March 28, 1996
USENET / By GORDON T. THOMPSON
Of Racist Fervor and Electronic Freedomshe Jargon File defines "troll" as "To utter a posting on Usenet designed to attract stupid responses or flames."
"The well-constructed troll," we are told, "is a post that induces lots of newbies and flamers to make themselves look even more like idiots than they already do, while subtly conveying to the more savvy and experienced that it is in fact a deliberate troll: If you don't fall for the joke, you get to be in on it."
What may prove to be one of the great trolls of recent Usenet memory is now thrashing to a conclusion -- a referendum promoted by a minuscule group of white-power advocates on whether a newsgroup should be created for the discussion of racist rock-and-roll music. Thousands of messages were written in the acrimonious debate, spanning hundreds of newsgroups and mailing lists. Relatively few of the messages were from supporters of "white-power music," and none of the discussion dealt with whether there was enough interest in the genre to warrant its own newsgroup.
Instead, it became an argument over "free speech" versus "censorship", in the process creating a win-win situation for the white-power proponents: If their proposal succeeds (the votes are now being counted), they will have established a racist discussion area in the so-called "Big 7" hierarchy of Usenet newsgroups. If they lose, they will have managed to cast themselves as victims of oppression, and some of them have already announced that they will feel free to discuss racist music in groups where such messages may not be welcome.
To understand how this came about requires some knowledge of Usenet internals.
Usenet News is a distributed "groupware" messaging system used by more than 20 million people worldwide. It comprises a set of discussion areas, called newsgroups, that are classified hierarchically by subject. People use "newsreader" software to read Usenet on hundreds of thousands of Usenet "host" computers, and post messages to these newsgroups, which are then broadcast to other hosts via a wide variety of networks, most notably the Internet. (This definition owes much to the seminal "What Is Usenet?", recommended reading for anyone interested.)
The newsgroup structure is the heart of Usenet -- it defines the 14,000+ areas of relevant discussion. If you have something you want to say, or if you want to find out something, you have to find the right newsgroup for it. If you're having trouble getting your OS/2 computer hooked up to the Internet, for example, you'd go first to the "comp" hierarchy because that's where "computers" are discussed. Below that is a level called "os", where operating systems are discussed, and below that you'll find "os2". You're getting very warm, and now you'll find below "os2" a category called "networking". Bingo: you can now choose from among comp.os.os2.networking.misc, comp.os.os2.networking.tcp-ip or comp.os.os2.networking.www to post your query.
Although there is no central Usenet administration, there is general agreement among the administrators of Usenet hosts that they will carry only those groups in the "big seven" hierarchies -- comp (computers), misc (miscellaneous), news (Usenet itself), rec (recreational), sci (scientific), soc (society) and talk (discussion), the most widely distributed portions of Usenet News -- that pass the "official" voting procedures defined in the Guidelines for Usenet Group Creation.
On Jan. 5, Milton John Kleim Jr. posted a Request for Discussion, the first step in newsgroup formation, to five Usenet newsgroups -- news.announce.newgroups, news.groups, alt.politics.nationalism.white, alt.politics.white-power and alt.skinheads. "Persons who have an interest in this genre of music," Kleim wrote, "have no appropriate venue on USENET in which to discuss this controversial topic. Other rec.music groups' topics are too dissimilar, and many of their participants are in no way receptive of posts about this heated topic. Some discussion of White Power music occurs on alt.skinheads and alt.politics.white-power, but is inappropriate there due to the former's mostly lifestyle-oriented matters, and the latter's largely political nature."
