Can white nationalism be reversed? How experts are trying to deradicalise America’s youth

Former white nationalists are working to mitigate the spread of extremist ideologies online. But can it work?

Chris Riotta
New York
Saturday 07 September 2019 21:44
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Christian Picciolini was just 14 years old when he says he was recruited to join a neo-Nazi organisation in 1987. He says he was smoking weed in an alleyway in Illinois when a man pulled the joint out from his lips and said: “That’s what the Communists and the Jews want you to do to keep you docile.”

The child of working-class Italian immigrants, Mr Picciolini was raised not to judge a person by the colour of their skin, but he said he resented his parents for having to work seven days a week and not having enough time to spend with him. Their absence left a void in his mind for the violent supremacist ideologies to fill, he said, and so he accepted an invitation to begin attending neo-Nazi rallies and other racist demonstrations.

Nearly 30 years later, Mr Picciolini has become what is commonly referred to as deradicalised. He disassociated from all forms of white nationalism in 1996, when he says he began meeting people from minority groups who challenged the racist sentiments he was made to believe and found himself at the forefront of a fast emerging battle: combating extremism among the nation’s youth.

(Christian Picciolini

“It took me standing in an alley, but the internet has changed that,” Mr Picciolini told The Independent. “You can be in a digital alley at any time and find people and ideologies to latch onto.”

This year has seen a rise of domestic terror incidents across the country, the majority of them directly attributable to violent white supremacy, as FBI director Christopher Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee in July. A string of mass shootings in recent years involved young white gunmen posting racist and anti-immigrant manifestos online before storming their target sites, from a historically black church in Charleston, North Carolina, to a Walmart in the diverse border city of El Paso, Texas. In statements shortly after the latest mass shootings seemingly driven by white supremacist violence, Donald Trump focused on mental health and video games as primary reasons for the apparent spike in deadly violence sparked by extremism. But researchers who are now exploring what leads someone – particularly young people – to become radicalised into white supremacist ideology say those reasons are just part of a complex issue.

“One of the most important things in radicalisation is the rhetoric that targets certain groups as the enemy,” said Arie Kruglanski, a leading social psychologist and professor at the University of Maryland.

His team of researchers sought to understand the motivational factors behind supporting violent extremism in a study titled “The Psychology of Radicalisation and Deradicalisation”.

The process of becoming indoctrinated in extreme ideology typically involves a “quest for personal significance”, he said, in which a person who wants to be valued becomes attracted to certain rhetoric, and then seeks out a network or community to find validation for supporting the sentiments espoused in that rhetoric.

Sometimes the process eventually leads extremists to take violent actions, in the hope of being rewarded or further valued within their networks.

“To pick up a gun and shoot people, you need a justification, since in our society, killing someone is only acceptable when it’s in reference to the enemy, like in war,” Mr Kruglanski said. “So, identifying someone as an enemy, an invader or against you in some other way allows people to liberate themselves from that prohibition.”

Mr Picciolini acknowledges that the need to feel valued was certainly a reason for him to become affiliated with neo-Nazi groups. He said he was attracted to extremism because the network provided him with a sense of “identity, community and purpose”.

Much has been written about how the rhetoric used by gunmen in recent bias attacks in the US has closely matched that of the president, who was elected after launching a campaign with a speech that attacked Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals”, and has since used terms like “invasion” and “infestation” to describe immigrants of colour and places where minorities live.

When asked by journalists about the rise of violence by white supremacists, he has often pivoted to the anti-fascist movement known as antifa.

“I am concerned about the rise of any group of hate,” Mr Trump told reporters before visiting the sites of two mass shootings earlier this month. “I don't like it ... whether it's white supremacy, whether it’s any other kind of supremacy, whether it's antifa.”

Tucker Carlson: White supremacy is 'actually not a real problem in America'

However, according to Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Centre which researches global security issues and emerging threats, the two groups are not all that similar in their structure and capabilities. While antifa is a movement of autonomous groups with no central command structure, Mr Clarke said white nationalist groups now feature transnational connections and have organised hierarchies; traits similar to those of functioning terrorist organisations.

The president’s focus on antifa is “a deliberate misallocation of resources to make a political point”, Mr Clarke previously told The Independent, adding: “I don’t know any serious person that, if asked what is a bigger threat to security or safety to the United States, violent white supremacists or antifa, would say the latter.”

It is possible, some experts say, to reduce the threat of violent extremism, though it would require an overhaul of the tools and platforms used in the radicalisation process – along with a major shift in the way society raises its children. The likelihood of that actually happening is another question.

“The internet and technology can make deradicalisation more effective,” said Mr Picciolini, who noted the work he has done online for Free Radicals, a group he created to work with communities to reach out to individuals who have been drawn into extremist movements and enlist those who have left behind such groups to help stop them spreading.

It is difficult to know how many radicals have been through such programmes, but Mr Picciolini says he himself has attempted to deradicalise hundreds of extremists online. He does so by establishing common narratives and using intervention methods with some success.

He says he listens for things called “potholes”, which he says contribute to trauma in life, from abuse and mental illness to poverty and even privilege. He then finds resources in local communities to connect those people with while trying to “leverage the community around them” to support them during their deradicalisation. Another process he describes is known as “immersions”, in which he introduces extremists to members of the minority groups they claim to hate, in an effort to challenge their viewpoints and engage them across diverse communities.

But he also said deradicalisation could get a major helping hand from “deplatforming”, in which sites that host racist, xenophobic and extremist sentiments like 8chan – where the El Paso gunman posted his anti-immigrant screed before shooting up Walmart in August – were taken down by internet hosting companies.

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In order to deter young people from being recruited to hate groups and other extreme movements, Mr Kruglanski added that everyone from parents to school teachers would need to be involved in the process.

“Since radicalisation can begin at an early age, deradicalisation begins the day we are born,” he said. “In the same way someone can radicalise, they can also deradicalise. The human mind is malleable, it is flexible and open to influence.”

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