What parents need to know about online radicalization

The San Diego Tribune/May 9, 2019

By Andrew Dyer

San Diego — Two days after police say a 19-year-old college student killed one person and injured three in the shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue on April 27, his family released a statement expressing grief and confusion.

“To our great shame, he is now part of the history of evil that has been perpetrated on Jewish people for centuries,” the family’s statement said. “Our son’s actions were informed by people we do not know, and ideas we do not hold.”

The suspect has pleaded not guilty. Police say that before the shooting he had posted an anti-Semitic manifesto on an online message board known for hate speech and conspiracy theories, including white supremacist ideas.

Experts say parents should learn more about such websites and the online forums where extremist ideologies flourish. They should consider it a serious online threat to kids and talk openly about it, removing the isolation and secrecy that surround these online sites.

Parents should talk to their kids about the websites and apps they use, said Brette Steele, director of prevention and national security at the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University.

“If you’re only keeping an eye on what your son or daughter is posting on Facebook, you only have one very limited window into what’s actually happening online,” said Steele, who under the Obama administration coordinated federal efforts to tackle extremism.

Peter Simi, a Chapman University professor who has studied extremist violence for 20 years, said the news media should inform the public about these websites and the mechanisms used to attract young people to extreme ideologies.

“If we’re going to become more educated and aware of these platforms, we’re going to have to talk about what’s on them,” Simi said. “A lot of people have no idea what they are, or what a cesspool they are.”

The “they” Simi is referring to are the “chans” — 4chan and 8chan — two online, image-based message boards. 8chan, which is where the Poway shooter allegedly announced his intentions, was de-listed by Google in 2015 because child pornography was being posted, but both sites are still online.

Days after the Poway shooting, users on 8chan celebrated the notoriety their community is receiving and included an “appreciation thread” for the shooter. Some people posting there lamented the relatively low “body count” in the synagogue and brainstormed ways a future attack could be more deadly.

In March, a terrorist targeted two mosques in New Zealand, killing 51 people. That assailant also announced his plans on 8chan.

The chans are not the only places extremists gather online.

Stormfront — a well-established and older hate site founded by a former member of the Ku Klux Klan — and the Daily Stormer are websites that are upfront with their extremism but, experts say, white nationalists are recruiting young people using less-obvious forums, such as Voat, an extremist site similar to Reddit, and Gab, an extremist social network similar to Twitter.

Video gaming platforms, such as Microsoft Xbox, PlayStation and Steam also were used by extremists to recruit, Simi said. There the chats may be text-based or voice chats.

“Parents need to be aware that there’s a lot more of this out there than they probably realize,” Simi said. “These folks are more sophisticated than we give them credit for. They have a very good understanding of how their messaging works and how to make memes.”

A meme is a humorous image, video or piece of text that is rapidly spread online.

Extremist recruiters aren’t just tech savvy; they know who they’re targeting, Steele said. Extremists use the chat functions in gaming platforms to “reach out to individuals who may be more isolated, may be more alienated and may have a harder time connecting with people in person,” Steele said.

Tony McAleer used to be a recruiter for the White Aryan Resistance, a white supremacist group founded by Tom Metzger, a former Ku Klux Klan member active in San Diego in the 1970s and ’80s. McAleer has since denounced those extremist views and co-founded Life After Hate, a national nonprofit in Chicago that helps people disengage from white power groups.

“In the vast majority of cases, it’s not the ideology that draws people in — it’s much deeper than that,” McAleer said. “In my case, it was the camaraderie and a sense of purpose when I didn’t know who I was.”

It is important for parents to keep open non-judgmental lines of communication with their children, he said.

“We should take a real, authentic curiosity in our children and how they see their world,” McAleer said.

“If we create a safe space for our children to express themselves, we can pick up when things start happening. If we leave parenting to devices and screens, we have no way of knowing what they’re up to.”

His own path to redemption came through his mother and becoming a parent, himself, McAleer said.

“My mother never gave up on me,” he said. “You don’t want to burn the bridges so there’s nothing to come back to. No one is irredeemable.”

McAleer said the instinct to argue or rationalize with someone who has adopted extremist ideology can backfire.

“Identity and ideology become intertwined and all the defense mechanisms come up,” he said. “Never concede. Never condemn. Listen to them.”

In some ways, it’s normal for teens to dabble in ideas that would shock parents, Steele said, but parents should address head-on any extreme ideas.

“If your son or daughter starts suggesting that the Holocaust didn’t really happen, you need to have a conversation about that,” she said.

“Try to understand where they heard that and why they believe that. If your son of daughter is praising the attacks in New Zealand, or saying ‘I understand why they happened,’ have a conversation about that. Then, seek help in countering that.”

The ideas kids hear about every day at home from parents and other family members also are important, Simi said.

“(Extremists) represent the extreme tip of a much larger iceberg of more mundane forms of bigotry in our society,” he said.

“Look at the fear of immigrants — these groups take advantage of that. Parents have to check themselves about what kind of attitudes they’re promoting at home.”

In addition to open, in-person communication, there are technological options for parents who want to monitor or limit what their kids access online. PC magazine in November published a roundup of several options that work in computers and other devices or in home wireless networks.

The magazine warns: “Parental control software is no substitute for good communication,” adding that if kids think parents are spying on them, they’ll try to find ways around it.

McAleer also is skeptical that software is the answer.

“I think as a society we overplay the impact software can have,” he said. “We can restrict this stuff, but it doesn’t go away.”

For more information about how to help family members who might be leaning towards extremism, visit lifeafterhate.org.

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