEEPING UP WITH THE NAPSTERS by Eric Weisbard
At Pho, a Thousand E-mails a Month Track the Great Digital Debate
DOOMSDAY IN THE MP3 WARS by George Smith
Excavating Stoned Metal From the Internet
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