ALT. MANY. OF. THESE. NEWSGROUPS.ARE. REPELLENT
Oct 30, 1995, Vol. 1, No. 07 • By STEPHEN BATES
In September, President Clinton discovered a rare patch of common ground with the Speaker of the House. All public schools, the president proclaimed, ought to be linked to the Internet by the year 2000. Newt Gingrich has been extolling the educational virtues of the Net for months. Want to learn about batik craftsmanship? he asks in To Renew America. Just log onto the Net, the library where the books never leave the shelf. "Somehow," Gingrich said at a Progress and Freedom Foundation symposium earlier this year, "there has to be a missionary spirit in America that says to the poor kid, 'The Internet's for you.'"
Just what will the nation's schoolchildren, poor or otherwise, find in cyberspace? Pending bills in Congress, a directory of ZIP codes, the Shoemaker-Levy photos of Jupter -- and quite a bit more. The messages posted to the newsgroup re.pyrotechnics, for instance, offer plans for constructing bombs. On alt.suicide.holiday, users suggest how those so inclined might painlessly kill themselves. One recent addition to the family of online newsgroups is called alt.fuck.the.skull.of.jesus.
The alt.sex hierarchy includes groups devoted to enemas, spanking, water-sports, foot fetishes, necrophilia, and pedophilia. The pedophiles, in fact, populate four separate newsgroups, some of which feature digitized photos of naked children. A company with the easy-to-remember Net moniker x- rated.com advertises "that kinky, sleazy, wild, depraved, incredibly hot- making stuff that you used to have to sneak into the house in plain, stained, brown-paper wrappings -- now brought to you hygienically by the miracle of computing."
Gingrich's GOP comes in for a good bit of online attention. According to alt.conspiracy, the Republicans have a secret plot for cracking down on illegal immigration: Every American citizen will be forced to have a computer chip implanted under the skin. Talk.rumors reveals that Dan Quayle is gay. The there's the new group alt.rush-limbaugh.die.a.flaming.death. Even alt.fan.newt-gingrich turns out to feature sprinkling of skeptics. Not long ago, Philip Elmei-DeWitt of Time groused that the Speaker's "much- hralded vision of cyberdemocracy" strikes him as merely "warmed-over Al Gore." Another critic complained that Gingrich's firing of House historian Christina jeffrey is further proof that "all North American politicians must be cuddling lapdogs of the Zionist masters."
On line, in fact, everybody's sensmvmes get trampled. A publicly accessible file-transter site offers the notorious antisemitic forgery Protocols of the Elders of Zion, thoughtfully compressed for speedier downloads. Air. politics.white-power features all sorts of racist rants. Sexist flamers now dominate alt.feminism, overloading the bulletin board with hostile jibes. On a thread about women and sports, one womarlisted her many athletic accomplishments. "Yeah, baby," responded a male user, "but can you cook?"
The Net provides a wide-open forum for all sorts of raucousness. Any user can post to unmoderated newsgroups, and any sufficiently savvy user can create a newsgroup. (The day that alt.politics.usa.newt-gingrich opened for business, so did alt.sex.incest.) Some insightful debates result, but so does lots of playground name-calling. On a religion newsgroup recently, a user asked a follower of the antisemitic Christian Identity movement how his beliefs differ from Hitler's; the Christian Identity follower responded by asking how the questioner's beliefs differ from the Antichrist's.
The Internet, with its combination of near-absolute free speech, facelessness, and anonymity, naturally attracts people whom offline society stigmatizes. Pedophiles, Holocaust-deniers, and bomb-makers represent only a tiny fraction of Net users, of course, but they generate a disproportionate amount of noise.
That's the sort of noise that plenty of people don't want in their public schools. In fact, a lot of conservative Christians aren't crazy about computers to start with. In his 1991 book The New World Order, Pat Robertson refers to supercomputers. as an "alarming development" that, by moving us toward a cashless society, may be fulfilling the Revelation prophecy that "no man could buy or sell without the mark of the beast." The Net isn't going to appeal to people who think computers are ushering in the Antichrist. More broadly, Gingrich's Information Age vision doesn't resonate with those evangelicals to whom the future means, above all else, the Second Coming. Some discord has already arisen. The Christian Coalition, which spent an estimated $ 1 million to push Gingrich's Contract with America, favors new laws regulating online pornography; Gingrich is skeptical.