For young people who have come of age during the digital era, the notion of “doing research” does not mean going to a library, it means going online to use a search engine to find information (Rheingold 2006). The overwhelming majority of teens born in the U.S. after 1987 are online, with national surveys placing the proportion at 87% (Lenhart, Madden & Hitlin 2005; Roberts, Foehr, & Rideout 2005). Because they have grown up using digital technologies many, though certainly not all, adolescents have a set of nascent Internet literacy and evaluation skills, variously called “digital literacy” (Gilster 1997) or “digital fluency” (Green 2005; 2006; Resnick 2002); yet, many fewer possess an oppositional or critical race consciousness (Blau & Stearns 2003; Taft 2006). The combination of the shift in how young people look for and find information along with the lack of critical race consequences has important consequences for digital media and learning (e.g., see http://digitallearning.macfound.org/), and also for understanding the way young people find and make sense of information about race, racism and civil rights in a digital era.
Race and racism are part of this new digital era in ways both predictable and unexpected. Given the long history of extremist white supremacist activity in the U.S. (Daniels 1997), it is perhaps not surprising that these groups have seized upon the Internet (Daniels 2007; Adams & Roscigno 2005; Whine 1999). What may come as a surprise is that some of these groups have been brought a certain level of sophistication to the amalgamation of white supremacy and the Internet. No longer a battle fought primarily in street protests, struggles over race, racism and civil rights are now being shaped through the use of cloaked websites that challenge the validity of hard-won political victories. In the U.S., many adolescents, like many adults, are naive when it comes to matters of race and racism and this naïveté about racism makes discerning cloaked websites even more difficult. I contend that both digital literacy and critical race consciousness are necessary for understanding race in the digital era. How young people look for information about race, racism and civil rights, and how they make sense of that information once they find it, are the questions to which I now turn.
Cloaked websites are created and published by individuals or groups that intentionally disguise a hidden political or ideological agenda (Author 2006; 2007; Ray & Marsh 2001).To my knowledge, the term “cloaked” refers to a website that first appeared in Ray & Marsh (2001) in reference to www.martinlutherking.org. I am using the term “cloaked website” in a similar way, and elsewhere (Author 2007) expand the term to include other types of cloaked sites. These can include political sites, such as www.whitehouse.com, which is intended as satire, or websites connected to sexual politics, such as www.teenbreaks.com, which appears to be a reproductive health website, but is, in fact, a showcase for pro-life propaganda.
Here, my focus is on cloakedwebsites that contain intentionally hidden political and ideological agendas to: 1) undermine civil rights advances of African Americans and other racial/ethnic minority groups and 2) further the ideology of white supremacy. These sites contain virulent anti-Semitism, racism and hate propaganda several page-layers down, or provide links to such information, but the authors conceal both the affiliation to white supremacist groups and the intended political and ideological purpose of this rhetoric. The two cloaked sites under investigation in this study are www.martinlutherking.org and www.AmericanCivilRightsReview.org. The cloaked site www.martinlutherking.org appears at first glance, to be a tribute page to Dr. King, but in fact, is intended to undermine his legacy and further the goals of white supremacy. The site includes text and links to a litany of defamatory information about the civil rights leader, including charges of adultery, plagiarism, and reported connections to communism. First launched in 1995, the site was created by Don Black, an avowed white supremacist with a years long commitment to a racist vision. The site suggests that the entire civil rights movement was a Jewish conspiracy and that the national King Holiday should be repealed because Dr. King was a plagiarist, adulterer and communist. This site also includes links to the work of other white supremacists, such as David Duke, a former Klansman who traded the robes-and-hoods for a suit-and-tie form of white supremacy.
The second cloaked site I address in this research is www.AmericanCivilRightsReview.org, which appears to be a site advocating for civil rights, with images of Che Guevara and Malcolm X on the entry page.; However, several page links into the site there is an extensive discussion of the “high self-esteem” of slaves in the U.S. Rather than relying on extremist rhetoric, the site uses a more sophisticated strategy of including links and quotations from oral histories of former slaves recorded by the WPA, to argue that slavery was not a demeaning, violent system and that European immigrants and their (white) descendants suffered hardship on an equal level as that experienced by enslaved African peoples in the U.S. The site is created, owned and operated by Frank Weltner, a member of the National Alliance, a neo-Nazi organization. Weltner also maintains the anti-Semitic website, www.Jewwatch.com. In the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, Weltner also created several cloaked sites, with URLs such as www.InternetDonations.org, to scam money from people interested in helping out the victims. A judge in St. Louis, where Weltner is based, issued a permanent restraining order against the scam websites.1
Some writers have suggested that white supremacist groups may use the Internet to recruit new members to join their ranks (Back, Keith & Solomos 1996; Mock 2000), with young children and teens seen as particular at risk for targeted recruitment (Lamberg 2001). While it is certainly the case that extremist, paramilitary racists are using Internet technology for “command, control and communication” (Whine 2000) and this is cause for concern, there is little empirical data to support the claim that unsuspecting web users are unknowingly lured into extremist group membership via the Internet (Author 2007; Ray and Marsh 2001). A standard response to this perceived threat, especially on the part of parents of younger Internet users, has been the development and use of “hate filters,” software programs designed to “filter” hate sites encountered through search engines. While this type of software may filter some extremist racist sites (at least English-language sites), these are not the type of white supremacist site that most web users are likely to encounter.; In my view, the casual web user is a much more likely possibility for inadvertently encountering white supremacists online via cloakedwebsites which appear in search results when looking for information about race, racism, civil rights or civil rights leaders. This leads me to the research questions under investigation here: 1) how do adolescents (age 15-19) use search engines to find information about civil rights on the Internet; 2) how do adolescents evaluate information they find about civil rights on the Internet; and, 3) how do adolescents evaluate cloaked white supremacist websites they encounter on the Internet?
