Hate groups decline: Is the US less hateful or just less public?

While the number of hate groups is declining, more people may be taking their hateful attitudes to the Internet. What does this say about our society?

Steve Sisney/The Oklahoman/AP
George Henderson (l.) professor emeritus, joins students at the University of Oklahoma to protest a fraternity's racist comments on March 9, in Norman, Okla. University President David Boren lambasted members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity on Monday who participated in a racist chant caught on video, calling them disgraceful and their behavior reprehensible, and ordered that their house be vacated by midnight Tuesday.

The number of hate groups in the United States is on the decline for the second year in a row, according to an annual report released by the Southern Policy Law Center.

Between 2013 and 2014, the number of hate groups declined by 17 percent, reaching their lowest prevalence level since 2005. There are currently 784 reported hate groups, the majority of which are classified as “general hate” and include groups that are anti-LGBT, anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, Holocaust denial, racist music, and radical traditional Catholic. The second largest category of hate groups are Neo-Nazi organizations.

While the number of groups may be in decline, there have been a rise in hate affiliations on the internet, as well as “lone wolf” extremists who act alone rather than from within a group. Since 2009, 90 percent of all domestic terror attacks have been carried out by individuals or pairs.

Are we really less hateful, or have extremists simply found more anonymous and efficient ways of carrying out acts of hate?

Heidi Beirich, the director of the Southern Policy Law Center’s Intelligence Project, said that while the number of hate groups has been slowly declining over the last three years, this year was a marked jump. However, she said that it is important to keep in mind that while the number of groups may be in decline, it does not reflect whether or not the people who carry hateful views are in decline.

“People are running to the anonymity of the internet,” Ms. Beirich said to The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “We know there are places where hundreds of thousands of people  who have these views are connected online . . . You don’t need to be in a group to promote your propaganda when you have the web.”

The study found that radical websites have become more popular among extreme individuals. For example, Stormfront—which is run by an ex-felon and former Alabama Klan leader and is the largest and most active radical-right internet forum in the US—is just shy of 300,000 users. Other websites such as Reddit, which herald free speech, have also seen an increase in hateful speech.

Beirich said that it is important to note that hate groups are not the only thing affected by the internet. In general, all groups across the country are declining in numbers. It is easier to plug in to a community online rather than invest in a physical group.

“We’re seeing a decline in groups in the real world as well. Whether it is ‘gardening’ or ‘hating the Jews’, you just need an internet connection to find others that share those interests,” she said. “Real world activism takes time, money, and resources . . . It’s easy to be a keyboard warrior.”

With many groups developing online, an interesting turn of hate behavior has occurred in the form of “lone wolf” behavior, where one or two individuals will act violently for their beliefs. Such occurrences now make up nine in 10 acts of domestic terror.

While this is worrisome, Beirich pointed out that it speaks volumes that group hatred is no longer something accepted or valued in society. She pointed to recent examples in the media—such as the University of Oklahoma suspension of a racist fraternity—that show mainstream society no longer accepts hateful behavior.

“One thing that is contributing to the decline to hate groups and extremist groups is that people don’t want to be identified with these ideologies,” Beirich said. “That tells us about the rest of society, that society has decided it’s not acceptable . . . Today, that’s no longer okay and that’s real progress.”

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