My Child Is Sharing Conspiracy Theories and Racist Memes. What Do I Say?
Part Two: Accidentally Encountering Hateful Messages
By: Western States Center Staff
This post is the second in the six-part series “My Child Is Repeating Conspiracy Theories. What Do I Say?” authored by Shelly Tochluk, Christine Saxman, and Joanna Schroeder. Read the first post and access links to the entire series here.
Given the range of easily accessible online and social media platforms, the ever-increasing amount of time we spend online, and the prolific posting habits of many conspiracy theorists and far-right recruiters, young people have ample opportunity to unintentionally encounter content that promotes or furthers far-right ideologies.
Often couched as humorous or “edgy” memes or jokes, bigoted or hate-filled expressions gain visibility every time a user “likes” and shares them. At this earliest level of expression, a young person may have no real investment in the content or even understand what they are ingesting, sharing, or repeating.
- While overseeing her son’s Instagram use, a mother notices her child laughing at memes of Pepe the Frog or jokes about Hitler.
- A young boy tells his foster parents he doesn’t want to hang out with a friend because he says nasty things about girls.
- A young person tells a school social worker he doesn’t know why everyone is so concerned about the “Chinese virus.”
- An uncle notices that his nephew shares memes and videos on social media that call people “snowflakes,” “triggered,” or “too sensitive.”
- A boy’s parents hear from school administrators that their son is repeating bigoted jokes believed to be “positive” stereotypes, like “Jews are really good with money,” “We need more Black people on our team if we’re going to win,” or “Asians are good at math.”
- While looking through her browser history, a grandmother notices that her grandkids have viewed YouTube videos that go against their family’s moral compass. When she asks, the children explain that they were just curious.
Get curious and nosy. Use a neutral, non-judgmental tone and ask:
- What do you think makes this so funny?
- Why do you think your friend wanted to share that?
- Who do you think might be hurt if they saw you laughing at that meme or video?
- Which people do you think would be most likely to “like” this post? Which people do you think would probably “dislike” this post? Why?
Build trust. Asking about media use in a friendly tone, try:
- What was the funniest thing you saw online today?
- What is the weirdest meme you’ve ever seen?
Do research on new terms or catchphrases together and ask:
- What do you think it means?
- What are other interpretations?
Engage with Education
Be a learning partner instead of an adversary.
- What is the message of this video?
- How is it different from other images or videos?
- How might it be used to shape or “twist” peoples’ thinking?
- What questions do you have? Great question!
- What message might this send? Is that a positive message?
- How can you tell if information online is true?
- What goals might someone have in sharing false information?
Explore how algorithms work.
- Why do people on the internet want us to watch or share something?
- How do websites make recommendations to us?
- Is this the kind of message that you want to get even more attention?
- What could we do if we don’t want to see messages like this?
Wrestle with complexity. For example, boys may see girls receive encouragement through messages about “girl power” or statements like “the future is female.” They may think that sexism isn’t real or that boys are the true victims.
- I understand you might feel that way. I wonder why messages encouraging girls are needed?
- What unfair treatment do you notice for girls?
- What do you notice when you watch sports on TV? Or about the number of women in the government? The number of women in tech jobs?
- What do we wonder about those systems?
- What can we do to make things fairer now? What might we do in the future?
Encourage empathy. Use examples your child can relate to when talking about how a phrase, word, or meme may hurt someone’s feelings.
- I wonder how a friend of yours who is gay might feel if they hear someone saying that, even if that person is just joking?
- I wonder how someone who is Jewish might feel if they see that you liked or shared that meme?
Listen to and affirm your child.
- You’re really thinking about this. What might you do next?
Connect the dots between online content and in-person interactions.
- I wonder how this might turn into bullying? What do you think? What could you do to help prevent this kind of bullying?
Roleplay with your child how they can talk to peers who share problematic content.
- Why did you share this with me?
- I don’t like this because…
What Not to Do
- Don’t make assumptions. Invest in discovering how a child or teen is making decisions and what they are thinking. Immediately assuming negative intent can shut down dialogue and make them less likely to talk to you.
- Don’t accept minimization of the impact. Extremists and conspiracy theorists are protected when people do not vocally reject their false, bigoted content. While a child or teen may not have initially understood the danger or meaning, partner with them to take action to limit the spread of these messages.
A mother observed her son scrolling through his Instagram feed and noticed a picture of Hitler go by. The mom stopped and said, “Was that Hitler?” She used the moment to learn more about her son’s online habits, how he engaged with people, his interpretations, and his intentions. The mother was able to explain that extremists were manipulating him, saying, “You’re smart enough to see what’s happening here. Don’t fall for it.” She then became a co-conspirator with him, and they continued to discuss and critique the content he encountered online.