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Editorial: A powerful incubator for online hatred

The internet is a wonderful place for hatred. There is safety – and often anonymity – behind the keyboard, so words punctuated by anger flow with ease.

But sometimes ideological combat can become tiresome, and those who dedicate so much of their time to hate simply long to be understood, for their ideas to be embraced. In growing numbers, they find their way to stormfront.org.

Stormfront was founded in 1995 by longtime white supremacist and former Ku Klux Klan leader Don Black. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the site has about 280,000 registered members and is the most popular online forum for “white nationalists.”

According to statistics compiled by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a Harvard-educated economist, that were published in Sunday’s New York Times, between 96 and 129 registered users on Stormfront are from New Hampshire. In terms of per capita membership, that puts New Hampshire second to Maine in the Northeast.

While New Hampshire users make up just a tiny fraction of the site’s membership, there is cause for concern – and not just because an SPLC study from April linked 100 murders over the past five years to registered Stormfront members. The bigger issue is: What makes somebody join Stormfront to begin with?

The SPLC cites Stormfront’s message board as the main reason for its online success.

“The potential for dialogues to develop was built in and, therefore, so was the potential to develop a genuine white supremacist cyber-community,” the SPLC wrote in its profile of Stormfront.

In recent years, the site has also tried to gain legitimacy by banning racial slurs and Nazi symbols. As SPLC makes clear, this was not due to sudden enlightenment but was modeled “on some of the tactics used by David Duke, who famously urged his Klan followers to ‘get out of the cow pasture and into hotel meeting rooms.’ ”

As an economist, Stephens-Davidowitz pored over the data hoping to understand what makes a racist a racist. He wanted to blame the hatred targeted at Jews, blacks, Hispanics, Muslims and others on poverty or growing up in an area that lacked racial diversity, but the numbers didn’t support the hypotheses.

He couldn’t even hit Stormfront members for being uninformed: “When you compare Stormfront users to people who go to the Yahoo News site, it turns out that the Stormfront crowd is twice as likely to visit nytimes.com,” he wrote.

So, in response to his own question about what can be done about the kind of hatred so strong that it forges a community, Stephens-Davidowitz could offer only this: “I have no idea.”

It is a popular answer to a difficult question – and proof that the race discussion in America is far from over. And it’s not getting any easier.

When former Wolfeboro police commissioner Bob Copeland used a racial slur to refer to President Obama, New Hampshire learned something about itself. Yes, the condemnation was swift and clear, and ultimately led to Copeland’s resignation, but the awkwardness of the debate in this predominantly white state was palpable.

Many saw silencing and ostracizing Copeland as the only appropriate course of action because that is how a civilized society deals with opinions deemed offensive to the general population. But the popularity of Stormfront serves as a reminder of what can happen when the fringes are eliminated to sanitize the debate.

Isolating those found to be in violation of the standards of decency has never been the most effective way to advance society, nor does it foster the compassion at the heart of tolerance. Perhaps there is nothing to be done to reduce the hatred on Stormfront, but there may yet be ways to avoid increasing it. It all begins with listening to opinions one doesn’t want to hear, thus exposing them to the light of day. Better there than the dark recesses of the internet.

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