Laura Ashley Powell
In an interview with the National Public Radio (NPR), a man called John, whose last name is not given for privacy, gave the surprising story of how right-wing hate groups tried to recruit his son by talking to him through online video games.
When John’s son was 15, he spent hours playing first-person shooter games like Counterstrike: Global Offensive. John was aware that his son talked to people online, either out loud or over chat, but he had no idea of the kinds of ideas some people were trying to put into his son’s head.
One day when John walked into his family’s home office, he saw a stack of papers next to the printer. When he looked at them, he found that his son had printed a well-known piece of neo-Nazi propaganda.
“It’s ‘the white culture’s in trouble, we are under attack by Jews, blacks, every other minority.’ It was scary. It was absolutely frightening to even see that in my house. I was shaking, like, ‘What in the world is this and why is it in my house?'” said John. “I was through the roof. I went back into my room. I was crying. I felt like a failure that a child that I had raised would be remotely interested in that sort of stuff.”
According to the Pew Research Center, practically every teen plays video games: 97 percent of boys and 83 percent of girls. It has become increasingly popular to play online games where one can speak with complete strangers. Games like the one John’s son likes to play are multiplayer, meaning they must form teams and communicate with them. Players can chat within the game, speak out loud or create separate chat rooms to talk in.
These spaces of communication have become a tool for some extreme right-wing groups to spread their message and recruit more members to their groups.
“There wasn’t anything obvious to me at first because it’s common. This is the norm for kids. Instead of hanging out at the drive-in they’re all online,” said John.
The white supremacists were very methodical in the way that they attempted to reach John’s son with their ideas. First, they became his friends. They chatted about struggles he encountered at his school; they suggested that he blame his African-American peers. They talked about subjects such as military history and Nordic mythology. Ultimately, they offered him a membership into a white supremacist group. This group has been labeled by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a Nazi terrorist organization.
“He started to feel like he was in on something. He was now in the in-crowd with these guys. It provided some structure and identity that he was searching for at the time,” said John.
John reached out for help and found Christian Picciolini, who runs the Free Radicals project. The organization works to prevent extremism and get people who are in extremist groups to get out of them. Picciolini himself used to be a part of a neo-Nazi group.
“Well typically, they’ll start out with dropping slurs about different races or religions and kind of test the waters …” said Picciolini, describing how these right-wing hate groups recruit gamers online. “Once they sense that they’ve got their hooks in them they ramp it up, and then they start sending propaganda, links to other sites, or they start talking about these old kinds of racist anti-Semitic tropes.”
Joan Donovan, the media manipulation research lead at Data and Society, also has insights into the tactics of white supremacist groups.
“I saw how these groups communicated and spread out to other spaces online with the intent of not telling people specifically that they were white supremacists,” said Donovan, “but they were really trying to figure out what young men were angry about and how they could leverage that to bring about a broad-based social movement.”
She also said that these groups target first-person shooter games, such as the one John’s son plays, because it’s a good place to find young, angry men.
NPR reached out to multiple companies that own these video games to see what they have been doing about this sort of hate speech on their platforms. Some said they rely on volunteer users to report hate speech. Some say that they act whenever they see this type of speech taking place, but given the fact that hundreds of millions of individuals play these games, it’s impossible to monitor every conversation.
As for John’s son, it’s been over a year since his dad found the neo-Nazi papers he had printed out. Thanks to his father’s intervention, he has left these ideas behind and even started attending a church on his own.