THE CHALLENGES OF STUDYING RACE & DIGITAL MEDIA
The Internet presents new challenges for qualitative sociological researchers, as a number of scholars have noted in the first decade of online research (Markham 1998; Jones 1999; Wellman 2004). Digital media, such as the Internet, is particularly challenging for sociologists interested in race. In the early 1990s, the web’s nascent popularity and the putatively disembodied quality of online interaction caused many observers to remark on the potential of the Internet as a deracinated medium, perhaps most famously in a popular television commercial that touted, “Here, there is no race. There is no gender. There is only mind” (Everett 2002). However, rather than a place where people eschew racial identity a growing body of research demonstrates the ways that people bring their embodied selves to the keyboard and seek out the Internet specifically to reinforce and reaffirm racial identity (Byrne 2007; Kolko, Nakamura, & Rodman 2000; Nakamura 2002).;
A leading example of the way that people seek out and use the Internet to reaffirm racial identity is the early emergence of extremist white supremacist individuals and groups online, and a brief review of some of this research illustrates some of the challenges of studying race and digital media. Examining the text of web pages, discussion forums, and newsgroups is the most straightforward method and it is also the most common way of studying the white supremacists online (e.g., Adams & Rosigno 2005; Atton 2006; Back, Keith & Solomos 1996; Bostdorff 2004; Gerstenfeld, Grant & Chiang 2003; Kaplan, Weinberg & Oleson 2003; Levin 2002). More difficult, and less prevalent, are investigations into the connections between online interaction and face-to-face social networks among extremists (Burris & Strahm 2000; Hara & Estrada 2003; Tateo 2005). Most vexing still and least common are studies of the “web user.” In other media, this type of research is called “audience reception,” and explores how the listener, viewer, or reader interprets the “text,” whether that text is visual (as in films or television shows) or printed (as in novels or newspaper articles). Sonia Livingtone (2004) has suggested that the terms “audience” and “reception” do not work well for digital media for a variety of reasons, such as interactivity (rather than one-to-many, with producer and receiver separate as in broadcast media). When it comes to empirical explorations of how people find, read, and interpret extremist rhetoric on racist websites, there is scant research. An important exception to this is the work of Lee & Leets who examine how adolescents respond to what they call “persuasive storytelling” online by hate groups (Lee & Leets 2002). Lee & Leets found only minimal effects on adolescents who were infrequently exposed to explicit hate messages. However, their research did not explore how adolescents might be exposed to these messages; and, it only focused on explicitly racist sites, and not on cloaked websites. In this paper, I address this gap in the emerging body of knowledge about race and the Internet, and specifically I address the question of how teens find information online about race and ask how they interpret cloaked websites.
This is a pilot study and is therefore meant to be exploratory and suggestive rather than exhaustive or definitive. I conducted the study in January and February 2006 and asked adolescents (ages 15-19) to use the Internet to search for information and to evaluate two pre-selected pairs of websites about Dr. King and about the civil rights movement.
I utilized a mixed-method study design, which included search scenarios, paired website evaluations, and a technique known as “talk aloud” (also referred to as “think aloud”). There were two search scenarios. The first included asking participants to “find information on Martin Luther King as if you had a report to write for school.” The second scenario asked participants to “find information about the goals of the civil rights movement as if you had a report to write for school.” As they reviewed the results of their query returned by the search engine, I asked them questions about what they saw, what looked interesting to them and why, and which websites they would select to read.;
After completing the search scenarios task, I asked the participants to evaluate the differences between pairs of websites. The first pair included the legitimate King Center site (www.thekingcenter.org) and the cloaked Martin Luther King (www.martinlutherking.org) site; the second pair included the cloaked American Civil Rights Review (www.americancivilrightsreview.com) site and the legitimate Voices of Civil Rights (www.voicesofcivilrights.org) site. I pre-selected these sites based on the similarity of content and traffic. For example, the traffic in 2006 to the websites for the King Center (indicated by the blue line) and the cloaked Martin Luther King site (indicated by the red line) are nearly identical, with an overall peak in February, which is African American History Month (Figure 1). 2
Figure 1: 2006 traffic to the websites for the King Center (indicated by the blue line) and the cloaked Martin Luther King site (indicated by the red line).
