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Decoding the Propaganda of Terrorism and Hate Web Sites
By Kevin LaGrandeur, Ph.D.
New York Institute of Technology
Last updated on January 4, 2005
This article originally appeared in The Proceedings of the 2002 Conference of the Southwest Popular Culture Association; a different version of it was also read at the 2002 Conference of the Society for Literature and Science.
Table of Contents
1 Number of Terrorism and Hate Sites Is Growing
2 Defensive Strategy: Classical Rhetoric
3 Persuasive Elements of Interactive Pages
4 Works Cited
Web sites set up to support terrorist and hate organizations are increasingly common. According to an article in the 2001 issue of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s bulletin, Intelligence Report, which tracks hate groups and their activities, the number of Internet Web sites put up by such groups has “been growing steadily since Don Black first put up Stormfront in March 1995.” These hate sites are essentially inexpensive billboards or, more accurately, propaganda machines planted where children and impressionable adults may find them. Their poisonous message is frightening because they are so cheap, easy to implement, immediate, and accessible.
Although members of hate groups who post Websites are predominantly from the United States, other parts of the world are not immune to the proliferation of sites posted by terrorist groups and hate groups. Indeed, according to the Intelligence Report, there is quite a bit of public alarm in other Web-connected countries: “Throughout the Western hemisphere, government officials, parents, educators, human rights groups and many others have loudly warned of the noxious effects of these sites.” But fighting the effects of these sites is difficult. We in the U.S. are caught, for example, between the rock of constitutionally guaranteed free speech and the hard place of moral outrage.
Does this mean that there is no alternative to passive acceptance of heinous websites like these? Not necessarily. Short of censorship, one way to combat the potential effects of terrorists’ Web sites is to arm ourselves with the sword of rhetorical insight. As I try to show my students in the college classes I teach and in the articles I write about the culture and use of the Web, and as I want to show in this admittedly polemical essay, cultivating an awareness of the way that images and text work in tandem on Web sites to persuade their users, provide armor against the persuasive effects of these sites.
Every year, the SPLC’s “Intelligence Project” tallies the numbers of active hate groups, as well as the number of Web sites these groups have posted on the Internet. The statistics are unnerving. From 1998 to 2000, the number of hate sites on the Internet nearly doubled, jumping from 163 to 305. These sites act as veritable “brochures for hate groups,” according to some experts interviewed by the Intelligence Project, which “significantly aid recruiting.” Especially, they may aid in attracting those who are disaffected and looking for a target for their anger, or those who harbor secret racist or partisan beliefs, but are nervous about exposing themselves by contacting radical groups. These disaffected but hesitant individuals are susceptible to the seductive support that the Web sites of hate and terrorist groups provide for their nascent, toxic beliefs.
Moreover, and perhaps just as dangerously, according to the most recent reviews by experts, Web sites put up by such groups now often act as portals to private, online discussion groups where hardened propagandists can prey upon those who are confused about their beliefs (IR 2001). These discussion forums, which are often password protected, provide an environment where longtime members can freely and privately regale potential recruits with justification for their anger. As David Goldman, head of the now defunct HateWatch.org points out, “Extremists need to be told that what they do is good and right and true….These interactive [discussion] groups, even more than the Web, let them feel hope, like they’re participating in a community bigger than themselves” (IR 2001).
Many ideas have been proposed as to how we, as a community, might counter the onslaught of hate on the Web; the most radical of these notions focuses on banning or censoring the Web presence of selected organizations. Germany’s government, for example, at one point proposed staging electronic assaults on racist Web sites using the same type of denial of service attacks that hackers used to shut down Yahoo and Ebay in 2000. In such an attack, a programmer floods the target Website with so many requests for information that the site’s main computer crashes. Obviously, this type of solution poses a problem in our country, where the freedom of speech is considered a basic right. A more subtle and, in the long run, more effective alternative to outright censorship would be to foster a greater public consciousness of the visual and textual rhetoric that underlies hate-based Web sites.
