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Introduction: 2022 The Year in Hate and Extremism Comes to Main Street

From the Director

By Susan Corke

Two weeks after the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, I joined SPLC to lead its historic work to track, expose and counter hate and extremism in the United States. With our democracy in crisis and the danger of former President Trump’s “big lie” exposed, I was hopeful both parties' political leaders would choose to protect our nation from extremists.

I was wrong.

Two years post-insurrection, GOP leaders have unabashedly welcomed notorious antisemites, conspiracy theorists and white nationalists. “We want to cross the Rubicon. We want total war. We must be prepared to do battle in every arena. In the media. In the courtroom. At the ballot box. And in the streets,” New York Young Republican Club President Gavin Wax declared at the organization’s December black-tie gala.

This is not idle chatter. Over half of Republican respondents to a June 2022 SPLC and Tulchin Research poll reported believing the U.S. is headed toward civil war. Threatened by the growing power of increasing diversity, many on the right seek to return to an America before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and using political violence to accomplish racist goals is now widely accepted.

In 2022, the hard-right movement mobilized hate and extremism from the mainstream to the main street. Extremist actors — often armed — brought hatred into our daily lives and public spaces, protesting LGBTQ inclusion, reproductive rights and classroom discussions of systemic racism.

Susan Corke
Susan Corke, Intelligence Project director. (SPLC)

Founded to ensure civil rights for all, SPLC has deep expertise in monitoring — and holding to account — the Ku Klux Klan, the neo-Nazi movement, racist skinheads, antigovernment militias and other domestic hate groups and extremists.

We do this as part of our work to defend and advance a multiracial, inclusive democracy. The challenges are formidable; we must cast white supremacy out of the mainstream and prevent the violent and racist harms these extremists unleash in our streets, our churches, synagogues and mosques and our schools. In 2022, we created a new DataLab to better track hate across the digital frontier. We established a unit focused on prevention of extremism using public health models. Our investigative reporting led the national media in exposing extremist activity and influence. Our analysts helped policymakers, including the bipartisan House Jan. 6 Special Committee investigation, hold hate perpetrators accountable.

The 2022 edition of The Year in Hate and Extremism further uncovers threats to our diverse nation and our daily lives. SPLC will continue to support impacted and vulnerable communities, working in common cause with diverse allies, grassroots activists, policymakers and the media. Together, we can counter extremism and protect our democracy.

pillars of democracy in decay
Illustration by Kasia Bojanowska

Hate and Extremism — In the Mainstream and on the Main Street

By Cassie Miller and Caleb Kieffer

In 2022, the hard-right movement succeeded in burrowing deeper into people’s lives in visible and material ways, even if it did not have widespread electoral success. Its fingerprints are everywhere: people’s homes, schools, doctors’ offices, libraries, bars, restaurants, churches and other community spaces. The fear and pain experienced by Black, brown, and LGBTQ communities went far beyond any individual incident, deeply disrupting their ability to participate in an inclusive democracy.

Black and queer people were murdered in shocking acts of violence allegedly motivated by hard-right conspiracy theories. “As long as the White man lives, our land will never be theirs and they will never be safe from us,” the alleged white supremacist mass shooter who targeted the Black community in Buffalo, New York wrote in a manifesto. Across the country, states instituted new laws that have forced teachers to cut and alter lessons addressing Black history, impacting student access to inclusive, accurate and education about the country’s history of racism. A wave of anti-LGBTQ demonstrations and harassment campaigns resulted in increased security measures at drag shows, library story hours and Pride celebrations; in many cases, organizers this year cancelled queer community events out of safety concerns. A historic number of anti-trans bills now restrict the rights of trans people and, often, their ability to seek crucial gender-affirming medical care. And, because of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, people in 13 states cannot seek abortions where they live, and face the loss of personal autonomy, injury and even death.

