Chip Berlet Tracks Computer Networks of the Religious Right
Originally in Afterimage, Feb./March 1995, pp. 810.
Interview by Grant Kester
Grant Kester: When did you first begin to track right-wing computer
Chip Berlet: Around 1984. I was online very early with bulletin board
systems (BBSs), in part becasue I was writing a column on computer technology
and the law for the publication Chicago Lawyer. As I was examining the
trend in the legal profession away from dedicated word processing systems.
I realized that the cutting edge law firms were developing ways to transfer
data between their offices very efficiently. So I went online and started
In June 1985 I presented a paper at a national conference on Issues
in Technology and Privacy organized by professor George Trubow of the
Center for Information Technology and Privacy Law at the John Marshall
Law School in Chicago. The debate over computer networks and BBS's was
so new that Jerry Berman of the ACLU got up at this conference and announced
that, in his view, all of the BBS's were just public carriers and thus
had no First Amendment rights. People's jaws just hit the floor. Part
of my presentation was an attempt to explain that some of the BBSs were
just like magazines or newspapers or a new form of public debatee and
therefore entitled to Constitutional protections.
When I learned that the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nations were networking
via BBSs run through individual Apple II computers, I was so offended
that the Klan had beaten the political left into bulletin boards that
I got together with some friends in the Chicago area and started a progressive
anti-racist BBS in 1985. A hospital electronics technician volunteered
to knit together a whole bunch of used Atari computer parts so that they
would be powerful enough to sustain a bulletin board. We had the second
progressive BBS in the country; the first one was NewsBase started in
1984 by Richard Gaikowski in California who helped us upgrade to a CP/M
computer. I also began to give speeches about far right bigotry and bring
an old portable remote printer terminal about the size of an attache
case. I'd dial into a racist BBS and download text files as I spoke to
show how accessible racist hate literature was online.
GK: It's interesting to hear that the right had their foot in the door
so early with computer technology. It reminds me of the fact that one
of the first radio licenses issued was to evangelist Mary Baker Eddy.
CB: It's very similar. Christian BBSs also started very early. People
tend to ignore the fact that Christian evangelicals have always been
at the cutting edge of new technologies; whether its the printing press,
offset technology instead of letterpress, early radio and TV, or electronic
media. We tend to think that because they are culturally conservative
they are not willing to utilize technology. But of course if you remember
that evangelists' main goal is to spread the message of Christ throughout
the world, you'll realize that they will want to use the best technology
GK: The rhetoric used by religious and political conservatives regarding
communications technologies characterizes the technology as open and
accessible. Conservatives claim that they want to use computer networks
or cable-cast TV as a way to give voice to the populace. National Empowerment
Television (NET), for example, uses this rhetoric. At the same time NET
has a component called C-NET, which is a very controlled, subscriber-selected
service used to generate activism around particular issues. So it's being
used in exactly the opposite way.
CB: The populist rhetoric is the sales pitch. There are so many issues
that are bundled together here. One is simply the use of the technology
to propagate evangelism. Mostly this is political persuasion based on
very strong ideological and theological convictions. If you're a Calvinist
(with apologies to Calvin from whom Calvinism diverted, just as Christianity
diverted from Christ) then you believe that people are basically sinful
and that they will correct their behavior through punishment and discipline.
Thus a lot of the rhetoric is designed to convince people that what the
country really needs is discipline and that people who do not behave
properly need to be punished so that they will change their behavior.
This explains a lot about the welfare debate and a whole range of hot
button issues. If you believe that homosexuals are sinful, even if you
believe you should hate the sin but love the sinner , you're still going
to go after the practice of homosexuality. If you believe that the feminist
movement is destroying the God-given structure of the family, then you're
going to go after feminism as an enemy of America. Is that propaganda?
It isn't false propaganda if you actually believe these things. However
it is certainly destructive if you're a woman, a gay man, or a lesbian
in the current climate. But I think people underestimate how many people
involved in the Christian right actually believe that they're doing the
right thing, no matter how destructive it is to other people.
Another issue is the use of the electronic media in a demagogic manner.
There are Christians and moral conservatives, and I would include Newt
Gingrich in this category, who will say just about anything, without
regard to the facts, to advance a political agenda and broaden their
own personal power base.
GK: You are describing the various rhetorical levels at which these
information systems function. On the one hand there is the proselytizing
function of witnessing over the Internet, which would imply a more open
architecture. Anyone is free to join a given bulletin board or chat group;
you may be a lurker who is drawn in and brought to Christ in this manner.
In this context some of the users may not be evangelicals or even Christians.
