Do you have an elderly parent who has fallen victim to internet conspiracy theories? Has your politically moderate loved one begun spewing racist and militant right wing propaganda in between naps? Learn how to get your sweet little old mom or dad back with these seven easy steps.
Step 1: Diagnose.
Is your parent locking themselves in their room to watch YouTube for hours on end?
“Mom’s acting like a teenager,” dad whispered to me during a visit home in early 2021. By his tone, I knew this wasn’t a good thing. My 80-year-old mom had started hiding in her room all afternoon, coming out in her pajamas only for meals. Instead of my usual cheerful mother welcoming me back home with my favorite Chinese comfort foods, she was cranky and distant. And constantly checking her iPhone, disappearing for hours to watch videos.
A few days after my arrival, she looked especially agitated as we all sat down for dinner. “Nancy Pelosi is working for the Chinese Communists and they want to take over this country,” she declared right after her usual pre-meal prayer in the mix of Mandarin, Cantonese and English that my family spoke.
“That’s crazy,” I said, digging into the stirfried bok choy and snapper steamed in black bean sauce with my chopsticks. “Fake news, Ma,” I added in English, since I didn’t know how to say “conspiracy theory” in Chinese.
“You think you’re so smart?” she snapped. “You’re brainwashed. The election was stolen and now, bad things are going to happen. You’ll see,” she said, putting her chopsticks down and going back upstairs again with her phone. My dad spooned more fish in my rice bowl, grumbling that she’d been like this for weeks.
A few days later, with the full support of a soon-to-be ex-president, right wing extremists stormed the U.S. Capitol, occupying and vandalizing the building, threatening violence against our democratically elected officials.
My mom didn’t say anything as we watched the news together over dinner. But the self-satisfied look on her face was a clear “I told you so.”
It was only then that I began to understand. My Chinese immigrant mom had become a sympathizer to right wing nationalists and Donald Trump’s mob supporters. Their actions would cause five deaths, and as we’d learn over the next few months, four officers who had responded to the attacks would die by suicide.
Step 2: Acknowledge the warning signs.
Is your loved one using game shows to cover up the truth?
For most of their lives as Americans, my mom and dad were old school Republicans – the kind who believed the party welcomed anybody from anywhere who sought a better life for themselves and their children. “He understands us,” my dad said, when Ronald Reagan spoke of the industriousness of immigrants, like my parents, who worked 12 to 18 hour days running their own restaurant and dry cleaners. It didn’t hurt that they had grown up on dubbed Westerns in which he played the all-American cowboy hero. My dad loved Reagan so much, he even styled his own black hair the same way, wind-proofing it with Dippity-Do.
Even when the country’s leadership wasn’t from the party they usually voted for, they still maintained a belief that whoever was elected had the country’s best interests at heart. And whatever critiques they had for their new president were usually pretty innocuous. “Bush’s eyes are too close together. Gore would be a more handsome president,” I remember my mom saying during the 2000 elections.
While I had moved out for good by the mid-1990s, I didn’t notice any changes in their political views during my regular return visits until around 2016. They had become unusually agitated and, for the first time ever, I heard them spew angry, meanspirited things about the Democrats – particularly Hilary Clinton. And what precipitated such change? They had traded in their nightly CBS half hour news program for non-stop cable news. It was as if Fox News had moved right in. Every time I came home to see them, it was on. While my dad cleaned his turtle tank and clipped coupons, it was on. While my mom did her Bible study homework and folded laundry, it was on. And during every single meal.
“Immigrants taking over the country,” dad groused, just before the elections. I was just about to dig into the dish I always look forward to most– my mom’s signature hong shao rou, made from pork belly and boiled eggs stewed with garlic, soy sauce and star anise. I didn’t know whether to laugh or remind him of the obvious. “We need to build a wall,” he added. Even my favorite comfort food couldn’t revive my appetite at that point.
