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.
Some of the duplicate names on the list are legitimately distinct -- for instance, there are at least two major splinter groups of the Aryan Nations (although seven appear on the list). But others appear clearly problematic, like "Georgia Militia," which is listed 14 times. One listing has a county as its location, another says "statewide," and the remaining 12 list no location and contain no links to additional information.
While there is an argument for separately counting local skinhead gangs with a national affiliation or Ku Klux Klan affiliates, it's not a slam dunk.
If three Klan chapters in one state are part of one specific national Klan organization, should they count as separate groups? If a skinhead gang is part of the Western Hammerskins, do you count both the local and the regional? The SPLC counts the Midland Hammerskins and the Northern Hammerskins three times each, and the Confederate Hammerskins nine times.
The list isn't pristine on other fronts either. The Political Cesspool is a website and podcast, the Crocker Post is a blog, and Silver Bullet Gun Oil is a business that markets offensive tchotchkes to anti-Muslim extremists. VDARE is a white nationalist website with multiple authors, but it does not on the face of it appear to be a traditional boots-on-the-ground organization, at least not according to a profile written by the SPLC.
"We try very hard to avoid listing just a guy at a computer," said Beirich. "So we look very hard at other activities, like flyering, meeting, other activities, something that indicates it's more than just a guy working at a computer."
Beirich said some pure websites might have slipped through their filters, but argued that VDARE is an organization working actively to promote a specific agenda, citing a recent webinar with "several participants" as evidence of its organizational activities.
Radical bookstores and racist record labels also appear on the list. Are these hate groups, or hate businesses, or just businesses? Are they peddling specific ideologies or making a buck off of several? Do they hold meetings? Write tracts? Burn crosses?
Reasonable people can debate these reasons for including or disqualifying each of these listings, but the number of entries that require such debate is staggering given the specificity of the SPLC's reporting. We're not talking about a difference of 5 or 10 percent in the relative counts; it's 65 or 70 percent.
"I do not think it's misleading," said Beirich. "I think it would be much more misleading to say here's 10 or 15 groups than to point out, the way we do, the way those groups are functioning. We want to show the geographic reach of those groups."
Counting an organization like A3P as one instead of 17 would "distort the data in a different direction," Beirich said. "It would look like there are American Third Position people active in just one location, and that would be false."
But at the end of the day, it's not clear how it's a "distortion" to say "400 groups in 1,007 locations around the country" as opposed to "1,007 groups."
These distinctions also pertain to the broad numbers on antigovernment groups provided in "The Year in Hate and Extremism" report. Most coverage of the report focused on this realm, where the SPLC reported massive growth during President Obama's first term.
Although the data was not made available, the questions raised by the hate group list are at least as relevant for antigovernment organizations. If a statewide militia has chapters in several towns, is it more than one militia? If a Patriot movement group under one umbrella has one or two (or even five or six) people in each of 17 different states, should we count 17 groups?
These questions are more important than ever in the age of online organizing. During the 1990s, hosting a "chapter" implied a certain amount of organizational activity that is no longer necessary. Geography is still important, but it's not necessarily supreme.
Based on my own tracking of antigovernment extremism, I'm fairly certain the movement has grown in recent years, perhaps substantially. But most of the movements I track are geographically diffuse, even though they operate under a single organizational banner. I'm skeptical that the number of distinctly separate antigovernment organizations in the United States runs anywhere close to the 1,360 reported by the SPLC.
If there is any lesson in all of this, it's that the study of domestic American extremism shouldn't be the exclusive province of activists. Academics and journalists -- a lot of them -- need to turn their skills and objectivity toward this problem and start collecting evidence that can be published and rigorously reviewed.
As of today, journalists investigating domestic extremism have few alternatives to the SPLC when seeking information about the size and shape of extremist movements in the United States. Reporters have to work with the information they can obtain, but they should read -- and carefully explain -- the fine print.