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Lost Boys

The internet is fertile ground for deadly racist ideology. Can parents protect their kids?


Nick Ogonoksy for the Deseret News

On a Saturday afternoon in mid-May, Payton Gendron, an 18-year-old college dropout, drove to a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood near downtown Buffalo. He was heavily armed and determined to kill people of color in order to defend the white race. Before that moment though, and for most of his young life, Gendron was pretty unexceptional. In many ways, he was a typical American kid.

As a child, Gendron would go to his babysitter’s house and they’d watch Disney movies and eat ravioli. There was a poster at her house that entranced him: a young boy and girl praying together.

Growing up, he loved science videos and dreamed of becoming an engineer, like his mom and dad. He had friends: Nick and Wes and Alexis, Tommy and Li’l Parker, and most of all Matt, his best friend since third grade.

The Boy Scouts stirred Gendron’s love of the outdoors, and at times he wished he could devote his life to nature. On campouts, he would listen intently to crickets in the dark and birds chirping at dawn. He was never happier than when he was in the deep woods.

Gendron also played video games. Most days, when he got out of school, he would return to his family’s suburban home in Conklin, New York, and play video games. By his recollection, he spent whole years of his life online and playing games, and of that time, only a few moments stood out. “Everything else is just blank,” he wrote in an online journal. The problem with video games was that they provided a false sense of progress and influence. You could spend hours in a game, feeling like you had made an impact, but when you left the game behind, he wrote, “in reality you haven’t changed anything in the real world.”

Then, in March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic struck and the world suddenly shut down. Gendron, then 16 years old, went down with it. Stuck at home in front of the computer for weeks and months on end, he grew bored out of his mind. He spent hours browsing bulletin boards on the website 4chan, where he eventually encountered the “great replacement theory,” a white nationalist conspiracy theory that claims that white people are being systematically replaced by immigrants, Muslims and refugees.

At first, Gendron didn’t make much of it. But he was lonely. And because he felt increasingly isolated and powerless, he went further down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories. Jews and the elite, he came to believe, were behind the systematic replacement of white people. Blacks were inferior, and the white race must be protected at all costs. These ideas gave him something to believe in and something to act on.

And when he saw on 4chan a video of a young man gunning down dozens of worshipers at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, Gendron felt with the fiery blaze of life-changing epiphany, a sense of purpose unlike anything he had ever possessed. He saw a way to change things in the real world, and he would do so in a most horrific way.

On that pleasant Saturday afternoon in Buffalo, Gendron parked his car in front of the Tops grocery store, jumped out with a Bushmaster XM-15 assault rifle and immediately started shooting. He streamed the beginning of the attack on Twitch, an online video platform (Twitch stopped the stream after two minutes). Ten Black people were killed that day and three other people were injured.

I’ve watched the gut-churning video myself. It gave me nightmares. I’ve read the manifesto Gendron posted in the lead-up to the shooting, as well as excerpts from the private journal he kept on the messaging platform Discord. I wanted to try to get inside his head, to see where his dark thoughts led him, and to understand what parents, educators, friends and his community could have possibly done to derail or prevent his extreme radicalization.

Gendron may have acted as a lone wolf, but he wasn’t the first young man to be inspired by bigotry and conspiracy theories.

Gendron may have acted as a lone wolf, but he wasn’t the first young man to be inspired by bigotry and conspiracy theories to commit such a monstrous act. And with acts of racist hate on the rise in America, unless we learn from his experience and others, he won’t be the last.

There’s no hard data about how many young people are radicalized every year by the white power movement. Researchers and experts I spoke with confirmed that it’s a growing problem, and anecdotal evidence suggests that white supremacists have ramped up their efforts to recruit young people, especially teenage boys.

“It’s absolutely an increasing problem,” said Nora Flanagan, an educator who has been working to fight racism and bigotry for more than 20 years. She equates white supremacists and white nationalist groups with political evangelicals. “They have always sought to expand. They’re always actively recruiting.”

Flanagan and others say the lack of media attention given to the problem of white supremacist recruitment is due in part to what felt like the normalization of violent and racist rhetoric that took place during the Donald Trump presidency. That normalization in turn created fertile ground for the white power movement to organize in the open and grow their ranks. Much of the recruitment now happens online, targeting kids as young as 11.