I pulled the only power move I had, which was to threaten to not visit anymore unless they cooled it with the Fox News. Trying to appease me, they switched to Wheel of Fortune or Family Feud while we ate dinner. But whenever I popped into the kitchen unexpectedly, I’d find them nodding along to Tucker Carlson, then fumbling with the remote control, as if I had just caught them watching porn.
I hadn’t taken the signs seriously at first, but looking back, my parents were being indoctrinated years before my mom’s ominous warning in early January, 2021.
Step 3: Assess their information sources.
What, besides sending selfies, are your parents doing online?
My parents have memorized every single phone number and address of everyone they have ever known. My mom balances all the household finances by hand, doing long division in her head. My dad has discovered 1,001 uses for duct tape, including upcycling the Adidas slides I wore in high school. They are incredibly resourceful, having run their own businesses, bought a home in San Francisco, and raised a spoiled, American-born daughter who was addicted to MTV and Twinkies.
But they are not, in any shape or form, tech-inclined. My dad has never touched a computer and doesn’t know the difference between an iPhone and iHOP. My mom tries, but gets so frustrated trying to remember passwords, where files are saved, or how to get back to her email if she accidentally clicks it away, that I’ve often considered flying back from Hawaii, where I now live, instead of struggling to provide tech support over the phone.
A few years ago, mom announced she was getting her first smartphone. I didn’t think this was a good idea, given her track record. But, she insisted, everyone else in her church had iPhones, and her pastor was going to start sending out Bible study assignments via text. “The best student will get a prize,” she said, in a tone that indicated no one was going to change her mind.
Wow so easy to type English I’m an expert like you now she wrote in one of her first texts, having discovered the wonders of phrase completion. Not long after, she learned how to switch language modes, writing Mommy and the Chinese characters for in the garden to update me on what she was up to. Then came the selfies. Mom in the garden showing off her roses. Mom making chive dumplings. Mom after giving herself a bowl haircut.
The smartphone was a great way for my mom to share and connect. But, it turns out, it was also the perfect way for radical content to reach her.
“The phone’s broken again,” my mom complained a few days after her Nancy Pelosi outburst. Playing my usual role as IT manager, I took it over to check out what was wrong and update the software.
Scrolling through her YouTube history, the story of how my mom became a conspiracy theory believer unfolded clearly before me. It started, months back, with some clips that someone had likely sent her from her Line groups. These were pro-Taiwan segments, highlighting China’s increasing threat given what was happening in Hong Kong. These first few videos then begot suggestions that became increasingly anti-China. Paired with my mom’s interest in Fox News, the YouTube algorithm pegged her as someone with right wing beliefs. QAnon and Newsmax videos geared towards Chinese language speakers were in regular rotation. Her watch history included images of Hillary Clinton feasting on children, Obama with red devil ears, and yes, Nancy Pelosi dressed like Mao Zedong.
Step 4: Get help from Google.
How do you explain gaslighting to the gaslit?
According to the internet, one of the best ways to deal with radicalization is recognizing the signs early on to prevent it from escalating. It was a little too late in my mom’s case, so I considered the second piece of advice I found online: sitting down and talking to each other honestly about our hopes and fears.
Sounds like great advice, right? Well, except for one tiny detail: my parents and I don’t share a language in which we all feel equally fluent in. Mom speaks a combination of English and the several Chinese dialects and smattering of Japanese she spoke growing up in post-war rural Taiwan. When I was a child, she would greet me in the morning with, “Jin sui, sweetie pie,” the Hokkien phrase for “so pretty.” When she argued with dad, she’d say “he so vea,” the Cantonese slang for frustrating. “Sayonara gao gao,” we would say to each other at bedtime, combining the Japanese word for goodbye and the Hakka term for sleeping. My dad speaks a mix of Chinatown Toishan and the English he picked up in the army and through watching cowboy Westerns.
We get by with Chinglish and our hybrid, pidgin mix of all of these different dialects. But the problem isn’t just language. Growing up, we rarely talked about our feelings. I knew they cared deeply, but they only expressed it implicitly: through buying me my favorite take-out dim sum treats, or telling me to not worry about chores and focus on my homework so I could someday be more successful than them.