I minimized the windows for all four websites on the computer, and introduced them to the participants in pairs. I made sure to change the sequence, introducing a cloaked one first, followed by a legitimate site, and then reversing the order. Some participants had already found these sites during the initial search scenario, and for them, I asked them to look at the sites again, in relation to the paired website and talk aloud about which site they would choose as a source of information if they were forced to select one for a school report. In the paired website evaluations, I pre-selected two pairs of websites. In each pair, one website was a legitimate source of information about Dr. King or the civil rights movement, and the other was a cloaked site about the same subject.;
During both tasks, the search scenarios and the paired website evaluations, I asked participants to “talk aloud” about what they were doing.; The “talk aloud” technique, which is common in usability studies of graphic user interface (GUI) website design and frequently used by marketing firms, asks web users to describe what they are doing, seeing, thinking, reading, and clicking on, -- and why they are making those choices -- as they navigate a web site (van Someren, Barnard and Sandberg 1994). Completing both tasks took participants approximately thirty to forty-five minutes. I recorded these sessions using a digital video camera, recording audio of the participants’ voices, and accounts of their searching and evaluating the web, and capturing video images of the computer screen as they searched.
I transcribed the audio portion of the interviews and noted in the transcripts what was on the computer screen at the same time so I could recall which websites the participants were referring in their interviews. I also noted the sequence of their navigation through the sites, the images on the screen, and the way they responded to these. I then coded the transcripts by theme, and analyzed them for similar and discordant themes across interviews, and for consistencies or changes in patterns within interviews. This process, although time-consuming, is useful because it situates the web user in relation to the visual images, the text and hypertext of the web. Reviewing the video portion of the interviews, and noting it in the transcripts, also provided additional information about the way participants searched, navigated, read, and made meaning of search results or of a particular website.;
This research utilizes a convenience method of sampling and includes a sample size of ten (N=10). Participants for the study were recruited through a variety of means, including through a youth-focused human rights foundation, word-of-mouth, printed flyers and online bulletin board postings. The majority (N=8) were recruited from the online bulletin board, one through word-of-mouth, and one from the foundation. Almost all (N=9) were female, and came from a variety of racial/ethnic backgrounds (1 African American, 1 Asian-Chinese, 2 White, 2 Latina, and 3 South Asian); the one male respondent was Latino. All indicated that they were born in the U.S., and all were enrolled in high school, in the 11th or 12th grade, at the time of the study. Participants under age 18 who participated in the study were required to get parental consent and were guided through the informed assent process. Participants 18 and over were guided through the informed consent process. Except for the participant at the foundation, all participants were asked to travel to my faculty office on a college campus in the city, to complete an interview that lasted less than an hour. Participants usually arrived alone to the interview, although one participant brought her mother, who sat quietly while we completed the interview. Participants who completed the interview received a $20 stipend for their time, and were given information about Internet searching during the debriefing following the interview.;
Given that a majority of the participants volunteered for the study via the online bulletin board postings, it is likely that this is a sample of relatively digitally fluent and Internet-savvy teens. Of course, because of the convenience of the sampling strategy employed these results are not generalizable to all teens, or even all teens using the Internet in New York City. However, the Pew Internet & American Life Project has conducted large, national, random sample survey research into the online practices of adolescents. In 2005, Pew researchers found that 87% of adolescents aged 12-17 used the Internet and 51% use the Internet on a daily basis, and 76% get news or information about current events. This is in contrast to adults, who are less likely to use the Internet, with 66% of adults using the Internet (Lenhart, Madden & Hitlin, 2005). This research also indicates that among older teens (15-17) girls are “power users” of the Internet and search for information about a variety of subject areas; and, they are more likely to use a variety of digital technology, including email, instant messaging, and text messaging, than their peers (Lenhart, Madden & Hitlin, 2005:6). It is likely that the sample for this study includes participants who are similar in their web usage to the national sample.; In particular, the fact that I was able to recruit a majority female sample using an online bulletin board posting suggests that these young women are typical of the “power users” identified in the Pew research.
