In a viral Twitter thread from August, a mom of three from Southern California hoped to warn other parents after she discovered what she described as ways white supremacists were using social media and memes to influence her young sons.
Author Joanna Schroeder had always expected her 11- and 14-year-old sons would question authority one day. She just didn’t think it would be encouraged by content spread by racists over social media.
“What I didn’t predict,” she said in an essay published in the New York Times, “was that my sons’ adolescence would include being drawn to the kind of online content that right-wing extremists use to recruit so many young men.”
One of the first signs that things were amiss with her boys was when one of them asked a disparaging question about transgender people, she recalled to NPR. After investigating, Schroeder discovered the question — “If you can be [transgender] and just decide what you are then how come you can’t just decide to be a penguin?” — had been born from a meme he had seen on Instagram.
“I knew it was time to start looking at their social media use,” she explained, “and figuring out what they were being exposed to.”
That’s when she went on her son’s Instagram and YouTube accounts and saw content from other users that immediately alarmed her.
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“He was scrolling quickly, really quickly,” Schroeder — who also has a daughter — told CNN. “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?'”
“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,” she continued.
Around that time, her sons had also been using language connected to alt-right groups, such as “trigger” and “snowflake.”
“That is a very alt-right talking point that is entryway terminology,” she told CNN. “It’s not racist. No, it’s not, but it’s often used against people who are calling out racism or sexism or homophobia as a way to imply that those of us who don’t accept that language are just too sensitive.”
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, hate groups in America rose to 1,020 in 2018 — a record high that continues a four-year trend that began the same year President Donald Trump was elected. The Council on Foreign Relations says violence attributed to hate speech found online has increased worldwide in recent years.
Do you have white teenage sons?— joanna schroeder (@iproposethis) August 13, 2019
I've been watching my boys' online behavior & noticed that social media and vloggers are actively laying groundwork in white teens to turn them into alt-right/white supremacists.
After finding the posts, Schroeder was compelled to detail what she’d discovered to warn parents who may not know what their children are being exposed to online.
“I wanted parents to know,” she explained to CNN of her now-viral Twitter thread. “To pay attention, because this particular group of boys is being targeted and these parents have no idea.”
Schroeder insists that even if children aren’t searching for the content, it doesn’t take much for a racist post or message to appear on their timelines, especially if they use Instagram’s “Explore” page, which shows users a collection of pictures from people they aren’t following.
Once exposed to racist content, the once-shocking social media posts can become normalized, she says.
“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.”
Propaganda makes extreme points of view seem normal by small amounts of exposure over time - all for the purpose of converting people to more extremist points of view.— joanna schroeder (@iproposethis) August 13, 2019
Use my baseball analogy, if you want. Tell your son that he doesn't have to be anybody's fool.
In her Twitter thread — which has been retweeted more than 80,000 times — Schroeder suggested that parents stay involved with their children’s social media usage, and teach them to recognize propaganda.
“Above all, we need to stay engaged & challenge our kids without shaming them,” she said in the thread. “I’m lucky, my kids are smart and have a smart, critical, progressive dad who isn’t afraid to call bullshit when he sees it. But I’ve seen SO MANY white boys falling prey to this system. So beware.