The spread of white supremacist propaganda across the United States nearly doubled over the last year, according to a new report released Wednesday by the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
Researchers who track the distribution of racist, anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ fliers, posters, stickers and other paraphernalia by members of far-right and white supremacist groups found that there were a total of 5,125 such cases in 2020 — an average of 14 per day — the highest number ever recorded by the ADL.
“White supremacists appear to be more emboldened than ever,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the ADL, said in a statement. Greenblatt suggested that “the election year, the pandemic and other factors may have provided these extremists with additional encouragement.”
According to the report, hate propaganda appeared in every state in the country in 2020 except for Hawaii, with the most activity taking place in Texas, Washington, California, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Though white supremacist literature is designed to intimidate a variety of groups, including nonwhite immigrants as well as Black, Muslim and LGBTQ communities, the ADL found that anti-Semitic propaganda in particular increased by 68 percent over 2019, with 283 incidents specifically targeting Jews.
While white supremacist groups will post photographs of their propaganda online to further increase its exposure, the report focuses specifically on content observed in the physical world. For example, the report found that there were at least 130 white supremacist banner drops, mostly over highway overpasses, in 2020, compared to 53 in 2019.
According to the report, at least 30 white supremacist groups were involved in disseminating propaganda in 2020, but 92 percent of all activity could be traced back to just three groups: Patriot Front, New Jersey European Heritage Association and Nationalist Social Club. Patriot Front, a Texas-based group that was formed in 2017 following the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., was responsible for 4,105 propaganda incidents last year, or 80 percent of the nationwide total.
The ADL report notes how Patriot Front uses “its own iteration of ‘patriotism’ to promote its white supremacist and neo-fascist ideology,” eschewing traditional white supremacist language and symbols in favor of phrases like “America First,” “United we stand” and “Reclaim America” on stickers, posters and fliers printed in red, white and blue.
Jessica Reaves, editorial director at the ADL’s Center on Extremism, told Yahoo News that the dissemination of propaganda by such groups, which is often done discreetly and unannounced, is indicative of the lasting impact of the Unite the Right rally, which left white supremacists fearful of being exposed to their employers, schools and others.
“The vast majority of white supremacists want to stay hidden,” Reaves said, suggesting that propaganda has emerged as a substitute for organized, in-person events. “It helps them maintain some visibility while maintaining anonymity.”
Reaves speculated that coronavirus lockdowns may have contributed to the massive spike in propaganda seen in cities and towns across the country in 2020, allowing white supremacists to more freely distribute their materials without being seen. “The goal is for it to just appear,” she said.
Reaves also suggested that school closures and the move to remote learning during the pandemic may account for the significant decrease in propaganda incidents on college campuses, which dropped by more than half in 2020, according to the ADL report.
“Propaganda gives white supremacists the ability to maximize media and online attention while limiting their risk of exposure or arrest,” Oren Segal, vice president of the ADL’s Center on Extremism, said in a statement. “The literature helps to bolster recruitment efforts and spreads fear.”
Federal law enforcement officials have identified white supremacists as the deadliest domestic terrorist threat now facing the U.S. Earlier this month, Yahoo News reported that the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence division had circulated an internal report warning that it expects threats from white supremacists and other right-wing extremists to persist and potentially escalate this year.
But while Reaves said that the rise in propaganda is “cause for concern,” as it means white supremacist “ideology is reaching more and more people,” she emphasized that she and her colleagues have not observed a direct correlation between white supremacist violence and fliers promoting their message.
“I can certainly see why it’s extremely unnerving to find these fliers out there,” but, she said, “I don’t want people to perceive these fliers as an imminent threat.
“My goal is to make sure as many people as possible understand what these things look like.”
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