The Internet Rhetoric of the Ku Klux Klan: A Case Study in Web Site Community Building Run Amok

Article excerpt

"Stand with us Brothers and Sisters. Together we will overcome the forces that are trying to take our country away from us. NOW IS THE TIME!!!!!!!!!" (North Carolina White Knights)

"Just because a person is black or another race doesn't make them bad people. But you should always be careful where you go and who your friends are. Young girls should be extra careful. Many black boys feel extra cool if they hurt a white girl. Some kids don't learn until its [sic] too late." (Just for Kids Page, Knights of the KKK)

These quotations represent two different messages for two different audiences from two different Ku Klux Klan groups. Despite their differences, however, these messages also have two important commonalties: their goal--to gain support--and the medium through which they were transmitted, the Internet. This study examines how Klan groups make use of web sites in their persuasive efforts.

In early work about the Internet, writers-most notably Howard Rheingold (1993)--were often ebullient about the Internet's potential to create virtual communities, while later research raised questions about such Utopian expectations (e.g., Jones, 1995; Freie, 1998). Still, many scholars have held up the Internet as a locale where positive community building and social support take place (e.g. Baym, 1995; Parks & Floyd, 1996; Mickelson, 1997; Mitra, 1997; Berry & Martin, 2000). The rhetorical analysis of Klan web sites offers an example of how groups may, indeed, engage in community building, but community building of a most egregious sort. In this context, community is built through opposition to other groups and through angry, persistent messages of hate that discourage dissenting points of view. Klan web site messages create a virtual tribal identity of white masculinity to attract white men, while some Klan groups exploit the Internet's audience segmentation to make specialized community-building appeals to women and to youth and children. At base, Klan web sites define members of the Klan community by their opposition to minorities, particularly Jews. Klan web sites also encourage "citizens" of their communities to mobilize politically and create a context in which real-life violence is justified and encouraged, even as Klan rhetors deny responsibility for the consequences of their discourse and/or exploit the physical distance between rhetors and audience to do so. Although benevolent community building can take place on the Web, this study reveals the ways in which Internet community building can run amok to the detriment of both individuals and the larger society.

There are several rationales for this study. First, as Kolko, Nakamura, and Rodman (2000, p. 5) noted, "academic work on cyberspace has been surprisingly silent around questions of race and racism." The need to examine racist rhetoric on the Web may also have a special urgency all its own. Although the number of hate groups appears to be decreasing, Blazak (2001) reported that hate activity is on the rise in the form of consolidation (mergers of small hate groups into larger hate groups), sophisticated recruitment of youth, and the creation of leaderless cells that are more difficult to track. The fastest growing communication medium for right-wing hate groups today is the Internet (Hilliard & Keith, 1999). According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, former Klansman Don Black constructed the first "Web hate site" in March 1995; by early 2000, 305 hate sites existed on the World Wide Web ("Hate Groups on the Internet," 2000; "Hate on the Net," 1999). This development is especially noteworthy given the increase in individuals' use of the Internet. Hilliard and Keith reported, "in 1994 about 3 million people worldwide used the Internet, and in 1998 it had grown to over 150 million users" (1999, p. 112). Through the Internet, hate groups have found a cost-efficient means to reach a wider audience ("Internet Hate," 2000). …