CB: You often see interesting philosophical and theological debates taking
place on computer networks. There are aslo people sharing biblical passages
about specific emotional needs. You also see just pure networking. People
use these systems just like they would use internal office calenders
to plan appointments and to schedule events ("don't have your camp
revival on this date because there is a church festival already scheduled
in the next county over"). Much of the community-based activity
echoes what's available in print. There have been concordances and Bible
study aids for a long time. But now you're seeing that kind of information
The electronic media have attracted the full range from conservatives
to the far right. Conservatives have the "Town Hall" section
on Compuserve. There are thousands of local Christian Evangelical BBSs,
mostly aimed at local audiences. These even offer computer games for
Christians, with Bible study contest questions like "how many colors
were in Joseph's coat of many colors?" But it's important to understand
that you also have Lyndon LaRouche on line, and you have the Klan on
line. There is a tremendous diversity of right-wing and conservative
Christian discourse taking place. These activities are not solely based
in computer networks, but are also on the radio. People forget that you
can receive audio signals through your satellite dish. There's a range
of radio programs that exist only as satellite transmissions. To receive
satellite radio you dial in on your satellite hook up and turn off the
picture on your TV. This is an area of conservative media that is very
under-researched because it is so exotic.
Luckily for researchers a lot of these programs are also echoed on
shortwave radio. There's a whole range of far right religious radio,
World Wide Christian Radio (WWCR), which is very right-wing is an example,
as well as all sorts of more mainstream evangelical programs on WWCR.
There are also a lot of short wave broadcasts, some of which originate
outside the United States. There is such a range of right-wing radio
that a progressive shortwave radio station in Costa Rica, Radio for Peace
International, has a program called Far Right Radio Review devoted exclusively
to monitoring it.
GK: Is there any demographic significance to the predominance of satellite
dishes? I imagine that they are predominantly rural viewers.
CB: There are three pre-exisitng constituencies. There are hobbyists,
who just get these broadcasts because they are into short wave radio
or satellite, there are people who get it because they live in rural
areas that aren't cabled and who can't get TV unless they use a satellite
dish. And then, oddly enough, there are people who are obsessed with
sports. They can pull down sports broadcasts from all over the world
with satellite dishes.
GK: You mentioned Town Hall, which requires a membership application
process, and I believe that some of the Christian BBS's screen members
to determine if they are in fact evangelicals. This implies something
very different from the populist "openness" of the Internet.
CB: Town Hall isn't that bad. I have yet to hear of anyone being denied
access to Town Hall as long as they had a credit card. They want to know
who you are so that they can sell you something. But there are in fact
e-mail lists that are private and there are bulletin boards that you
can dial up and if you know the magic password you can get into a different
security level. I run a private e-mail list for researchers of the right.
And my bulletin board has a secret security level password, so that people
who work with me can download stuff that the average user can't find.
In and of itself there is nothing sinister about this kind of controlled
GK: You mentioned that your own BBS has a kind of hierarchy of access.
Does that mean that there are researchers on the right who are lurking
on progressive lists and BBSs just like those on the left do with Christian
and right-wing networks?
CB: Absolutely. After a while you begin to run into each other, or
at least you recognize each other's footprints. You have to have a sense
of humor about it, because its like "Spy vs. Spy" in Mad magazine.
I'm constantly crossing the paths of people doing exactly what I'm doing
except from the reverse political position. After a while you get to
GK: Can you give an example of how you encounter these footprints of
CB: I'd rather not, trade secrets, you know.
GK: This is a question that may or may not relate directly to computer
networks. It has to do with the relationship between using the Internet
as a form of communication and information exchange, and, on the model
of C-NET, using it as a tool for direct lobbying purposes within a controlled
audience (For example, "This bill is coming to committee, write
your congress person with this information now, etc.") That would
seem to raise questions about the 501(c)(3) status of organizations like
NET. How can they get away with being a non-profit, and yet still engage
in open lobbying for particular political interests?
CB: It is a dilemma. Even if you have 501(c)(3) status you are allowed
to do a certain amount of political work. I've read some very compelling
arguments that what Paul Weyrich does with NET crosses over the line
of what's permissible as a 501(c)(3). But who wants to tell an elephant
when it farts? Given Weyrich's clout it is politically inopportune to
challenge him right now. I've asked people in Washington why NET's activities
aren't being questioned and they say, because he'll roll over and crush
us. Plus, its hardly a secret that labor unions do this too. However,
I think that labor unions and other liberal or progressive groups, have
obeyed the law a little better; they do try to keep the 501(c)(3) information
educational They set up other entities to do the political outreach in
the form of auxiliary organizations or PACs. They try to play the game
within the limits, but I don't believe the Christian right is playing
the game within the limits.
GK: What role are online systems going to play in the political process
and how does the conservative right use them now?