“White nationalists and bigoted groups have access to all the online spaces that kids do,” said Lindsay Schubiner, a program director for the Western States Center, a left-of-center nonprofit. They court young recruits on every available social media app, from Facebook to TikTok and Instagram, on discussion platforms like Discord and Reddit, in online gaming spaces such as Steam and Roblox, and on entertainment sites such as YouTube and iFunny. They seed these spaces with racist, antisemitic and white supremacist propaganda slicked up as memes, videos, bulletin board discussions and infographics — the edgier, more amusing, more provocative and more ironic, the better.

White supremacists hope that by exploiting a toxic stew of negative social forces, and preying on the awkwardness, confusion, desperation, and need for acceptance and belonging felt by many adolescents, they can potentially increase their numbers. “In the ’80s they were trying to build an army for a race war. Now they’re trying to build a political base,” said Flanagan.

Joanna Schroeder, a writer and the co-author of a toolkit addressing bigotry and conspiracies with young people, says white supremacists are finding easy targets for recruitment in a growing population of disaffected mainstream white boys who increasingly feel left behind. “Whether or not their impressions are objectively true,” she said, “it is the way they’re feeling. And because nobody is addressing this with them or asking them to have a reality-check type of conversation, they get that information online. And online, there are certain groups of people who take that sense of disenfranchisement and exploit it. They say, ‘You are superior, and look how you’re being held back.’”

Of course, not all children exposed to white supremacist beliefs and propaganda become extremists. And only a small percentage of those who do go on to perpetrate mass violence. But even a single mass shooting is one too many.

“There are a lot of blocks in the pyramid that builds toward incidents like Buffalo,” said Melissa Mott, who works on holocaust and genocide education with the Anti-Defamation League. “Buffalo just evidences what’s happening below the surface.”

Once, when he was six, Gendron was playing in his cousin’s pond and he went in deeper than he should have. He couldn’t swim and didn’t have a life jacket, and in the water he was a fury of thrashing arms and wild desperation. He swallowed a lot of water, and a lot of it went into his lungs. He might have drowned had his uncle not jumped into the pond and pulled him out. Safely onshore, Gendron coughed up a lot of the water he had inhaled.

Unfortunately, when Gendron fell deep into the cesspool of white supremacy, he got in over his head and nobody was there to pull him out. He gulped down hate-filled memes and infographics — much of it pulled from the /pol/ board (which stands for politically incorrect) on 4chan — until he was basically breathing the stuff. He wrote, “Yeah I’m equivalent to the average 4chan degenerate. What else do you expect from a person who barely interacts with regular people?” he wrote on his Discord journal.

Last year, as a senior at Susquehanna Valley High School, having already made up his mind that he would follow in the footsteps of the Christchurch shooter, Brenton Tarrant — himself a fervid racist and evangelist of the “great replacement theory” — Gendron wrote in an online economics assignment that he wanted to commit a murder/suicide act at his school graduation or sometime afterward. School authorities reported his comments to the police and Gendron was taken into custody. “Perhaps it was a cry of help from me, I’m not actually sure,” he wrote. He often wondered if he was irrational, schizophrenic, autistic or mentally ill, and that was why he was planning to kill people. The authorities who evaluated him apparently didn’t find any reason for further concern, nor legal justification to extend his detainment. After a day and a half in custody, he was released and fell off the radar.

By March of this year, Gendron had dropped out of college, a fact he hid from his parents. He hid everything from them. They didn’t know he owned a semiautomatic assault rifle and a shotgun, or that their son was a white supremacist. When they tried to confront him about a speeding ticket he received far from home — he had driven to public lands two hours northwest of Conklin to shoot his Bushmaster XM-15 on state lands — he “lied nearly the entire time.”

“There is no single experience, site, or reason that leads an 18-year-old to commit the most horrible acts of racist violence.”

