You asked. They answered.
The anonymous mother and son from this important article in the Washingtonian, What Happened After My Son Joined the Alt-Right, agreed to answer questions from the Mozilla community.
These questions and answers, and the opinions and advice offered, are exclusively from our Mozilla community and the mother and son. Here are your questions and their amazing answers.
Did you make an effort to consume the material your son was consuming, so you could discuss it together?
"This is an important question, and I’m glad you asked. I thought for a long time that I was already familiar with the material my son was consuming—familiar with it from reading about it, rather than reading and watching it myself. This was a problem for two reasons. The first was that my son wanted to have a genuine two-way conversation, and I couldn’t really address the issues he brought up accurately since I wasn’t engaging deeply with his sources. Second, it was a problem because without reading the material myself, I didn’t understand how misogynist, racist, and anti-Semitic it was and what a serious situation we were in. I could have engaged in a smarter way, sooner, and with greater urgency, if I had read the material myself instead of presuming I already knew what it said. I did eventually start watching some videos and a documentary he recommended to me, and then I was better able to address some of his arguments. I wish I had done this earlier. I also wish I had gone on Reddit and understood that platform better, and what it meant that he was a moderator."
Do you believe that platforms like YouTube and Twitter are dangerous for children due to their lack of accountability for the extremists on their platforms? What do you believe we can do to hold these companies accountable?
"Platforms like YouTube and others seem to do everything possible to avoid accountability. They operate as if they intend to get away with as much as they can for as long as they can. The companies hide behind all sorts of arguments related to free speech, but this has always seemed to me to be a convenient way to avoid their responsibility and bring more money in. This lets extremists know they can get away with posting their views and recruiting others to their cause, and this is dangerous to all of us—not just to children. Children are especially vulnerable, however, especially children who look to the Internet for information and support."
Do you think your son learned enough about the Internet and media in school before all this happened, or should his school(s) have given him more media literacy tools (and if so, how)?
"The schools around here do a good job of teaching kids to look for credible sources on the Internet when they write papers and do research, but this knowledge didn’t help in this particular situation. I think that this may be because so much of the information Sam consumed was on Reddit and YouTube, and the idea of media literacy isn’t as useful on those platforms because they’re comprised of individuals talking directly to other individuals. I give him credit for being skeptical, but at the most basic level he did not understand that adults would exploit children's need for an online community."
What can adults do proactively to protect our children from these predators?
"Being proactive is critical, because there will always be threats--and parents can’t protect kids all the time. Everyone’s situation is different, but in our case I think that the closeness we had established with our son over many years helped us during this crisis. We had a solid sense of his baseline personality and his beliefs, so we noticed when these started changing, and when those changes became more pronounced and concerning, we could use our established channels of communication to keep talking. For example, my son and I have always taken walks together and he often shared ideas with me on these walks. When we were going through this crisis, I was still occasionally able to convince my son to go on walks with me, and when that happened we fell back into old patterns of talking. I learned a lot during those walks about Reddit and what being a moderator was about. Because we were close and had spent a lot of time together during my son’s childhood, I also knew what activities he liked to do, so I could offer him extra opportunities to do these activities when I thought it was important to get him away from his computer. I am also glad we established a summer camp experience for him many years ago, because when he was going through this crisis, having a sustained digital detox was useful. It gave him a chance to think and reflect. "
Did you ever consider restricting his access to the internet? Even though that might have been overreaching, would it not have prevented this whole series of events?
"I understand the thoughts and feelings, and even the frustration, behind this question. I won’t address the general issue of whether or not it’s advisable or possible to restrict a teenager’s access to the Internet, but I’ll tell you about our situation. As our children were growing up, we tried a variety of ways to curb their consumption of the Internet—both the content and the timing. Sam figured out workarounds for all of these methods when he was 10 years old. If my husband and I were more technologically savvy—as in, technology professionals—perhaps there would have been more we could have done, but among the options we tried, nothing worked. As our son got older, and the Internet and computer-based work became critical to schoolwork and school communications, it was not feasible to restrict access to the Internet. We reverted to trying to get him physically away from his computer and his phone by doing activities together. Obviously, it was an imperfect solution."
Would you recommend that concerned parents spend time on 8Chan or Gab to see for themselves the nature of the discourse on those channels?