CB: Developing online networks exponentially increases your ability
to share information and coordinate activism. It's stunning how much
easier this makes your work. When I was writing a paper on the Gulf War
and the role of LaRouche followers who were trying to infiltrate anti-war
coalitions (and this wasn't even on a private level) I just posted a
bunch of questions on Usenet conferences asking for e-mail from persons
who might have run into LaRouche supporters. I received 50 messages in
the first couple of days from all over the country. I don't think people
understand the shift in the nature of research and coordination that
has developed because of this kind of networking. Certainly corporations
are aware of it; you wouldn't have Windows for Work Groups if people
didn't understand the way networking can increase your productivity. During
the 1992 Ross Perot campaign it was fascinating to see Libertarians on
the Net jump into the Perot campaign. The circulation of documents online
by the Perot supporters was one reason the Perot campaign was able to
build a political support network so quickly. The Civilian Militia and
Patriot movements are using on-line systems to great effect. These are
rightwing movements with an anti-government agenda that fear impending
attack by government or UN troops and the establishment of a dictatorship
as part of the creation of the New World Order.
They are probably the first major social movement organized via telecommunications
networks. That's the good news, the bad news is that ninety percent of
the information they circulate is undocumented rumor and conspiracy theory,
some of it based on classic white supremacist legal arguments or allegations
of secret plots international Jewish bankers. You can find their posts
in Usenet conferences such as <alt.conspiracy>, <misc.survivalism),
I've had discussions with people who study electronic media and computers
about the changes in the basis of information flow between Washington
and people out in the country. Some talk about the potential for a referendum
by keyboard. But my response is that populism comes in a variety of forms
and it's not always good. A lynch mob is a form of populism. Democracy
is based on informed consent; it could get badly burned by political
If you consider James Madison's definition of democracy by "informed
consent," "informed" means an opinion developed over time
through debate based on accurate information. But now, if you're gullible
you can get swayed pretty fast by the kind of rhetoric that you see on
the Internet. There is a lot of misinformation, disinformation, and just
outright crap on the Internet. Some of it is circulated by far right
groups that are pretending to be something else, and some of it is circulated
by far right groups that are happy to acknowledge that they think all
gays should be exterminated. Much of the political debate on the Internet
takes place on the level of myth. That's not good for democracy. The
Internet will need to grow up and develop the kind of social norms that
characterize other democratic communications systems. Our social institutions
are going to have to understand that if you want to play politics today,
you've got to be online. And people need to realize that no matter how
outlandish a claim posted online may be, it needs to be confronted and
GK: When you talk about the Internet "growing up" are you
suggesting some internal regulation of dialogue and information?
CB: Technically there is a way for local system operators to "twit" people
off a given conference, so that their names are placed on a list of proscribed
users and they are unable to post messages. But the kind of internal
regulation that has already taken place with the Holocaust deniers is
a good example of the type of norm I prefer. The Holocaust deniers managed
to offend so many people in the Usenet conference section of the Internet
that essentially they were confined to prosyletizing from one storefront
in the infinite "information" mall. Anybody who wants to stroll
down the length of the mall and enter that storefront can read the most
vile anti-Jewish crap available, along with refutations of it. The Holocaust
denial material now is mostly confined to the Usenet conference <alt.revisionism>.
But when the Holocaust deniers start seeking Internet forums farther
afield there is a lot of complaining from other users and they are forced
back to <alt.revisionism>.
GK: This raises very interesting questions regarding the way in which
the Internet is seen to function as a kind of miniature public sphere
or encapsulated democracy. Do you think that the state will eventually
step in in the form of some kind of FCC devoted to computer communications,
or do you think that the self-regulatory processes of the Internet will
mature to the point to which they become recognized and accepted.
We're already encountering debates about child pornography and stories
with extreme violence and sadism on the Internet in the "Jake Baker" case,
in which a University of Michigan student allegedly posted a violent
and pornographic description of the torture of another student, using
her full name.
CB: Yes, but the important point in the Baker case is that he allegedly
named that student. There is a real problem on the Internet with people
not knowing what criminal law is all about. There is a serious lack of
understanding about libel. People say things about other people which,
if it were in print, they could be sued for. It's not clear yet how these
laws apply to the Internet. I've had people say things about me on line
that are legally actionable. But what can I do? They are probably posted
by someone sitting in their basement who doesn't know any better. You
really can't legally say that I am a secret agent of the FBI or Anti-Defamation
League when I'm not, or that I'm a communist when I'm not. People don't
understand that when they post a message that can be read by four million
people it is a form of publishing. So there is a lack of responsibility
Anyone who accesses the Internet is technically signing an NSF document
an agreeing to abide by certain rules. Everyone's forgotten that they
were asked to read this document the first time they logged on to the
Internet, and that they are obliged to abide by its rules, but it's there.
