The Southern Poverty Law Center released its annual "Year in Hate and Extremism" report last week, and as usual, it was terrifying. In an article for the SPLC's Intelligence Report magazine, researchers said they had identified an "all-time high" of 1,360 antigovernment groups active during 2012 and about the same staggering number of hate groups as last year, a total of 1,007.
Many news organizations, from wire services to TV networks, covered the new figures uncritically. The SPLC looms large in most discussions of American extremism, in large part because they have little or no competition. Very few journalists cover domestic extremism on a regular basis, and those who do tend to work for publications that have an overt political slant.
There are no significant academic centers that regularly publish objective and rigorous data on non-Islamic domestic extremism (although a few notable individual efforts can be found). Government attempts to explore the issue are often consumed by political backlash, and a recent look at domestic right-wing extremism by the Countering Terrorism Center at West Point ignited a firestorm over its excessive political exposition, while its less than crystal-clear methodology raised other questions.
For better or worse, the SPLC remains the go-to media source for data on domestic extremists of the non-Muslim variety, with the Anti-Defamation League coming in second in terms of published resources. Those journalists who do cover domestic extremism often rely on the SPLC for facts and figures.
The problem is that the SPLC and the ADL are not objective purveyors of data. They're anti-hate activists. There's nothing wrong with that -- advocating against hate is a noble idea. But as activists, their research needs to be weighed more carefully by media outlets that cover their pronouncements.
"The Year in Hate and Extremism" report classified domestic extremists in two broad categories: hate groups and antigovernment organizations. The raw numbers for antigovernment outfits were unavailable, but the data on the 1,007 hate groups cited in the report can be found online.
Many groups take exception to their inclusion on the hate list, arguing their content is legitimately political. Rather than get bogged down in that particular argument, let's simply look at the methodology of the list.
The SPLC presents its hate group data by state, rather than in one unified list. When the state entries were gathered into a single spreadsheet, the total number of groups came to 1,007, as advertised. But once you get past simply counting the rows, serious questions arise.
The biggest issue raised by the hate list is when a local group should be deemed a separate entity from a national group. When you go to find the raw data online, the SPLC's site explains that it counts counted "1,007 active hate groups in the United States in 2012," including "organizations and their chapters." But "The Year in Hate and Extremism" did not make the "chapter" distinction explicit. It is rarely drawn out in the organization's frequent media appearances, nor was it mentioned in a letter from the SPLC to the Justice Department warning of the growing threat.
One of the clearest examples of how this counting methodology can be confusing concerns the American Third Position Party, or A3P, which is listed 17 times, with each of those instances counting as a separate hate group.
A3P is a national political party devoted to white nationalism. We don't say there are 102 political parties in the United States because the Republicans and Democrats each have a national party as well as state chapters (not to mention local chapters), and there are states which have A3P listed more than once.
Similarly, the American Nazi Party is listed six times, and the Council of Conservative Citizens is listed 37 times. There are many more. When you filter the list for organizations with identical names, the list of 1,007 becomes a list of 358.
So why doesn't the SPLC describe its list as 300 or 400 hate groups with 1,007 chapters around the country?
"These are groups," said Heidi Beirich, who heads the SPLC Intelligence Project. So if A3P activists gather in Las Vegas, "it's a group of people who get together to promote these materials." And if a different group of A3P members gather in another state, that's a different group, according to the SPLC's count.