"White-power music", in case you're not familiar with it, is stuff like this:
Read the papers, watch T.V., hear the media lie to me On the radio, in the news, you're all wrong except the jews Doesn't matter who loses face, if it's against the chosen race If you're white, they'll say you're bad, they must think that we're all mad
Or:When we reach the final hours We jump into the showers You gas them real good Cause you're full of white power Reach the final hours We take them to the showers We gas 'em real good Cause you're full of white power They say that you hate but you know what you like Goodness gracious, darn right
After offering his Request for Discussion, Kleim -- a prolific apostle of neo-Nazi principles throughout Usenet -- hardly participated in it at all. Instead, as shown by a check of Usenet archives at DejaNews, he was busy offering himself to soc.culture.scottish as a sympathetic anti-gun-control advocate ("Ban Guns? -- Or -- Ban Perverts?) in the wake of the Thomas Hamilton shootings. In talk.politics.china he enlivened discussion of the Taiwan crisis with a posting headed "Attention RED CHINAMEN at American Universities" ("The fact that several pro-red China gook troublemakers can come to North America and use their American university accounts to overtly advocate subversive ideas [including murder of American sailors] in favor of Beijing against America illustrates clearly why we should NEVER allow them to come to America and Canada.")
His essay "On Tactics and Strategy for Usenet," a how-to-subvert-Usenet manual for white-supremacist activists, begins: "USENET offers enormous opportunity for the Aryan Resistance to disseminate our message to the unaware and the ignorant. It is the only relatively uncensored (so far) free-forum mass medium which we have available. The State cannot yet stop us from "advertising" our ideas and organizations on USENET, but I can assure you, this will not always be the case. NOW is the time to grasp the WEAPON which is the Net, and wield it skillfully and wisely while you may still do so freely."
With its principal proponent absent from the discussion, a few anonymous posters took up the cudgels on behalf of the proposal in news.groups, where new-newsgroup proposals are discussed before and during the voting. (Principal among them was "firstname.lastname@example.org", whose signature was:
---------------------------------------------------------------------- | # #### | We must secure the existence of our People | # #### | | # # | and a future for White children | # # | | ####### |--------------------------------------------| ####### | | # # | \|/ \/\/hite\/\/email@example.com \|/ | # # | | #### # | | White Pride - World Wide | | #### # | |--------------------------------------------------------------------| | 18 For blood and for soil, we will work, we will toil! 88 | ----------------------------------------------------------------------
None offered any evidence that there was any particular need or demand for a newsgroup devoted exclusively to white-power music, either by bringing endorsements from others to the discussion or by citing postings about the subject anywhere else in Usenet.
As it turned out, they didn't need to. Sharp, vocal and immediate opposition to the newsgroup produced a libertarian backlash against what the group's few proponents could claim was censorship. (In fact, the newsgroup rec.music.misc exists specifically for the purpose of discussing musical topics that don't fit well elsewhere in the rec.music hierarchy. And newsgroups can be created by anyone in the "alt (alternative)" hierarchy without the rigorous requirements of the "big 7" -- and in the middle of the discussion period, "firstname.lastname@example.org" sent around a control message creating "alt.music.white-power".)
Perhaps because the original request for discussion was circulated primarily in the white-supremacist newsgroups and mailing lists, one opponent took it upon himself to post the Call for Votes to newsgroups dedicated to the interests of African-Americans, Asian-American, Jews, Mexicans and gays -- presumably locales where the interest in a Nazi musical newsgroup would be largely negative. Libertarians criticized the act as an unfair attempt to drum up "no" votes from among people who would not likely ever read news posted to "rec.music.white-power" if it existed and thus, somehow, were not appropriate targets of a vote canvass. Even USA Today weighed in with an editorial calling for "free speech" and criticizing opponents of the proposal.
"The vote is nearly over, and all this debating is almost at an end," "Whitewolf" wrote on March 17. "Hopefully over the next few days, we will get our group, and happy days will be here again, so to speak. If the proposal is outvoted, well, who knows what will happen, or where we'll turn up. If at first we don't succeed, you know the rest."
Rich Graves, one of the most prominent opponents of rec.music.white-power, wrote four days later:
"When you have the sympathetic ear of the USA Today editor, Usenet standards don't make a whit of difference. This will be remembered as a free-speech battle: either you're for pro-censorship, hateful Nazis like Milton Kleim, or you're for censorship.
"Whitewolf is talking about manipulating libertarians and the press and writing history. She's right; they succeeded. All the good libertarians (libernet-l was spammed) voted YES on rec.music.white-power because it was presented as a censorship issue. Sure, the group might well lose because of anti-racist votes, but among the people who matter to me, it clearly won."
Gordon T. Thompson at email@example.com welcomes your comments and suggestions.
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company