While voters rejected many of the most extreme candidates in the 2022 midterm elections, the country remains in a reactionary political moment – explained, in part, as backlash to progressive successes both real and perceived. The right is increasingly expressing fear of a so-called “great replacement” of white people and depicting demands for LGBTQ equity as dangerously radical in the wake of visible progressive mobilizations, including the racial justice protests of 2020 for Black lives and a growing trans rights movement. Backlash is a political strategy employed by the right – one that, the historian Lawrence Glickman has written, shifts the “focus from those denied equity under the law and demanding justice to those who [imagine] threat or inconvenience in the possibility of social change.”

That backlash has kicked up a swarm of conspiracy theories and racist tropes: Black men are inherently criminal, immigrants are “invading” the country, LGBTQ people are “grooming” children, nefarious actors are throwing our elections, leftists are working through schools and libraries to undermine “traditional” gender roles, young people of color are engaging in voter fraud, and multiculturalism is an ideal designed to replace and eliminate white people. These ideas now circulate widely among influential right-wing figures and within the Republican party, which lends them legitimacy and allows them to influence policy.

The SPLC works to track and expose the activities and harms extremist organizations in the U.S. inflict. These include both hate groups and antigovernment extremist groups. Hate groups hold beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics, while antigovernment groups see the federal government as an enemy of the people and promote baseless conspiracy theories. These groups often work together, can hold shared beliefs, use similar strategies and negatively impact the same communities.

Hate and antigovernment groups make up the extreme edge of America’s hard right, an inherently antidemocratic movement that rejects pluralism and equity. The movement instead strives to build a society dominated by hierarchy, where people whom far rightists deem lesser or threatening – women, Black and Brown people, LGBTQ people, non-Christians and others – are socially and politically subjugated. The hard right has the advantage of building on already existing structural white supremacy, as well as its persistent and regular manifestations in everyday life and in politics.

In 2022, the SPLC documented 523 hate and 702 antigovernment extremist groups, totalling 1,225 active groups. The presence of established groups is only one way to gauge the power and impact of the hard right. Through stories, public polling and social media analysis, this report clearly shows the impact of these groups and hard-right figures in the mainstream and on Main Street, demonstrating the growing harm and threat they pose to individuals, communities and democracy itself.

Growing GOP extremism

Hate groups, extremist activists, and one of our country’s major political parties have become increasingly intertwined since Donald Trump’s presidency began. Republican politicians now mingle freely with members of the organized white nationalist movement and employ their rhetoric more freely than at any other time in recent American history.

Indeed, 2022 began with a member of Congress speaking at a white nationalist event. In February, hard-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., was a featured speaker at the America First Political Action Conference hosted by Nick Fuentes, one of the country’s most prominent white nationalists and an outspoken antisemite who has repeatedly praised Hitler. Rep. Paul Gosar, R.-Ariz., Arizona Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Ariz., and Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin all prerecorded speeches that were played at the event.

In November, Fuentes and antisemitic rapper and designer Ye (formerly known as Kanye West) ended up at a dinner at Mar-a-Lago with former President Trump, who did not distance himself from the racist and antisemitic activists when their meeting came to light. Instead, he simply posted on Truth Social that he “didn’t know Nick Fuentes,” and, of Ye, “We got along great, he expressed no anti-Semitism, & I appreciated all of the nice things he said about me on ‘Tucker Carlson.”

Less than three weeks after the Mar-A-Lago meeting, a collection of radical right figures gathered at an event hosted by the New York Young Republican Club (NYYRC) in Manhattan. Donald Trump Jr., Rudy Giuliani, Steve Bannon and Greene hobnobbed with #Pizzagate conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec, prominent white nationalist activists Peter and Lydia Brimelow, and an array of ultranationalist European leaders.

The NYYRC gala captured the dark mood that has overtaken a growing faction of the American right: one fixated on dominating enemies, ruminating on their own perceived victimhood, and weaving a reality in which dramatic action – including violence – is justified.

“We want to cross the Rubicon. We want total war. We must be prepared to do battle in every arena. In the media. In the courtroom. At the ballot box. And in the streets,” NYYRC president Gavin Wax told attendees.

