Dramatic Resurrgence in Hate Groups

There is a new study from our friends at the SPLC, reported in The New York Times, that indicates a dramatic resurgence in the number of racist, neo-Nazi, and far-right extremist groups operating across our country. The SPLC, which has kept track of such groups for 30 years, recorded 1,018 hate groups operating last year.  And, lest you think this is a southern U.S. phenomenon, the states with the most active hate groups were California, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey and New York.

 

The far-right patriot movement began its current resurgence in 2008, after the election of Mr. Obama and the beginning of the recession.  Chapters of the traditional white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan fell from 221 to 152.

As reported in the NYTimes piece, the federal government does not focus on groups that engage in racist hate-based speech, but does monitor paramilitary groups and others that it determines have some inclination toward violence, said Daryl Johnson, a former senior domestic terrorism analyst for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The SPLC also has a fascinating interview with Daryl Johnson (from summer 2011) about how the DHS has bowed to political pressure around not focusing on domestic, right-wing terrorism.  It will be interesting to see if this latest report changes the policy of the DHS.

Racist Groups Online & Off: What the Research Tells Us

The Southern Poverty Law Center released a report this week about the alarming rise in hate groups in the U.S.   In the year 2010, there were 1,002 hate groups, the first time the number was over 1,000.    The number hate groups in the U.S. has increased every year over the last decade.   Because the rise in hate groups has coincided with the spread of the popular Internet, many people conclude the Internet is the cause of this phenomenon.    For example, one news report on the SPLC data said the following:

“The growing epidemic of hate and extremism on both sides of the political spectrum is being fueled largely by the Internet, which provides a forum for the groups to communicate and spread their message.being fueled largely by the Internet, which provides a forum for the groups to communicate and spread their message.”

It’s not the Internet.    At least, it’s not the Internet-only that’s to blame here.   That’s also not what the SPLC report says.    To see evidence that it’s not the Internet that’s fueling the rise in hate groups, you only need to look further in the SPLC Intelligence Report.  The Patriot and Militia Groups declined from 1996 through 2008, key years in the growth of the Internet. Then, from 2008 to 2010 these groups began to rise again (fuzzy chart from SPLC below, original here).

If the Internet were fueling growth of hate groups across the board, then this bar chart would go up as Internet use increased.   But it doesn’t.  Instead, it dips in the middle, even during a period when Internet growth was growing.

Mainstream news reports also frequently suggest that hate groups are using the Internet to “recruit” new members.  For example, an ABC News Report suggests that a cloaked site I’ve written about here before is:

“a testament to how effectively hate groups have harnessed the power of the digital age to recruit new members, many of them young and vulnerable to such overtures, through Facebook, YouTube and other social networking sites.”

Closely tied to this, is an often repeated line that hate groups use the Internet to “broadcast” their message, as in this passage from a 2008 news item:

“The site broadcasts a virtual newscast based on a real crime that morphs a photo of the black suspects into apes and charges that blacks have lower intelligence than whites. …hate groups are using YouTube, Facebook, online games and virtual worlds such as Second Life to target enemies and gain new recruits.”

The problem with this view of hate groups “broadcasting” and “recruiting” via the Internet is that it misunderstands both how the Internet works and how social movement recruitment works.   The Internet, and especially Web 2.0, works by people seeking out content that they want to find.  It’s different than traditional broadcast media, which is based on a one-to-many model. For example, a television network (like ABC) broadcasts programming to a large, mass audience.  Web 2.0 works on a many-to-many model in which people share content they like with others in their network.   Chris Anderson has written about this shift and refers to it as “the long tail.” People go to the websites of hate groups, for the most part, because they seek out the content there (see Cyber Racism for more on this argument about “recruitment”).   Social movement recruitment is a years long, typically face-to-face process.  The research indicates that the Internet is not an effective mechanism for recruitment.  For example, Ray and Marsh conclude that: “Online recruitment efforts are opportunistic rather than aggressive in nature,” and ineffective (Ray and Marsh, “Recruitment by Extremist Groups on the Internet,” First Monday, 2002).

So does this research suggest that we shouldn’t be concerned about the growth in hate groups?  Not at all.  The fact is hate groups are growing offline, in person, and face-to-face.  The people in these groups then use the Internet to stay connected and reinforce their beliefs and connect with still others who share those beliefs.

What the research tells us that it’s the appeal of the racist groups offline that we need to address.