At the start of the pandemic, Gavin, a pseudonymous 30-year-old in Indiana, watched his mom fall so deep into QAnon conspiracies and pro-Trump media that “she eventually lost touch with pretty much everyone in her life who didn’t drink the Kool-Aid.”
Like many others who’ve lost loved ones to the pro-Trump cult, Gavin had all but given up on trying to pull his mom out of QAnon and back into reality. But as it became clear that she was ingesting more and more misinformation about the pandemic on Facebook, he had a light-bulb moment. “I decided I could try to get into her computer and start blocking misinformation that might convince her COVID was fake and eventually kill her,” he says.
Over the next few weeks, Gavin set out on a plan to block all sources of misinformation making their way into his mom’s phone, computer or TV screen. “I know this is all going to sound kind of unethical, but I felt like I had no other option,” he tells me.
Here’s how he pulled it off…
* * * * *
My mom has always been Q-adjacent; she wasn’t so tied to Q and Trump at first, but she eventually fell in deep with the fundamentalist, apocalyptic stuff online. In order to reduce her exposure to QAnon and keep her from spiraling deeper into fringe right-wing propaganda, I knew I needed to do more than just block a few TV channels. I needed to cover every aspect of her online consumption — email, YouTube, Facebook and even specific keywords on her browser.
Her main access to Facebook and the internet overall is through her laptop, so first I made up an excuse to come over to her house. When I got there, I told her she needed to update the software on her computer because of a new virus. That was pretty blatant, I’ll admit, but she bought it and handed over her laptop.
I remember being nervous. It felt sneaky, and no one wants to be sneaky or dishonest with their mother, so my hands were shaking and sweaty as I blocked as many QAnon and fringe/extreme Facebook groups as I could. There were a lot of those and I didn’t get them all, but then I did the same for Facebook pages of QAnon “prophets” and right-wing pastors who spout anti-vax nonsense.
Because those groups and pages are constantly spawning new ones, I knew I had to do more. I locked up her Facebook security settings to only allow for posts/shares/likes to and from friends. A lot of the stuff she shares comes from non-professional pages or groups, so I did my best to also block the few people who seemed to share the most. Then, I turned off all notifications for Facebook and Facebook Messenger and made it so they only connected when she was on Wi-Fi to limit how often she could get on that wretched website.
Honestly, I think the notifications are what pulled her in the most. As soon as she’d get away from the computer to go outside or do the dishes, she’d get a notification about Nancy Pelosi drinking blood and get lost in an hour of “research.”
All of this took about 45 frantic minutes, but my mom was none the wiser.
Since I did this, one person messaged my mom asking if she’d been hacked, which spurred some paranoia. The whole lot of them are super paranoid and cognizant of “censorship” and “going to Facebook jail,” so I didn’t want her to suddenly see everything was drastically different because that might launch her into thinking the “10 days of darkness,” or whatever massive apocalyptic conspiracy they believe in now, was happening.
I decided to wait a week to gauge her reaction to Facebook being different before attempting to do the same for YouTube, email, websites and her TV. But she didn’t seem to notice the changes at all. In fact, maybe it was in my head, but I think there was some improvement: Her screen time and Facebook usage had gone down from three to four hours a day to two hours, max. I was still morally torn, and wondered if I should tell her what I did in some fashion, but for the time being, the ends justifies the means.
The next time I went over, I knew she’d be going to the grocery store. I told her I’d stay back and take our dog for a walk. Instead, I installed a browser extension called “Blocktube,” which lets you block specific channels by redirecting the unsuspecting user back to the YouTube homepage. There are a lot of pre-made blocklists you can find to block specific websites, hashtags and keywords on Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, Facebook and so on. They’re great, but they take some technical know-how. Still, it’s better to come in with those than try to manually input all the different lingo and variations they’ve come up with on your own.
I went the extra mile and subscribed her to channels pertaining to her pre-QAnon hobbies — knitting, cross-stitching, tea, puppies.
Next, I jumped into her email and made a filter for all emails containing keywords like “QAnon,” “Make America Great Again” and “Trump” to direct them straight to spam. Then I found email addresses that constantly sent her gold-buying scams and other conspiracy nonsense and blocked them. In my frenzy, I blocked pretty much everything related to politics, even emails from Kevin McCarthy.
Blocking websites is a bit more complicated, but I planned ahead so I could do it quickly. This entailed installing and running a program that’s essentially an ad blocker but for keywords on her browser from Github. Again, this took some preparation but was worth it — the current blocklist for Q-related websites has over 2,000 domains.
After she’d been gone for about an hour, I knew I didn’t have a ton of time left, but I decided to try for the TV anyhow. This is a bit easier, as parental controls are easily accessible and extraordinarily more simple than the spider web of misinformation on the internet. She has Comcast, so I’m pretty sure she doesn’t get OAN, but I used the parental lock to block Fox News and Newsmax.
It didn’t take long for her to get frustrated about the TV block and call me — I pay her cable and internet bill — to say it was broken, but I’ve done my best to kick the can down the road by telling her that when I complain to Comcast they keep putting me on hold.
In the time since I blocked everything, she’s started to express the belief that she’s been right all along about government surveillance and censorship, but she’s also been able to carry on conversations without mentioning the deep state or some other conspiracy. I’ve checked in on her YouTube history and she’s definitely watching less Q-related stuff, but she still gets sucked into it a bit, which is frustrating. I’ve blocked over 500 channels and counting on YouTube alone, but every time I’m over, she’s watching a new one. It’s like playing whac-a-mole; I really don’t know how she keeps up with the stuff — if I did, I’d block it.
Overall, she’s definitely still embedded in the larger QAnon worldview, but it’s become less of the foundation of her day-to-day life. She’s not glued to her computer, alone in her living room all day, consuming angry and toxic information. This means she’s also not exhausting everyone she knows with conspiracies, and that’s seemingly drawn people back into her life — including me, as I notice myself making earnest attempts to be at her house more often now.
It’s heartbreaking to treat your mom as vulnerable and naive and not the college-educated, independent woman you once knew. But after the last year, I can’t describe how good it feels to see even the faintest glimmer of deprogramming. The other day, she told me she started a cross-stitch for my daughter for Christmas, and I started to tear up. I asked her if she had cross-stitched anything since my dad died three years ago, and she said no. It was a small, but rare flash of her former self.
So yes, I feel guilty about it. But the way I see it, I didn’t give Mark Zuckerberg permission to tweak his algorithms and scramble my mom’s brains in the first place. It’s my duty then to tweak it back and do some un-scrambling.