teen, alt-right, boys, online, internet, white supremacists
Mother Joanna Schroeder noticed a disturbing trend with her teen and tween sons: Alt-right extremists online use memes and other content to groom white young men. (Photo credit: Steve Heap/Shutterstock.com)

A Mother’s Warning: White Teen and Tween Boys Easily Propagandized by White Supremacists Online

California writer and mother Joanna Schroeder had a message to other moms of white teen boys in a tweet that went viral: White supremacists online are paying attention to young men’s social media use, even if you are not.

While guns, burning crosses and even tiki torches have been weapons of white nationalists, so have memes, blogs and coded internet language.

“First, the boys are inundated by memes featuring subtly racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic jokes. Being kids, they don’t see the nuance & repeat/share,” Schroeder said in a tweet.

Schroeder said she realized white supremacist propaganda was targeted to teen boys when she asked her son if she could look at his Instagram with him. While he was mid-scroll, she said she saw a meme of Hitler in his suggested posts.

“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 told CNN.

She told the news outlet that these memes desensitize kids to heavy topics like racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia.

Schroeder, a writer with a focus on parenting and gender who has faced hate online for her views, noticed her teen and tween sons using similar language trolls had used against her. She said she decided to dig deeper into where they were learning this language.

It was words like “triggered” that raised red flags for her. Though not racist on their own, alt-right trolls online commonly employ terms like these to invalidate views against racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of xenophobia.

The ideology of “people are too sensitive” or “you can’t say anything these days” is tossed around in alt-right internet circles.

Less mainstream terminology also has more sinister coded double-meanings because they have been co-opted by hate groups online.

Schroeder found other seemingly unassuming terms and symbols had connections to the alt-right. For example, “Kek,” a form of “lol” first used by gamers was co-opted to refer to “kekism,” a parody alt-right religion that worships the internet meme character Pepe the Frog, which racists also appropriated as a hate symbol. The Egyptian god Kek is portrayed as a frog, linking the two symbols together though neither had racist roots. Other words thrown around in alt-right corners of the web include “cuck,” “chad,” “feminoid” and “beta,” which neo-Nazis and incels use to shame men who they see as less masculine. The numbers 14 and 88, a combination of the “14 words” white supremacist slogan and “Heil Hitler,” because H is the eighth letter of the alphabet, also are used.

Symbols and emojis also take on other meanings. A blonde bowl haircut has become an homage to Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof. A glass of milk emoji has been used to celebrate white masculinity, and two lightning bolt emojis together alludes to the Nazi “SS” rune insignia.

The Anti-Defamation League also recently reported the OK hand signal can have neo-Nazi ties because the fingers in this position form a W and P, standing for “white power.”

Schroeder’s thread of tweets warning about these different coded messages received thousands of retweets and likes and hundreds of comments. These tweets explained how this internet subculture can give white teenage boys the sense of belonging many seek. She said young men are not necessarily looking for extremist content, but that the way it is constructed — ironic, tongue-in-cheek and off-color — appeals to them.

Though teens being drawn to irreverence is nothing new, this white supremacism framed as a cheeky meme can make it difficult for young people to recognize when a politically incorrect joke crosses the line.

Therefore, Schroeder said, these memes normalize concepts like white supremacy and misogyny. Boys being called out for using this language or alluding to this ideology turn toward the alt-right community even more when they are called out and ridiculed by parents and female classmates. It begins a vicious cycle that grooms boys into believing these online communities understand them and that everyone else is too sensitive. Being accused of white supremacy online can follow someone for years.

Schroeder said she spoke to her sons about the way white supremacist content was targeting them and encouraged them to realize they were smarter than to fall for it.

“These alt-right guys were trying to trick you,” she told CNN she told her boys. “Like they think you’re dumb and you’re not. You’re smart.”

Though sites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Reddit have taken steps to identify and curb some extremist content, the internet still is a cesspool of white supremacy.

Roof revealed in his racist manifesto that explained his killing of nine Black churchgoers in Charleston in 2015 that a Google search was what converted him to white supremacy. The website 8Chan became the platform for the El Paso and Christchurch shooters, and the internet allows this ideology to spread through the celebration of this violence.

While many commented on Schroeder’s thread and said she was brainwashing her children, she argued every parent raises their children according to what they believe is right. She told CNN like potty training and reading, media literacy is another important skill she plans to teach her children.

“All parents are trying to bend their kids’ minds,” she told CNN. “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.”

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