While my parents and I have no trouble communicating about practical things like when I should drive them to Costco for the $1.50 hot dog deal or which of my too-tight jeans I don’t want my dad to throw into the drawer, a conversation about gaslighting, systematic racism and media literacy goes far beyond our common vocabulary.
Unfortunately, I’m not the only one encountering the uncanny problem of hearing my immigrant parents echo radical right-wing pundits who spew racist views about people just like us. Cathy Park Hong, author of “Minor Feelings: An Asian-American Reckoning,” writes in the New York Times that right-wing conspiracy theories have infiltrated communities such as my parents’ through social media platforms and YouTube. They take advantage of anti-socialist sentiment, especially among immigrants who may have fled communist regimes. As Hong also points out in her book Minor Feelings, they pit non-white and immigrant communities against each other, stoking resentment among those who supposedly pull themselves up by their own bootstraps against those who supposedly take advantage of government help.
Turns out there was nothing random in my mom’s belief that Nancy Pelosi was an operative of the Chinese Communist Party. Or my dad’s outbursts around building the wall. They had been targeted with such lies.
Step 5: Leverage your tech superiority
Are you in control of all of your loved ones’ usernames and passwords?
Not long after the January 6 insurrection, it was time to make appointments for my parents to get their first Covid vaccinations. They were always so diligent with their flu shots, it never occurred to me this could be a problem.
“Bill Gates wants to control us,” my mom said defiantly, just as I had finally found two appointments that were harder to come by than BTS concert tickets. I wasn’t even entirely sure she knew who Bill Gates was, but she was convinced the vaccine contained a tracking chip, and refused to let me book these shots.
That was my tipping point. Remembering that I managed all of her usernames and passwords, I immediately logged into her YouTube account and went to work. First, I unsubscribed her from QAnon-friendly sites that I’m pretty certain she had never knowingly subscribed to herself, given her unfamiliarity with 99.99% of the functionality in any of her apps. Next, I turned off autoplay because the content she views almost always comes up automatically or as a suggestion. Then I deleted her watch history, hoping that YouTube would stop showing related videos on her home page.
And then I waited. And snooped.
I saw that she did a few searches for Trump, Melania, and Fox News. But since her autoplay was turned off, those videos led to dead ends. I immediately deleted each of these from her watch history.
“The internet is acting weird,” she commented a few days later, as she headed upstairs for bed.
I just shrugged and agreed that the internet was hard to understand.
Over time, I realized it wasn’t enough just to take away – I also had to give the YouTube algorithm something to chew on so it wouldn’t put her back on the same path again. I Googled “non-partisan news” before subscribing her to Reuters, PBS, ABC, and CBS. I threw in some non-newsy subscriptions to America’s Funniest Videos and the Today Show. I then fed the algorithm monster with random content I thought she’d like: Chinese language dramas, cooking and travel shows, and for good measure, since she loved Princess Di, royal family news. Every couple of days, I would log in as her and watch more random, innocuous videos: Rick Steves eating his way through Europe on a Christmas markets tour, BTS songs, and clips from her favorite movie, Meet the Parents.
By my next visit in early spring, she was no longer locking herself in her room and talking about how Pelosi and the Chinese Communists were in cahoots with the devil. “There’s a lot more stuff to watch on the internet now,” she said to me when I asked if she needed any help with her computer.
“The internet is always growing,” I said, as nonchalantly as I could before she started describing in great detail all the bitchy characters in the latest Chinese period drama she had discovered on YouTube.
Step 6: When in doubt, repeat: deprogramming = love
Remember all the ways your parents cared for you, which you hated at the time?
I’m relieved my mom is no longer sympathizing with insurrectionists. I’m ecstatic she eventually agreed to get vaccinated. I justify what I did by reminding myself that I didn’t censor or restrict her content. She’s not being force fed anything, and she always has the freedom to search for what she wants.
