April 20, 2000
Internet Activism: Power, No Accountability
Report: Anti-Semitic acts down, despite acts of violence in 1999
The Internet is democracy with a vengeance, with citizen-activists wielding unprecedented power, but also without the checks and balances of an older, slower way of doing things.
Case in point: the recent flap over online mega-bookstores that sell the notorious anti-Semitic slander, "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion."
A handful of e-mails from angry Jews quickly turned into a tidal wave; successive generations of mailings became more threatening, less accurate.
The effort was swift and potent; ultimately, it may have influenced the decision by the errant booksellers to change the way they marketed the book.
But it also undercut a process for doing battle in such situations that calibrates and measures the Jewish response. It was powerful, but anarchic and ultimately unaccountable.
Nobody knows exactly how it began, but this much is clear: last month, several e-mails started circulating on the Net, pointing out that Barnes & Noble was selling "The Protocols" on its Web site and -- adding insult to injury -- categorizing it as "Judaica."
By that standard, "Mein Kampf" could be sold as a Jewish "classic."
Some of the initial e-mails were sober and balanced, expressing concern about the misrepresentation of the book but also making it clear that censorship is not the answer.
But the rhetoric quickly escalated; more damaging, the e-mailed warnings became less and less accurate as they were forwarded to new recipients in wholesale lots.
Meanwhile, the e-mail activists had discovered that Amazon.Com, the other big online bookseller, was also offering the anti-Semitic work.
The tone of the e-mail complaints grew shriller still, their claims more exaggerated -- including the assertion that Amazon had "favorably reviewed" the book. In fact, the listing included a few inane reader reviews from obvious anti-Semites and a puffy publisher-supplied review.
This put mainstream Jewish defense agencies in a bind.
Clearly, there was a problem here. There was plenty of evidence that the book was being misrepresented in the online bookstores in a way that could lead prospective buyers to think it was a legitimate analysis, not the scurrilous fake that it is.
Under normal circumstances, groups such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) would quietly approach the companies, but with the implicit threat that if negotiations failed, they would make a public stink.
At the same time, their strategic calculations would factor in other variables, including constitutional questions and the community relations implications.
But on the Internet, there isn't time for such niceties.
Suddenly, concerned individuals -- self-appointed, instant Jewish leaders -- have the ability to get their message out on a vast scale, without geographical or financial limits; it's as cheap to send 1,000 e-mails as a single message.
In the "Protocols" battle, the fight was generaled by anonymous individuals, some well meaning, but none with a shred of accountability.
ADL is accountable to its lay leaders, and when it errs, to the Jewish community as a whole; an individual starting an e-mail boycott is accountable to nobody.
ADL will pay the price if it picks unnecessary fights -- or if it shies away from ones it should wade into. The individual cyber warrior will not.
Jewish defense organizations, for all their faults, have hard-won credibility; the cyber-warriors depend on the medium itself to provide a veneer of legitimacy and on their anonymity to protect them if their efforts backfire.
The Internet has spurred torrents of frauds, hoaxes and urban legends; there's a risk e-crusades against anti-Semitism can spiral out of control, and in doing so taint the fight against anti-Semitism with the aftertaste of quackery that is attached to so much of the material disseminated on the Internet.
In fact, the blasts against Amazon were picked up by one of the Web sites documenting computer-driven urban legends. The site pointed out factual errors in some of the mass e-mailings, and ranked it with other examples of Internet disinformation like the perennial "alligators in the sewers" story.
In the end, Barnes & Noble responded by posting a number of reader reviews castigating "The Protocols" and a statement from ADL describing its place in the hate literature cosmos.
Amazon now has a "special note" attached to its listing for "The Protocols," stating that the book is "one of the most infamous, and tragically influential, examples of racist propaganda ever written."
But they also blast the mostly anonymous Jewish activists who quickly turned a legitimate complaint into an example of a "hoax e-mail," in Amazon's words.
That's the danger -- that legitimate complaints, handled without care and calibration and accountability, can spin out of control in the hyper-connected world of cyberspace.