Since both text and graphics and the interaction between the two are used as modes of rhetoric in the context of multimedia, classical rhetoric provides a good basis for a defensive analytical system that would allow the deconstruction of terrorist websites on a person-by-person basis. Ironically, Aristotle, in his 2500-year-old work, the Rhetoric, was the first to delineate succinctly the cure for this modern plague afflicting our World Wide Web by identifying the ways by which human susceptibility to persuasion operates. In his view, although hard evidence should be sufficient to convince reasonable individuals of a particular argument, so many people are incapable of understanding the implications of evidence by themselves, that they are prone to the effects of what Aristotle calls “artistic appeals” put forth by clever rhetoricians. These appeals are predicated on logos, pathos, and ethos—that is, the power of logic (which can be appealingly false), emotion, and the perceived credibility of the rhetor. The Web pages of well-known hate groups provide examples of how text combined with images—even including typographical forms—can lend undue credibility and dangerous emotional force to their Websites.1
Terrorist groups use Web sites in a number of ways; however, because the Web is an increasingly graphical medium, appeals to the emotion and credibility inherent in pictures are their most common rhetorical tactics. As opposed to these emotional and credibility-based influences, appeals to logic are mainly textual, consisting of essays filled with specious reasoning that are attached to the sites. In either case, the initial hook to any of these Web sites is always the graphical image. One of the most evident ways in which graphics are used is to evoke emotions of encouragement to members’ sense of “holy mission.” Many sites accomplish this by including images associated with crusades: flags and symbols specially identified with their cause; people in heroic postures—often militaristic ones; and other martial images, often including weapons. An example of this is the Web site put up by Hizbollah, a radical Muslim group based in the Middle East (see Figure 1, below).
In the homepage of Hizbollah’s Web site, pictured above, one can see in the background vague images of tanks (in the upper left of the window) and of a man hoisting a flag (in the upper right). Centered in the foreground are images of the State of Israel and of a fist holding an assault rifle in the air. The rhetoric of all of these graphics is meant to evoke a holy crusade and its attendant emotions. It encourages the viewer to see himself (the images on this and other pages of the site are all of men) as a part of that campaign. Interestingly, the aims of this campaign are not literal, but implied; they are only defined by the militaristic graphics and by the shape of a territory. This is another way of targeting and rallying a particular kind of viewer: those who are particularly aggrieved by the loss of Palestinian territory to Israel would feel an instant recognition and emotional reaction at the graphical representation of what was their former homeland. This, in turn, would increase their identification with the militaristic feelings associated with the images of guns and tanks, and with the sense of justification that those feelings are, as Goldman noted, “good and right and true.” This whole rhetorical appeal is even supported at the typographical level by tricks that are part of the Web’s unique rhetorical makeup: In the picture above, the bright yellow arm and hand holding the assault rifle are also part of the written text, which reinforces the violent emotional content of the both the text and the site.
Similar rhetorical tactics are used by domestic hate groups, as well. For instance, Stormfront, the first of the white supremacist groups to establish an Internet presence, has “alternative” national flags on its Website—a Confederate flag and one that bears some resemblance to the Revolutionary War flag, with its thirteen stars in a circle, but with a different striped pattern. Stormfront labels this latter flag the “Confederate National Flag”—a clear attempt to draw an association between their cause and the American Revolution. The Aryan Nations’ Web site also has the group’s version of a flag: it is red, white and blue with an “x” pattern at its center reminiscent of the Confederate flag (see Figure 2, below).
There is also a form like a crucifix in the middle of the flag, which is composed of the combination of a sword standing tip down, topped by a gold crown, and crossed by a horizontal beam that is bent into a shape like a swastika. This strange crucifix, which occupies the middle of the Aryan Nations’ homepage, is obviously meant to echo a combination of the crusader cross, Nazi emblem, Confederate flag and the American flag—a symbolic jumble that conveys an implicit claim of might, right, bold revolution, and the image of racial exclusiveness. This last ingredient in the graphical mix is reinforced by the picture of a blond young, Aryan-looking man with a Hitleresque haircut that forms part of the background of the page, and also by an anti-Semitic quotation from Hitler’s Mein Kampf—one which invokes the name of God as part of a “holy mission” against Jews.
