February 02, 2001

Clinical & Research News

Hate-Group Web Sites Target Children, Teens

Hate Web sites aggressively pursue impressionable children and teenagers. Psychiatrists and others following this development aim to boost awareness among clinicians, parents, and the young.

By Lynne Lamberg

Hate groups once relied primarily on fliers, along with small-circulation newsletters and other publications to spew their vitriol. Today, they seek a global audience via Internet Web sites and electronic mail lists. Many target children and teenagers, particularly those who feel marginalized.

Most children today navigate the Internet with far greater ease and frequency than their parents, said Keith Cheng, M.D., clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health Sciences University. But they still need parents and teachers to guide their choices.

Surveys show parents worry most about children’s access to Internet sex sites and that many parents know little about hate Web sites. Fifty percent of teenagers in one survey said their parents imposed no restrictions on their Internet use, Cheng told Psychiatric News.

Sites Appeal to Children

Hate sites aimed at young children often have bright colors, balloon lettering, cartoons, perhaps coloring pages to print out, simple crossword puzzles, and references to well-liked Pokemon cards. Those directed at teenagers may offer free plug-ins to popular video adventure games, using persons of various religions, races, or sexual orientations as prey. Some offer "hatecore" and "white power" music featuring a contemporary sound and invective-laden lyrics. They also may include streaming video and audio files. Others appeal to adolescents’ growing independence by saying, "Your parents or teachers may not know about this. Don’t you think you should make up your mind for yourself? Here are the facts. . . ." Some hate sites host chat rooms to communicate their views in a conversational manner.

Fifty-six percent of 9- to 17-year-olds list the Internet as their preferred resource for classroom assignments, according to America Online’s Cyberstudy, released in December 2000. Many hate sites offer "homework help" as a lure. A site titled "Martin Luther King—A Historical Examination," for example, appears at first glance to offer students just what they need to prepare papers on the slain civil rights leader. The homepage at <www.martinlutherking.org> includes a King photo and links to "Historical Writings" and other seemingly academic topics. These links lead, however, to "the Martin Luther King plagiarism page," which purports to document "MLK’s long career of misrepresenting other writers’ work as his own," reports on King’s alleged sexual infidelities, and lists publications by former Klansman and former Louisiana State Rep. David Duke. E-mail to the site’s Webmaster goes to <stormfront.org>, a white supremacist group.

An Internet search on the word "Holocaust" also produces both reputable and hate-group sites. The latter often emulate the former, with polished graphic design, news-style headlines, and long lists of academic-looking citations. Holocaust denier and discredited British historian David Irving, for example, asserts on his Web site at <www.fpp.co.uk/online.html> that Auschwitz gas chambers were constructed after World War II. Arthur R. Butz, an associate professor of electrical engineering at Northwestern University, maintains a Web site, <pubweb.acns.nwu.edu/~abutz>, on the university’s server in which he claims that typhus, rather than a systematic program of mass murder, killed millions in concentration camps.

Others hate sites promote homophobia or target abortion providers, women, environmentalists, and gun-control advocates. Several chapters of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) have Web sites.

Some hate sites have innocent-sounding names. The World Church of the Creator, at <www.creator.org>, proclaims itself to be "established for the Survival, Expansion, and Advancement of our White Race exclusively."

"In order to survive," the Web site states, "we must overcome and destroy those that are a threat to our existence."

Hate Sites Protected

Unless such sites threaten the lives of specific individuals, they are protected under the free speech provision of the First Amendment. Many post disclaimers to protect themselves from liability from lawsuits if users of their Web site attack targets they identify. Many organizations that oppose censorship provide critical assessment of hate Web sites and reliable educational resources at their own Web sites.

"It’s instructive to anyone to try an Internet search and see how easy it is to find hate groups and inflammatory texts," said Laura Proud, an independent media research associate in Portland, Ore., who works with Cheng and other psychiatrists in an Internet study group.

"Fringe groups benefit enormously from the Web in their ability to get their messages out," Proud said in an interview. "They thrive on the Internet’s lack of regulation and the opportunity for anonymity. Radicals on both sides of the political spectrum have embraced the Web precisely because it operates outside the corporate media monolith."

Online booksellers offer anti-Semitic books such as Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, shown in the 1920s to be a forgery detailing an alleged plot by Jews to take over the world. A search at <www.amazon.com> and <www.barnesandnoble.com> in December 2000 found Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf in English and in German among these sites’ 5,000 best-selling books. The book’s importation into Germany is illegal.

"The Internet did not create hate, but it has made hate messages more accessible and the connection between professionals and amateurs more direct," Mark Weitzman, director of the Task Force Against Hate of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in New York City, told Psychiatric News.

Although it might be socially or economically difficult for extremists to be identified in their communities, Weitzman said, they easily can go online. "[People who] are isolated and cut off from human contact," he observed, "can create a grandiose world knowing that their thoughts are transmitted around the globe and that they perhaps can have an impact on others.

"What was once merely water-cooler talk now becomes more powerful," he added. "We have to take warnings about hate messages seriously."

Parents and educators should not rely on Web filters or blocks. "Any kid can get around them by going to a friend’s house," Weitzman said. "The best way to deal with this problem is to be aware it exists and to teach children to read and evaluate critically." Teachers need to review every Web site that students cite as a resource, he suggested, or to present students with a list of approved Web sites in advance.

Most adolescents who visit hate-group Web sites, Cheng asserted, won’t be swayed by the sites’ endorsement of bigotry. But those who feel isolated from or persecuted by classmates and neighborhood peers, and/or rejected by members of their own families, may feel empowered by belonging to hate groups. By going online, they can avoid the complexities of face-to-face interactions.

Psychiatrists treating youngsters with mood or impulsivity disorders need to ask about Internet use, Cheng said, and to include questions about Web-site and chat-room preferences as part of their standard review of systems for children and adolescents. Internet access should be appropriate for a child’s age and psychological development.

Parents can set limits, he said, in the same way they restrict visits to malls, movies, and parties and to access to violent video games. Clinicians can help facilitate parent/child dialogue, with the aim of encouraging youngsters to make good choices.

"The biggest message to clinicians is to be aware of what’s available online," he asserted. "If you’re not aware of it, you can’t intervene."