Greene ventured into even more violent territory, telling the audience that if she and Bannon had planned the Jan. 6 insurrection, “We would have won. Not to mention, it would’ve been armed.” At other events, Greene has alleged that Democrats pose a murderous threat to members of her own party. “I am not going to mince words with you all,” she speciously told an audience at a Trump rally in Michigan. “Democrats want Republicans dead and they have already started the killings.”

In the two years since the insurrection, the right has only increased the political temperature. Far-right activists have embraced ever more violent rhetoric, while Republican officials consistently fail to acknowledge that their words are contributing an atmosphere that breeds political violence.

A stark example came in October, when Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband was attacked by a man with a hammer who entered their home asking, “Where is Nancy?” Far-right media and influencers immediately embraced a grab bag of conspiracy theories, purporting, among other things, that the attack was a “false flag” meant to distract from Pelosi’s alleged corruption or to give pretext to persecute conservatives. Elected officials, meanwhile, condemned the attack but roundly chose to ignore the role played by their years of demonizing their political opponents, Pelosi in particular.

Illustration of a fingers pointing through mobile devices
Illustration by Kasia Bojanowska

Violent anti-LGBTQ attacks fueled by the right

While the hard-right movement has for years increased their use of violent rhetoric, they crossed a dangerous threshold when activists from across the right doubled down on their attacks against LGBTQ people in the wake of a mass shooting at a queer club in November.

“The tragedy that happened in Colorado Springs the other night – it was expected and predictable,” a guest on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show said after a 22-year-old person shot and killed five people and injured 25 others at Club Q, before suggesting that LGBTQ people were bringing attacks like this on themselves. “I don’t think it’s going to stop until we end this evil agenda that is attacking children,” she told Carlson.

In the months leading up to the attack, the right relentlessly deployed the accusation that LGBTQ people are preying on children by “grooming” them either for the purpose of sexual abuse or to influence their sexuality and gender identity. That rhetoric was accompanied by an unprecedented legislative attack on LGBTQ people: In 2022, legislatures across the country introduced more than 300 anti-LGBTQ bills, many targeting trans youth. Eighteen states now ban transgender youth from participating on sports teams consistent with their gender identity, while three states in 2022 banned or criminalized gender-affirming care for youth.

Hard-right activists and influencers used social media as their primary tool to ignite animus toward queer people. Anti-LGBTQ activist Chaya Raichik helped lead the charge with her 1.7 million-follower Libs of TikTok Twitter account. Raichik’s posts mock LGBTQ individuals and teachers who employ inclusive, anti-racist curricula, making them into targets for harassment. Her account has helped to spread the narrative that LGBTQ people (and trans individuals, especially) are mentally ill and part of a broad leftist conspiracy to sexualize and abuse children.

That notion is not confined to right-wing echo chambers. According to SPLC polling conducted in November 2022, 74% of Republicans believe that “Democrats are attempting to sexualize children by indoctrinating them into an LGBTQ lifestyle,” including over half of whom strongly agree with that statement. Among Democrats, fewer than 25% agree.

Individuals, events and institutions targeted by Raichik and her anti-LGBTQ cohort on social media have received harassment, bomb threats and death threats, and they have been targeted by extremist protesters. An Idaho Pride event Raichik drew attention to on Twitter, for example, was the target of a protest by 31 members of the white nationalist group Patriot Front. Numerous children’s hospitals have received harassment and threats after criticizing the care they provide for adolescents.

Far-right extremists have especially targeted events that include drag performers – people who boldly and visibly defy the right’s strict ideas of gender and gender identity. The Proud Boys, whose chapters have grown considerably since the group participated in the Jan. 6 insurrection, targeted more than 40 LGBTQ events in 2022 through harassment or protests.

But they are far from the only ones threatening drag events. According to GLAAD, there were at least 141 protests and threats against drag events across 47 states in 2022. One establishment was firebombed after hosting a drag performance, a shot was fired through the window of a brewery hosting a drag queen story hour, a library hosting a children’s event was stormed by Proud Boys, and another was interrupted by a Proud Boy carrying a gun. Innumerable other events were cancelled out of concern for the safety of children and other patrons.