Increasingly, the Web sites of many hate groups and terrorist groups seem to walk a rhetorical tightrope. They want to appear powerful to their members, but they also seem to find it necessary to cast themselves as victims, or at least as harmless, in an attempt to win sympathy from those who might visit their sites out of curiosity or as a potential adversary. Such paradoxical rhetorical stances—which represent an attempt to bend the ethos of their sites to gain wider credibility—is evident on the Hizbollah site. In their homepage, one will notice that in the upper right corner is a hyperlink that is labeled “English Site.” On the upper left is a hyperlink labeled in Arabic, which takes one to a site for Arabic speakers. The difference between these two pages is remarkable: the site for English speakers is dominated by images of a young boy waving a Palestinian flag and of another facing down a tank with his arm cocked to throw a stone. In the background of the page are pictures of a mosque’s dome and of a dead young Palestinian lying in a coffin. On the Arabic language page, however, the images are neither as benign nor as innocent. Here, there are pictures of a bearded mullah waving an assault rifle, of armed, Arabic men standing on a tank (with the tank’s cannon pointed menacingly toward the viewer), and of a Muslim fighter carrying a wounded comrade from a battle scene. The scenes of victimhood on the English language pages are clearly an attempt to gain sympathy for Hizbollah in the English-speaking world; but the Web’s designers evidently felt that the Arabic language pages called for a more bellicose rhetorical design to appeal to Hizbollah’s constituents and potential recruits in the Muslim world. Apparently, the designers have gambled that English speakers would simply not be interested in clicking on the Arabic language hyperlinks.
As the design of Hizbollah’s Web site implies, recruitment is an important function of such sites and, because of this, other hate sites also try to strike some balance between disarming and aggressive rhetorical content. Stormfront, for instance, in an attempt to appear “warm and fuzzy” to those who may have children and, perhaps, women who might think that the organization is only for single white males, has a children’s site attached to its homepage. This “kids page” has innocuous attractions like a “games” link and a link to a page with amusing optical illusions. There is nothing overtly political about these links. Their evident rhetorical purpose is simply to make the page seem like harmless “fun.” But combined with these links are others that provide insidious indoctrination. Clicking on the “music” link, for example, lends access to skinhead tunes, and there are links to essays that teach children white supremacist views about history. Such essays on Stormfront’s “kids page” as “March of the Titans: A History of the White Race,” use anthropological discoveries, like that of a Caucasian race that lived in northern China 3000 years ago, to “prove” that whites are in some way superior to others. This attempt at argumentation fits Aristotle’s description of an appeal to logos, or to the rational aspect of a person’s consciousness. As Aristotle specifies, this kind of argumentation is “artistic” in that it does not rely solely upon evidence, but upon its manipulation by the rhetor to make it look convincing to his audience.
The rhetorical pitch of the propaganda in such sites, however, is not always aimed at members or potential recruits. Graphics, text, and the unique combination of interactive graphics and text available on the Web are often used rhetorically not only to enhance terrorists’ sense of their own power, but also to scare their enemies. One example of this is the combination of text and graphics on the homepage of the White Aryan Resistance, a group founded by Tom Metzger, a television repairman from Southern California. The central graphic on his homepage is a sophisticated, realistic looking digital image of a snarling wolf. Blood is dripping profusely from the creature’s fangs, its face is creased menacingly, the irises of its eyes are red, and the pupils are white swastikas. When one rolls the point of his cursor over the picture of the wolf, a pop-up window appears that reads, “Lone Wolves [what W.A.R.’s members like to call themselves] Are Everywhere. We’re In Your Neighborhoods, Financial Institutions, Police Departments, Military, and Social Clubs.”
The picture of the wolf and the sudden appearance of the pop-up text box seem calculated to make Metzger’s foes feel surrounded, outnumbered and disconcerted, a tactic that, like the bristling of small, threatened animals, also appears meant to make Metzger and his members feel bigger and stronger than they are. In this case, as with that of Hizbollah, it seems likely that the combination of graphical and textual rhetoric inherent in the image is aimed at fulfilling both intentions. Metzger apparently thinks that many who visit his site will be members of anti-hate groups or ethnic minority groups who want to keep tabs on what his group is doing. The somewhat narcissistic hyperlink on his homepage to what the Jewish Anti-Defamation League has to say about him seems calculated to demonstrate—and celebrate—his belief that he is constantly under watch by those he hates.
