The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Do you have white teenage sons? Listen up.’ How white supremacists are recruiting boys online.

(Miko Maciaszek for The Washington Post)

At first, it wasn’t obvious that anything was amiss. Kids are naturally curious about the complicated world around them, so Joanna Schroeder wasn’t surprised when her 11- and 14-year-old boys recently started asking questions about timely topics such as cultural appropriation and transgender rights.

But she sensed something off about the way they framed their questions, she says — tinged with a bias that didn’t reflect their family’s progressive values. She heard one of her sons use the word “triggered” in a sarcastic, mocking tone. And there was the time Schroeder watched as her son scrolled through the “Explore” screen on his Instagram account and she caught a glimpse of a meme depicting Adolf Hitler.

Schroeder, a writer and editor in Southern California, started paying closer attention, talking to her boys about what they’d encountered online. Then, after her kids were in bed one night last month, she opened Twitter and began to type.

“Do you have white teenage sons?” she wrote. “Listen up.”

In a series of tweets, Schroeder described the onslaught of racist, sexist and homophobic memes that had inundated her kids’ social media accounts unbidden, and the way those memes — packaged as irreverent, “edgy” humor — can indoctrinate children into the world of alt-right extremism and white supremacy.

She didn’t know whether anyone would pay attention to her warning. But by the time she awoke the next morning, her thread had gone viral; as of Sept. 16, it had been retweeted more than 81,000 times and liked more than 180,000 times. Over the following days, Schroeder’s inbox filled with messages from other parents who were deeply concerned about what their own kids were seeing and sharing online.

“It just exploded, it hit a nerve,” she says of her message. “I realized, okay, there are other people who are also seeing this.”

Over recent years, white-supremacist and alt-right groups have steadily emerged from the shadows — marching with torches through the streets Charlottesville, clashing with counterprotesters in Portland, Ore., papering school campuses with racist fliers. In June, the Anti-Defamation League reported that white-supremacist recruitment efforts on college campuses had increased for the third straight year, with more than 313 cases of white-supremacist propaganda recorded between September 2018 and May 2019. This marked a 7 percent increase over the previous academic year, which saw 292 incidents of extremist propaganda, according to the ADL.

As extremist groups have grown increasingly visible in the physical world, their influence over malleable young minds in the digital realm has become a particularly urgent concern for parents. A barrage of recent reports has revealed how online platforms popular with kids (YouTube, iFunny, Instagram, Reddit and multiplayer video games, among others) are used as tools for extremists looking to recruit. Earlier this year, a viral essay in Washingtonian magazine — written by an anonymous mother who chronicled a harrowing, year-long struggle to reclaim her teenage son from the grips of alt-right extremists who had befriended him online — sparked a flurry of passionate discussions and debates among parents across social media.

Parents wanted to know: What was happening to their kids? Why was it happening, and how could it be stopped?

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For extremist groups, the goal is hardly a secret; the founder and editor of the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer has openly declared that the site targets children as young as 11.

“This is a specific strategy of white nationalists and alt-right groups,” says Lindsay Schubiner, program director at the Western States Center, a nonprofit focused on social, economic, racial and environmental justice. Schubiner co-authored a tool kit published by the center this year that offers guidance to school officials and parents who are facing white-nationalist threats in their communities.

“White-nationalist and alt-right groups use jokes and memes as a way to normalize bigotry while still maintaining plausible deniability,” Schubiner says, “and it works very well as a recruitment strategy for young people.”

Schroeder saw this firsthand when she sat down with her kids to look at their Instagram accounts together.

“I saw the memes that came across my kids’ timelines, and once I started clicking on those and seeking this material out, then it became clear what was really happening,” she says. With each tap of a finger, the memes grew darker: Sexist and racist jokes (for instance, a looping video clip of a white boy demonstrating how to “get away with saying the n-word,” or memes referring to teen girls as “thots,” an acronym for “that ho over there”) led to more racist and dehumanizing propaganda, such as infographics falsely asserting that black people are inherently violent.

“The more I clicked, the more I started to see memes about white supremacy,” Schroeder says, “and that’s what was really scary.”

That pattern of escalation is familiar to Christian Picciolini, an author and former neo-Nazi who left the movement in 1996 and now runs the Free Radicals Project, which supports others who want to leave extremist movements.

“Youth have always been critical to the growth of extremist movements, since the beginning of time. Young people are idealistic, they’re driven, they are motivated, and they’re not afraid to be vocal. So if you can fool them into a certain narrative that seems to speak to them, then that’s the growth of your movement,” he says. “And I’ve never seen an extremist movement grow as fast as I have in the last 10 years.”

Most of the people who contact Picciolini looking for help — anywhere from 10 to 30 per week, he says — are “bystanders,” people who are scared that someone they know or love is a white supremacist. And most of those bystanders are parents of teens and young adults.

