Communication Currents

Sophisticated Subversion in Hate Group Websites

June 1, 2010
Freedom of Expression

Extremist. Terrorist. Hate. In the years following 9/11, we've become increasingly attuned to the messages and actions of groups who bear these labels. However, the attention toward domestic extremist groups has been less prominent--that is, until recently. Last year, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that the number of hate groups operating in the United States has increased by 54% since 2000 and continues to rise. This begs the question: How are these groups recruiting members?

The Southern Poverty Law Center speculates that Barack Obama's rise to power, immigration issues, and an ailing economy are potential factors in the growth of hate group membership. While political and economic factors offer some explanation, the answer to this question may also lie in the strategic communication efforts of these groups. By gaining a clearer understanding of the messages and means of communication used by domestic hate groups, we may be better equipped to answer this question. Even more, we may move closer toward combating the recruiting efforts of groups like the Ku Klux Klan, or KKK.

The Web has proven to be a powerful tool for U.S. hate groups. The Washington Post, among others, notes that the Web offers a direct line of communication between current and prospective members of hate groups. The National Director of the KKK, Thomas Robb, confirmed this in a recent interview: “It used to be that we needed the media to carry the message for us. . . . we don't really need the media any more. . . . the only thing we need is the Internet.”

But what messages are subversive leaders like Robb spreading? At first glance, the answer to this question might seem painfully obvious. Just as support groups support or prayer groups pray, hate groups hate. Right? Thus, one might logically assume that these groups' websites are filled with vitriol, violence, and downright, well, hate. Surprisingly and perhaps disturbingly, though, the answer is not so clear. Consider the following statement once featured on the website of the White Camelia Knights of the KKK: “This is an institution of Chivalry, Humanity, Mercy, and Patriotism . . . working to rebuild our collapsing society on the basis of faith, honor, duty, courage, and brotherhood.” This passage has since been removed, but it features a tone found in many hate groups' sites including the KKK, Nation of Islam, New Black Panther Party, Aryan Nations, Confederate Hammerskins, and the Lone Star State Skinheads, to name a few. In reality, many of the messages on these sites are not overtly inflammatory. Rather, they are strategically and often ambiguously subversive, employing four central message themes to accomplish these ends.

The first prominent theme in their web content is the focus on education. Some U.S. hate groups such as the Texas sect [website currently inaccessible] of the Empire Knights of the KKK explicitly state that they operate a fundamentally educational organization. Likewise, the biographical information found on these sites often innocuously refers to leaders and members as teachers. For example, public education systems are frequently critiqued, and, consequently, members are called upon to serve as teachers to friends, families, and external publics. As hate groups envision themselves in the role of educator, they offer lessons in history and current events. As an example of these lessons, Neo Nazi websites proclaimed that they had uncovered International Red Cross records that confirm the Jewish Holocaust was a myth. Additionally, they attempt to inform site visitors of the good citizenship and benevolent legacy of their group.

The second theme found in these sites is advocacy and participation. Messages are filled with appeals, standards, and guidelines for participation in group-centered as well as broader civic activities. Like-minded individuals are solicited for membership, arguing that it's their duty and privilege to experience the fraternity of group involvement. Current and prospective members are also encouraged to peaceably participate in local meetings, elections, and even run for public office. For example, the New Black Panther Party claims, “We will deal with the local city council, regional governments, school boards, ANC's etc. We shall back strong Black candidates when they meet the Black Agenda test requirements. We encourage political awareness and activity to further the Black agenda.” Surprising as it may be, the majority of these groups, at least in website content, opt for infiltration over insurrection.

Third, one of the most prominent references in hate group websites is to the divine. In justifying their ideologies and actions many groups attempt to tie themselves more directly to God by suggesting that their group has been anointed and set apart for special service. Groups also speak plainly about their natural, God-given superiority. For example, the National Knights of the KKK, have stated:

“The Bible clearly shows we are of one lineage, and makes reference to Beasts who walked on two legs. . . . So we believe that blacks are not our Brothers and Sisters, but are beasts of burden. To accept evolution fully, is to say that we are equal with these animals, which history shows that we are not equal to, and in fact are superior to.”

Thus, perceivably abhorrent acts are endorsed as “obedience” to God. The National Knights' website is currently unavailable for viewing, a reality that is intermittently the case for many of these groups.

Finally, hate groups also use their websites to point the finger at others. Particularly, their sites blame government officials, news media, the entertainment industry, and even other sects of their own group for stigmatizing, misrepresenting, and failing to serve them. To illustrate, the Texas League of the South even provides a list of “hate groups and bigot-oriented organizations that [they] will not keep company with.”

What is the impact of these strategically subversive messages? As a recent report in Newsweek suggests, one outcome is the successful recruitment of new members. The combination of immediate access through the Web and beguiling appeals makes it possible for hate groups to target potential members with ease. These websites may also serve as a forum where current members reinvigorate the group identity and ideology by sharing stories and information. And, ultimately, the strategically ambiguous nature of these messages may afford hate groups with the plausible deniability necessary to avoid legal prosecution. In other words, they still spread the message of hate, but they do so in a way that does not qualify as fighting words or criminal incitement, two types of speech that are not protected by the First Amendment.

About the author (s)

Lacy G. McNamee

Baylor University


Brittany L. Peterson

Ohio University 

Assistant Professor

Jorge Peña

The University of Texas at Austin

Assistant Professor