Recently, a diverse group of New York City high school students was assigned to write reports on Martin Luther King, Jr. Searching the Internet, several students learned that the renowned civil rights leader had in fact been a drunken philandering con man. Others concluded that the federal holiday marking King's birthday should be repealed.
Where in the www did these kids search?
Google, for starters.
If you enter "Martin Luther King, Jr." as a search term, the site netting the third-highest ranking is martinlutherking(dot)org, which purports to be "A valuable resource for teachers and students alike." Visit the site and you can read the "truth" about King -- communist, wife-beater, plagiarist, sexual deviant and all-around fraud. There are flyers to the same effect that children can download, print and bring to school.
As you have probably guessed, this site is not run by the King Center, the memorial established in 1968 by Coretta Scott King to the advance her husband's legacy (TheKingCenter.org ranks seventh on Google). Rather, MartinLutherKing(dot)org is a spinoff of Stormfront(dot)org, the "white nationalist" online community created in 1995 by former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard Don Black. Stormfront's Web forum now claims nearly 214,000 participants. Black registered martinlutherking(dot)org on January 14, 1999, later adding MLKing(dot)org and MLKing(dot)com.
A Google spokesman told me, "Our search results are generated objectively and are independent of the beliefs and preferences of those who work at Google. A site's ranking in Google's search results is automatically determined by computer algorithms using hundreds of factors to calculate a page's relevance to a given query. The only sites we omit from our search results are those we are legally compelled to remove or those maliciously attempting to manipulate our results."
MartinLutherKing(dot)org also ranks third on Yahoo and Bing.
According to sociologist Jessie Daniels of RacismReview, "The decision to register the domain name 'martinlutherking(dot)org' relatively early in the evolution of the web was a shrewd and opportune move for advocates of white supremacy."
While proponents of the King Center message would love to pull the plug, they face multiple obstacles, not least of which is the First Amendment. Unless the Web content contains libel, a credible threat or incitement to imminent lawless action, the law offers little recourse. In a 2008 Atlanta Journal-Constitution interview, King Center CEO Isaac Farris, Jr., cited the "thin line between opinion and slander," adding, "You never authorize a lawyer to do whatever it takes because that could be a black hole."
The law also insulates Internet Service Providers from liability to the same extent telephone companies aren't responsible for crimes committed over their wires. Per the Telecommunications Act of 1996, "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."
Providers may prohibit racist or bigoted messages of their own volition, however--such prohibitions don't violate constitutional rights because a commercial provider isn't a government agency. MartinLutherKing(dot)org's ISP, Dallas-based SoftLayer, has a strict acceptable use policy. "We try to be as proactive as possible in eliminating any and all content from our network that breaches the terms of this policy," a SoftLayer spokesperson told me. "But this is not always an easy task. In aggregate we have nearly 80,000 servers under management, and we host millions of domains."
Daniels sees general awareness about the way propaganda works online as a more effective agent of change. "We have to get smarter about racism," she says.
Adds educational psychologist Brendesha Tynes, "We need media literacy programs that foster the development of a critical lens to help children recognize the difference between propaganda and legitimate sites."
Toward that end, the Anti-Defamation League offers a Combating CyberHate Toolkit that suggests steps to counter pernicious sites, including posting videos, counterpoints, or comments that oppose offensive content--for example, constructing counter-MartinLutherKing(dot)org programming on YouTube or Facebook.
And as Martin Luther King, Jr., said, "All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem."
Editor's note: We have intentionally broken outgoing links from this post to two of the sites discussed in Mr. Thomson's post. To visit these sites, replace (dot)org with .org