Mak Kapetanovic is a 22-year-old, well-spoken, mild-mannered University of North Florida student. He's also a former white supremacist who's now devoted to deprogramming other young men like himself.
Kapetanovic says his story is a case study into how easily people can be sucked into a toxic digital sphere that radicalizes followers into white nationalist, extremist beliefs. And he's concerned that governments around the world aren't doing enough to combat online extremism.
"The sort of casual racism and misogyny that was prevalent in a lot of online video games and chats and stuff, that was sort of the first thing that kind of made me think, ‘Oh, these kinds of jokes and these kinds of things are OK.’ That opened the door," he said Tuesday on WJCT’s First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross.
"It was like I knew some sort of secret about the world that other people didn't know,” he remembers when he found hate-filled message boards as a teenager.
Kapetanovic, whose parents were immigrants from war-torn Bosnia, grew up in the U.S. and attended magnet schools in Jacksonville. His mother died when he was 16. He felt lonely and disaffected. From there, he said it was only took a few clicks from spending time on 4chan to a descent into ever-more extreme white nationalist websites and discussion boards. He'd initially gone online to learn more about his parents' Bosnian heritage, he said. Yet search algorithms pushed him toward sites with increasingly extremist messaging.
He spent several years advocating for the types of views that were connected to the alleged gunman who attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
He said as a teen, he lacked critical thinking skills.
“So when things were presented to me as sort of facts, or this is how the world works, it was just convincing enough for me not to want to bother to look (into) them,” he said. “Feeling isolated, you know, depressed, not feeling like I have a strong community around me.”
Eventually, Kapetanovic stepped away from the world of white nationalism and online hate. He said he hopes to work with counter-extremists like Christian Picciolini after he graduates to help others like himself.
"To some extent, people are tribalistic. But I don't want to live in a world where that defines humanity,” he said.
Hear his entire interview, along with the rest of Tuesday’s First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross, here.