The Internet in many ways is a virtual extension of the real world, a place where people gather, engage in commerce and acquire knowledge. It is also a place exploited by stalkers, thieves and terrorists. The Simon Wiesenthal Center in New York and Los Angeles has identified thousands of websites, blogs, and social networking pages that it says directs online hate.
The New Year’s Day bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria, Egypt was preceded a month earlier by an online warning of an attack if Catholics did not intervene in the Christian-Muslim dispute in Egypt.
And a deadly rampage at a U.S. Army base in Texas in November 2009 was followed by online praise for the alleged gunman by American-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awaki, presumably from Yemen.
"Yes, Nidal Hassan was one of my students and I am proud of that," said Anwar al-Awaki. "I am proud of Nidal Hassan and this was a heroic and wonderful act."
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center. He says al-Awaki’s statement encourages others to kill.
"You had a validation for the hatred," said Rabbi Cooper. "Almost like a cheerleading section for the hatred this man had in Texas, and saying, go ahead - you know what needs to be done."
Rabbi Cooper says radicals use the Internet to promote a climate of hate, counting on others to act upon it.
Rick Eaton is a Wiesenthal Center researcher in Los Angeles. He took VOA on a virtual tour of a few of some 14,000 Internet hate sites spanning every continent, racial prejudice and ethnic animosity. One, for example, glorifies the white race and Adolph Hitler. Others promote terrorism in Indonesia or discuss holy war in Pakistan.
Yet another site encourages racism in children. It features a video game with a virtual fighter-bomber that targets poor black Haitians. Eaton says the Internet allows easy dissemination of hate-related material. His face is not shown to protect his identity.
"Now with the Internet, these messages are spread and re-spread virally until a single video that a hate group or terrorist group puts up is then recycled into hundreds of different sites," said Rick Eaton.
Experts say there is no way of tracing material posted by terrorists to a specific computer. Thomas Leighton, co-founder of Akamai Technologies, explains:
"The Internet was developed in an environment where everyone was trusted," said Thomas Leighton. "It was developed in the university and government system where there weren't bad guys."
Rabbi Cooper says hate groups can identify one another with the click of a mouse in the same way that others use the Internet for peaceful purposes.
"For the NGOs, the non-governmental organizations, that are involved in promoting human rights and civil society - we use the same tools," he said. "Who can I go to in Sweden who can help the Roma, or another minority group that’s having problems? Who is taking the lead?"
Cooper says police, parents and others must confront digital hate in order to prevent such violent rhetoric from turning into reality.