Results of this research indicate that searching for, finding, and evaluating information about race online is a complex process with many components. Here, I have tried to lay out that process in as much detail as possible. In the transcripts included the image and sites on the computer screen are noted in brackets and italics; the interviewer questions are in plain text; and, the participants responses are noted in bold text.;
SEARCHING FOR DR. KING & FINDING DAVID DUKE
In the search scenarios, I asked participants to use any search engine and any search terms to find information about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and then asked them to do the same to find information about the goals of the civil rights movement, “as if doing a report for school.” Nine of the ten participants selected the search engine Google (the remaining participant used the search engine Yahoo.com). All of the participants used the same search engine throughout their interview, and did not change or switch to another search engine. The participants also used similar search terms. The most commonly used search terms for the first scenario were: “martin luther king” or “martin luther king + biography.” And, for the second scenario, the most commonly used search terms were: “civil rights,” “civil rights movement” and “civil rights goals.”
When asked about how they evaluate the search engine results, most said that they relied on the order that search results appeared as a valid and reliable way to evaluate whether or not a site was trustworthy. This was a consistent theme across the interviews and is reflected in this quote from a participant reported that they would “never” go beyond the first page of results in their research of a topic, as did this participant:
I actually have never, I think, in my life gone to like the third page, or the second page, because I just stop at the first page.; … because I mean, there must be a reason why everything’s on the first page and the rest of the stuff is later. (age 16, white)
In a sense, this young woman is correct when she says, “there must be a reason” for the results on the first page. There is a reason and it is an algorithm. Given the huge popularity of Google as the search engine of choice by so many, we might expect that there would be wide familiarity with how the search engine works. As it turns out, this is not the case. Actually, different search engines work differently, and the way Google works is through a fairly complex algorithm that includes a web crawling robot, the Google indexer, and a query processor. PageRank is Google’s mechanism for ranking one web page higher than another. Central to this mechanism are links from outside pages; each link from an outside page to a website is, in Google’s evaluation schema, a vote for the “importance” of that site (Sherman and Price, 2001). So, while there is a reason that those results appear on the first page, it is not because someone sitting in an office at Google headquarters has read and evaluated each site and rank ordered them based on an agreed upon set of criteria. In fact, because of the way Google’s algorithm works, it is possible to intentionally manipulate the ranking of a site by linking to a page using consistent anchor text. This is commonly referred to as “Google bombing” and has been used a number of times as a form of political critique of the Bush administration; thus, because people on a number of websites across the Internet have repeatedly used the same linking anchor text, now anyone can type the search terms “miserable failure” into Google and get the first result to be a link to the “Biography of George W. Bush” (Byrne, 2004; Kahn & Kellner, 2004). When I asked the participants if they had ever heard of a “Google bomb,” not one said that they had and were perplexed and amused when I showed them the “George W. Bush” results for the “miserable failure” search. Trusting the results on the first page of Google might not be an issue for understanding race except for two key points: 1) when searching for information on race, racism and civil rights, cloaked white supremacist sites appear alongside results for legitimate sites; and 2) people, like the young woman quoted above, implicitly trust the order of results as a valid and reliable mechanism for assessing trustworthiness.;;;
The cloaked site www.martinlutherking.org consistently appears third or fourth on the first page of results in Google when using the search terms “martin luther king,” and this, along with the URL, has implications for how young people find information about race, racism and civil rights. Typical of the way participants in this research evaluated the cloaked site when it appeared in search engine results was this young woman:
[Computer screen: Opens Google, uses search terms “martin luther king” without quotations. Once the search results are returned, she scrolls the page quickly, using the mouse button.]
Right now, I’m just reading the sites, to see what they’re about, to see which ones are easier for me.
Ok, and what kinds of information do you look at? What pops out at you?
I guess maybe something like this would pop out, an article from The Seattle Times….about his life, and impact.;
Ok. And is that a link that you might click on?
I would just look at it, I wouldn’t click on it yet… but this one….
[Computer screen: Points her mouse to the martinlutherking.org link returned third in the list of results from Google.]
… this one looks good.
You think you would click on that one?
Yeah, because the site itself, it says, “Martin Luther King dot org” so I guess they’re dedicated to that. (age 18, Latina)
Here, in the span of just a few seconds after typing in the search terms looking for information about Dr. King, this young woman has come across the cloaked white supremacist site and evaluates it positively, along with a legitimate site about Dr. King hosted by The Seattle Times newspaper. In part, this participant is responding to the anchor of the site’s universal resource locator (URL); in other words, the fact that all of the web address is made up of the civil rights leader’s name makes it seem legitimate. She is also responding to the suffix, or ending, of the web address: “dot org.” This kind of response to the URL www.martinlutherking.org was a consistent theme throughout the interviews. Participants understood the suffix .org to mean that a site was a legitimate source of information, as this young woman explains:
[Computer screen: Scrolls up and down the list of search results, including the martinlutherking.org link returned third in the list of results from Google.]
Ok. Anything else about the URL that lets you know it’s trustworthy?
That’s about it. Basically, like the source where it’s coming from.; I mean, if it’s like a personal web page or something, they just have information about him, I wouldn’t go there.;
And how do you know when it’s a personal web page? How can you tell?
