Domestic-terrorism expert J. M. Berger had an interesting piece for Foreign Policy this week in which he lays out the serious flaws with the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the problems with monitoring domestic terrorism in general. He explains:
The Southern Poverty Law Center released its annual “Year in Hate and Extremism” report last week, and as usual, it was terrifying. In an article for the SPLC’s Intelligence Report magazine, researchers said they had identified an “all-time high” of 1,360 antigovernment groups active during 2012 and about the same staggering number of hate groups as last year, a total of 1,007.
Many news organizations, from wire services to TV networks, covered the new figures uncritically. The SPLC looms large in most discussions of American extremism, in large part because they have little or no competition. Very few journalists cover domestic extremism on a regular basis, and those who do tend to work for publications that have an overt political slant. . . .
For better or worse, the SPLC remains the go-to media source for data on domestic extremists of the non-Muslim variety, with the Anti-Defamation League coming in second in terms of published resources. Those journalists who do cover domestic extremism often rely on the SPLC for facts and figures.
The problem is that the SPLC and the ADL are not objective purveyors of data. They’re anti-hate activists. There’s nothing wrong with that — advocating against hate is a noble idea. But as activists, their research needs to be weighed more carefully by media outlets that cover their pronouncements.
In fact, it turns out, the SPLC’s “Year in Hate and Extremism” probably seriously overstates the presence of hate groups and dangerous domestic groups. Berger explains why, specifically, the SPLC hugely inflates their headline numbers with a bizarre counting system. Only on the site where you find the raw data, and in none of their media releases, do they make it clear that the “1,007 hate groups” number counts individual chapters of national or regional groups. For instance, “the American Nazi Party is listed six times, and the Council of Conservative Citizens is listed 37 times. There are many more. When you filter the list for organizations with identical names, the list of 1,007 becomes a list of 358.” Or look at “‘Georgia Militia,’ which is listed 14 times. One listing has a county as its location, another says ’statewide,’ and the remaining 12 list no location and contain no links to additional information.”
The SPLC has various justifications for this methodology, but they don’t seem all that convincing. Berger concludes that “based on my own tracking of antigovernment extremism, I’m fairly certain the movement has grown in recent years, perhaps substantially,” but that’s, of course, no justification for the SPLC not to be as clear as possible in measuring that growth.
Berger’s absolutely right that the media should be more circumspect in reporting the SPLC’s observations as fact, in part because they are an advocacy group, not a scrupulously unbiased research organization. (It’s possible to be nonpartisan but not adhere to the standards of academic research.)
But another problem runs beyond what he identifies: The SPLC is not just far from an ideal source because it’s an anti-hate activist group, but because it’s a leftist anti-hate activist group. They definitely don’t regularly say this (they do acknowledge themselves to be activists), but they eventually admitted as such to NR’s Charlie Cooke back in 2011. Not only does the SPLC have a liberal stance, they actually just do not consider or research leftist domestic-terror or hate groups (except those that are otherwise specifically racist, such as black nationalists). When Charlie asked them about whether, in light of a serious bomb plot uncovered at Occupy Cleveland, they were going to cover the Occupy movement, an SPLC rep told him, “We’re not really set up to cover the extreme Left.”
The fact that they are “anti-hate activists” and not objective researchers only suggests subtle and implicit bias and sloppiness, like what Berger documents. But further, the SPLC’s bias is explicit: They purposefully do not cover or condemn the hateful or violent groups on their end of the ideological spectrum. It is scandalous, therefore, for the media to report the SPLC’s findings without fairly explaining what they do, no matter if they are the only source of data on this topic or not.