Unraveling viral disinformation and explaining where it came from, the harm it's causing, and what we should do about it.
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Bill’s final semester at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, was already difficult enough.
He was part of the final graduating class of survivors of the 2018 shooting, and they all had just marked the third anniversary of the day 17 people were killed, nine of whom were Bill’s classmates.
But Bill also had to deal with his father’s daily accusations that the shooting was a hoax and that the shooter, Bill, and all his classmates were paid pawns in a grand conspiracy orchestrated by some shadowy force.
Bill had worked hard to get over his survivor’s guilt after the shooting, but for the past five months, his own father has been triggering it all over again.
“He'll say stuff like this straight to my face whenever he's drinking: ‘You're a real piece of work to be able to sit here and act like nothing ever happened if it wasn't a hoax. Shame on you for being part of it and putting your family through it too,” Bill said in an anonymous post on Reddit last week.’
Bill first posted his story on QAnon Casualties, a Reddit thread dedicated to helping family members and friends of QAnon believers.
VICE News spoke to the poster and confirmed the author’s claims about being a survivor of the school shooting. Bill is not the student’s real name as they only spoke to VICE News on the condition of anonymity, citing concerns about attacks from members of QAnon forums if his identity was revealed.
As is true for many who fell down the QAnon rabbit hole in recent years, Bill’s dad’s descent coincided with the pandemic.
“It started a couple months into the pandemic with the whole anti-lockdown protests,” Bill said. “His feelings were so strong it turned into facts for him. So if he didn't like having to wear masks it wouldn't matter what doctors or scientists said. Anything that contradicted his feelings was wrong. So he turned to the internet to find like-minded people which led him to QAnon.”
But until January, that was as far as it went. Then Bill’s father saw a video of Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene harassing Parkland survivor David Hogg in 2018, while he was visiting Washington to advocate for stricter gun control. Greene has repeatedly voiced support for QAnon and claimed the Parkland shooting was a hoax.
“He is a coward,” Greene told her followers.
Ever since then, Bill’s father has become convinced the shooting his son survived was a so-called “false flag” event and that the shooter was “a radical commie actor.”
“From there it snowballed into what he is today, believing that if the government is able to overthrow an election, then everything else is probably a lie too,” Bill added.
Bill is 18, and now that he’s graduated high school he’s looking to get out of the toxic situation he finds himself in.
“I do have options that can have me out before August, which as of now I'm planning to do,” Bill said. “I've been delaying it because I've felt stuck trying to ‘fix’ my dad.”
But Bill said that after he posted his story on Reddit, members of the QAnon Casualties community have been able to help him “push through that obligation I felt and leave before I completely lose my mind, because I'm already halfway there.”
Over the course of the last four years, but in particular since the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown, the QAnon conspiracy cult has been tearing families apart, and many family members say their loved ones have transformed into different people in front of their eyes.
“Burgundy-colored T-shirts [the color shirt worn by the shooter] make me uncomfortable and he used to be so understanding he stopped wearing it around me. That person is completely gone and I miss him so fucking much,” Bill said in his Reddit post.
Bill says his relationship with his mother has also suffered.
“The relationship with my mom is dependent on whether my dad is there or not, ’cause then it's pretty much all about conspiracy theories,” Bill told VICE News. “[The relationship] used to be fine but deteriorating quickly, [especially] after telling her that if she doesn't start putting her foot down, I'm leaving with no interest in seeing my dad again.”
But despite the threats to leave home, Bill’s mother has not stood up to his dad.
“It's not really going anywhere because she's too naive to think he'll magically get over wanting to constantly retraumatize me and I'm not waiting around for that,” Bill told VICE News.
Bill also says he’s been unable to talk to any of his fellow survivors about what he has been going through with this father.
“I never talked about it with them,” Bill told VICE News. “As far as I know he's only held that belief—at least so strongly—since January. Our last semester was difficult enough with Feb. 14 marking 3 years since the shooting, along with emotions leading up to us being the last class of survivors to graduate.”
“It wasn't—and still isn't—easy to bottle up, but telling them my dad thinks the absolute hell we went through, where nine of the victims were in our class, is a hoax is not a pain I want to put on them. It's difficult enough knowing that belief even exists at all.”
At this point, Bill has little hope in ever seeing his father return to the person he was before he became obsessed with QAnon conspiracy theories, and even if he did, too much has happened to ever repair their relationship.
“He'll never stop on his own, because there are always new theories and goalposts being moved,” Bill said. “I don't know how to help someone that far gone. My guess is restricted access to the internet and lots of therapy. But even if there was hope he'd eventually snap out of it, it wouldn't change my mind on never wanting to see him again. So it doesn't really matter anymore.”