Online Safety

How White Supremacists Recruit Kids

Through social media, websites, and even Minecraft, white supremacists are on the hunt for impressionable young minds. Here’s how to stop them.

by Isobel Whitcomb and Tyler Santora
Originally Published: 
A white boy in the dark playing video games on a computer.

From the Charlottesville car attack to confederate flags at the January 6 Insurrection, events over the past five years have made one thing increasingly clear: White supremacy has gone mainstream. These movements are nothing new. But thanks to social media, white supremacist rhetoric and the violence it causes is spreading faster than ever, says Lisa Pescara-Kovach, Ph.D., a professor of educational psychology at The University of Toledo in Ohio. “Were the thoughts there? Yes,” she says. “Was this technology there? No.”

The result: White supremacists are reaching kids like never before.

Pescara-Kovach conducts threat assessments for organizations such as schools, in which she investigates the likelihood of a violent incident based on factors that include students’ online activity. In her work, she has witnessed first-hand how readily accessible white supremacist rhetoric is to children and teens online.

Imagery from hate-groups isn’t hard to find on sites popular with kids, like Minecraft — a quick Google search returns Minecraft “skins,” the clothing your character wears, with the red arm-band worn by members of Neo-Nazi group the AtomWaffen Division. In 2022, the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, which records incidents of online and offline white-supremacist propaganda, reported the highest number of propaganda sightings since 2017 — including posters, fliers, memes, and videos. And according to the Anti-Defamation League, only one major gaming company, Roblox, has prohibited extremism — but even still, it has white supremacists hijacking the platform for their cause.

Just how common is white supremacist messaging on social media and gaming sites? A report from the Anti-Defamation League found that in 2021 “an estimated 2.3 million teens were exposed to white-supremacist ideology in multiplayer games like Roblox, World of Warcraft, Fortnite, Apex Legends, League of Legends, Madden NFL, Overwatch, and Call of Duty.” In 2022, 15% of gamers aged 10 to 17 in a survey of 2,204 Americans reported exposure to white supremacist ideologies via online multiplayer games.

There’s a limited amount of research available on the topic, but the studies that do exist suggest that the main goal of far right groups online doesn’t seem to be recruitment as much as building community, normalizing white supremacist beliefs, and reinforcing those beliefs in those who already have them. That isn’t to say that recruitment doesn’t happen. It does. And white, socially isolated boys are particularly at risk.

“Recruiters go to where targets are, staging seemingly casual conversations about issues of race and identity in spaces where lots of disaffected, vulnerable adolescent white males tend to hang out,” gaming expert and Texas Tech University professor Megan Condis, Ph.D., wrote in a New York Times op-ed. “Those who exhibit curiosity about white nationalist talking points or express frustration with the alt-right’s ideological opponents such as feminists, anti-racism activists and “social justice warriors” are then escorted through a funnel of increasingly racist rhetoric designed to normalize the presence of white supremacist ideology and paraphernalia through the use of edgy humor and memes.”

As a United Nations report said, “Gaming can help individuals feel wanted and heard, and extremists play on these sentiments to engage young people in particular in radical ideologies.”

In this gaming culture, “once-fringe, anti-democratic, right-wing extremist views are increasingly normalized,” according to a review study published last month. “As a result, misogynists and white supremacists continue to operate in the open with impunity.”

In her recent book, White Supremacist Violence: Understanding the Resurgence and Stopping the Spread, Pescara-Kovach and co-author Brian Van Brunt, Ed.D., dig into how white supremacists reach and indoctrinate new followers. Fatherly spoke with her about her work and what parents can do to protect their own kids from white supremacists online.

How are these white supremacist groups reaching young people?

Things like TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook (for older users). But I’m more concerned about gaming, especially live gaming. For a white supremacist attempting to recruit someone, it’s hard to really get to know that person over written messages. But when they’re talking to a kid live, over a game, they can get a really good idea of that kid’s mindset, their frustration level, anger level. They can ask questions, gain more information.

The way they reach kids is subtle, and it’s not just the violent games. Minecraft seems innocuous. You’re building things. But the white supremacist messaging is there. You can actually buy skins — the clothing your character wears — that uses imagery from the Atomwaffen Division. That’s one of the most violent international neo-Nazi groups with sectors all over the world. For a young kid, it might just look really militant and even cool. Someone who’s into gaming might be drawn to that and ask, ‘What is that?’ White supremacists set up these little things so the kids are asking the right questions and they can get the information to them.

