Content Warning

The following post contains disordered eating and self-harm.

Content Warning

The following post contains transphobia and racism.

Essays
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“Look at this,” my dad snorted at dinner one night, thrusting his phone towards my mom. I tried not to laugh as she set her fork down with a sigh, reaching across the table for his phone. 

My father is the only member of my family allowed to use his phone at the dinner table. He’d successfully argued that, if he had to leave the table every time work called, he would never get to eat. Still, it seemed he spent more time scrolling through Facebook than picking up calls. My mother glanced down at his phone, rolling her eyes as she sighed, and said that she didn’t find it very funny.

“That feels sexist,” she told him between bites. He brushed her off, insisting that she takes everything too seriously. I leaned across the table, trying to catch a glimpse of his phone.

“Well, what’re you looking at?” I asked him.

“Big Mike,” he answered as if I was supposed to know. I squinted at him. He sighed, leaning across the table to shove his phone in my face. “Michelle Obama,” he punctuated. “You know, Big Mike?

The photo my father was laughing at showed an obviously photoshopped Mrs. Obama towering over her husband, wrinkles in her clothes enhanced and manipulated to look like a bulge in her crotch. My dad was laughing at the #BigMike conspiracy. Proponents of this theory believe that former First Lady Michelle Obama is a trans woman, born Michael Lavaughn Robinson (aka “Big Mike”), and that her daughters, Sasha and Malia, are not the biological children of former President Barack Obama; instead, they’re “rented” from another couple. 

“I mean, I know she isn’t a man,” my dad insisted, laughing without looking up from his phone. “It’s just one of those things your Uncle Charlie memes about.”

My Uncle Charlie is best described as raucous. You can hear him coming from blocks away, screaming unfiltered nonsense at anyone who will listen. When I was a teenager, my father admitted that he only tolerated Charlie’s rants and invited him to events out of respect for his wife, my Aunt Helen who was also my father’s childhood best friend. Charlie is our family's resident conspiracy theorist, and he firmly believes in QAnon.

My father’s boundless patience and understanding are fundamental parts of him. He’s the kind of man that would spend hours in the attic rummaging through boxes to find an old photo album for my mom despite an extreme dust allergy. He’s the kind of man who moved into my grandparent’s house without complaint to temporarily help take care of my grandfather when they couldn’t find a new caretaker (happily being paid in beers and my grandmother’s cooking.) He’s the kind of man who would retrieve my drunk Uncle Charlie from the train station in the middle of the night because his own family couldn’t bother to get him. I was concerned that his new relationship with Charlie would make him the kind of father I was embarrassed to be around.

“Look at this,” my dad snorted at dinner one night, thrusting his phone towards my mom. I tried not to laugh as she set her fork down with a sigh, reaching across the table for his phone. 

My father is the only member of my family allowed to use his phone at the dinner table. He’d successfully argued that, if he had to leave the table every time work called, he would never get to eat. Still, it seemed he spent more time scrolling through Facebook than picking up calls. My mother glanced down at his phone, rolling her eyes as she sighed, and said that she didn’t find it very funny.

“That feels sexist,” she told him between bites. He brushed her off, insisting that she takes everything too seriously. I leaned across the table, trying to catch a glimpse of his phone.

“Well, what’re you looking at?” I asked him.

“Big Mike,” he answered as if I was supposed to know. I squinted at him. He sighed, leaning across the table to shove his phone in my face. “Michelle Obama,” he punctuated. “You know, Big Mike?

The photo my father was laughing at showed an obviously photoshopped Mrs. Obama towering over her husband, wrinkles in her clothes enhanced and manipulated to look like a bulge in her crotch. My dad was laughing at the #BigMike conspiracy. Proponents of this theory believe that former First Lady Michelle Obama is a trans woman, born Michael Lavaughn Robinson (aka “Big Mike”), and that her daughters, Sasha and Malia, are not the biological children of former President Barack Obama; instead, they’re “rented” from another couple. 

“I mean, I know she isn’t a man,” my dad insisted, laughing without looking up from his phone. “It’s just one of those things your Uncle Charlie memes about.”

My Uncle Charlie is best described as raucous. You can hear him coming from blocks away, screaming unfiltered nonsense at anyone who will listen. When I was a teenager, my father admitted that he only tolerated Charlie’s rants and invited him to events out of respect for his wife, my Aunt Helen who was also my father’s childhood best friend. Charlie is our family's resident conspiracy theorist, and he firmly believes in QAnon.

