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The Year in Hate and Extremism 2020: Hate groups became more difficult to track amid COVID and migration to online networks

In the final year of a Trump presidency that propelled racist conspiracy theories and white nationalist ideology into the political mainstream, far-right extremists continued to migrate to online networks as the number of hate groups declined for a second year, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s annual Year in Hate and Extremism report released today.

The SPLC identified 838 hate groups operating across the United States in 2020, a decrease from the 940 documented in 2019 and the record-high 1,020 in 2018. The report contains a list of hate groups and a map pinpointing their locations.

The number of hate groups in the SPLC census, conducted each year since 1990, is a barometer of extremism in the country, but not the only one – and the drop from the previous year does not signal a decline in extremist activity or the threat of domestic terrorism. Just last week, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a rare National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin in response to the growing threat from domestic extremists.  

“For three decades, we have attempted to sound the alarm about these groups, their growth and the dangers they pose,” said Margaret Huang, president and CEO of the SPLC. “It is clearer now than ever that our nation faces an increasingly dangerous threat from homegrown extremists ranging from anti-government militias to hate groups and white supremacists.” 

In fact, the proliferation of internet platforms that cater to extremists allows individuals to engage with potentially violent movements like QAnon and Boogaloo without being card-carrying members of a particular group. This phenomenon has blurred the boundaries of hate groups and far-right ideologies, helping coalesce a broader but more loosely affiliated movement of far-right extremists who reject the country’s democratic institutions and pluralistic society. 

“The insurrection at the Capitol was the culmination of years of right-wing radicalization,” said Susan Corke, director of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project. “Most recently, it was the product of Donald Trump’s support for and encouragement of radicalized individuals and groups to buy into conspiracy theories about a ‘stolen election.’ Trump may no longer be in the White House, but the white nationalist and extremist movement he emboldened and incited to violence is not going anywhere – and may grow more dangerous to our country.”  

In an SPLC survey in August, 29 percent of respondents said they personally know someone who believes that white people are the superior race. The poll also found that 51 percent of Americans thought the looting that occurred in several cities amid Black Lives Matter rallies was a bigger problem than police violence against Black people. 

As detailed in the Year in Hate and Extremism report, the SPLC in 2020 recorded nearly 4,900 racist flyering incidents, in which hate groups distributed flyers containing racist or extremist content. The number more than tripled the 1,500 incidents documented by the SPLC in 2019.

Several factors contributed to the decrease in hate group numbers in 2020. Some groups ceased their in-person activity because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, hate groups are increasingly being kicked off their mainstream social media platforms and communicating in encrypted chatrooms, making it harder to track their activities. 

Another factor is the continuing collapse of the Ku Klux Klan, as younger extremists move into newer groups that do not carry the same stigma as a group long associated with white supremacist terror. In 2020, Klan chapters dwindled to 25, down from 47 in 2019 and down significantly from years past, when there were typically about 150 chapters in any given year. 

Despite the massive drop in Klan groups, there are now numerous, alternative hate groups that make Klan membership obsolete. The Proud Boys, for example, vandalized historically Black churches in Washington, D.C., during a pro-Trump demonstration in December, and its members were aggressively front and center during the attack on the Capitol.  

The number of white nationalist groups also declined from 155 in 2020 to 128 after posting huge growth during the Trump era. This decline may reflect the fact that white nationalist groups, like neo-Nazi groups, are becoming more diffuse and difficult to quantify as they proliferate online and use encrypted platforms. 

Anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-LGBTQ hate groups, which are typically more successful than white supremacist groups at laundering their ideas into mainstream political discourse, saw their numbers remain largely stable, though their in-person organizing was curtailed due to the pandemic. 

Photo by Reuters/Seth Herald