I think that as time goes on there are probably going to be things added
to that document about access, and the ability of parents to turn off
certain conferences, through a simple code. I think that's appropriate.
I think that if you're old enough to move out of your parent's house
and buy your own computer, then you're old enough to look at the pornography
I think what you'll see is less external regulation than the development
of appropriate self-regulatory policies. Everyone deserves a conference,
but you can't start sending your messages all over the Net. Some people
recently tried to do this by sending advertising to everyone on the Internet
and they were blasted in oblivion. As the Internet develops and matures
and more people get online who aren't the slide rule set, its going to
have to develop some tighter polices. But I hope that they can be self-regulatory
and deal with access by age and choice.
I think I should have the right, when visiting a conference on constitutional
issues, to not be inundated with posts on alternative health information.
If I want to see that I can go and look at it in their conference. This
should be an electronic privacy right. Users should have the right to
filter out unwanted information, whether its commercial or propagandistic.
Also parents need the ability to say that certain conferences are off
limits to their kids. And when people violate the rules by posting outside
their conference, the sanctions need to be there to exile them back to
GK: But these are extreme cases, how would this model apply to "family
values" rhetoric for example?
CB: Look, people shouldn't whine that the religious and secular right
are not playing fair because they have been better at using the new online
technologies. What needs to be confronted is the logic and argments of
the Religious and secular right, and the anti-democratic ideas underlying
many of their proposals. We need better rhetoric not bigger regulations.
Because there are no visual or audio cues in online posts, it is more
difficult to evaluate sources of information. If someone on the right
posts a message full of innacuarate information, then someone on the
left needs to debunk it with accurate information. Eventually the persons
who post cybergarbage will be ignored or banished to <alt.dittoheads>.
Filters are already being established. Some conferences and e-mail lists
are moderated by cybereditors who delete material they judge to be innacurate
or objectionable, just like print editors. I hope there will always be
forums that are completely open, but I think the future will see more
online versions of magazines and moderated discussion groups where the
industrious crackpots and liars are filtered out. And there will be moderated
discussions between persons of differing political outlooks who agree
in advance to certain civilities. The Utne Reader hosts online discussions
and debates that follow this model. Cyberdemocracy doesn't need to be
feared, it needs to be engaged. The norms of the Internet will evolve
so that the demagogues and bigots will always have their storefronts,
but the auditoriums will be filled with people who value accurate information
and who want the type of open and honest debate that keeps democracy
alive and well.
Public Eye BBS is still running at (617) 221-5815. :-)
Sysop: Chip Berlet
Excerpt from Chip's 1985 conference paper
PRIVACY AND THE PC:
Mutually Exclusive Realities?
By Chip Berlet
Prepared for the 1985 national conference on Issues in Technology and
Privacy -- sponsored by the Center for Information Technology and Privacy
Law John Marshall Law School, Chicago, Illinois
June 21-23 1985
Conference coordinator professor George Trubow
A project of the National Bar Association Foundation Funded by the
Access, Speed, Storage - as they increase in the world of the Personal
Computer (PC), has there been a related decrease in individual privacy
as it has traditionally been understood?
The crucial issues in privacy and PC's revolve around the nature of
individual privacy as it has "traditionally been understood" in
the courts, in the streets, in government and corporate offices, and
in our homes. Once again the wisdom of those who crafted the Bill of
Rights is being tested; not on the basis of their essential grasp of
fundamental principles of human dignity, but on our ability to come to
grips with rapidly advancing technology and apply the principles embodied
in the Bill of Rights to the problems posed by that new technology.
A WORD IN FAVOR OF THE BILL OF RIGHTS
In the age of microcomputers and 2400 bits per second modems it is
easy to forget the Bill of Rights was drafted to protect individuals
from governmental violations of person, property and dignity such as
those by the British troops a few decdes earlier when England was vainly
trying to assert control over the boisterous colonials. This is a lesson
we should not fail to consider when devising laws and guidelines dealing
with computerized data bases and telecommunications systems.
Today's Bulletin Board System Operators (SYSOP's) are merely the modern
incarnation of the pesky and audacious colonial period pamphleteers like
John Peter Zenger and Thomas Paine. And if it pains you to compare SYSOPS
to Zenger, remember that time romanticizes our heroes of history. Read
Paine's revolutionary rhetoric and look at Zenger's cartoon depicting
apes in British soldier uniforms. Today Zenger might well be a political
dissident running a controversial BBS while listening to audio tapes
of "The Police" singing about surveillance.