But thinking about my own online experiences, I know that the idea of the internet as a completely open and free space for us to explore is not entirely true. The makeup products I research appear everywhere in my social media feed and as advertisements when I’m looking for something entirely different. The gypsy earrings I once considered on Instagram have begotten more bohemian jewelry modeled by young, blonde women in Nepali skirts and pleather jackets. The mushroom growing kit I searched for now conjures ads for $3000 indoor lettuce planter kits, controllable from my smartphone. My Facebook feed has become such a thunderous echo chamber of controversy and dissent that whenever I actually interact with someone from outside of my blue bubble, I’m shocked to find we still can agree on some things – even if it is just about the latest Marvel movie.
I justify what I did by telling myself I’m keeping my mom safe.
But I know that this is a form of safety she hasn’t consented to. As my parents have aged, they’ve begrudgingly relented as I drive them around, make sure they eat well, help them with paperwork they don’t understand, and call doctors on their behalf. My overprotectiveness of them, especially as I stress about the rise of anti-Asian violence across the country, has gotten to the point where they’re starting to push back. “Stop treating me like a child – I’m fine!” my dad once yelled when I hassled him about eating too much raw fish.
I think of all the forms of safety I never consented to as a child, like the time my parents forbade me from taking the bus home with my friends at midnight after seeing the Dead Kennedy’s when I was 14. They said if I didn’t call them from a pay phone for a pickup, they wouldn’t let me go. I remember being angry at them all night.
I wonder if my efforts to deprogram my mom are for me rather than for her – wanting to get back the sweet, supposedly uncomplicated person I thought she was. The return to some form of what I think of as “normal” has indeed made my visits back home a lot easier. She’s no longer stressing out about a communist takeover. Instead, she watches videos of Chengdu pandas snacking on bamboo or golden snub nosed monkeys acrobating across the trees. Old clips of Harry Belafonte singing “The Banana Boat Song,” or Oliva Newton John dancing in leather pants to “You’re the One That I Want.” Instead of sending me angry anti-vax texts, she’s back to blurry selfies. Instead of QAnon videos, she’s watching Taiwanese cooking shows and waiting for my next visit to experiment with new recipes.
When all else fails to convince me that I actually did the right thing, I justify my actions by saying I’m giving my mom more of the things that make her happy.
Step 7: Stay vigilant. Algorithms are mischievous.
Are there new threats on the internet?
“Meagan is terrible,” my mom tells me during my most recent visit. “She brainwashed Harry. And did you know she made Kate cry?”
I want to ask, where are you getting this information? But I know. The Princess Di clips that I had planted in her history months ago have devolved into sinister forms, as I find out while snooping in her watch history. She’s being fed dozens of clips in which Princess Kate is the savior of British civilization while Meagan is the angry, greedy, Black destroyer of the pure white monarchy.
I berate myself for getting lax about checking her YouTube history.
Algorithms take what matters to us, whether it’s supporting Taiwan’s independence, mushroom growing, or Princess Di’s fashion choices – and pass them through an endless house of mirrors. In this un-fun ride, everyone, from Nancy Pelosi to Meagan Markle, comes out looking grotesque.
I log into her account. My cursor hovers over the anti-Meagan videos, ready to delete them from her watch history. And I ask myself, is this what it means to take care of my elderly mom?
LiAnne is a Hakka-Fukienese-Taiwanese American, raised in San Francisco and now living on the Big Island of Hawaii. She always wanted to be an anthropologist and as a kid, idolized Margaret Mead. As her third grade teacher once told her, anthropologists get to travel, poke their noses into closets, listen to grannies gossip on the front porch, and call that a good day’s work. Her research has given her the opportunity to hang out with all kinds of communities, including Snapchat-obsessed teens, south Chicago boys with basketball dreams, Chinese senior citizens taking naps in IKEA, and fishermen living out on the Louisiana bayou. She’s written about climate change and clean energy entrepreneurialism for Hawaii Business Magazine and her book, Consumption in China, was published by Polity Press in 2014.
The featured image is “Hall with Doors (set design for Alice-in-Wonderland)” by William Penhallow Henderson (1915), selected and manipulated specifically for LiAnne’s piece by our Art Director, Meg Sykes.