Male supremacy animates the right

The campaign the right has waged against LGBTQ people is part of a broader assault on bodily autonomy and gender equity, which also targets women and those who can give birth.

The right saw the fruit of a decades-long campaign in June of 2022 when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, leading to a wave of state-level restrictions on abortion. By the end of the year, 13 states banned abortion completely while many others have enacted restrictions that make it difficult to access abortion care, including Georgia where abortion is banned at the gestational age of six weeks. These bans disproportionately affect people of color and those who live in poverty, who already faced increased obstacles to accessing reproductive care.

“People of color don’t have the privilege of focusing on only one issue – everything is connected,” Monica Simpson of SisterSong penned even before the fall of Roe. “Reproductive justice has always been more than just being ‘pro-choice.’ To be pro-choice you must have the privilege of having choices.

The Supreme Court decision emboldened the hard right, many of whom believed that overturning abortion would open new frontiers for their movement including overturning the Constitutional amendment that gave women the right to vote. Meanwhile, as pro-reproductive justice demonstrations surged, so did counterdemonstrations. Far-right participation in anti-abortion activism soared in 2022. Hate groups such as the Proud Boys attended dozens of anti-reproductive justice demonstrations in 2022, some outside of facilities that provide abortion care.

Belief in strict, “traditional” gender roles is at the core of hard-right ideology, while resistance to feminism, combined with a belief that modern society emasculates men, has grown on the right. Tucker Carlson this year produced a fearmongering documentary called “The End of Men,” while longtime conservative establishments including the Claremont Institute published a flurry of articles warning, for example, that “woke communists” are “determined to destroy traditional sex roles as part of their project to destroy America.”

Anti-feminism is particularly noxious because it appears to unite a substantial portion of men across the political spectrum – especially younger men. In April, a nationwide SPLC poll found that 37% of people believe “feminism has done more harm than good,” including 46% of Democratic men under 50 and 62% of Republican men in the same age range. Those statistics underline how effective the appeals to preserve masculinity can be at pulling men into far-right movements.

Locally driven right-wing mobilization

In the aftermath of Trump’s election loss and the insurrection at the Capitol, the right shifted tactics: Without Trump at the helm, activists have made a concerted effort to organize in the local arena, pursuing their agenda in venues where it is easier to gain power.

Schools, especially, have been on the receiving end of ramped-up and coordinated hard-right attacks, frequently through the guise of “parents’ rights” groups. These groups were, in part, spurred by the right-wing backlash to COVID-19 public safety measures in schools. But they have grown into an anti-student inclusion movement that targets any inclusive curriculum that contains discussions of race, discrimination and LGBTQ identities.

At the forefront of this mobilization is Moms for Liberty, a Florida-based group with vast connections to the GOP that this year the SPLC designated as an extremist group. They can be spotted at school board meetings across the country wearing shirts and carrying signs that declare, “We do NOT CO-PARENT with the GOVERNMENT.” The group hijacks meetings, preventing officials and parents from conducting their normal proceedings. “I can be sitting in a meeting minding my own business, and they turn around and scream at me that I am a commie and teachers want to see all kids fail,” a teacher’s union president in Brevard County, Florida, explained to a Washington Post reporter.

Galvanizing supporters around supposed “parental rights” and “family values” is nothing new – similar rallying cries were adopted by those who opposed school desegregation during the civil rights movement and by the Moral Majority of the 1980s. These political slogans have been used repeatedly because they are effective, framing the organizing of far-right activists as something done solely out of real concern for children.

But Moms for Liberty activities make it clear that the group’s primary goals are to fuel right-wing hysteria and to make the world a less comfortable or safe place for certain students – primarily those who are Black, LGBTQ or who come from LGBTQ families. A Tennessee chapter of Moms for Liberty, for example, claimed that the state’s second-grade curriculum, which includes a book about Martin Luther King Jr. and another by Ruby Bridges, was “anti-White.” Their focused attack on critical race theory became a substitute for most things pertaining to Black history and culture.

