July 21, 2015

Online Hate & Cult Recruitment: Are You Confident Your Teen Knows Better?


Image from the movie Higher Learning

Some time has passed since nine innocent people were gunned down in front of their friends and family by 21 year-old Dylann Roof at a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Based on the gunman’s comment during the shooting, “You rape our women. And you’re taking over our country. You have to go,” we initially suspected this shooting was a hate crime.

Now with more information known about Dylann Roof, it is confirmed that Dylann was an active participant in online white supremacist forums designed to radicalize youth. Could your teen be at risk?

News reports reveal that Dylann Roof displayed several risk factors characteristic of vulnerable youth. He dropped out of school in ninth grade during his parents’ divorce, just after the family moved back to South Carolina due to financial struggles and his stepmother filing court papers and photos accusing Dylann’s father of being controlling and physical abusive.

Friends describe him as a relatively quiet man who was a marijuana smoker, heavy drinker and used a variety of other harder drugs. He shared a mobile home with five other people. Prior to the murders, friends had become alarmed about his drunken comments regarding a “race war,” but nobody suspected he would massacre victims he targeted due to race.

Not unlike Isla Vista shooter Elliot Rodger, Dylann posted a hateful online manifesto before his murderous rampage detailing his violent and racist beliefs. Along with photos of him standing on and burning an American flag and aiming his gun, his manifesto titled “An Explanation” details his “disdain” against blacks, Jews, Hispanics and patriotism. He writes:

I have no choice. I am not in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight. I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.

Admittedly, as a clinical psychologist in a suburban private practice I do not specialize with mass murders. But I have treated children, teens, adults and families for over 20 years and teach clinical psychology and addiction studies at California State University Channel Islands. It is not uncommon to hear that parents are the last to know of their teen’s deviant on—and off—line activities. And it’s not just mentally ill kids who wander into serious trouble. We all hit vulnerable times in our lives when our judgment wanes, especially during adolescence.

My message to parents today is that unfiltered web surfing by children can be frankly dangerous for them. And even teens who otherwise have it together need consistent supervision and education in order to avoid the risks posed by those looking to exploit or recruit them. If you’re a parent who cares about the safety of your kids, I challenge you to take a moment and see how long it takes you to find online evidence of hate.

The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that there are currently 784 known hate groups operating in the United States alone, a 30% increase since 2000. When one considers that the Internet is world-wide, the potential for online hate is staggering. Because of an immature self-identity and limited experience and problem solving skills, youth are particularly susceptible to influence and are the most common perpetrators of hate crimes.

The most frightening aspect of today’s online recruitment techniques is that they’re so sophisticated. No longer do hate groups and cults have to rely on interpersonal contact, newsletters and rallies for recruitment. Now potential members can be groomed slowly and deceptively from the illusory safety of their bedroom. Websites and social media publicity is easy to design and inexpensive, allowing big reach and total control over content. Internet platforms are the perfect tool for grooming, behavioral manipulation and coercive thought control. By the time a teen is ready to pack their suitcase to join the group, they have been expertly brainwashed over months to adopt a radicalized web of beliefs.

It’s particularly frightening for a parent to consider how easy it would be for their confused or angry teen to get radicalized and recruited. As a clinical psychologist I can attest to the fact that teens often have online lives that would shock or horrify their parents. There is no better day than today to teach resilience.

How might a parent inoculate their teen from this kind of susceptibility?

1. Filter and block access to inappropriate sites for younger teens (which we all know is easier said than done).

2. Provide emotional safety and educationally enriched and diverse experiences to decrease susceptibility due to fear, lack of experience, and overly simplistic thinking.

3. Teach your kids how to recognize signs of online grooming and brainwashing.

4. Stay engaged and aware of your kids’ off-line and online activity and build assertiveness and reasoning skills with increasing challenge over time. Encourage your kids to think for themselves and research opposing positions.

Parental supervision is increasingly more challenging due to unregulated availability of online information and easy access to strangers on the Internet. GetKidsInternetSafe(GKIS) was designed to offer three types of free content to help parents close Internet risk gaps. These include tips on how to powerfully connect with your kids so you are their go-to person when they need help, resources and strategies for sensible filtering and monitoring. And, most important in the context of this article, GKIS offers strategies to maintain safety by educating kids about Internet risks and helping them build protective assertiveness and reasoning skills.

In service of building awareness, what should kids and teens look for in order to identify hate group and cult recruitment strategies?

1. Sensational messaging based on deception and false facts that trigger intrigue, suspicion and paranoia (e.g., “Did you know that Martin Luther King Jr. was not a legitimate reverend?”)

2. Attempts to isolate the subject by exploiting emotional vulnerabilities and destabilizing friend and family support.

3. This isolation starts with probes that assess susceptibility (e.g., “Where is your computer?” “Are you alone?”) and attempts to validate emotion and join (“I know what that feels like. You can trust me.”).

