N-word laden posts on a collection of subreddits dubbed “the Chimpire.” Password-protected forums on a Russian alternative to Facebook that doesn’t censor hateful content. “Keyboard commandos” who meet online to discuss real-world violence.
This is what modern American hate looks like, according to a new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), famed for tracking more “traditional” hate outfits like the Aryan Strikeforce, the Ku Klux Klan and the Hammerskin Nation. Published Tuesday, the civil rights organization’s annual survey found that as the number of people publicly affiliated with conventional hate groups declines, prejudice has found a new home in the darkest corners of the Internet.
“There is little to attract radicals to join groups when they can broadcast their opinions across the world via the Internet and at the same time remain anonymous if they wish,” the report said.
The news from the survey — which focuses mostly on white supremacist and anti-government “Patriot” organizations — is mixed. The number of SPLC-designated “active hate groups” is at a 10-year low of 784, while the number of Patriot groups, which spiked after the election of President Obama in 2008, has fallen by more than a third in the past three years. Among general hate groups, only the anti-LGBT movement has seen a steady expansion in the number of organizations in the past five years. Meanwhile, the number of Ku Klux Klan “klaverns,” as their chapters are called, fell by nearly half in 2014 — to 72 from 163 the previous year.
Much of this has to do with the “fear of exposure,” the report said. It’s a lot riskier these days to be associated even tangentially with a white supremacist group — as Majority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), who recently had to apologize for a 2002 appearance before a hate group, can attest. Many organizations have stopped publicizing their events or announcing lists of speakers. An improved economy and increased prosecution of hate crimes could also be pushing people away from larger organizations, the report said.
But that doesn’t mean that hate is on the decline, the report cautioned — it’s just being driven underground. The study noted much of the decline in hate groups came from the reduction of Ku Klux Klan chapters, many of which have not actually disbanded but simply ended public communication. And many extremists are opting out of traditional hate groups entirely, instead choosing to act alone or in very small cells. Anti-government, jihadist and bias-motivated violence is increasingly coming from “lone wolf” attackers. The study found that 90 percent of domestic terror attacks are carried out by just one or two people, and only one of the 63 incidents from that period was planned by a formal, named organization.
And extremists are now venting their opinions online — in the comment threads of controversial news stories, labyrinthine subsections of Reddit and forums like Stormfront, the self-proclaimed “voice of the new, embattled White minority.” That forum, thought to be the Internet’s first hate site, now boasts nearly 300,000 registered users — hardly competitive with Facebook, which has more than a billion users, but still “astounding for a site run by an ex-felon and former Alabama Klan leader,” the study noted. (Stormfront founder Don Black was imprisoned for two years after he and a group of fellow white supremacists launched a failed invasion of the Caribbean island of Dominica.) Though a previous SPLC study found Stormfront users have killed close to 100 people in the past five years, this report also acknowledged that online discussions may serve as a “safety valve” to lessen violence.
The report goes on to condemn what it terms “mainstream” extremism: the false claims on Fox News that Muslim-run “no-go zones” were established in European cities; politicians and other officials who vow to resist federal law on taxes and gun control. It also lists examples of hate-motivated violence from the past year: the shooting of three people at a Kansas Jewish Community Center; the killing of two police officers and a bystander by a couple with anti-government views in Las Vegas; and a man who opened fire on a federal courthouse, the Mexican consulate and police headquarters in Austin, among others.
Even though the number of hate groups is on the decline, the report concluded, hate is not.
“The level of extremism, and the danger of radical terror, seems just as high as ever,” it said.