Other chapters have attacked the book Gender Queer, a memoir about adolescence by a non-binary author, and others that explore sexuality and gender identity. The group has shown up alongside Proud Boys at multiple protests, including in Florida and Texas.

Far-right activists circulate lists of books they find objectionable on social media, spurring others to petition their own school board and libraries to ban books. The campaigns have become so charged and hate-filled that they have reportedly caused many librarians to leave their jobs, while others have been fired for refusing to take certain books off the shelves.

Results for 99 Extremists Running for Public Office in 2022
Results for 99 Extremists Running for Public Office in 2022
Source: SPLC Action Fund Exposing Extremism in Elections project

Extremists fall flat in the 2022 midterms, but election conspiracies persist

While there has been a recent groundswell of far-right on-the-ground organizing, the movement continues to fight in the electoral arena. In the 2022 midterms, the SPLC Action Fund tracked 99 candidates with apparent ties to extremist groups, or who expressed sympathy toward their messages, running for public office. These candidates embraced ideologies including antigovernment extremism, antisemitic and QAnon beliefs, and anti-LGBTQ and anti-immigrant posturing.

Most extremist candidates lost their bids, including longtime militia leader Ammon Bundy in his run for governor of Idaho. U.S. House candidate Neil Kumar of Arkansas ran and lost on a ticket to “Stop the Great Replacement” and “end ‘birthright citizenship,’” the clause under the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution guaranteeing citizenship to anyone born on U.S. soil. Kumar’s platform mirrors other hate groups’ efforts to abolish birthright citizenship as part of their anti-immigrant agenda.

However, a cluster of incumbents in mostly safe districts retained their seats. In all, 23 of the 99 extremist-tied candidates tracked by the SPLC Action Fund won their election, including incumbent Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Paul Gosar and Lauren Boebert.

The election was marred by inflammatory and racist rhetoric, including from a new outfit called America First Legal that is connected to former Trump adviser Stephen Miller. In the run-up to the midterm, AFL spent millions on an inflammatory ad campaign calling for an end to “anti-white bigotry.” The ads, which appeared on TV and the radio in such states as Georgia and Florida, accused the Biden administration, as well as “progressive” corporations, airlines, and universities, of being anti-white and engaging in “left-wing racism.”

Trump’s own conduct in the aftermath of the 2020 election has provided a roadmap for other anti-democracy candidates. Kari Lake, an Arizona gubernational candidate whose campaign was powered by anti-immigrant and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric as well as 2020 election conspiracy theories, refused to concede to winner Katie Hobbs and has filed a lawsuit against her former opponent and Maricopa County to overturn the results. Laura Loomer, a self-described “proud Islamophobe” who ran for the U.S. House in Florida, also refused to concede after losing her primary, citing alleged voter fraud.

Illustration of people yelling
Illustration by Kasia Bojanowska

The great replacement conspiracy unites the hard right and fuels violence

Racist and conspiratorial beliefs continue to inspire violence from the far right, particularly affecting Black communities.

On May 14, 2022, a gunman killed 10 Black people at a Tops Supermarket in Buffalo, New York. The alleged shooter left behind a digital footprint of sprawling propaganda materials showing the attack was in response to a supposed “great replacement” happening in the United States. The term refers to a racist conspiracy narrative falsely asserting that there is an active, covert effort to replace white populations in current white-majority countries. The conspiracy is antisemitic, anti-immigrant and anti-Black. According to its proponents, Jewish people are behind the anti-white scheme; immigrants are invading majority-white countries and outpacing white birth rates; and Black people are eroding white demographic power through racial intermarriage, affirmative-action policies they claim provide Black people an unfair advantage, and a campaign of violence targeted specifically at white people. This latter myth, in particular, was cited in the manifesto of the man who murdered nine Black congregants in a Charleston, South Carolina, church in 2015. The great replacement has animated many other white nationalists and extremists, inspiring additional terroristic mass shootings in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; El Paso, Texas; and Christchurch, New Zealand, among others.

