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Anne Bruendt has lived all 26 years of her life in Bonn, Germany - the site of one of Adolf Hitler's favorite restaurants - but it wasn't until last month that she saw someone execute a "Heil Hitler" salute.
Bruendt was rummaging through footage of German stage groups on the popular video-hosting Web site YouTube.com, when she chanced upon an old Nazi propaganda video that had been uploaded by a user with the tagline: "Watch this if you are a proud German."
"I was shocked. Anything to do with the Nazis is very taboo, and suddenly it was there - in a very public way - for everyone to see," said Bruendt.
Such incidents are at the heart of a new campaign by the German government to crack down on neo-Nazi groups that are disseminating information through the Internet. But it's an uphill struggle.
Germany has long maintained laws designed to quell any resurgence of Nazi culture. The use of symbols, salutes and phrases associated with the Nazi regime has been illegal in Germany since World War II.
While the government has had measurable success tracking down the real-life offenders of its Nazi ban, it has found itself increasingly confronted with offenders in the virtual world of on-line networks.
There are no statistics or records kept of anti-Semitic material that is posted on-line. However, as community-based Web sites such as YouTube, MySpace and Facebook grow in popularity, so does the likelihood that controversial groups will use their forums to promote their own messages.
A search on YouTube results in 53,600 videos containing the word "Nazi" and 37,600 with the word "Hitler." While the vast majority are not anti-Semitic - such as "Donald Duck is a Nazi," a video which showcases the popular Disney cartoon in a sardonic sketch about SS guards - Hitler rally archive footage and other Nazi propaganda films are increasingly being uploaded, translated, and disseminated through YouTube.
Other networking sites, such as Facebook.com and Myspace.com have faced similar rises in anti-Semitism. Myspace allows users to put up music, images, and videos on their profiles, while Facebook users can create virtual groups for their friends to join. On each site, there are more than 500 groups featuring the words "Hitler" or "Nazi."
Again, the majority use the words loosely, such as "Cats that look like Hitler Appreciation Society." But a growing number have been established in the past year to promote Nazism and other anti-Semitic activity.
In one such group, "Heil Hitler," users are given the following disclaimer: "It's an open group, and anyone can join, but only those who are National Socialists. That points to those who are white, surely not niggers, not Gypsies, not Mexicans, not Latinos and certainly not Jewish! Written down plain and clear. Still, it's okay if you're white but tanned."
Such groups clearly violate the user policies of the Web sites. On Facebook, Myspace and YouTube, users have the option to review controversial material and report it to the administrators. However, while material is often taken down after such reports, many videos are left to stand.
Administrators at several Web sites mentioned above did not respond to The Jerusalem Post's requests for comment.
In order to combat the controversial material, organizations are joining private individuals in requesting that Web sites adopt a more stringent policy of monitoring their content.
"At the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), we believe that the best antidote to hate speech is counter-speech - exposing hate speech for its deceitful and false content, setting the record straight, and promoting the values of tolerance and diversity," said Arieh O'Sullivan, ADL Director of Communication in Israel. "One successful model is for watchdog groups to monitor sites for offensive content and notify Internet providers. The cooperation of ISPs [Internet service providers] in taking down or blocking hate-filled sites is an important tool. Voluntary editing by an ISP does not implicate the First Amendment protection of speech, and so appealing to a provider has been effective."
Recently, Germany issued a formal complaint, initiated by the Central Council of Jews in Germany, against YouTube for videos of neo-Nazi groups that were posted and spread among German site users.
Bruendt is unsure of what else should be done. Like most young people, she believes freedom of speech is part of what allows sites like YouTube, Facebook and Myspace to flourish and attract young people from across the globe. On the other hand, she is uncomfortable with the idea that German youths could begin promoting the Nazi movement as a model.
"For someone weaker, someone who maybe was looking for someone to hate, seeing that salute could inspire pride or confidence," said Bruendt. "Maybe the only thing we can do is educate young people so that when they see videos like that, they close the window and find something else to watch."