Well…. Ok, like if it’s dot edu, then you know it has to do with education, like a university or something.; And, you know, like this one…
[Computer screen: Scrolls over the results for a legitimate site, hosted at Lucid Café, a web portal created and run by Robin Chew a web developer and marketing executive in San Francisco.]
Lucid Café, that doesn’t look too, I don’t know… the title looks serious, but the URL…
Alright, based on the URL you wouldn’t go there even though the title and the description look ok.
Yeah. And, dot org, too….
Yeah, and what does that mean for you?
I don’t know what it means, actually…. [laughs] … organization?
No, it’s fine… I don’t mean what does it actually mean, I meant, what does it indicate to you…?
Oh, ok… again, it’s more of a trustworthy website.; Because, dot coms are everywhere, and dot org and dot edu are more specific. (age 18, African American)
The fact that URL’s ending in “dot com” are more common (“everywhere”), leads this participant to conclude that the less common .org websites are more trustworthy. For the most part, Internet literacy skills-based classes have instructed web users to “read the URL” as a first step for evaluating the legitimacy of a website, and to “trust” URLs ending in “.org” more than those ending in “.com.” Thus, this participant is doing precisely as she has been taught. While it is possible to read the URL of a site and sometimes ascertain where the site is hosted or who is sponsoring it, it is also possible to disguise a site by means of a clever or nefarious domain name registration. In the case of the martinlutherking.org site, the cloaking of white supremacist political and ideological goals began when Don Black registered the domain name and launched the site in 1995. This suggests that racial politics in the digital era have shifted to a new location in which domain name registration is a site of struggle over racial meaning. It also suggests that typical approaches to teaching Internet literacy skills are inadequate on their own to meet the demands of this new form of struggle over meaning in racial politics. Also necessary is a basic understanding of racism and the struggles against it; without at least a basic understanding of this, the possibility of being duped by a cloaked white supremacist site is much greater.
The lack of understanding about racism and the civil rights struggle can contribute to an inability to recognize a cloaked site, and is illustrated in the following interview. This is an account of the first four and a half minutes from the time the participant begins the search scenario to look for information about Dr. King (this interview conducted by a research assistant):
[Computer Screen: Google results for search terms “martin luther king”]
And see what results come up? Am I looking for any particular website?
No, just any website that comes up, maybe the first three.
Ok, and I’m finding information on his life history?
[Computer Screen: Stanford University’s site about Dr. King]
Ok, this is a website by Stanford University so I think it would be pretty well established and accurate. His biography is on here.; Other sites that we found included…..
[Computer Screen: back to Google results]
...the Seattle Times on Martin Luther King on the Civil Rights Movement, and…
[Computer Screen: Clicks on the Seattle Times page…then, back to Google results]
Could you try clicking on some of those links and see what they say also, like once you get inside of the website?
[Computer screen: Clicks on the www.martinlutherking.org…main page]
Sure….there’s a Martin Luther King pop-quiz, there’s some historical writings, essays, sermons, speeches, …
[Computer screen: Clicks on what seems to be a broken link on www.martinlutherking.org, to ‘Historical Writings’ the link takes more than a couple of seconds to load, and she abandons it as a broken link. Then, she skips to the ‘Truth about King’ link without comment, and clicks on ‘Death of the Dream’ link, subtitle, ‘The Day King was Shot’]
…there’s information here about the day he was shot. It has some photographs of Dr. King the day before his death…and some information about what happened the night before he died which is not apparently public knowledge, or, yeah, it’s not like common knowledge….
[Computer screen: Goes back to scrolling over the links on the right. Clicks on suggested books and on that page several titles appear, including, “Plagiarism and the Culture War,” and a picture of David Duke’s on the cover of his book “My Awakening.”]
…then, there’s some information on some books that were written by Dr. King and biographies that were written by, about him by other people…..
[Computer screen: Clicks on “Truth about King” page]
Do you know who that person was? (referring to David Duke)
No, I have no idea.
[Computer screen: Clicks back to the “Suggested Books” page]
David Duke, have you ever heard of him?
You’ve never heard of him?
Uh-uh (no). Who is David Duke?
He’s a Klan leader.
Oh, is he? I had no idea. I actually don’t know much about the civil rights movement at all.
[Computer screen: Reading Duke book description more closely now.] ;Hmmm…. Interesting. It’s interesting how that would be on Martin Luther King’s website. (age 18, South Asian)
In less than five minutes from when she began using a search engine to look for information about Dr. King, this young woman has selected a cloaked white supremacist site and is reading a page that contains the views of David Duke, an avowed white supremacist, yet she does not recognize that this site is cloaked. Consistent with conventional Internet-literacy skills training, she is reading the URL as legitimate. What is lacking here is not her Internet-literacy skills, it is her understanding of the historical context of racism in the U.S. and David Duke’s place in it. As she says, “I actually don’t know much about the civil rights movement at all.” Although it is may be possible to have an understanding of racism and the civil rights struggle against it in the U.S. and still not know who David Duke is, not knowing seems to suggest a lack of critical awareness about contemporary racial politics. This young woman is certainly not alone in this lack of critical awareness and it is not surprising given the push toward a mediocre testing-based educational system that lacks critical thinking in general (Aronowitz & Giroux, 1993), and is completely lacking any analysis of racism, either historical or contemporary (Feagin, 2006).