Once a fringe conspiracy, the great replacement myth has permeated the mainstream with the help of such figures as Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, whose show consistently ranks among the most-watched cable news programs in the country. “The great replacement. Yeah. It’s not a conspiracy theory. It’s their electoral strategy,” Calson said, referring to Democrats during a July 2022 episode of his show. After the Buffalo shooting, the white nationalist blogsite VDARE celebrated “the heroic Tucker Carlson” for having “noticed the Great Replacement.”

The great replacement narrative has permeated the right: A nationwide poll conducted by SPLC and Tulchin Research in early 2022 found that nearly seven in 10 Republicans agree to at least some extent that demographic changes in the U.S. are deliberately driven by liberal and progressive politicians attempting to gain political power by “replacing more conservative white voters.”

Some elected officials doubled down on their racist claims in the aftermath of the Buffalo shooting. Two days after the attack, Elise Stefanik, the third-ranking GOP member in the U.S. House, posted a version of replacement theory on Twitter. “Democrats desperately want wide open borders and mass amnesty for illegals allowing them to vote,” she tweeted. “Like the vast majority of Americans, Republicans want to secure our borders and protect election integrity.” After receiving criticism, Stefanik reiterated her claims, telling right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro, “There’s nothing racist about opposing mass amnesty.”

Stefanik was not the only one. In April 2022, U.S. Rep. Michael Cloud, R-Texas, tweeted his disapproval of efforts to revoke Trump’s Title 42 immigration policy, saying Biden’s administration is “complicit in this continued invasion.” In November 2022, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott even invoked an “invasion clause” in response to migrants appearing at the Texas border.

The anti-immigrant hate group Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) gave cover to those pushing invasion rhetoric. In a November 2022 fundraising email, FAIR’s longtime president Dan Stein wrote, “We can’t allow the invasion of our borders to destroy our communities.”

The immigration advocacy group America’s Voice tracked GOP ads in the 2022 election featuring xenophobic dog whistles from elected officials and electoral campaigns. America’s Voice documented over 300 campaign ads and materials featuring “invasion” and nearly 4,000 items on immigration in general, all targeting immigrant communities and reinforcing the great replacement conspiracy. The organization also tracked nearly 600 ads about critical race theory, over 400 on “defunding the police” and over 800 on crime as part of the political attack on the accurate teaching of history and efforts to portray Black people as criminals.

The SPLC reported on anti-Muslim hate group The United West teaming up with former acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) director Tom Homan on a project focused on fearmongering about the Southern border. “FOREIGN INVASION - NOW AT CATASTROPHIC LEVELS,” reads a December 2022 email sent by The United West’s Tom Trento on behalf of Homan’s project.

Looking forward

Though Trump still retains a hold on much of the political right, many extremists are ambivalent about his 2024 presidential campaign. White nationalists Nick Fuentes and Joseph Jordan (aka Eric Striker) called Trump’s announcement an “EPIC FAIL” and “pathetic.” The poor showing of Trump-backed candidates in the midterm elections also led some on the hard right to abandon the real estate mogul in favor of Florida governor and potential presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis. White nationalist columnist Ann Coulter – once a staunch supporter of Trump – called the midterm a “a humiliating defeat” for him and noted the strong showings of DeSantis and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp – “the two Republicans Donald Trump hates with the hot, hot hate of a thousand suns.”

The future of Trump’s movement remains somewhat uncertain. While Trump has yet to face criminal charges, many insurrectionists have been charged and convicted for crimes related to their participation in the riot. The price has been especially high for the Oath Keepers and other members of the militia movement. In November, two members of the Oath Keepers, including founder Stewart Rhodes, were found guilty of seditious conspiracy and others were still facing charges at years end.

The attention brought by the insurrection has done severe damage to the militia movement, driving away members who no longer want to be associated with the day’s violence and immobilizing the leader, Stewart Rhodes. Over the past three years, the number of active Oath Keepers chapters has drastically declined and left the organization’s future existence in serious question.

