This is a slightly updated version of a lecture I gave at Hadassah, a Jewish civic organization, in 1999.
In the bowels of the Internet, in the spring of 1995, I found my political reawakening. I had not been a serious political activist for nearly 20 years, since college. But surfing message boards, web sites, and Usenet newsgroups, I saw messages that shocked, angered, frightened and energized me:
"Clinton's a murderer!"
"Die, Clinton, die!"
"Blacks are animals."
"The Holocaust never happened."
"Jews are rodents grubbing for money and power."
A few weeks later, the Oklahoma City bombing occurred, and was quickly attributed to right-wing zealots who viewed the government as the enemy. Though no connection was ever established between those Internet messages and Timothy McVeigh, the chief perpetrator of the Oklahoma City bombing, after reading those messages on the Internet I can't say that I was completely shocked when the bombing did occur.
As a writer and reporter, I have always been a strong advocate of the First Amendment to the Constitution and Freedom of the Press. But in the early days of the Internet, it was disconcerting that every right-wing and left-wing nut, from neo-Nazis and militia groups to unabombers and neo-communists, could publish their bile for almost no cost and reach a world-wide audience with messages of hate and paranoia.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center studies and tracks online hate groups. He estimated in 1999 that some 2,000 Web sites contain hate, racism, terrorism and bomb-making instructions, up from only one such site in 1995.
Reading so many hateful words over the Internet, I frankly was not as shocked as many Americans were a few weeks ago, in July 1999, when Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, a former member of an online white supremicist group called the World Church of the Creator, went on a three-day shooting spree, killing two and wounding eight Asians, blacks and Jews. I was well aware that white supremicists and anti-Semites were using the Net to recruit followers.
Nor did it surpise me greatly when anti-abortion zealots murdered a doctor in New York who performed abortions. The doctor's name and home address had appeared on an anti-abortion web site, the Nuremburg Files, with the words "WANTED, DEAD OR ALIVE" under his name. Web surfers found his name crossed out moments after the shooting occurred.
"What is to be done?" I asked myself. There's no evidence yet that the Internet has actually inspired any violent conspiracies, and extremist Internet postings for the most part are probably meaningless rants of nuts and kooks. Still, the question remains: how can free speech be preserved in the new medium of the Internet without leaving our society vulnerable to domination by extremists?
Extremists aren't the only citizens more politically active because of the Internet. If political participation is defined as publishing an opinion, more Americans probably participated in politics in 1996 than ever before. Thousands of citizens built web pages to express their political views, and thousands if not millions more surfed political sites on the Net, discussed politics in online forums and through e-mail messages.
Forty percent of World Wide Web users report that they are more involved with politics since coming online, according to a survey by the Georgia Tech Research Corporation. Their most popular online activities are writing government officials (31 percent), discussing political issues (23 percent), and signing petitions (22 percent). More than a quarter (27.2 percent) of Web users reported that they have contributed to or solicited money for political campaigns.