Hate Groups Online & Off: What the Research Tells Us
The Southern Poverty Law Center released a report recently 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 of these 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 racist 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 racist 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 racist 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 racist 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 racist 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.