Emerson College Course to Explore Web of Hate
BOSTON — An image of a slain gay man burns in hell on one. The “FBI” has declared war on White Christians on another. A third pretends to pay homage to Martin Luther King Jr., then suggests the civil rights leader was a sex fiend, a communist and a “plastic god.”
They are radical, hate-driven Internet sites, and they are increasing rapidly.
This fall, they also will be the basis for a communications class at Emerson College called Hate.com.
Professor Robert Hilliard plans to use the sites in a course that will examine how radical groups are using the Internet to recruit new members.
A communications professor, Hilliard became interested by extremists when he stumbled across a far-right talk radio show. He later wrote a book on the topic with Boston College professor Michael Keith.
“We began to listen and we said, ‘Here we were, communications professionals, and we didn’t know about these people,'” Hilliard says. “People have got to know what these people are saying.”
Their book, Waves of Rancor: Tuning in the Radical Right, was well-received — it wound up on President Clinton’s summer reading list — and Hilliard decided to create a new course based on the topic.
The class will examine how the groups target impressionable youth, how they are multiplying and how they foment rage, Hilliard says. News of the new course spread fast on the campus, with several students already enrolling. Hilliard says he expected to reach the 25-student maximum.
Students who enroll will be asked to study different Web sites, with an eye to how extremist sites draw in people, using music and children’s pages, he says.
More than 300 extremist sites are on the Internet today, ranging from neo-Nazi alliances, the Ku Klux Klan, Aryan nationals, gay and lesbian haters, conspiracy theorists and Holocaust denial sites, according to watchdog Southern Poverty Law Center. In 1998, the group counted 254 such Web sites, up from 163 in 1997.
The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, which follows links from hate group Web sites, estimates an even larger presence. It says more than 800 “problematic” sites exist, including those that offer, for example, instructions on making bombs.
Though the subject matter is offensive, the administration at Emerson supports the idea for the new course.
“As a college of communication, Emerson is committed to developing and disseminating knowledge not only about the processes and techniques of communication, but also about how they are used to influence society,” says Emerson President Jacqueline Liebergott.
“This timely new course will keep our students on the cutting edge of knowledge in this area.”
Experts say extremists are careful not to turn off viewers with inflammatory statements or epithets up front. Rock music and games draw in new members gradually. One Neo-Nazi site features bands like RaHoWar, which stands for Racial Holy War.
Others attract viewers with seemingly mainstream articles. Deeper into the sites, racist and conspiratorial theories are bolstered with passages from the Bible and alternative historians.
Hilliard plans to ask some of the hate sites’ creators to be guests in the class, giving them a chance to defend their work.
One site creator has said he is open to such challenges.
“I believe in what I’m doing,” says Don Black, creator of one of the oldest White nationalist sites on the Web. “I believe in my race and my heritage. I think the media is extremely biased against my point of view and I want to provide an alternative to their news.”
Students will be asked to create their own Web sites on the issue at the end of the course. Hilliard and others emphasize that extremist sites are fully protected by the First Amendment and stress they are not calling for their removal.
But while Hilliard says he will accept student projects that endorse extreme Web sites, he is vocal about his hopes that students will work to combat them.
“These are people saying, ‘We must arm ourselves for a holy war to rid the world of those who are not White, Aryan Christians or those who disagree with our points of view,'” Hilliard says.
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