My father’s boundless patience and understanding are fundamental parts of him. He’s the kind of man that would spend hours in the attic rummaging through boxes to find an old photo album for my mom despite an extreme dust allergy. He’s the kind of man who moved into my grandparent’s house without complaint to temporarily help take care of my grandfather when they couldn’t find a new caretaker (happily being paid in beers and my grandmother’s cooking.) He’s the kind of man who would retrieve my drunk Uncle Charlie from the train station in the middle of the night because his own family couldn’t bother to get him. I was concerned that his new relationship with Charlie would make him the kind of father I was embarrassed to be around.

QAnon’s core beliefs come from thousands of posts on internet message boards 4chan and 8chan, all signed off by the anonymous user “Q.” Everyone who posts on these message boards retains their anonymity by ending their posts using a unique trip code—strings of characters that correspond to a password used by the poster. Trip codes signify that a group of messages all came from one person, thus linking Q’s posts to one alleged military insider. In some posts, Q claimed to be a government insider with Q clearance, granting him access to classified information about the Trump administration and its enemies.

On October 18, 2017, the first “Q drop”—his first post—was posted on 4chan, validating another user’s claim that Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would be arrested on October 30. Of course, Clinton has yet to be arrested. But the failures of some of Q’s predictions didn’t stop followers from struggling to unriddle patterns in his posts, following his breadcrumbs until they “correctly” make sense of Q’s message. There’s even a board on 8chan, Q’s preferred platform, dedicated to solving Q drops called “Q research.” 

At one point, Q claimed that a secret cabal of Satanic pedophiles runs the world through our politicians and media—including the Rothschild family, the Saudi royal family, and George Soros. Anyone with a large amount of money and power belongs in the cabal, apart from one exception: Donald Trump. Hailed as a savior by Q, Donald Trump would smash the cabal, setting up a mass arrest called “the storm”—the name refers to an off-hand, mumbled comment made by Trump in October of 2017.

As I looked across the kitchen table at my father, still endlessly scrolling through Facebook, I couldn’t help but notice how dark and pronounced the circles under his eyes looked; he looked emotionally exhausted. Between the death of his lifetime best friend and my grandfather’s decline in health, his support system has been slowly breaking down around him. Recently, he’s been turning towards other members of the family for support—including my Uncle Charlie. He’s emotionally vulnerable, and I worry that Charlie may send him down a dangerous rabbit hole. I don’t want to turn on the news and see my father storming the Capital. 

QAnon’s core beliefs come from thousands of posts on internet message boards 4chan and 8chan, all signed off by the anonymous user “Q.” Everyone who posts on these message boards retains their anonymity by ending their posts using a unique trip code—strings of characters that correspond to a password used by the poster. Trip codes signify that a group of messages all came from one person, thus linking Q’s posts to one alleged military insider. In some posts, Q claimed to be a government insider with Q clearance, granting him access to classified information about the Trump administration and its enemies.

On October 18, 2017, the first “Q drop”—his first post—was posted on 4chan, validating another user’s claim that Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would be arrested on October 30. Of course, Clinton has yet to be arrested. But the failures of some of Q’s predictions didn’t stop followers from struggling to unriddle patterns in his posts, following his breadcrumbs until they “correctly” make sense of Q’s message. There’s even a board on 8chan, Q’s preferred platform, dedicated to solving Q drops called “Q research.” 

At one point, Q claimed that a secret cabal of Satanic pedophiles runs the world through our politicians and media—including the Rothschild family, the Saudi royal family, and George Soros. Anyone with a large amount of money and power belongs in the cabal, apart from one exception: Donald Trump. Hailed as a savior by Q, Donald Trump would smash the cabal, setting up a mass arrest called “the storm”—the name refers to an off-hand, mumbled comment made by Trump in October of 2017.

As I looked across the kitchen table at my father, still endlessly scrolling through Facebook, I couldn’t help but notice how dark and pronounced the circles under his eyes looked; he looked emotionally exhausted. Between the death of his lifetime best friend and my grandfather’s decline in health, his support system has been slowly breaking down around him. Recently, he’s been turning towards other members of the family for support—including my Uncle Charlie. He’s emotionally vulnerable, and I worry that Charlie may send him down a dangerous rabbit hole. I don’t want to turn on the news and see my father storming the Capital. 

Disturbed by my father’s apparent willingness to entertain Uncle Charlie’s wildest theories, even if only for laughs, I began researching online to learn how to challenge family members who uphold such theories. One of the leading experts in this area is Mick West—author of Escaping the Rabbit Hole, host of Tales from the Rabbit Hole, and creator of Metabunk.org. In his books and podcasts, he offers tools and suggestions for family and friends of QAnon followers to help move their loved ones away from conspiracy theories.

