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White supremacy in America: Can parents stop online radicalization?

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In the aftermath of two mass shootings, a new poll reveals the stress and fear Americans have over potentially being the victim of another tragedy.
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Brad Galloway could be called an expert on white supremacists.

For 13 years of his life, he was one.

A troubled adolescence left him searching for acceptance. He found it in the late 1990s with a skinhead community in Toronto. Later, he joined a prominent neo-Nazi organization in Portland before starting his own chapter in Vancouver.

Eventually, he abandoned that life of hate, motivated in part by his wife and daughter.

“Hate became very exhausting for me – every day trying to convince myself of this ideology I was questioning,” said Galloway, 37, who now works with two international nonprofits that counter violent extremism.

Their work turning people from radicalization seems more crucial than ever after three mass shootings in a little more than a week that left 34 people dead and 66 wounded in Gilroy, California; El Paso, Texas; and Dayton, Ohio.

4chan, El Paso: The internet’s role in fostering hate

Authorities have said the suspected gunman in El Paso shared white supremacist and anti-immigrant views on an anonymous online message board before the shooting.

A domestic terrorism investigation has been opened into the Gilroy shooting, while the motive in the Dayton shooting remains unclear.

But what is clear is domestic terrorism’s very real threat to Americans.

Last year, domestic extremists killed at least 50 people, the fourth-deadliest total since 1970, according to a report from the Anti-Defamation League. White supremacists carried out 39 of those killings, the report states.

The simple truth, experts say, is that there is no one path toward domestic terrorism and no single profile of the perpetrators, although most are white males. Conflicting ideologies of some of the extremists further complicate the issue.

But most academics who study violent extremism agree that the internet has exponentially extended the reach of hate groups, giving their ideologies nearly unfettered access to minds susceptible to their message.

And the digital platforms they inhabit often shield them from detection by family members who can’t – or won’t – see the signs of radicalization.

“There is a definite grooming and indoctrination process that happens in the many hours spent in these online spaces,” said Dana Coester, an associate professor at West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media who has researched and reported on white nationalism in the Appalachia region.

“I think most parents don’t have a clue what’s happening in these spaces.”

The internet’s ability to radicalize is also why the process is so difficult to detect.

Parents might not monitor their children’s internet use, either out of convenience or the desire to respect their children’s privacy. Or they mistakenly believe some of the more mainstream websites or social media platforms are safe from hate-filled content and, thus, need no monitoring.

When they do take an interest in what their children do online, they might only look for overt signs of racist propaganda.

“They’re not seeing the coded, white supremacy content,” Coester said.

J.J. MacNab is a nationally recognized expert on domestic extremism and a research fellow with George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.

In her work, she searches a domestic terrorist’s online history for indicators of a specific ideology. For example, a suspected mass shooter could have frequently shared a meme or a fabricated quote popular with members of a certain hate group.

“It’s a little red flag, but when you start to get a bunch of red flags from the same group you delve deeper,” she said.

But without that deep understanding, how can a parent know what to look for?

“It’s really difficult,” MacNab said. “I’m not sure what to tell parents.”

Coester had one possible message for parents: “They need to inhabit and immerse themselves in the space their child is in. You can’t glance at it. You have to be in the space to really understand how normalized this content has become in every platform.

“And if you don’t have time to do that, then I wouldn’t let my kids on technology.”

But even if a parent does suspect their child is being radicalized, they don’t always know what to do next.

Some hope their child is merely going through a phase that will disappear with time. Others fear any intervention will drive their child away or immediately end in their child’s arrest.

“I think families and communities are afraid,” said Sammy Rangel, co-founder and executive director of Life After Hate, a Chicago-based nonprofit that attempts to divert people from hate groups. “Imagine the amount of shame and guilt associated with being found out this is in your family.”

Warning signs for parents

Rangel offered the following warning signs for parents to watch for in their children:

  • Change in temperament: More aggressive or defensive.
  • Sudden shift in how they talk about life: Questions about minority groups.
  • Increased isolation.
  • More time spent online.
  • Change in attire: wearing their beliefs on their clothes — or music.
  • Cutting off longtime friends.

Follow Jonathan Bullington on Twitter: @jrbullington

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