EVALUATING CIVIL RIGHTS ONLINE: PHOTOGRAPHIC EVIDENCE AND VISUAL CUES
When asked to evaluate the differences between the legitimate site and the cloaked site, participants used a variety of strategies to assess the differences between the pairs, including digital photographs and visual cues. The web is a visual, as well as textual, medium (Smith & Chang, 1997). As such, those who have grown up using the web expect to find visual and photographic images in their search results. Indeed, they rely on these as important sources of information, as this young man explains while exploring the (legitimate) Voices of Civil Rights web site:
This site looks good, I mean, it has a lot of pictures and photos so you can see for yourself what happened. (age 18, Latino)
Seeing photos as a window with a view of “what happened” was a consistent theme across the interviews. Here, another participant describes her initial impression of the cloaked Martin Luther King site:
First thing I notice is the colors…and although the colors are more, are duller, they’re in black and white. And, his picture, the picture of Martin Luther King that makes a major difference.; Because, you know, it’s this picture that attracts all your attention to it. (age 17, Asian-Chinese)
And, a third participant describes her impression of the Seattle Times’ use of photographic images this way:
Well, they have a photo gallery which I would probably click on because photos are, photography interests me, so…
Ok, and would that be useful to you in doing your report on King, and if so how?
[S: Clicks on a black-and-white photograph of Mrs. King kissing a smiling Dr. King, there is a caption to the right]
Well, like this photo, without even reading the caption…I already know what he looks like so I know that’s him, that’s his wife and it looks like a good occasion. (age 16, South Asian)
Visual images are not simply “decoration” for a site but carry messages, convey meaning, and suggestion connotations for these participants. This expectation of, and reliance on, visual images was consistent across all the interviews. Without visual images a particular website was not only deemed less reliable, it was simply less interesting, and often discarded as a possible resource, as this participant describes her assessment of a site that was text-only with no visual images:
This site seems awfully wordy…I don’t know that I would use this one. (age 15, White)
In particular, visual images that appear to be historical photographic images, were a significant part of what the young people in this study were looking for and expected to find when they went online to search for information about Dr. King or the civil rights movement. And, photographic images seemed to carry the weight of authenticity for them, because they reportedly allow one to “see what happened.” This reliance on the supposed veracity of photographic images is ironic at a time that some have referred to as the “post-photographic era” (Mitchell, 1992). In the digital era, the widespread use of software that can alter photographs in ways that are virtually imperceptible to the untrained eye makes photography less a “window” on the truth and more of an act of interpretation. That this has significance for racial politics became evident in 1994 when O.J. Simpson was arrested and a photograph of him appeared on the cover of TIME magazine in which the color of his skin was darkened in the photograph.
Aside from photography, other visual cues a major way teens reported that they evaluate civil rights information online. Background and text color, font, layout, and the entire graphic user interface (GUI) of websites were primary criteria used to evaluate whether or not a site was trustworthy, as this participant describes her assessment of one of the cloaked sites:
This site looks like someone, you know, just an individual created it. It doesn’t look very professional. (age 17, South Asian)
Here, a site that does not look “professional” is deemed an untrustworthy source of information. Conversely, a site that has a GUI that gets positively evaluated is deemed to have trustworthy content. The distinction between a site that is “professionally” designed and one that “an individual” created is the important distinction here, as this participant illustrates in her evaluation of the paired websites:
[Computer screen: Clicks on the cloaked MLK site …]
This one certainly looks less professional.
And what tells you that it looks less professional?
Uhm, it doesn’t have a clean lay out, like this one…
[Computer screen: Clicks back to the King Center…]
Ok, and so…what does that mean? What do you believe about the site or the people who created it?
Well, this one was designed, like they hired someone to design it… (age 16, South Asian)
In these examples, both the participants take visual cues from graphic design about the trustworthiness of the information contained there. While visual cues are important elements in evaluating web content, they can also be easily manipulated. If the cloaked websites under investigation here made use of “more professional” web design graphics and layout, it would make them much more difficult for these young people to distinguish them from legitimate sites.
