At the end of August, domain provider Network Solutions shut down Stormfront, the oldest white supremacist site on the internet, after the deadly events in Charlottesville shoved hate groups into the national spotlight.
The move was a blow to the hate movement, but it also had an unintended effect: Stormfront was one of the primary sources used by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the civil rights nonprofit that also maintains a widely-cited directory of hate groups.
“It was very important to us to be able to monitor Stormfront for information about the white supremacist movement,” said Heidi Beirich, director of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, which tracks hate groups. “We've just lost a very important intelligence tool, and we're going to have to change our practices a little bit to mine other areas of the web as we go forward.”
The SPLC, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization founded in Alabama in 1971, started tracking hate groups after suing the United Klans of America in 1987. In the course of that case, the SPLC realized that there were Klan chapters all over the United States but no way for a police officer, member of the public, or legislator to know what or where they were. The hate group list was originally named "Klan Watch," but that name was changed in the 1990s as it expanded to other organizations.
Every day, members of the SPLC staff go through publications, forums, emails, tips, fundraising materials, and interviews with [law enforcement and other organizations] in the field. The SPLC staffers also comb through news articles looking for mentions of new groups or chapters. They also get tips from law enforcement and the general public.
Today, the SPLC has a staff of more than 20 people who investigate hate groups, Beirich said, and the team is growing. Its Hate Map, which lists 917 groups, is used by journalists, police, advocacy groups, and lawmakers.
The groups on the list range from white supremacists to anti-LGBTQ groups to black power organizations. But it is the white supremacist side that has seen the largest boost since 2015, according to the SPLC.
I spoke to Beirich about how the SPLC tracks hate groups, the recent surge in white supremacist organizations, and how the SPLC responds to criticism that it is inherently biased against conservatives.
The Outline: How do you find these hate groups?
Beirich: We look at somewhere between 2,000 to 3,000 organizations overall each year, and we actually have two lists: one list of hate groups and another list of extreme anti-government groups.
We have a basic definition we use, and that definition is loosely related to how a hate crime is described in the federal hate crimes act, the Shepard-Byrd Act. And so what we're looking for is, does the organization we're evaluating consider an entire other group of people to be lesser, and what I mean is, is it discriminatory on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, and so on?
If an organization is a neo-Nazi organization, they believe all Jews should be killed because they're Jews, that's the ultimate in terms of discrimination against a group for their inherent characteristics. Because that's extermination.
But in other cases, for example anti-LGBT groups we list, this has more to do with the fact that organizations on that list consider all LGBT folks to, for example, be more likely to be pedophiles or molest children. We also list black hate groups like the New Black Panther Party, which are rabidly anti-white and anti-Semitic.
How did the shutdown of Stormfront affect you?
Stormfront was the largest hate site on the web, and the oldest as well — it went up in 1995 — and it had more than 300,000 registered users. And the information these folks would post from events to descriptions of their meetings, what they're thinking, what their propaganda is, was fodder for our hate listings. It was very important to us to be able to monitor Stormfront for information about the white supremacist movement. We've just lost a very important intelligence tool, and we're going to have to change our practices a little bit to mine other areas of the web as we go forward.
Just to be clear: Despite this, you are still happy that the site was shut down?
We had lobbied many [tech companies] for years to do this to know avail. I think it's a good thing for society. Unfortunately this white supremacist thinking has led to a lot of violence. Stormfront itself was connected to Anders Breivik who killed 77 people in Norway, he was a poster on there. Dylan Roof was a poster on Stormfront. We wrote a report called White Homicide Worldwide that looked at a series of killers who had been on the site.
What effect do you think you are having on these groups?
Our hope is, first of all, law enforcement know where these folks are — particularly the violent ones. And not all the groups on the list are violent, I should say that straight up.
And we also want the public in general to understand what groups are pushing what we view as defamatory propaganda and dangerous propaganda.
“There's no question Trump has energized the white supremacist movement.”
At times we're criticized for some of the groups we have on our anti-LGBT list, and my response to those criticisms is, when you look at hate crime statistics for the LGBT community, they're the most targeted and have been through all the years of hate crimes statistics for violent acts. And there's a price to be paid when you demonize a population, and that's what we're looking at.
Have you ever taken groups off of your list?
We have. I had a situation with a group called the Illinois Family Institute where they reached out to us after we listed them as an anti-LGBT group, and I explained to them the kinds of propaganda that was on their website that helped put them in that category, and they did remove that and we removed them from the list. Ironically, not too long after that, they put a lot of that back up, so we put them back on.
What was the propaganda that was on their site?
What I remember is, the Illinois Family Institute had material published by Paul Cameron, who is an extremely discredited anti-gay researcher. One of the things he did that was most heinous — and I don't remember if that particular research was featured on the Illinois Family Institute's website — was to go to the obituary page of gay newspapers to prove gay people didn't live very long. This happened at the height of the AIDS crisis.
I've also had conversations with organizations that were writing about the Muslim community and talked to them about what the tripwire is for us when you become an anti-Muslim hate group, and those are organizations that have never gotten on the list, so I'm more than happy to talk to organizations about how we do these listings.
Would you describe the SPLC as bipartisan?
We exist to uphold the 14th Amendment, and this work of course involves dealing with people who have historically been oppressed in the United States. Some of our earliest lawsuits were about just making the Civil Rights Act a fact in the south, stopping the YWCA from filling in their pools with concrete rather than let black kids swim in them.
I would argue that it is work that stands up for civil rights, and I would hope people across the political spectrum would agree with that. Now when it comes from organizations in the Christian right and right wing who are particularly angered that we listed groups like the Family Research Council as hate groups, I think they frankly mischaracterize in most cases that we put these groups on our list because they're against gay marriage or believe homosexuality is a biblical sin. That is absolutely false. We put them on the list for demonization, and I think they deserve to be there.
How do you define “demonization”?
Telling lies intended to harm a particular population, so saying gays are more likely to molest, you want to make the gay population look like their molesters. Or black people are more criminal, therefore they're alien and need to stay away.
It goes back to the standard ways that any population goes about causing people to fear a particular population, and there are certain ways that they do that: more diseased, more criminal, more sexually deviant.
Have you seen a change in the level of activity or the number of groups coinciding with the political rise of Donald Trump?
There's no question Trump has energized the white supremacist movement. We have seen, since he started his campaign in 2015, a sea change among white supremacists. Before that time these groups had no interest whatsoever in politics. They didn't like the Democrats because they think that is the party of ethnic interests basically, and they didn't like Republicans, they called them the stupid party, because they felt the Republican Party didn't appeal directly to white interests. But when Trump came out that first day in Trump Tower and talked about Mexicans as rapists, the white supremacist movement in this country felt like had found their guy, and he continued to cater to them by tweeting material that comes from these folks, like from a white genocide account, something about black crime, anti-Semitic images, etcetera etcetera. All of that made the white supremacist world feel like they were very lucky, they actually began to call Trump "glorious leader" in many circles, and what we saw was a jump in the number of hate groups between 2015 and 2016. And the groups that grew in that time period were ones that tied themselves to the Trump candidacy.
This interview has been condensed and edited.