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Hate groups grow online
By Matthew Broersma, ZDNN
March 4, 1998 2:59 AM PT

Barbie doll collectors and gardening enthusiasts aren't the only ones who are finding the Internet a valuable way to connect with others who share their interests. According to a new report, "hate groups" advocating racial violence, religious persecution and other crimes are also using the Internet to create and extend their communities.

The number of hate groups rose by 20 percent last year, according to a report released Tuesday by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and it was due in no small part to the Internet.

The Net gives hate groups a channel to spread their dogma. Is it free speech or a threat? Add your comments to the bottom of this page.

"The tentacles of the hate movement are reaching places where they've never been before," said Joe Roy, director of the center's Intelligence Project. "Mainstream America is being targeted in a way this country hasn't seen in decades."

The project's annual report said the number of U.S. hate groups it identified rose by 20 percent last year to 474 from 1996 levels.

The group identified 163 sites on the World Wide Web used by U.S. hate groups, including 29 espousing the beliefs of the Ku Klux Klan, 39 posting neo-Nazi doctrine, 27 containing Skinhead messages, 25 espousing Christian Identity doctrine and 46 from various other hate groups.

AOL refuses to remove KKK site.

"What's changed is that these individuals or groups have always been on the margins or fringes of society, and now they're a growing subculture," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a human rights watchdog group in Los Angeles. "What should be of growing concern here is that we have for the first time in American history the chance to create the most powerful communications medium ever invented, and the lunatic fringe has embraced this medium."

Internet analysts said the findings show another dimension to the growing pervasiveness of the Internet.

"'In Washington D.C.' The Internet is a useful platform to lobby and to do grassroots campaigning, and this is the sinister side of that spectrum," said analyst Julia Pickar, of Zona Research Inc., Redwood City, Calif.

Perfect breeding ground
The nature of the Internet makes it the perfect medium for finding groups of people with similar interests. Through hyperlinks, for example, sites can link to lists of other places on the Internet.

The Net has also made it more difficult to determine the real size and extent of hate groups.

"Any Joe Schmoe with a modem and a computer can become a hate group," said Talia Klein, research and development coordinator for the League of Human Rights of B'nai Brith, Canada. "You could have a handful of guys in South Carolina, and there's seven guys and there's also seven hate groups on the Internet."

The Southern Poverty Law Center noted, however, that many Internet groups seem to have fairly extensive memberships, and actively solicit memberships on their Web sites and through interactive media like Usenet newsgroups.

The sites also engage in their own version of e-commerce.

The Web site for the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, for example, not only solicits membership applications and offers Klan news and information, it also sells Klan paraphernalia like T-shirts and caps. Web surfers can order an introductory video called "This Is the Klan."

The Klan could not be reached for comment.

Ironically, the nonprofit watchdog groups who oppose organizations like the Klan have benefited from the Internet in exactly the same way as the groups they fight.

"As the communications person here, I use e-mail more than any other form of communication," said Klein. "The Internet is my primary research tool. We also use it to keep in touch with members 'via listservs' and Usenet is excellent... We have colleagues in Israel, the United States and other countries that I can contact at any time, for no cost. It's provided for us the ability to be internationally connected in a way we never were before."

Reuters contributed to this report.

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