CRITICAL RACE CONSCIOUSNESS & ASSESSING ‘BIAS’ ONLINE
Thinking critically about race is crucial to being able to distinguish cloaked websites from legitimate civil rights websites because this is, ultimately, a political distinction. Without the ability to think critically, all websites are reduced to the level of personal opinion without reference to the power relations that imbue racial politics. And, without a critical race consciousness, one website is just as “legitimate” or “biased” as another. A number of the young people in the study evaluated websites in a way that reflected a lack of critical race consciousness, and it made evaluating the sites more difficult:
[Computer screen: Clicks from cloaked site to the King Center site]
Well, you know, in looking at this site, it appears to be created by his widow, or his family, so, it could be biased. (age 17, Latina)
In this instance, the legitimate civil rights website sponsored by the King Center is evaluated as a less than reliable source of information because it is affiliated with Mrs. King, and therefore, “biased.” This young woman is doing what she has been taught in skills-based approaches to Internet-literacy, to “look for bias.” Yet, in this instance, it leads to the erroneous conclusion that the King Center site might not be a good source of information about civil rights or Dr. King. While the King Center site certainly presents information from a point-of-view, it is precisely this point-of-view -- situated in the struggle for civil rights and against racism -- that gives it credibility. Another teen assesses “bias” in this cloaked site:
Do you know who published this site, who’s behind it?
[Computer screen: Looking at graphic on the top of “High Self Esteem for Many American Slaves” page on American Civil Rights Review]
Uhm, Currier & Ives?
[Computer screen: Spends some time clicking through the site… then comes to a page that has all those badges, etc. on it, and a ‘copyright’ link to copyright-language on a page hosted by Cornell University.]
Is it by Cornell?
[Computer screen: Reading from the text on the page about slavery, American Civil Rights Review]
I mean, I don’t think I would disagree with it. I’m sure there are some slaves that were treated well. So, I can understand their point of view. There’s always two sides to everything. (age 17, South Asian)
In this case, the young woman assesses that this site, as just another “point of view,” another “side” on a two-sided argument. She is also unable to ascertain who it is that’s publishing the site, which is hosted by anti-Semite and racist Frank Weltner who is advocating on this page for a re-writing of the history such that plantations were “sanitary, humane and relaxed,” workplaces rather than institutions predicated on human misery. As in the previous example, this illustrates how a lack of critical thinking about racial politics offline can lead to misreading online.
For young people who possess critical race consciousness, recognizing cloaked websites is within their reach. The following is how another teen approached the same, cloaked website created by Frank Weltner:
So, I’m looking at the URL and it says, American Civil Rights Review, slash, slavery, so I’m looking at the main thing, it says American Civil Rights, so it’s probably something that I would depend on. And, now I’m looking at the picture of a cotton plantation on the Mississippi River, and you know, plantations and slaves are related a lot, so that relates to slaves. I’m going to just scroll down…. there does seem to be useful information.; ;
[Computer screen: reading from the American Civil Rights Review]
“Idyllic View of American Slavery” they just have pictures, I would rather have, oh, they’re actually talking about how the artist basically portrayed the slaves.
[Computer screen: reading from the American Civil Rights Review]
“Now notice how the artist has painted the slaves in relaxed positions.”
[Computer screen: pause – reads silently]
It kinda sounds like, like I’m reading this, “were the slaves mistreated” - it says “sometimes” …
[Computer screen: points to screen]
…and that just throws me off, because I think, yes, slaves were mistreated all the time. And, then it says, “sometimes.”;
And so what does that mean? What do you think now that you’ve read that?
Now I don’t think it’s accurate anymore! Because it says…
[Computer screen: reading from the American Civil Rights Review]
…“sometimes but most probably no more than were other workers including whites.” I highly would disagree with that, it sounds so false to me because most of the slaves, they were all black. And white people would not have been treated the same way. And, then it goes into [reading] “Europeans were sometimes given the hardest jobs,” when you’re talking about slaves and then they’re going to Europeans which were obviously not treated the same as slaves because the slaves weren’t even treated like people. So, that just throws off everything.;
So now what do you do with this site? You said before that the URL looked good and it might have some useful information.
I wouldn’t use it.;
You wouldn’t use it?
No, because even if I find other information that seems accurate, this just makes the whole thing biased to me. Because, to me, the answer would be “yes” there’s no “sometimes” or “no,” it’s “yes.” So, I wouldn’t even use this. (age 18, South Asian)
Here, the participant decides not to use the cloaked site based not because of an evaluation based on her Internet-literacy skills, but rather on her ability to think critically about race. She reads the text about slaves being mistreated “sometimes” and says, “that just throws me off.” Ultimately, she decides the site is not a credible source of information and she would not use it. And, even with her negative evaluation of this site, she uses the same language as the previous two interviews, when she says that the site is “biased,” simply back into the skills-based language of Internet-literacy curricula. New ways of thinking about racism in the digital era will have to move beyond two dimensional notions of “bias” in which there are “two sides to everything.”
