Visual Propaganda of Hate Groups Is on the Rise in America

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) 2021 Year in Hate and Extremism report, released March 11, indicates an increase in physical propaganda by hate and anti-government groups, even as the number of those groups has decreased. In a startling conclusion, the report said the decline of the number of hate groups stems from the fact that these groups have become part of America’s political mainstream. 

“Rather than demonstrating a decline in the power of the far right, the dropping numbers of organized hate and antigovernment groups suggest that the extremist ideas that mobilize them now operate more openly in the political mainstream,” the report said. 

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Although likely underreported, the SPLC found 5,680 incidents of physical propaganda in 2021, following a steady climb from 1,294 in 2018. The SPLC tracks public flyers, flyers posted on college campuses, and banners. 

“Despite a drop in the number of active hate groups, such an increase in the number of flyering incidents evidences these groups’—particularly white nationalist groups’—commitment to recruiting new members in ways that can also intimidate communities,” said Lydia Bates, Senior Research Analyst in SPLCs Intelligence Project. 

Alt-right groups in Charlottesville’s “Unite the Right” rally in 2017 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The white nationalist group Patriot Front, which defaced a statue and mural of George Floyd and whose leader was among the organizers of the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, posted 77% of these flyers, according to the SPLC’s report. The group’s rules require members to maintain active participation, which includes posting flyers and dropping banners off buildings or overpasses. 

Using traditional symbols of American patriotism like elements of the American flag, the Patriot Front promotes its white supremacist core tenet of America as a once-great, but declining, ethnostate state that must be reclaimed by people of European descent. The slogans they use include “For the Nation Against the State,” “defend American labor,” “revolution is tradition,” and former President Donald Trump’s refrain “America First.” But often, these groups opt for a vague language, according to Hannah Gais, Senior Research Analyst in SPLCs Intelligence Project.

The Patriot Front’s flag (via Wikimedia Commons)

“Patriot Front’s vague language is a tactical choice,” Gais said. “By using more vague, pro-American language, they can try to present themselves to the world as something other than the radical white power group that they are. They know that neo-Nazi aesthetics don’t sit well with mainstream audiences.”

This tactic could allow a wider audience to be funneled into the group, where they can then be exposed to increasingly radical messaging, the SPLC said. 

The notion of a shared White history, whether European or American, is employed by other white supremacist groups. The American Identity Movement first used images of classical European art in flyers on college campuses, but after a rebranding, now posts flyers with Rockwellian images of a mythical Americana. Other white nationalist groups and media outlets employ symbols of ancient European cultures in their logos, like Celtic knots

This is not the first time white supremacist groups have rallied around publicly-displayed visual symbols of a mythical, shared White past: Last month, the SPLC published an update to its “Whose Heritage?” project, which tracks the removal of Confederate monuments and memorials. Denouncing the removal of Confederate monuments — 168 removed in 2020 and 73 in 2021 — has also made it into the political mainstream.

The attack on United States Capitol on January 6, 2021 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Yet even as more Confederate monuments are removed, visual propaganda remains an important means of promoting extremist messaging. 

“It’s not uncommon to see hate groups share photos of banner drops or flyering on social media networks in disparate geographical areas,” Gais said. “This ability to broadcast the distribution of propaganda to a wide variety of audiences has, at times, made these groups seem possibly more numerous and better connected than they are.”

Over time, hate groups have become more surreptitious and increasingly decentralized online, according to the SPLC report. 

“Prominent voices in the movement now encourage members of neo-Nazi online communities to maintain anonymity and congregate in diffuse online communities rather than join public-facing groups with names and membership vetting procedures,” the report reads. 

Part of this increased decentralization is the rise of “influencer”-style extremists, who according to the report, rely increasingly on livestreaming. The report states that live streaming allows extremists to skirt content moderation policies: The videos can be easily deleted, and user flagging systems make it so that site moderators may not stop the livestream until it’s over. 

After mainstream platforms like YouTube and Facebook were scrutinized in recent years for allowing and furthering hate speech, many streamers now rely on alternative tech spaces that are more lenient in their content regulations. (The report notes, however, the failure of mainstream platforms to successfully deplatform extremists.)

To prove its point that right-wing groups have become part and parcel of mainstream American politics, the report brings last year’s January 6 attack on the United States Capitol building in Washington, DC, as a telling example. “The overwhelming majority of people arrested for their role in the insurrection had no formal ties to right-wing groups,” the report said, adding that the majority of the Capitol rioters got their news from mainstream news media.


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