On April 19, 1995, the day a truck bomb leveled the Oklahoma City federal building, there was only one Web hate site, run by the Ku Klux Klan. A year ago, there were 600 such sites. And an updated compilation now lists 1,400 sites.
The figures are contained in an interactive CD-ROM report on "Digital Hate 2000," released at a press conference this week by the Wiesenthal Center.
In the three weeks since the latest data were calculated, 120 new sites, espousing racial and anti-gay violence and anti-Semitism have sprouted, said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center.
Aside from the sheer numerical increase, "we are now seeing a number of new developments pointing to the growing outreach and sophistication of hate groups," said Cooper.
Most worrisome are the hate programs aimed specifically at children, from preteens on up. One common tactic is to alter popular computer games, such as "Doom" and "Wolfenstein," by inserting racist and white power messages.
Also noticeable is the increase of extremist sites that originate with overseas groups. By establishing sites in the United States, they evade anti-hate laws in their own countries and can then be accessed by users back home, Cooper said.
One such site, originating in Sweden, has done a booming business by peddling the notoriously anti-Semitic tract "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion."
There has been a particularly large jump in sites that preach hatred and violence against gays and lesbians.
As an example of the sophistication of many hate sites, Cooper pointed to one frequently visited by students and others looking for information on slain civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
"That site is brilliantly put together, with all the bells and whistles," Cooper said. "Initially, it looks like a serious, scholarly site. But when you come to the recommended reading list, you'll find the autobiography of white supremacist David Duke."
Cooper believes that in the fight against racists and Holocaust-deniers, "we're entering a new era, in which the main battlefield is the World Wide Web."
In combating hate groups, the answer is neither censorship nor abridgment of free speech, said Cooper. However, Internet service providers, such as America Online, or search engines, such as Yahoo, can and should set certain standards of their own.
"Like any responsible newspaper, they can refuse to carry obviously racist and dangerous advertisements and messages," he said. "For instance, no paper would print precise instructions on making a terrorist bomb, but you can find that on the Internet."
The Wiesenthal Center will distribute 20,000 free copies of the CD-ROM to police and educators. Others can order a copy for $20 through the Web site www.wiesenthal.com.--Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor