What should be done? Fascist websites and civil society’s resistance

von Katharina Hamann

»Right-wing extremists infiltrate new media«, »Far-right abuse of the internet« or similar headlines can be found at regular intervals in a variety of print media, ranging from the Spiegel (weekly German news magazine) to PC Online and the local daily paper. But this is really just everyday life being dished up as sensation; the fact that all kinds of groups and people use the internet, or the World Wide Web, is not worth even a note in the margin. If anything, it’s the opposite that would be shocking, i.e. that so-called far-right organizations had decided from now on to use neither cell phones nor the internet.

Dossier #4: A look at internet projects and initiatives which deal with Nazis on the net in very different ways and in so doing, provide material for a discussion on the various strategies.

  1. Strategies against right-wing extremism on the net
  2. What should be done?
    (Katharina Hamann)
  3. Interview with jugendschutz.net
  4. Registering neo-Nazi sites online
  5. Students against the Right
  6. XPedient.org
  7. Children of the Holocaust
  8. Linklist for this issue
  9. Dates

As a rule, journalists reporting on these issues rely on figures published by the German Federal Office for the Defense the Constitution (ODC, translator’s acronym), which from 1996 to 1999 spoke of a ten-fold increase in German extreme-right sites on the World Wide Web.(1) That sounds scary. They fail to mention, though, that in absolute values, this amounts to an increase to 330 sites. As a fraction of all the sites on the net, however, this would probably sound too low. Like the media, most anti-right-wing activists also refer to the ODC’s figures. It is not only problematic that the ODC is politically motivated; the criteria by which the sites are judged »far-right« are not known. A precise definition does not even exist in »extremism research«. The historian, Wolfgang Wippermann, goes so far as to claim that »extremism exists only in the imagination of the extremism researcher«.(2) In effect, all institutions rely on the suggestiveness of the term without bothering to justify their classification of a website as »far-right«. Nationalism, racism and anti-Semitism, however, are not just found on the right-wing edges of society, but are also at home in civil society’s mainstream, which despite its indignation, seldom bothers to analyze websites according to its own criteria. The status quo is accepted as a given, as is the necessity of moving against the right from the position of the status quo.

(1) Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz: Rechtsextremistische Bestrebungen im Internet. Köln, 2000
(2) Wippermann, Wolfgang: »Doch ein Begriff muß bei dem Worte sein«. In: Jäger, Siegfried/Schobert, Alfred: Weiter auf unsicherem Grund. Duisburg,2000, S.21 bis 47

This is not to deny that fascist, racist and anti-Semitic sites can be found online in every conceivable form and at every conceivable level. The New Right and ultra-reactionary Nazis publish in the internet, as do informal conservative-right associations, national parties, »freie Kameradschaften« (»free fellowships«, or loosely organized neo-Nazi groups), ethnic mystic and Holocaust deniers: open and subtle anti-Semitism that disguises itself in scientific or satirical sheep’s clothing. The net is used to publicize events and propagate racist texts, to glorify National Socialism or to discuss an Arian revolution. The sites are unquestionably easy to find, either by entering the name of the organization with a ».de« ending (»de« for Deutschland, or Germany) as many of the NPD sites supposedly do, or by using search engines. Other sites are well-known from TV or radio programs.

Right-wing publications in the traditional media have been around for a long time and seem to be accepted. There is, after all, no campaign to stop train station kiosks from carrying the »Junge Freiheit« (»Young Freedom«, a far-right magazine). A call for limiting the freedom of the press would presumably be seen as an affront to democracy rather than as a way to stabilize it. Not so with webzines, however. Ignorant of technology and structure, people often demand that they be banned, insisting that political steps should finally be taken to make racist texts unreadable. So what differentiates the medium of internet from any other? Aside from the fact that it is not yet integrated into social customs and is seen as a cultural artifact worth protecting.

Specific advantages of the internet for the Right are, for example, that with relatively little financial expense and technical effort, any user can publish material on their own and potentially reach a great audience. Within limits, federal criminal prosecution can be avoided and banned texts can be made available. Mobilization of people and internal communication are easier. Interested people can access the sites anonymously, thereby at least lessening, if not completely eliminating, their reluctance to make contact with fascist organization.

Acting as a link between independent organizations, the World Wide Web is particularly well suited to the fractional character of the Right and its tendency to organize itself into »freie Kameradschaften« (»free fellowships«, or loosely organized neo-Nazi groups) and temporary associations formed to carry out certain single events or campaigns. As a result, the medium has a special significance in the debate on right-wing organizations and associations within German society. On the other hand, the advantages are, as a rule, only for a clientele that is already right-wing. The internet after all, like other media, does not function according to a stimulus/reaction model. Users that read right-wing sites by accident or out of curiosity are not suddenly radicalized. Antifascist political positions and fundamental attitudes cannot be changed through a single contact with NPD web pages. A pretty banal statement, you would think. But it seems that it’s one that needs repeating, especially in this context. Internet-related activities against the Right do not deal primarily with far-right attitudes of contempt for human life; nor do they fight extreme-right propaganda with arguments of their own. They want instead to ban far-right material on the net or hinder access to it, which in concrete terms, means introducing filter software or convincing providers to restrict German users’ access to such material. In so doing, they misjudge the transnational and at least technically non-hierarchical nature of the medium, which is acknowledged is hold advantages and is seen positively in a civil society context, for example by the NGOs.

Dealings with counter-initiatives suggest that they followed the call of the Aufstand der Anständigen (»Uprising of the Respectable«, a state-sponsored campaign against right-wing violence) to do »something against the Right«. Not otherwise known for their great sensitivity regarding problematic material, media makers, like the organization »naiin Verein« (»no abuse in internet«, www.naiin.de) of Prof. Helmut Thoma, also got involved to a degree. This is not to say that racist and anti-Semetic material is not a problem and must be accepted as a reality. Rather, the effectiveness of initiatives that are directed solely at the internet should be questioned. Because even if a provider cancels its contract with a far-right organization, their sites will quickly pop up somewhere else. And even if involved parents install clever multi-leveled filter software, the kids will just switch to another browser, surf at friends or in an internet cafe. Banning unwanted material from the net is not 100 percent possible. Fascist ideology can and must be fought, but not only on the World Wide Web. A good example is shoa.de [www.shoa.de]. The site operators concentrate primarily on educating young people on fascist Germany’s extermination of Jews, the Second World War and the post-war period, and ensures that the term »Holocaust«, when entered in a search engine field, is not just displayed in a list of Auschwitz-denial sites. Another service is offered, a common one among many counter-initiatives: users can register Nazi sites. Shoa.de’s main focus, however, is on historical information.

What should be done against right-wing extremism in the internet? The question cannot be answered in a short summary, but we should concentrate on legal developments in society as a whole. Fascist material on the net is only a manifestation and not a cause of the spread of far-right ideas.

Next article: Interview with jugendschutz.net