Over the last decade, Americans across the country have witnessed a steep rise in violent white supremacy, overt white nationalism, and conspiratorial extremism. The web of false and bigoted narratives that support anti-democratic views and actions now influences a wide share of the U.S. population, including young adults and even children.
Among the most dangerous examples is QAnon, which has already softened the ground for white nationalist and paramilitary groups to expand their influence. A wildly false narrative that has evolved online over the past five years, QAnon’s claims revolve around a conspiracy, led by a “deep state cabal” of bloodthirsty pedophiles, to kidnap and abuse children. “Q” adherents believe that Donald Trump is waging a secret war against this cabal, which has plotted a coup against him and sought to overturn his legitimate re-election. QAnon is directly grounded in the anti-Semitic narrative of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the anti-Semitic trope of blood libel. Although QAnon appeals to many women, it also elevates misogyny particularly through the targeting of women politicians through disinformation and conspiracies.
Followers of dangerous anti-democratic movements have already perpetrated violence and killings in communities such as Charleston, South Carolina, Charlottesville, Virginia, Kenosha, Wisconsin, and in our nation’s capital of Washington, D.C. They have threatened communities of color, LGBTQ communities, and more, while also undermining democratic institutions. Many white nationalist or far-right groups target young people for recruitment, while parents, guardians, counselors, and family members of these young people often struggle to disengage them and prevent them from harming others or themselves.
Western States Center serves as a national hub to engage partners committed to strengthening inclusive democracy and creating space for innovative responses to white nationalism and other movements of organized bigotry. Our Confronting White Nationalism in Schools toolkit, for example, support schools and communities in their efforts to empower young people to recognize and resist recruitment by white nationalist and other anti-democratic groups. As the toolkit has grown in popularity, we’ve heard from parents and caregivers that they, too, need support navigating conversations with the children in their lives.
We’ve written previously about preventive steps families should take to protect young people from misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic. We also encourage parents and caregivers to investigate this guide, published by the Southern Poverty Law Center and American University’s Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab. This spring, we are releasing a conversation guide¹ — written by and for parents — specifically focused on countering bigoted conspiracy theories that children and teens may hear, identify with, and repeat.
These conversations are crucial, not only for young people who may be attracted to conspiracy theories and far-right movements but for their school communities and their classmates who may be targeted. Young people need adults in their lives to help them make meaning out of the world and understand the information they’re engaging with and its impacts on other people. This is particularly important for young people who receive far-right messages and anti-democratic values from their families, but also have relationships with school counselors or social workers who may be able to support them in asking critical questions.
Conversation guide co-author Joanna Schroeder, a mother of teen boys, became disturbed by the troubling patterns she noticed in alt-right and other bigoted content suggested and shown to her children via advertising and autoplay video content.
“After investigating the universality of my experience and my concerns, I realized how few tools parents and guardians have to combat the impact on our children of organized bigotry,” Schroeder says.
Like Schroeder, co-author Shelly Tochluk was alarmed when she began researching the reach and effectiveness of conspiracy theories and extremist recruitment tactics.
“Before [co-author] Christina Saxman brought it to my attention, I didn’t realize how smart, savvy, and organized white nationalist groups are online, and how hard it can be hard for parents and teachers to recognize it and intervene at an early stage,” Tochluk says. “The threat is only more intense now after the last several years poured gasoline on long-simmering fires. Unfortunately, a change in administration won’t put those fires out.”
The January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol offered a chilling example of how dangerous far-right, anti-democratic movements and conspiracy theories can be. Among the many false narratives at play that day, QAnon played an outsized role.
“QAnon serves as a vector for bigotry,” says Western States Center program director Lindsay Schubiner. “As a powerful conspiracy theory, QAnon undermines democratic institutions from media to government. It claims that they are controlled by dark forces, so therefore they cannot be trusted or held accountable. We are seeing white nationalists borrow from QAnon, and Q narratives borrow from white nationalist ideas — elevating both in significant and troubling ways. QAnon’s reach has broadened significantly over the past year, appealing to those influenced by conspiracy theories tied to the pandemic, and providing a ready-made recruiting pool for dangerous far-right and paramilitary movements.”
Conversations about conspiracy theories will look different depending on whether a young person has recently begun exploring conspiratorial content, actively identifies with hateful ideology, or is somewhere in between. We are publishing a series of articles, each focused on a different type of approach parents and caregivers may choose to take. Each article includes discussion questions and sentence starters appropriate for different levels of engagement with organized bigotry a young person may have. These include:
- Accidentally encountering hateful messages
- Sharing jokes and memes to be edgy
- Asserting far-right beliefs in daily life
- Supporting anti-democratic groups and spreading conspiracies or overt hate
- Calling for or engaging in acts of intimidation or violence
“It is our hope that this toolkit empowers parents and caregivers to discuss this propaganda with their kids in ways that help them discern fact from fiction, grow their empathy for others, and help them become better media consumers and overall better citizens,” says Schroeder.
All young people desire to learn about themselves and the world, and many will investigate pathways that the adults in their lives do not understand. But by keeping values like equity and friendship at the center of our conversations — and by keeping the lines of communication open — we support the kids and teens in our lives to turn away from hate and bigotry.
Shelly Tochluk is a Professor of Education at Mount Saint Mary’s University-Los Angeles who is dedicated to fostering anti-racism within the white community. She’s the author of Witnessing Whiteness.
Christine Saxman is the founder of Saxman Consulting LLC, where she provides racial and social justice training, facilitation, and coaching in partnership with facilitators of color.
Joanna Schroeder is a feminist writer and media critic whose work has appeared in publications like The New York Times, Esquire, and Vox. She is also the mother of two busy teens and a toddler.
¹This conversation guide uses the Scales of Expression model developed by the UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy research team. While the framework developed by the Luskin Center is specific to the internalization of white nationalist ideology, this guide extends its use to multiple types of online radicalization. (https://luskincenter.history.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/66/2020/06/LHCP-White-Nationalism-Report-FULL.pdf)