According to West, you first need to understand what theories your loved one believes in and figure out the depth of their beliefs—you’re less likely to break down a theory they fundamentally believe in. The theories you discuss need to have a perceived level of sensibility. You have to be mindful of your tone, straying away from speaking condescendingly or mockingly. They’re more likely to speak openly with a family member they like. Above all, you must be patient. You’re unlikely to change someone’s opinion in one conversation.

West presents two methods of providing information to a theorist in conversation: spotlight and floodlight debunking. Spotlight debunking calls for fact-checking false claims and proving their falsehood, while floodlight debunking involves filling in the blanks, providing context and information they may have missed or gotten wrong while stuck in their rabbit hole.

After reading West’s work, I sat my father down in the living room to try to open a line of communication, just as West recommends.

“When I say QAnon,” I asked him, “what’s the first thing you think of?” 

Charlie,” my mom called from the other room.

My dad snorted. “Yeah, him and the magnets in our arms.”

Unfortunately, my dad has grown obsessed with TikTok in the last few months and has thoroughly enjoyed sending my family and me videos of people sticking magnets and coins to their arms. The phenomenon even has a tag on TikTok: the #magnettestchallenge. Users subscribe to the theory that coronavirus vaccines contain microchips or metals the US government is using to track us. More likely, magnets and coins are sticking to their arms with the help of tape or spit—unseen in edited videos—or the natural presence of oils and moisture in our skin. My uncle is staunchly anti-vax, and my father enjoys sending him videos of himself sticking random objects to his arm with tape. He could recognize the absurdity of that theory, but I had no idea where he stood on any others.

“Are there any conspiracy theories that you kind of believe in?”

“Oh, the government definitely killed JFK.”

Mick West uses a spectrum model to explain the extremeness of conspiracy theories on a scale from 0 to 10. On the “very boring” end sits the theory that Big Pharma suppresses negative results of their drug tests. By contrast, West says the theory that the government is run by reptilians has a rating of 9. I explained to my dad that the theory that 9/11 was an inside job is a 5 or 6– and that it is less sensible than believing that JFK was killed by the CIA (which West ranks between 0 to 4).

At the mention of 9/11, my father burst out, “Look at the Saudis! How do you think they had the entire Saudi royal family on a plane an hour after the attack? Hundreds of people, all related to Bin Laden. You know he was royalty, right? He got disowned for being crazy. There’s plenty of evidence.”

I stood my ground. “You can arguably say you have evidence for anything.”

“Well, yeah,” he replied, sinking into the couch. “It’s like a big game of telephone. You go from saying, ‘Oh, I saw Bob sitting on a bench near a sewer,’ to, ‘I heard Bob is a reptilian man living in NYC’s sewers.’ Everything escalates. I guess that’s how conspiracy theories are made.”

Something that stood out to me after our conversation was the humor my dad found in QAnon. It seemed fun to him. At one point in our conversation, he mentioned he believed part of the appeal of QAnon was the research. Many people enjoy falling down rabbit holes and revel in the thought that they know secrets other people don’t know. To my dad and many others, it feels like a game.

I knew a different kind of community that loved this feeling too. In my freshman year of high school, I was dealing with the death of a close friend’s brother and her subsequent breakdown. Things were tense among my friends. I initially turned online to look for a distraction but ended up finding a community. 

In 2014, I was in high school when Five Nights at Freddy’s (FNAF) came out, and theories about it overtook the YouTube algorithm. I enjoyed the game and I flourished in the community, making connections between easter eggs found on Reddit. I had finally found a game and a community that I genuinely enjoyed. It was through FNAF videos that I came across and began playing ARGs—alternate reality games. 

ARGs, also occasionally referred to as transmedia storytelling or pervasive games, combine real-life and digital gameplay to create a fictional experience that feels real. Many ARGs exist across multiple platforms. Players are expected to work together to solve puzzles and connect storylines, acting as “narrative archaeologists.” More often than not, forums appear to connect the community of players and to allow them to work collaboratively. Notably, these forums resemble 8chan’s “Q research” forum. Many critics have noted the gamification of QAnon and, along the way, critics and game developers have drawn parallels to ARGs. Alyssa Rosenberg, one of the first people to make the connection between QAnon and ARGs, refers to QAnon in her Washington Post opinion piece “as an unusually absorbing alternate-reality game with extremely low barriers to entry.” 

ARGs guide players down clever rabbit holes situated in the real world. Some ARGs have had millions of players working collaboratively to solve puzzles. Good ARGs reward special talent and require crowdsourcing to solve—Adrian Hon, the chief executive of the gaming company Six to Start and a designer of ARGs, used Egyptian hieroglyphs in one puzzle, preventing the community from progressing in the narrative until someone able to translate could solve the puzzle. ARGs and QAnon reward work and both communities praise research done by their members. You can achieve local fame for being the first to solve a puzzle in an ARG or for being the first to make sense of a new Q drop. 

