Sometimes it's a stunt designed for shock value, as when they descended on Charlottesville, Va., in August, knowing full well the anger they would attract. Other times it's just to see if they can attract attention to the absurd excesses of their agenda.
The modern media culture rarely disappoints, especially as political opportunists seek to associate genuine racists with the millions of voters who elevated Donald Trump to the presidency.
White supremacist stories are catnip for those seeking to connect those dots, no matter how baseless and slanderous the effort may be.
It is not helpful when the occasional David Duke quote speaks well of Trump, as if that proves the specious claim. I'm guessing actual Communists favored Hillary Clinton in 2016, but she does not deserve to wear that stain.
Yet, there's The Washington Post this past weekend, in a moment of sordid guilt-by-association that was low even for them. "White nationalists angered by Mexican immigrant's acquittal in Kate Steinle's killing," their headline blared, an obvious attempt to malign the millions who reacted similarly.
The modern media culture's obsession with our tiny sliver of actual white supremacists plays directly into their hands, offering scads of coverage they could never dream of if the coverage of their exploits mirrored their actual significance.
These days, the media are cats, and white nationalists hold a laser pointer. But what is the right tone of coverage, that neither hyperventilates nor underplays?
Their twisted ravings are such a guarantee of red-alert coverage that we see the occasional opportunistic hoax, as at the Air Force Academy last month, when one of the supposed victims of posted racial slurs was discovered as the perpetrator.
A sharp focus on white supremacy's actual scope is a difficult but vital undertaking. No one should dismiss the actual existence of such venomous beliefs, especially when they carry the potential for violence, as we saw in Charlottesville.
But wild exaggeration of the breadth and danger of these sparse pockets of hate across our landscape carries risks as well. Dallas has just blown nearly a half-million dollars yanking a Robert E. Lee statue in a rush that the mayor and council members absurdly coined an "emergency," asserting with straight faces that its mere presence could spark the next American race riots.
The SMU story will surely fuel further craven attempts to paint America as a growing greenhouse for white nationalism. But this should not lead to any calls to ignore such events.
An old saying properly defines a big part of wisdom as knowing what to dismiss. But if even a small band of haters assembles what amounts to a disgusting prank, it is a proper reflection of our values to find those responsible and make clear our collective revulsion.
Perhaps the stories can devote less space to detailed quotes of their contorted ramblings. In the SMU case, for example: "White Men! Save your people. Reject the opioid beast!" Really? What are these guys, Klansmen or renegade drug counselors?
Whether these people are incoherent or razor-sharp in their messaging, we are likely to see people like this surface from time to time. When we do, we should know that it is not because they are a seething and growing American faction, but because they know they can count on waves of attention to their malevolence.
• 11/24/17: Ballot box should determine what happens to Moore, Franken