"Yes! Nothing I thought about these platforms could have prepared me for the experience of going on them myself and reading the content. I would have taken our situation much more seriously from the beginning if I have seen for myself the nature of the discourse. The misogyny, racism, bigotry, anti-Semitism, depth of misinformation, and all-around ugliness were beyond what I had imagined or would have tolerated in “real life.”
What were the "signs" that something wasn't right with Sam?
"Sam underwent a significant personality shift during this time, and because it coincided with his becoming a teenager, we weren’t sure what was age-appropriate moodiness and a legitimate desire for more privacy. But in general, he withdrew from family activities, became uncommunicative, and stayed in his room a lot more than ever before. The most disturbing change, and the biggest sign that something was wrong, was watching a formerly very empathetic person lose that empathy as he found a place in a community that was very intolerant of those different from themselves. That was what showed us that something dramatic and terrible was happening—because it was as if a personality transplant had taken place."
I'm in a similar situation with my son and not doing well. How were you able to convey your disagreement without it being perceived as saying your son was "wrong"?
"This is so hard. I made a lot of mistakes, so I hesitate to give advice. But I can tell you that I should have said “I disagree with that” more than “You’re wrong.” I should have said, “Let’s watch a documentary about that/read an article about that/look up the facts on that” more than “That’s not true.” I should have said “My experience has taught me that….” rather than “Anyone who believes that is insane.” In other words, I should have engaged with greater seriousness and respect. This was really difficult because the subjects that were suddenly so interesting to Sam were so distasteful to me, and I didn’t want to immerse myself in that world simply in order to debate my son. Also, I had a limited amount of time to “research” these new areas that were enthralling to Sam, because of my own work and responsibilities. But if I had made his interests my interests, I might have seen more clearly what was in store for us."
I teach at a community college, and even though my students are older than you were when all this started, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the best way to counter these alt-right beliefs among my students.
"I would tell your students that the best way to counter alt-right beliefs is to think about the motivation that a person has when they tell them something. Everyone is motivated to tell you something for a very specific reason, and most of the time it’s not because they want to educate you. Think about WHY someone is saying something and choose what to believe based on that."
You seemed to change your mind after the [Make America Great Again] rally. What happened there to start that change?
"Definitely seeing how utterly pathetic the people there were. I talked to a few of them, and none of them could get their beliefs straight. They were obviously incredibly self conscious about themselves and their beliefs, and they were just at that rally because they wanted to seem different and special. Their claims were baseless, and their arguments were as sturdy as a house of cards during an earthquake."
How can parents reveal the inconsistencies of the alt-right movement, without trashing the esteem of their child who is caught up in it?
"Spark low-stakes debates with your kids, and make it known that you disagree with them, but that you don’t hate them because you disagree. Most of the time, kids start believing in alt-right philosophies because they are lonely and/or lost. Encourage them to go out with friends and have fun, and to not stay in their rooms all day. On top of all of this, show them the impact of extremist thinking on the real world, and how lives can be lost or ruined due to it."
What would you advise parents of vulnerable children around their use of technology, bearing in mind the parent may not even know their child is vulnerable?
"Don’t set strict technology restrictions for your child. If you harshly regulate their technology, they’ll start to crave it and want it more than ever. Teach your kids how to check facts online, and that most of the news stories posted have a bias and are made to make them think one way or another. If they tell you something that they read online, ask what site it came from and do your own fact-checking, in order to tell them if the source is bad or if they did a good job checking their sources. Give positive reinforcement when they find a non biased source."
Do you have any suggestions to middle schoolers about how to use the internet in such a way that they are not steered by algorithms to extremist websites but are given a wide range of sites with differing views to learn from.
"All sources are biased in some way or another. Read news stories from the right wing perspective and the left wing perspective in order to get the whole story. Also, teach them about examples of alt-right philosophies getting out of hand and causing harm, as a sort of cautionary tale to help them understand why fact-checking is so important."
Aside from the interviews, what other experiences did you have that started to shift your beliefs away from the alt-right? My parents have started to align with alt-right and are becoming irrationally fearful. I’m hoping your experiences might provide some insight on how I can help my parents understand that the world is not “out to get them”, particularly since you have knowledge on “alt-right think.”
"More than anything else, your parents are just scared. Normally, this happens with older people because the world is so much different than when they were younger, and they fear change. Show them the positives that can come out of this change, and how the right wing media is intentionally trying to trick them into thinking that they should be scared. More than anything else, do not get angry with them, that will only make them more fearful of the future."