He’s noticed that he hears from them most often after a high-profile act of violence, such as the 2012 shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin that left six people dead (“before that was the last time I had a day off,” he says). Or the 2018 mass shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Or the massacre of 22 shoppers at a Walmart in El Paso just last month.

“Those moments sometimes push parents to reach out,” he says, “to say, ‘Okay, I can’t ignore this anymore.’ ”

Picciolini was a lonely kid in 1987 — the son of Italian immigrants who were loving but often absent, working long hours — when he first met his neo-Nazi recruiter. The man strolled up to Picciolini as he smoked in an alley and plucked the joint from his lips: “The communists and the Jews want you to do that, to keep you docile,” the man said. And the power of that moment, Picciolini recalls, didn’t lie in the words the recruiter spoke but in how he made Picciolini feel: like he mattered.

“The politics, the ideology wasn’t attractive to me at all,” Picciolini says. “I didn’t even understand it, at 14 years old. But what was attractive was the sense of the identity, community and purpose that the movement provided.”

The dark alleys, the punk shows, the skate parks where Picciolini and his fellow neo-Nazis used to look for new targets have been replaced by vast digital hunting grounds. But the psychology behind their recruitment tactics is the same as it’s ever been, he says.

In the wake of the Washingtonian article, many discussions focused on a particular quote — what the boy said about why he felt drawn to the extremist individuals he met online: “I liked them because they were adults and they thought I was an adult. I was one of them,” he had told his mother. “They took me seriously. . . . They treated me like a rational human being, and they never laughed at me.”

For kids between ages 11 and 15, especially, this sense of inclusion is an incredibly powerful lure, says Gil Noam, an associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital whose research focuses on child and adolescent development.

“In this stage, the issue is not so much ‘Who am I?’ but rather, ‘Where do I belong?’ ” he says. “ ‘Who includes me? Who treats me well?’ ”

Extremist recruiters understand, Noam says, that a child at this age is more likely to respond to the pull of community and a sense of purpose, even if they don’t readily identify with a group’s core message. For parents who struggle to understand how extremist indoctrination can happen to “good” kids, he says, it’s helpful to keep this developmental vulnerability in mind.

And this isn’t unique to young white boys in America in 2019: “Even with the Hitler Youth,” Noam says, referring to recruitment within the youth wing of the Nazi Party in Germany, “what they really understood was the power of belonging.”

Alice LoCicero, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of the Society for Terrorism Research, saw similar patterns of behavior when she studied the recruitment of child soldiers by the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka.

“About age 13, kids have a big developmental shift, cognitively,” she says. “There’s a sense of idealism and altruism and wanting to make a difference in the world. It’s an age where a sense of justice becomes really important, and that can be misconstrued and manipulated: Justice according to whom?”

Volunteering in the community, engaging with a new hobby, joining a mission-driven club or campaign — these might be ways to redirect a young person, LoCicero says.

“One of the things that research has shown is that these kids who get recruited, they describe the need to have an impact,” she says. “All kids need positive mentoring, and if we fail on that, then there are people out there who are only too happy to mentor them into violence.”

In her Twitter thread, Schroeder offered advice for other parents, urging them to talk about these issues with kids in a way that avoids shame or defensiveness — emotions that might drive children away from their parents and toward extremist influences online. She described how she sat down with her kids so they could look through Instagram together and talk about what they saw: “It’s such a good tool for parents, because there’s no blame there,” she says. “It gives you a peek into what your kids are seeing online and what the people they follow are sharing, but it doesn’t come from a place of, ‘Oh, you did this thing wrong.’ ”

Perspective: White supremacists are recruiting white teens online. Parents must stop them.

No teenager wants to feel like they’re being manipulated, Schroeder says. So she talked to her boys about the power of propaganda.

“What I said that connected with them really well was, ‘These people are trying to pull the wool over your eyes — they’re trying to trick you,’ ” she says. “I told them, ‘They’re trying to get you to believe something that, if you think about it, you really don’t believe.’ ”

Noam, the Harvard psychologist, agrees that this sort of approach — an open conversation, where the child feels valued and taken seriously — is the best way for parents to navigate this delicate territory.

“Engaging in a dialogue in a way that is not lecturing and that doesn’t make the parent’s anxiety the main focus, that’s the way to go,” he says.

And don’t immediately envision a catastrophic outcome, Noam adds: It’s possible to turn these patterns around if the underlying need is understood and met.

“I don’t know any kid who says: ‘I can’t wait to grow up and become a Nazi. I can’t wait to grow up and hate somebody else,’ ” Picciolini says. “These are manifestations of despair. It’s a last-ditch thing. We have to understand our children and what engages them at the youngest age possible, so that they have access to opportunities that will get them involved in something positive.”

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