The criminal charges brought against other groups have been less impactful. While members of the Proud Boys also face charges of seditious conspiracy, the group, overall, has continued to grow. In fact, members have embraced their identity as insurrectionists and turned “Proud Boys did nothing wrong” into a political slogan and a meme shared in “alt-tech” social media spaces during the Jan. 6 Congressional hearings. Their numbers have grown dramatically since 2020, reaching 78 chapters in 2022, as the group continues to organize and hold local protests throughout the country.

The continued growth of such groups as the Proud Boys, as well as the continued violence emanating from and encouraged by the right, make it clear that the racist, authoritarian politics Trump ushered in will not dissipate in his absence. Even if Trump’s continued political aspirations fall flat, there will be plenty of others – influencers, think tanks, hard-right activists, media figures, and politicians – who are ready and able to pick up the torch.

The movement for civil and human rights must be prepared for a new string of hard-right activists. In order to interrupt, neutralize and effectively counter the hard-right hate and antigovernment extremist movement in the U.S., the strategies and tactics of such actors must be exposed for their falsity, manipulation and the harm they cause in people’s daily lives. Organizing to prevent the roll-back of civil and human rights is more effective when armed with the knowledge of how these movements operate and attempt to divide communities.

The PERIL team
Members of the PERIL team (Credit: Sharun Huang)

Building New Networks To Address Targeting of Young People

By Aaron Flanagan

In early 2020, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Laboratory (PERIL) at American University formed a strategic partnership to pilot innovative models and resources that help educate, equip and empower communities to address youth radicalization toward extremism and violence. Our work began with listening to impacted community members to identify pressing problems. We then designed resources that are tested for safety and effectiveness and continually refined based on our findings. In spring 2020, we released Building Resilience & Confronting Risk in the COVID-19 Era: A Parents & Caregivers Guide to Online Radicalization and subsequently revised this resource for use beyond that era. In November 2022, we released a new resource, the first edition of our Building Networks & Addressing Harm: A Community Guide to Online Youth Radicalization.

The best way to prevent radicalization is to address its root causes, far upstream from potential harms. As we detail in our new guide, it is imperative to “inoculate” young people against radicalizing individuals and material before they ever encounter them. That requires a whole-of-community effort, encompassing the trusted adults who make up a young person’s support network. Such adults are, therefore, at the forefront of building community resilience and preventing harms stemming from radicalization.

Our new Building Networks guide aims to expand on its companion, our guide for Parents & Caregivers and accompanying resources. This new guide is designed to help equip, educate and empower broader networks of trusted adults, offering knowledge and insights about how to identify and effectively intervene when a young person is becoming radicalized, to help young people build resilience against radicalization and to help those targeted and harmed feel safe and included. In December, we asked our partners at PERIL to reflect on the urgent need to release this new resource.

SPLC: Why was producing the Building Networks & Reducing Harms guide important? How were stakeholder groups selected and what are their needs discovered through testing? How does this resource aim to meet those needs and better support these stakeholder groups included in the guide?

Pasha Dashtgard, Director of Research (PERIL): The Building Networks and Reducing Harms guide builds on our prior guide for parents and caregivers. It is part of our longer-term effort to equip all adults across local communities with the tools to recognize youth exposure to online harms and feel empowered to intervene. The oft-repeated adage, “It takes a village,” is true in this case; we need to equip all the adults in youth’s lives — their coaches, employers, mentors, extracurricular leaders and more — with the knowledge and skills to step in and prevent harm.

SPLC: In 2020, our partnerships released the guide specifically for Parents & Caregivers to help them safely intervene to prevent harms related to extremism and radicalization. The new guide addresses numerous overlapping audiences: How does our new “Building Networks” guide complement the previous guide and what are some key differences between the two?

Pasha Dashtgard, Director of Research (PERIL): The original Parents & Caregivers Guide was always intended to address the needs of noncustodial caregivers as well as parents and caregivers who live with young people. However, much of the original guide provided information and strategies that benefit from close, personal contact with the youth susceptible to radicalization.

