Joanna Schroeder has a warning for parents of teen and tween white boys: If you don’t pay attention to their online lives, the white supremacists will.
“They’ve studied the way that our young men interact online, and they have looked at what these boys need,” she said. “And they have learned how to fill those needs in order to entice them into propaganda.”
That’s what she found when she asked her own teenager if they could go through some of his social media together.
“He was scrolling quickly, really quickly,” she said. “It was so fast, and he slowed down, and I saw an image of Hitler and I stopped him, and I said, ‘Wait, is that Hitler?'”
It was. A meme depicting Hitler and implying a time traveler would have tipped him off about the future to keep him alive had popped into the boy’s Instagram suggestions.
“I know my kids understand Hitler, but as I scrolled through his [social media] I saw more memes that joked about the Holocaust and joked about slavery,” Schroeder said. The impact, she said, seemed to be “desensitizing our kids to things we should be sensitive to.”
How she spotted the extremist messaging
Schroeder decided to dig deeper with her sons, one a teen and the other a tween, when she heard them saying words that had been used by trolls against her.
As a writer who has published pieces about men’s issues among other topics, Schroeder has suffered online criticism and abuse from those who virulently disagree with her.
“I know that the people who bothered me and harassed me and made my life miserable for all these years are influencing my kids,” Schroeder told CNN. “These are my sweet gentle boys saying this stuff.”
A California mom of three — she has a baby girl in addition to her sons — she says she is progressive and liberal, before adding she does not shun mainstream conservative thought.
But she was jolted when she heard her elder son talking about being “triggered.”
“You’ll hear this from your conservative uncle, and you may also hear this from a kid that’s getting a lot of alt-right messaging online — that everyone’s too sensitive today,” she said. “That is entryway kind of terminology. It’s not racist. No, it’s not. But it’s often used against people who are calling out racism or sexism or homophobia.”
Other terms she tells parents to listen for include snowflake; kek, a form of “lol” that sometimes refers to an ironic white nationalist ‘religion’; cuck; chad; femenoid; beta; “Blood and Soil,” and the numbers 14 or 88, for their association with Hitler and Nazism.
The words may not appear obviously racist or sexist in themselves, but they have been co-opted by extremists and, in some cases, taken on new meanings.
It’s the same with various emojis and symbols, like the bowl cut that is now a form of homage to the hairstyle of the racist killer who targeted a black church in Charleston; a glass of milk emoji, linking white pride and supposed masculinity; or two lightning bolts that can look like the insignia of the Nazi SS. Even the OK hand signal can be seen as racist in some situations, the Anti-Defamation League reported last month.
Schroeder sent out a thread of warning tweets that went viral, including among parents getting ready to send their children back to school at the end of the summer.
“I wanted parents to know,” she said. “To pay attention, because this particular group of boys is being targeted and these parents have no idea.”
Targeted to teens
Schroeder does not suggest that white teens are necessarily looking for extremist content, but the way the extremist content is constructed — whether it’s ironic, irreverent or snarky — seems tailor-made for them.
“They like to feel grown up and they like to feel they are no longer falling for baby humor. That irreverence feels good to them,” she said.
What they don’t always know is what crosses the line. The memes begin to normalize ideals that are repugnant, she says. And those ideas can seem to have merit as teens go through the struggles of growing up.
“First boys are inundated by memes with subtly racist, sexist, and homophobic, anti-Semitic jokes and being kids, they don’t see the nuance and they repeat and share,” Schroeder said. “Then they are shunned in school or socially.”
It can push them to their online life and into the hands of those who “understand” them and think everyone else is being “too sensitive,” she said.
From there, many things can happen, almost none of them good. Boys can be labelled as Nazi sympathizers in comments that can follow them for years; they might troll someone and be sued; they might fall further down the radicalization rabbit hole and begin to actively seek out extremist friends and ideology. Their use of the white supremacist or neo-Nazi propaganda can cause deep fear and anxiety to those who are the targets.
Good and bad reactions
Schroeder admits she overreacted when she heard alt-right talking points coming out of her son’s mouth, perhaps because it felt so personal to her. She became emotional and threatened to take away his phone.
Her husband intervened and she decided to dial it down.
“Condemning or shaming him would simply push him farther away from me and right into their hands. Shame is a force that I believe leads people to their worst decisions,” Schroeder said.
Instead, she was able to team up with her sons, sitting together and decoding memes and posts they now flag to her if they have concerns. And she will share material she has found with them.
And that means taking what Schroeder says is a vital step and getting on the same online sites and apps.
She’s blunt. “I’m sorry parents, you have to have a Snapchat account,” she said, adding parents should know how Reddit, Discord and Instagram Explore work. There’s a world of social media far beyond Twitter and Facebook, from unmoderated bulletin boards full of hate to real-time chat while gaming, she said.
Many of the social media companies have made moves to try to combat white supremacist propaganda. In March this year Facebook, which owns Instagram, announced it was banning “praise, support and representation of white nationalism and white separatism on Facebook and Instagram.” That came after pressure from advocacy groups like the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
After the deadly 2017 Unite the Right protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, Twitter suspended alt-right and white nationalists accounts. Reddit began putting threads that had white nationalist or alt-right propaganda under “quarantine” in 2017. And Discord, an app designed initially for communication between gamers, has begun purging white nationalist content.
But Schroeder says parents have a role too in what she calls modern parenting.
“I taught them their ABCs, I potty trained them. My next big lesson is how to look at the media they are consuming constructively,” Schroeder said.
She responded to criticism that she was trying to “brainwash” her children.
“All parents are trying to bend their kids’ minds. Whether it’s getting them to wash their hands when they normally wouldn’t or getting them to think about social issues in a way that’s going to help society get better,” she said.
She’s found a positive way to engage her sons.
“The kids and I are conspirators together,” she said.
She might point something out and then tell her boys, “These alt-right guys were trying to trick you. Like they think you’re dumb and you’re not. You’re smart.”