So they're using all kinds of social media sites, even commerce. You can buy clothing with neo-Nazi symbols on Amazon. They’re dodging an algorithm, so they can be subtle in their use of symbols and code words. If you see a child wearing a number 88 on a shirt, you may not know that it means Heil Hitler, but it does. H is the eighth letter in the alphabet. You may not know that 18 is Adolf Hitler or that rune symbols that used to be in Norse mythology are now a neo-Nazi symbol. When you're wearing it out in public, it's a message that you and I are speaking the same language, per se. So it's all over the internet. It's a mess.

[Editor’s Note: There’s less subtle white supremacist messaging on these platforms too. For example, there were at least two recreations of the Christchurch shooting on Roblox, Wired reported, and there are still Nazi role-plays on the site.]

What is the prevalence of white supremacy among youth right now?

It's tough to tell. I think we're seeing more and more of it. A lot of our lone-wolf attackers were motivated by this ideology — like last year’s grocery store shooting in a predominantly Black community in Buffalo. [Editor’s Note: The shooter had written on Discord, an instant-messaging site popular among gamers, “I probably wouldn’t be as nationalistic if it weren’t for Blood and Iron on roblox,” according to the Anti-Defamation League report. The shooter who killed 51 and injured 40 at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand was able to “openly express racist and and far-right views” via online multiplayer games, according to a report from the New Zealand government. He even live-streamed the shooting in the style of popular Let’s Play videos, narrating the attack, playing music, and portraying it similarly to a first-person shooter game, according to a research article published last year.]

From a numbers perspective, I couldn't give you a set number because it's really hard to assess. And part of the challenge is they love the dark web, they like Discord. It's almost as though law enforcement is just now trying to catch up with some of the symbols and the verbiage and the clothing to get a real handle on how big this problem is.

Oftentimes schools and parents don’t know what they’re looking at and don’t call in experts. They may see some disturbing hate speech on someone's computer and take disciplinary action, but not link it to any particular movement. It’s hard to identify.

Is the threat uniform or unique to certain areas of the country?

Honestly, it’s not uniform. We’re having fewer conversations about acceptance and more conversations about hatred in certain parts of our nation. Kids who hear hate at home are going to be more vulnerable. Take that kid, maybe they have a belief planted by an adult that develops over time. Maybe they aren’t connected to anyone else. They’re alienated, isolated, and they want to be part of something bigger and better. And they externalize things that are going on in their own lives and collect injustices.

Of course, kids who grow up in progressive-leaning places or families aren’t immune. We’d be naïve to think so. Often, when these things happen, parents’ first reaction is ‘not my child.’ But say their friend group isn’t so progressive and doesn’t have a lot of connections to other people in the school, and one of them starts blaming other kids on campus.

At a certain point, adolescents don’t want to listen to their parents, which makes them more vulnerable to indoctrination. There's just that period of time where you find fault with authority figures; you just do. And if you meet this cool person on the internet that you get to talk to, that has this cool sweatshirt and is gaming with you, and they’re super cool and younger than your mom and dad, you might be more likely to go in that direction.

What other risk factors are there?

The most vulnerable kids are isolated, alienated, and externalizers — they never take the blame for anything. They don’t have many social outlets. They want to be a part of a group, and they’re not. They often don’t feel connected to an adult at school or at home. They have little outside of gaming. They tend to be kids who are impulsive. But most of it is this sort of loneliness, this ‘us-versus-them’ mentality.

What can parents do?

I'm definitely not one of those people that's like, ‘hey, stand over your children’s shoulders and watch everything they do.’ But you do have to be aware, there are some sites that they shouldn't be on. Discord, for instance. White supremacists are trolling on Discord quite a bit. Telegram [another messaging site]. There are a lot of white supremacist Telegram accounts. And then 4Chan, any of the Chan sites, I would worry about.

I would also make sure to talk to your child about who they’re welcoming into their live gaming, if they do game. And when they are on social media, what are they following? They may not be able to tell if something is mainstream or extremist.

Pay attention if your kid is exhibiting signs of alienation, isolation, or anger. If that is happening, try to have activities outside of school. Talk to an adult in the school that you know has a good reputation for being a positive influence in students' lives. Make sure that you’re complimenting your kid’s successes, picking up on their strengths and assets. And direct them to do something healthy instead of gaming or talking online. Get them out there, get them active, doing something positive and constructive.

Finally, encourage open communication. Teach them about social justice from a young age. Some of it will get in there. And then the indoctrination will be less likely to reach them if [social justice lessons have] been in there from the time they were born. It’s huge having that connection, having trustworthy parents.

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