The use of threatening pop-up windows as a sort of ambush tactic meant to surprise and scare critics and, simultaneously, to boost the sense of righteousness and power of hate site’s owners seems to be popular. The Aryan Nations Web site depicted in Figure 2, above, has a very large pop-up window that appears spontaneously a few seconds after the main page finishes loading on the viewer’s screen. There is nothing at all subtle about the message or intent of this window. Emblazoned with a large swastika and the word “Warning,” the message of this window states plainly that if the viewer is not white, he or she should leave the site, as well as North America. There is a special threat for those who are Jewish that their “days are numbered.” The threat even extends to whites who may be reading this: the exhortation to join in this or other White Supremacist groups contains the admonition that if a white viewer is “not part of the solution,” then he is “part of the problem”—in other words, he will be grouped with the hate group’s enemies whose “days are numbered.”
The Bayou Knights, a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, uses a simpler version of the Aryan Nations pop-up ploy. Their pop-up window also appears spontaneously about two seconds after their main page finishes loading (see Figure 3).
As one can see, the graphic is straightforward: the warning message is compressed into a yellow, exclamatory icon, with the words “Whites Only!” typed on a white background. But, given the bone-chilling undertones most Americans—especially most Black Americans—associate with cross burnings like the one pictured on the main page, the simple warning is sufficient, since its verbal threat serves essentially as a caption for the main scene of conflagration. Interestingly, within the threatening pop-up of the Bayou Knights, the words “Microsoft Internet Explorer” stand out with unfortunate prominence against the minimalist appearance of the rest of the pop-up window. This gives the appearance of an attempt to gain rhetorical authority from the implicit imprimatur of the Microsoft Corporation: the fact that the phrase “whites only!” appears within a window that bears the Microsoft Internet Explorer logo could be seen as an implicit globalization of its message under what some might see as a symbol of white corporate domination of the Third World. Moreover, in addition to the usual method of closing a pop-up window by clicking on the “X” in its upper right-hand corner, the window’s creator has provided a button that reads “OK” in the middle of its space. This, in effect, prompts the user for tacit agreement with its “whites only” precept
Perhaps Aristotle said it best when he noted, in his Rhetoric, that “the defects of the hearers” are what make images and “artistic appeals” entailing logos, pathos, and ethos so powerful and useful to rhetoricians. If humans were perfectly reasonable, then simple data would be all that would be necessary to persuade them of the truth, and we would not be susceptible to other types of persuasion. But, since we are susceptible to the influence of what Aristotle called “artistic appeals,” we need to heighten our awareness of the power of interlocked text and image that is characteristic of the digital realm. Following the reasoning of another ancient rhetorician, Gorgias, who in his Encomium of Helen discusses the combined power of words and images to “ravish” one’s reason, we may do well to cultivate a better sense of how the unique, often interactive images and text found on the World Wide Web can be used rhetorically, and also of how to defend themselves against their power.
Aristotle. Rhetoric. In The Complete Works. Ed. Jonathan Barnes. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1984.
Gorgias. Encomium of Helen. In The Older Sophists. Ed. Rosamond Kent Sprague and Hermann Diels. Trans. George A. Kennedy. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1972.
“Reevaluating the Net.” Southern Poverty Law Center: Intelligence Report. Summer, 2001. http://www.splcenter.org/intelligenceproject/ip-index.html
“The Year in Hate.” Southern Poverty Law Center: Intelligence Report. Summer, 2000. http://www.splcenter.org/intelligenceproject/ip-index.html
1. I give more detail on these classical criteria for rhetorical analysis of Web images in an essay of mine titled “Digital Images and Classical Persuasion.” It appears in a book called Eloquent Images (MIT Press).
About the Author
Kevin LaGrandeur is Associate Professor of English and Director of Technical Writing Programs at New York Institute of Technology (NYIT). His articles on Technology and Culture and on Science and Literature have appeared in Computers and the Humanities, Computers & Texts, English Studies, and Texas Studies in Literature and Language, as well as in other journals and online sources.
Essay Copyright © 2004 Kevin LaGrandeur.