He had lost all but one of his friends. There was, however, that one Friday night when he went to a high school play and ran into Logan, a friend from coding class. They saw each other and instantly hugged. “We talk about you every day in class,” Logan said, which struck Gendron as a pleasant shock. “I haven’t felt that way in a long time,” he wrote later that evening. “Someone actually being excited to see me. Logan’s a great guy. I miss him a lot, plus the rest of coding class. (They’re) all great people.”

Matt was Gendron’s last remaining friend. They hung out once in a while, but they didn’t talk like they used to. Gendron didn’t share his racist beliefs or talk about the “great replacement theory” with Matt, who is Hispanic, or Skylar, Matt’s girlfriend, who is Black. He didn’t tell them about his plans to kill people, which, he wrote again and again, he didn’t actually want to do. In his more lucid moments, what he wanted most of all was for “something to pass or someone to do something” so he didn’t have to kill anybody. But imprisoned in the echo chamber of his own mind, without anyone to interrupt his diseased thoughts, he returned continually to the need for violence and murder as the only solution to the threat facing the white race. “I have to commit this attack,” he wrote. “(If) I don’t who will? We have to fight The Great Replacement or it will end us all.”

One night, less than a week before his attack, Gendron went for a walk and returned to his computer in a particularly sentimental mood. “There’s bats flying around in the sky. I can’t tell if they’re squeaking or it’s just the sounds of their wings,” he wrote. He thought about girls at school he found attractive. He reflected on how much he enjoyed being a leader in Boy Scouts, and he lamented his course in life. “To be honest,” he wrote, “I made lots of mistakes and I wish things turned out differently.”

Then his thoughts turned to a guy he knew in high school. He and Dan weren’t friends. They never really talked, even though they sat across from each other in calculus class. Junior year, Dan committed suicide. Gendron often thought about taking his own life. “I wonder what (Dan) was thinking right before he did it,” he wrote.

Instead, Gendron decided his commitment to his race took precedence over taking his own life. How incredibly selfish it would be to end his pain, because then, he wrote, “I would be ignoring the cries of help from my people. (We) are being genocided … I hope that all the people I kill will live in forever peace and that they will never feel pain again. I hope you enjoy the beauty of Heaven.”

Gendron’s radicalization could have been interrupted at any number of points by any number of people, if only they’d noticed the warning signs and taken them seriously.

Groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the Western States Center have produced toolkits and online resources to help parents, educators, families and youth identify and confront radicalization. Some of these resources note several behaviors a young person may exhibit if they are exposed to white power recruiting material online. They may start parroting the rhetoric of the “great replacement theory” or talk about “white genocide.” They may rationalize stereotypes or racial hierarchies, or claim to be involuntary celibates or “incels.” They may blame immigrants and people of color for societal struggles.

The warning signs of violent radicalization aren’t always as glaring as a teenage boy writing in a class assignment that he wants to shoot up his school, or buying nearly a thousand dollars in military gear and illegal gun magazines, or decapitating a cat, like Gendron did. (His mother, he claimed, gave him a box in which to bury the animal.) Often, the signs are much subtler.

Author Joanna Schroeder nearly lost control of her vehicle one day when she heard her 11- and 14-year-old sons and their friends say the word “triggered” in response to a meme they were looking at in the back seat of the car. She recognized the term as “a calling card of the alt-right,” she wrote in a column for The New York Times. “People associated with this group are known for trolling those who disagree with them, and calling critics ‘triggered’ is a favorite tactic.”

Her red flag flew again when she later watched her son reflexively “like” a disturbing image on Instagram. It was an irony-heavy meme of Hitler, and it evidenced the viral nature of much white supremacist propaganda, slipping in under a young person’s defenses and stealthily infecting their thinking. Schroeder reported that her son was “shocked and embarrassed” when she “pointed out the meme’s actual message: that it would have been better if the Holocaust had continued.”

Schroeder and others I spoke with stressed the need to balance the reality that children will use smartphones, social media and online platforms with the stressful uncertainty of how they’re spending time there. They advise parents to wait as long as possible before giving children access to smartphones and social media. When you do, they said, institute strict controls over your children’s smartphone and social media use. “I absolutely have periodically checked each of my sons’ texts shortly after they were each given their first phones,” said Flanagan. “I let them know I’ll be doing this, and I explain why — all revolving around their safety and development as the good humans I know them to be.” As kids validate that trust and demonstrate the ability to use digital tools safely and kindly, said Schroeder, that’s when you give them increasing autonomy with their devices and apps.