Pasha Dashtgard
Pasha Dashtgard, Director of Research, PERIL. (Credit: PERIL)

The new Building Networks guide takes these same principles of connecting deeply with youth, listening to understand who is influencing them and what about the radicalizing rhetoric is appealing to them. But the new guide also takes into account the distinct roles and varying relationships that people who live outside of the home have in the lives of young people. A coach or an after-school caregiver can be a safer, more trusted adult in the life of a child who is grappling with exposure to hate-fueled ideologies. So, while both guides provide trusted adults with the specific knowledge, background information and skills necessary to intervene in the life of a young person at risk of radicalization, we modify these strategies in the Building Networks guide for the particular role/relationship of an extended network of trusted adults, such as school mental health counselors, tutors, grandparents and other youth mentors, with the recommended strategies varying by level of proximity to the youth.

SPLC: In Building Networks, we note that trusted adults who understand their roles within young people’s “networks of care” can more effectively help prevent harms related to radicalization. We also note the important role they can play supporting those who have been targeted or harmed by hate and bigotry.

Pasha Dashtgard, Director of Research (PERIL): This guide invites community members to reflect critically on the role(s) they play in the lives of young people. Beyond your role as a parent or caregiver, are you a mentor to a young person? Do you have youth in your life that look up to you or treat you as an authority figure? If so, how can you leverage your role in their life in order to help protect them from radicalization to extremist ideologies? The answer to that question is not obvious or often considered, but this is exactly what the Building Networks guide prepares adults to reflect on. How can we help young people resist propaganda aimed at convincing them to hate Jews, feminists and people of color? How can we help young people build media literacy such that they can recognize when someone is embedding racist, sexist, hateful ideas into seemingly benign jokes, memes or forum posts? By giving trusted adults the skills and knowledge to engage in conversation with youth on difficult, politically/socially fraught topics, we can build communities that support adults in deploying preventative, non-carceral approaches to countering extremist recruitment strategies targeting youth and adolescents.

SPLC: The problem of youth radicalization is complex, but our partnership has captured evidence that trusted adults can intervene safely and effectively. If they are educated and equipped with the right resources, our studies together show they will be better empowered to intervene proactively. And together this year we will launch a community engagement effort to design and test solutions at community level. Can you discuss some of our partnership’s findings, this upcoming effort and why they give you hope?

Pasha Dashtgard, Director of Research (PERIL): Some of the most exciting findings consistently demonstrate it is truly possible to equip local communities with the tools to prevent hate and violence. We have demonstrated that it takes only seven minutes of reading, on average, for parents and caregivers to improve their knowledge about harmful online content, supremacist propaganda and other hateful conspiracy theories and to feel more confident about intervening when they recognize warning signs in a young person they know. We have shown that it is possible to bridge partisan divides and bring people together around shared concerns about harmful online worlds and rising hate and violence. And we have shown that equipping everyone in the lives of young people with these tools – from parents and relatives to youth mentors, coaches and teachers – has the potential to help build social cohesion and create understanding and responsiveness to rising hate that can bring communities together rather than further polarizing them.

Importantly, the content found in our Parents & Caregivers Guide was well received by both Democrats and Republicans, and parents who identify as male or female. The information and strategies contained in the Building Networks guide are not intended to speak to only one group or type of person. We have developed resources that speak to trusted adults across the political and social spectrum.

By providing trusted adults with strategies and approaches to difficult conversations, information about propaganda techniques and resources that trusted adults can refer to if they suspect a child is susceptible to radicalization to hateful ideologies, we can empirically see a rise in confidence and willingness to engage young people on these difficult topics.

Now it is time for us to scale up these resources and make sure that every community across the country has access to them – because everyone deserves access to strategies that we know work to prevent violence, hate and harm.

Editor's note: Unfortunately, our ability to represent the full range of respondents' gender identities and social/family roles is limited by online survey recruitment platforms. Future research should focus on any differences in caregivers gender identity and their reception of the project’s tools.