Students are online more than ever before, but the internet can be a dangerous place, filled with extremist views that can radicalize young people.
For instance, teachers have reported that middle and high school boys have been captivated by Andrew Tate, a former professional kickboxer who makes self-improvement videos for men that are laden with offensive, misogynistic comments. Tate was arrested in Romania in December on charges of rape and human trafficking, but his videos and interviews remain on the internet—and students are still repeating his rhetoric in class, teachers say.
But Tate is just one extremist on the internet. Young people are exposed to all sorts of online hate that—if left unchecked—can lead to radicalization.
Here are five tips for combating radicalization among students, drawn from American University’s Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL) and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s guides for educators and caregivers.
1. Recognize the warning signs
Young people who are more susceptible to extremist rhetoric tend to be lonely or isolated, bored, or experiencing trauma or loss. They might also feel angry or like something has unjustly been taken from them, and are looking for a scapegoat to blame. PERIL and the SPLC also write that some former extremists say that their radicalization began when they started sharing inappropriate material as a joke or as a way to shock authority figures.
If a student’s behavior or word choices, relationships with peers, or emotional well-being suddenly changes, that could be a sign that something is wrong. An increase in bullying others is also a red flag, according to PERIL and the SPLC.
Teachers should also watch out for potentially harmful, biased, or discriminatory language. Here are some of the red flags that a young person has been exposed to radicalizing material:
- belief in male supremacy or expressions of misogyny, which could include policing girls’ behaviors;
- belief in antisemitic conspiracy theories;
- belief in the necessity of violent insurrections (including the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection or a theoretical second Civil War);
- blaming immigrants for societal shortcomings;
- sharing racist stereotypes and other concepts, including that white people are being replaced or oppressed by people of color;
- looking forward to societal chaos or collapse.
2. Stay tapped into the conversation
Teachers should also be aware of the dangers online that their students are likely to encounter. PERIL and the SPLC urge educators to familiarize themselves with modern hate symbols, including those that are masked by edgy memes and humor. That way, they’ll be able to identify extremists’ content if it makes its way into the classroom.
Here’s a more innocuous example: If students are making repeated references to Bugatti, the luxury sports car, they might be watching Andrew Tate videos. The influencer’s infamous retort, “What color is your Bugatti?,” has been popularized as a way of bragging about one’s possessions.
If teachers see things like emojis, flags, or other symbols being used in unexpected ways, they should ask students what they mean and approach those conversations with curiosity rather than suspicion, experts say. Otherwise, students will shut down.
3. Don’t ignore problematic behavior, but don’t shame students either
Teachers have a responsibility to call out offensive or harmful statements, experts say. But those types of comments should be confronted without disparaging the student. Ridiculing and scolding have actually been shown to strengthen problematic beliefs, according to PERIL and the SPLC.
“Shame can drive youth further into online communities that convert hurt feelings into a sense of betrayal or anger,” experts at those organizations write.
Fostering a respectful dialogue is typically more effective. Educators could ask open-ended questions like, “What values do you stand for?” or “What kind of person do you want to be?”
These conversations might be better had one-on-one rather than in front of peers, so students feel more comfortable sharing their views.
4. Teach media literacy skills
Learning how to identify disinformation and misinformation online is a key skill for students to have. Teachers and school librarians can work together to teach students how to spot propaganda and determine credible information. (The News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan education nonprofit, has free resources available for educators, as well as a “viral rumor rundown” blog, which breaks down examples of mis- and disinformation.)
Pasha Dashtgard, the director of research at PERIL, said in a recent interview that teaching young people how to identify the strategies and tactics that extremists use to radicalize others—such as scapegoating marginalized groups and cherry-picking facts—can be particularly effective. When the students then see those kinds of strategies in their social media feed, they often get angry, saying, “How dare you try to trick me?,” he said.
“Just like a vaccine, if you give people a dose of propaganda and you explain to them that this person or these people are going to use the following strategies for manipulating you, they’re much less likely to believe it” when they come across the content organically, Dashtgard said.
It can also help to have conversations about current events—like protests against police violence—in the classroom so that students have the necessary context and understanding when they read about it online.
5. Get started early
PERIL and the SPLC say that it’s much easier to prevent people from becoming radicalized in the first place than it is to de-radicalize them. Educators should talk to students at a young age about media literacy, making sure their social media feed reflects their personal values, and what kinds of behaviors are tolerated at school.
And teachers don’t have to do this alone: PERIL and the SPLC write that every trusted adult in a young person’s life—from family members to coaches to religious leaders—can play an important role in inoculating against extremism. The two groups also produced a guide with strategies for strengthening a young person’s network of supporters.