“You’re not going to be able to keep up with everything your teenager is on,” said Schroeder. “You have to accept that you slowly let them have more internet access. Observe how they use social media. And then acknowledge to them: I am not always going to know what’s happening in your video games. I am not always going to know what’s happening in your Discord chats. I know you’re going to find social media platforms that I do not understand. What I want you to know is that people trying to trick other people into believing things that hurt people is as old as time. And it can happen anywhere. So let’s talk about how they do it, what they want you to believe, why it’s not true and what you should do when you see it.”

All of the experts and researchers I spoke with, as well as all of the toolkits, emphasize this point. The most important thing a parent, caregiver or educator can do to circumvent white supremacist radicalization, they said, is to spend concerted time and effort establishing open, judgment-free communication with young people. It’s solid footing for both parent and child when a red flag flies. When Flanagan sees messages or content on her children’s devices that raise concerns, she said, “We have a conversation. I don’t get mad; I ask questions, and we listen to each other. The goal is always to keep communication open.”

If a child tells you about how they read online that the Holocaust never happened, Mott says, don’t sweep it under the rug: Talk about it. Go straight at it. When Schroeder’s son “liked“ the meme of Hitler, she sat him down and discussed with him the pain and trauma experienced by Jewish people all around the world, and she told him about her “late friend Edith, whose delicate arm,” Schroeder wrote, “displayed a number tattoo that stopped my heart every time I saw it.”

Flanagan said parents and teachers need to ask questions. And listen. Don’t overreact or underreact. She said, “If I slam right down on one of my kids or one of my students for a Discord channel I see them belonging to, if I come down like a ton of bricks, as my father says, they’re gonna shut down and it’s going to push them further into that. It’s also going to validate the ironic victim mentality of these hate groups.”

“Remain open and curious so that you can maintain that relationship without making them defensive,” said Schubiner. “Don’t agree with them, but state your values of respect and inclusion and equity. And in situations where a young person may be all-in, that’s really sad, and it’s really dangerous. So, it’s important to proceed with caution.”

Erin and David Walsh, both experts in adolescent development, have written that “there is no single experience, site, or reason that leads an 18-year-old to commit the most horrible acts of racist violence.” The same can be said of the interventions and efforts necessary to counteract the radicalization that leads to violence. It’s an ongoing, multi-pronged effort, made all the more challenging by the Covid pandemic and the shutdowns that followed. The resulting atmosphere of isolation, stress and anxiety created the perfect storm for a wave of radicalization, the proliferation of conspiracy theories and the normalization of white supremacist ideas and rhetoric.

That means that Gendron may just be the tip of the iceberg. In all likelihood, there are other young men out there who followed the same well-worn path to bigotry. They were already lonely, confused, hurt and in need of answers before intense societal disruption drove them into digital isolation, where they were eventually lured into the dark and hateful recesses of the internet. Down there, they found a sense of purpose and belonging in the dangerously false promises of white supremacism, because, like trolls lurking under the bridge, white supremacists were there waiting for them.

The work of leading these disaffected young people out of the shadows, Schroeder said, “must be done by parents, but it will only really work if it’s supported by systems. Schools. Sports. Religious groups. Anywhere kids spend their time.” All the warning signs were there. And if somebody had worked to intervene in a way that didn’t further alienate him, maybe Gendron would have become an engineer like his parents and devoted his life to nature.

More importantly, maybe 13 people — Roberta Drury, Margus Morrison, Andre Mackniel, Aaron Salter, Geraldine Talley, Celestine Chaney, Heyward Patterson, Katherine Massey, Pearl Young, Ruth Whitfield, Zaire Goodman, Jennifer Warrington and Christopher Braden — shopping at the Tops Friendly Market near downtown Buffalo on a pleasant Friday afternoon in mid-May would have finished buying their groceries, gone about their days and continued living their lives. 

This story appears in the October issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.