AILSA CHANG, HOST:
All right, recent acts of violence - the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, the explosives sent to critics of President Trump - happened in the real world, but the warnings took place online on social media. On this month's All Tech Considered, we look at toxic content - how it spreads and what should be done about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ULRICH SCHNAUSS' "NOTHING HAPPENS IN JUNE")
CHANG: The Pew Research Center says 97 percent of boys and the vast majority of girls play video games. Increasingly, they're playing online with strangers. Although it's rare, experts say these games can become an avenue for recruitment by right-wing extremist groups. NPR's Anya Kamenetz has our story.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: John's a father of two teenagers, and he said he never worried about his son's video game habit.
JOHN: I knew nothing about any of this until one night I'd walked into my home office.
KAMENETZ: We're not using John's last name to protect his family's privacy.
JOHN: I was shaking when I saw it. I'm like, what in the world is this? And why is this in our house?
KAMENETZ: He saw a pile of papers face-down next to his printer. He turned them over and found a copy of a notorious neo-Nazi propaganda book.
JOHN: It's white culture is in trouble, and we are under attack by Jews and blacks and every other minority. It was scary. It was absolutely frightening to even see that in my house.
KAMENETZ: John confronted his son angrily.
JOHN: And then I went back to my room. And I honestly was crying. I felt like a failure that a child that I had raised would even be remotely interested in this stuff.
KAMENETZ: Like millions of other kids, John's son loved first-person shooter games. It's increasingly popular to play these games online and form teams with friends or strangers.
JOHN: There wasn't anything obvious to me at first because it's common. Online gaming and chatting with friends online - that's the norm now instead of going out and hanging out at the drive-in or whatever.
KAMENETZ: And it's this way, John says, that his son started hanging out with avowed white supremacists. They keyed into his interests in military history and Nordic mythology.
JOHN: He was now in the in-crowd with these guys.
KAMENETZ: John learned his son had been drawn into at least one group that the Southern Poverty Law Center calls a Nazi terrorist organization. He searched online for help and found it.
CHRISTIAN PICCIOLINI: Christian Picciolini, founder of the Free Radicals Project, author of "White American Youth."
KAMENETZ: Picciolini is a heavily tattooed former skinhead. He's now dedicated his life to helping people move away from hate.
PICCIOLINI: We are assembling a team of people around the world to help people disengage from violent extremism.
KAMENETZ: Thirty years ago, he says...
PICCIOLINI: You had to meet somebody to be recruited. Or you had a pamphlet or a flyer put on your car, and you reached out.
KAMENETZ: Today, he says, it's much more common for extremists to reach out online, and that includes over kids' headsets during video games.
PICCIOLINI: Typically, they'll start out with dropping slurs about different races or religions and test the waters. Once they sense that they've got their hooks in them, they ramp it up. And then they start sending propaganda. They start sending links to other sites, or they start talking about these old racist, anti-Semitic tropes.
JOAN DONOVAN: Gaming culture is one of the spaces of recruitment that must be addressed.
KAMENETZ: Joan Donovan is with Data & Society, a research institute. For years, she's been tracking white supremacists from platform to platform online.
DONOVAN: They were really trying to figure out what young men were angry about and how they could leverage that to bring about broad-based social movement.
KAMENETZ: And first-person shooter games, chat rooms and video platforms, she says, are good places to find angry young men.
Video games are a hundred-billion-dollar industry. So what are companies' responsibilities to ensure that teens won't encounter hate groups? Greg Boyd is a lawyer who represents the game industry for the firm Frankfurt Kurnit. He says companies take the problem seriously and remove or ban people when they're flagged by other players, but the scale of the issue is daunting.
GREG BOYD: You're talking about Microsoft, PlayStation and Steam. You're talking about 48 million, 70 million and 130 million monthly active players or players that are playing, you know, probably on a weekly basis. I mean, that's the populations of Spain, France and Russia.
KAMENETZ: Imagine, he says, moderating all that chat, text and voice moment by moment.
BOYD: In literally every language dialect and subdialect spoken in the world.
KAMENETZ: While the industry struggles to contain the threat, experts say it's up to parents to keep an ear out and to step in if they notice something that concerns them. John tried. And lately, he says, his son, now 16, seems to have left these ideas behind. He's playing fewer online shooter games. And on his own, he started attending church. Anya Kamenetz, NPR News.
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