Despite their similarities, QAnon and ARGs have key differences. Reed Berkowitz—a game developer and researcher—explains the importance of puppet masters in gameplay. While running one of his earliest games, players massively misinterpreted clues because of a mixture of human error and apophenia—the tendency to make meaningful connections between unrelated things. The puppet masters had to intervene and redirect players back towards the intended path. By contrast, there’s no one in QAnon trying to reroute theorists back on the correct path. Instead, everyone is encouraged to have their own opinions and “do their own research.” 

The most important difference between QAnon and ARGs is the players’ understanding of reality. ARGs and QAnon followers may do similar things by the nature of gamification, but ARG players don’t report fictional crimes to the police. They understand they’re playing a game. Many QAnon followers fully believe Q is real and, more importantly, that they’re making a positive difference in the world. As Berkowitz puts it: “You can’t play a game if you don’t know you’re playing one. Play requires an agreement to play. Otherwise, it’s just manipulation.”

I was looking for a way to explain to myself, in terms I understand, the psychology of QAnon. I used to write QAnon off as a far-right fringe idea somehow compelling enough to convince followers to attempt to coup the government. QAnon followers felt so fundamentally different from myself: a far-away, nonsensical other. Yet I’m the kind of person who follows breadcrumbs in pervasive games and enjoys community-based puzzle-solving. I, fundamentally, am a person who enjoys things that satisfy the same itch as QAnon. 

I turned to ARGs to cope with something unimaginable that, years later, I still have not completely worked through. My world felt impossibly small, and I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone about anything. So, I didn’t. I gamed and escaped from hard truths. My father isn’t running towards QAnon in the same way I clung to games. Unlike me, he’s turning towards a support system that just happens to include loved ones with outlandish beliefs. My father needs people to lean on and talk with about what’s troubling him and about the less serious things in life, like what beer to buy. He needs people to keep his world from collapsing, and I must trust that confiding in an anti-vaxxer won’t make him one. 

Options like Mick West’s litmus test, which imposes his own perceptions of authenticity on others’ beliefs, won’t help me understand my family members. Still, I include his work because not everyone responds to the same techniques. A snarky, and frankly, condescending approach will never lead to a serious conversation with my father, but some people won’t break and start looking for information elsewhere until a loved one has patronizingly poked too many holes in their argument. If there’s one thing to take away from my research, it’s that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions to QAnon or how to save the people we love from things we think may harm them. 

What I can explain is how my father and I are moving forward. We find common ground in supporting Ukraine and making fun of Putin. We joke about how my kids are going to have two heads because the government enabled a local company to poison the air and groundwater in the town I grew up in. He sends me cute TikToks about puppies befriending geese and, sometimes, I’ll recommend a mobile game for him to play during his work commute. Most importantly, we just talk with the understanding that we will always be there for each other.

I was looking for a way to explain to myself, in terms I understand, the psychology of QAnon. I used to write QAnon off as a far-right fringe idea somehow compelling enough to convince followers to attempt to coup the government. QAnon followers felt so fundamentally different from myself: a far-away, nonsensical other. Yet I’m the kind of person who follows breadcrumbs in pervasive games and enjoys community-based puzzle-solving. I, fundamentally, am a person who enjoys things that satisfy the same itch as QAnon. 

I turned to ARGs to cope with something unimaginable that, years later, I still have not completely worked through. My world felt impossibly small, and I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone about anything. So, I didn’t. I gamed and escaped from hard truths. My father isn’t running towards QAnon in the same way I clung to games. Unlike me, he’s turning towards a support system that just happens to include loved ones with outlandish beliefs. My father needs people to lean on and talk with about what’s troubling him and about the less serious things in life, like what beer to buy. He needs people to keep his world from collapsing, and I must trust that confiding in an anti-vaxxer won’t make him one. 

Options like Mick West’s litmus test, which imposes his own perceptions of authenticity on others’ beliefs, won’t help me understand my family members. Still, I include his work because not everyone responds to the same techniques. A snarky, and frankly, condescending approach will never lead to a serious conversation with my father, but some people won’t break and start looking for information elsewhere until a loved one has patronizingly poked too many holes in their argument. If there’s one thing to take away from my research, it’s that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions to QAnon or how to save the people we love from things we think may harm them. 

What I can explain is how my father and I are moving forward. We find common ground in supporting Ukraine and making fun of Putin. We joke about how my kids are going to have two heads because the government enabled a local company to poison the air and groundwater in the town I grew up in. He sends me cute TikToks about puppies befriending geese and, sometimes, I’ll recommend a mobile game for him to play during his work commute. Most importantly, we just talk with the understanding that we will always be there for each other.