Findings from this research suggest that even Internet-savvy teens have difficulty distinguishing between legitimate civil rights websites and cloaked white supremacist websites. While adolescents who have grown up with digital media are fluent in some aspects of the use of technology, they often lack skills in critical thinking and critical race consciousness which would enable them to recognize cloaked websites and distinguish them from legitimate civil rights websites. However, these findings are not generalizable to all teens due to the convenience sampling strategy and the small sample size. Future research should include a randomly selected sample and larger sample size. In addition, teen girls were overrepresented in this sample and more research is needed on teen boys and their use of the Internet.;;
For the sociologists interested in race, the findings of this research suggest that it is important to understand digital media and the ways this is becoming a new, contested terrain of meaning about race, racism and civil rights. This research has implications for those sociologists who are in the classroom, because it is increasingly likely that students will rely on the Internet as a resource for their information about race, racism, and civil rights. For researchers primarily interested in Internet technology and digital literacy, these findings suggest that it is important to move beyond a skills-based approach and to think critically about race and racism.
These two arenas – digital media and race – come together in the new Internet era and in ways that were not anticipated in commercials that claimed “here, there is no race.” Instead, race and digital media are changing both the ways that we think about race and the ways that we think about the Internet.; For example, the URL is now a racially contested terrain. As for cloaked websites, they shift and expand the struggle over racial politics to domain name registration and GUI. The decision to register the domain name “martinlutherking.org” in the early 1990s was a prescient and opportune move for advocates of white supremacy; failure to do likewise was a lost opportunity for advocates of civil rights. Recognizing that domain name registration is now a political battleground, a number of civil rights organizations have begun to reserve domain names to prevent hem from being used by opponents of racial justice. The NAACP has registered six domain names that include the word “nigger” and the ADL registered a similar number of domain names with the word “kike” (Festa, 2002). However, registering offensive epithets is only one small part of the struggle. The move by racist opponents of civil rights to register the esteemed symbols of civil rights as domain names, such as Martin Luther King, and use them to undermine racial justice is one that was clearly unanticipated by civil rights organizations. To be effective, cloaked domain names such as www.martinlutherking.org or www.AmericanCivilRights
Review.org, rely on the naïveté of their target audience, particularly white people. The vulnerability of these cloaked sites however lies in their inexpert GUI and rudimentary designs, which makes them easier to spot. The problem is that poor graphic design and web layout are technical bugs that are easy enough to fix. Once the elements are resolved, reliance on these visual cues will not be enough to distinguish cloaked sites from legitimate ones. Instead, it will be a much more difficult task in which people will need to parse the rhetorics of white supremacist ideology and progressive racial politics based on the overall content of the site, rather than merely the color of its graphics.
Obviously, unsuspecting white people are not the only ones that read these cloaked sites, people of color, particularly youth of color, also read these sites. For young people of color, reading cloaked sites means having their own culture and history distorted in the re-telling, and this is characteristic of the epistemology of white supremacy. This, however, is not new or unique to digital media. For people of color have had their culture and history distorted by whites, both those with and without good intentions for many centuries. Black feminist epistemology, suggested by Patricia Hill Collins and others, may hold some keys for understanding these sites. Collins’s epistemological stance places an emphasis on lived experience as a criterion of meaning and suggests that ideas cannot be divorced from the individuals who create and share them (Collins 1990). This is where youth of color who have experience racism may have an advantage in critically evaluating these sites. If they draw on lived experience of everyday racism and do the critical work of evaluating which individuals are creating the ideas contained in cloaked websites, then they may have an advantage over those steeped in the epistemology of white supremacy that reinforces illiteracy about racism (Mills, 1997).
Sociologists, particularly those interested engaged in qualitative research about race and racism, must take into account digital media. Digital media is neither a panacea for eliminating racial inequality, nor is it a dangerous lure for young people who can be duped into joining hate groups. A more nuanced understanding of both race and digital media suggests that the new racism online looks, in many ways, like the old racism, and our culture and institutions are steeped in it. Within the U.S., the culture and institutions were originally formed by slave-owning elites (e.g., Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia) and this legacy of white supremacy endures. Young people, depending on their lived experience offline, may use digital media to resist or to reinscribe white supremacy, and engaged adults can influence which of these paths they choose. Trying to understand cloaked websites exclusively in terms of a skills-based Internet literacy which lacks critical thinking about race and racism is doomed to fail. The emergence of cloaked websites calls for different kinds of literacies: a literacy of digital media, to be sure, and new literacies not merely of “tolerance,” but also literacies of social justice that offer a depth of understanding about race, racism and multiple, intersecting forms of oppression. At stake in this shifting digital terrain is our vision for racial and social justice.
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1 There is no similar injunction against www.JewWatch.com. In 2004 there was a grassroots effort to convince Google to remove the site from its search engine, but these efforts failed.
2 These charts are from the web traffic site Alexa. There is slightly higher traffic recorded for the King Center site at the end of January, 2006 around the time of the death of Mrs. Coretta Scott King.
All research and subsequent modifications were approved by the Hunter College, City University of New York, Institutional Review Board (Protocol # HC-080513561).