We still don’t know all the facts about why an 18-year-old white man has a horrible hate crime at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York last Saturday. What seems irrefutable, however, is that his act of violence was fueled by racist and xenophobic misinformation online.
When I discussed the shooting with my husband, an immigrant, a person of color, a fellow psychiatrist — and the bravest person I know — he spoke with uncharacteristic vulnerability: “I’m scared.” Struggling with our fear and anger, we started a heated discussion about what should and can be done about digital extremism in a society that has become tragically passive by making people of color fear for their lives on a daily basis.
In public health, primary prevention solutions are considered the most effective to prevent disease because they eliminate the source of the danger so no one is exposed. But what do you do when the disease is white supremacy, woven into the framework of a nation?
Primary prevention requires mobilization of government and national policies. Writer Eileen Rivers points out, how, for example, this shooting highlights the need for national education reforms that address America’s racist and violent past. But as white supremacist theories become more and more mainstream within government, primary prevention measures seem scandalously unlikely. (Although as I wrote this, Congress — scary — a account to fight domestic terrorism.)
[W]what do you do when the disease is white supremacy, woven into the framework of a nation?
We could try to bursts out on extremist content online, but removing one problematic forum, such as cutting the head of the Hydra, puts two new ones in its place. Example: TikTok is the latest platform caught in the never-ending pro-ana – promoting anorexia – problem.
Then there are gun control measures, but again, a lack of bipartisan support repeatedly makes this solution a non-starter.
We are left with an appeal to individuals to confront online extremism. Because young, white men majority of those who commit hate crimes in the name of white supremacy, the individuals who can potentially make the most difference are teachers, mental health professionals, and most importantly, parents. As a child psychiatrist and researcher into problematic digital media use, I have some advice on what we (including myself!) could do better:
*Ask what your child/patient/pupil is doing online† Let me be clear: the internet does not make anyone racist or violent. But the ways in which social media platforms uniquely facilitate the recruitment of terrorist groups are: well established† Fringe groups use the Internet to entice new recruits with support and camaraderie, while stirring them up a sense of moral outrage, giving them misinformation, and convincing them that their lives are at stake if they don’t commit to their cause. (This is known as mortality salience.) A young person’s commitment to a single forum or website should, at the very least, prompt additional questions.
*Check closely for behavioral changes, especially now. Like the Internet, pandemics do not cause violence or racism, but they can foster an environment in which teens with racist views radicalize. Troubled youth are particularly easy targets for online extremist groups, and the COVID-19 pandemic has created massively troubled youth. Struggling with sudden, dramatic shifts in their everyday lives, the 2020 teens flocked to the only remaining source of consistent connection: the Internet.
[A]nger is a feeling that extremist groups are masters of taking advantage of online.
While teens increased their chances of extremism as they spent more time online, the pandemic also reduced healthier opportunities for teens to build a sense of identity, community and self-esteem. No more hanging out with friends after school, football games or clubs.
The media may have focused primarily on: the rise suicides among teens during the pandemic, but also the anger of teens has exploded. I worked in a psychiatric ward in the early days of the pandemic, and pediatric admissions for aggression were sometimes more common than those for depression. Unfortunately, anger is a sense that extremist groups are masters of abusing online. These groups tell youngsters like the Buffalo shooter where to direct their anger:
“There is no problem with you, but with blacks, Hispanics and immigrants. You are to replace† It’s up to you to do something.”
* Watch for sudden changes in beliefs. While adolescence is normally a stage where teens are “trying out” new ideologies, it’s time to investigate further if a teen suddenly begins to embrace beliefs that are completely at odds with previously held worldviews. Los Angeles-based writer Joanna Schroeder described this well when she… her own experience documented watching her sons’ online behavior. “The red flags went out for us when, a year or so ago, [our kids] started asking questions that felt like they came straight from alt-right talking points,” she said†
*If a teen explores extremist sites online, focus on keeping an “in.” While your first instinct may be to forbid or admonish, the fastest way to lose access to a troubled teen is to put them to shame. Extremist forums make recruits feel empowered and then work to isolate them from opposing (read: true) points of view. Adults need to stay curious and engaged, correct misinformation and stick with it for the long haul. This is not to condone racist behavior, but rather to watch out for potential violence. Increase mental health support when needed and provide alternative screen-free activities that provide connection and validation. Any suspicion of violent intent must be answered with an emerging mental health assessment.
Now more than ever, it’s critical that white allies do everything they can to fight digital extremism. Even if our country is slow to make systematic changes to confront white nationalism, our black, Hispanic and Asian neighbors deserve far more from us than passivity in these turbulent times. Leading just one young person away from these forums could literally save black and brown lives.
Correction: In an earlier version of this piece, Joanna Schroeder’s descriptions of her children’s online activities were misrepresented.