4. Once the victim shows interest and openness, the recruiter will start to challenge their belief system and attack the credibility of their family and friends. If the recruiter can tap into fear and insecurity, they can then start to target blame (e.g., “Do your parents overlook and dismiss you?” “Do you feel lonely and misunderstood?” “If they loved you, they would not control you like they do.”).

5. Promise of a cure for emotional pain in the form of service and secret sanctuary (secret intimacy, romantic unconditional love, belonging to a community, wealth, fame, power over others, escape, a spiritual “answer,” and protection).

6. Intense unrelenting pressure to build trust and a sense of belonging.

7. Online blogs are highly effective to nurture belief change with long narratives dispersed over time that serve to form cyber communities bonded by belonging, shared values and practices, and eventually a fierce sense of elitism and pride.

8. The goal is to tempt subjects into slowly sacrificing free-will and becoming increasingly reliant on the group to do their thinking for them.

9. Hate groups thrive through members who are willing to hop on a radical bandwagon based on personal ideologies rather than factual or scientific evidence and will actively cyber bully or censor members who don’t agree with their message.

10. Teach your child how to recognize confrontational, combative and abusive comment threads as well as exploitative threats (“If you don’t, I’ll show your friends and family the texts and pictures you’ve sent me.”).

11. It’s not only the teens who have a high desire to please others who are susceptible, bold teens, convinced they are too tough to influence, also fall victim. Kids who feel their parents are too intrusive or controlling may also rebel, suggesting that authoritative rather than authoritarian or permissive parenting strategies are best. The truth is, nobody is safe from the charm of a skilled recruiter.

12. Marketing techniques and products designed to be attractive to targeted population segments (like youth and women).

13. Inducing guilt by providing offers of friendship and gifts to develop a sense of reciprocity right from the beginning leaves subjects feeling that they owe the recruiter and must give back.

14. Hyped meetings, branding and merchandizing support the power and exclusivity of the group (e.g., slogans, symbols, colors, mascots, music, video games and customized slang).

15. Tests of loyalty and intimidation, inducing guilt for opposition in order to achieve blind obedience (e.g., “We have direct authority from a divine power.”).

16. Invitations and offers for travel.

When I was a little girl, I was shy and eager to please. As a tween, my dad would say sensational (and even offensive) comments to provoke me into argument. We would then engage in heated debates littered with respectful confrontation and presentation of evidence. It wasn’t until I was much older when I realized that he was teaching me assertiveness in the face of authority. Although he required obedience, he made it clear that blind obedience was never acceptable and provided me a safe place to experiment with critical thinking and speak up with questions and complaints. Most importantly, he taught me that there is no shame in standing up for what’s right and in risking failure. That is the kind of loving, fun and safe training ground every child needs to build resilience.

If you are thinking only older teens are susceptible to online recruitment, think again. Many hate group websites include a kids’ page with coloring pages, puzzles, animated mascots, videos and downloadable music and video games (sometimes with racially intolerant content like torturing or hunting the target populations of their hate) for early grooming.

Perhaps you’re thinking government surveillance and regulation will keep your family safe? Unfortunately regulation to block hateful cyber conduct is only in its infancy. It is not unusual for teens to launch into a quest for individual identity, even if it means joining somebody else’s civil war. Rolling Stone recently wrote of three Muslim teens who were taken into custody at the airport on their way to join ISIS after a long period of online grooming, all without their parents’ awareness. Currently it is impossible to know how many young people have been radicalized through Internet content, and those prosecuted are protected by sealed records due to minor status.

With the developmentally healthy teen spirit of idealism, omnipotence and egocentrism, our youth will always be at the forefront of the fight for social justice. Teens seek simple answers in a confusingly nuanced world. It’s important not to dismiss their powerful need for spiritual fulfillment, meaning, and a sense of belonging. Furthermore, just as too much parental pressure for academic and athletic perfection can backfire and lead teens to seek promises of solace, so can a lack of authority or structure.

As parents, our best hope that burgeoning ideals do not lead to danger is to provide our teens with a loving, enriched and protected environment where they don’t fear marginalization and failure. If we accept our children through their search for independence and identity, they’re less likely to seek the mentorship of dangerous others.

Love and safety builds resilience, not oppression and lectures. Love to the families and friends in Charleston who are hurting today from a horrifying crime. And strength to all the parents out there to raise citizens that will make this world a better place full of love instead of misguided hate.

I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetYourKidsInternetSafe.

Onward to More Awesome Parenting.



Beyond Charleston: Racism is Learned, so Let’s Stop Teaching It.


Author: Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.

Editor: Travis May

Photo: Movie Still


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Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.