Renee Ekwoge can't remember the last conversation she had with her father. They stopped talking regularly months ago, after she moved nearly 1,000 miles away for a new job last summer.
"The last time I saw my dad, he was painting my house," Ekwoge says. "He came and helped paint all weekend. It was nice when we lived closer and had ways to hang out that didn't include nonsense videos."
Those "nonsense videos" are about conspiracy theories. They've become a major focus for her father — on topics like COVID-19 and Sept. 11, 2001. He watches them on YouTube.
Ekwoge's dad is one of billions of people who visit YouTube every month. YouTube, with its massive reach, has a history of being unable to keep disinformation off of its site. That disinformation distorts reality, and it changes how some people see the world. Then it changes them — and their relationships.
That's what happened to Ekwoge and her father.
She says the false and misleading videos have changed her dad. They're all he can talk about with her, and she says it's left him seeming frustrated and angry, which in turn leaves Ekwoge feeling helpless. She's tried pleading with him to stop watching them, but he only responds with more videos.
"It's like an 'Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.' This person looks like my dad, but all of a sudden where this loving, kind person was there's this snarky, dismissive, mean person that refuses to let anyone engage in dialogue," she says.
"What's the point?"
Growing up, Ekwoge, 39, knew her family was a little bit different. She describes her parents as "free-spirited hippie types" and remembers that their parenting style was a bit unconventional and that back then her father dabbled in amateur conspiracy theories. He read books by David Icke, a British conspiracy theorist, and her parents chose to not vaccinate their five children.
She also remembers her father as gentle and loving — and how she would revel in his unconventional parenting, like when the family watched the Hale-Bopp comet.
"That was just a thing that we did: You got up in the middle of the night and you watched a comet," she says.
But as she got older, her dad's sense of wonder turned in a darker direction. He would point to the sky on long walks and talk about chemtrails, wondering aloud if the government was spraying chemicals into the air. After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, she says, he got "very into the 9/11 truther movement."
For years, Ekwoge's approach was to be polite when he'd talk to her about the theories and then change the subject. That seemed to work for a while. Her father and mother divorced several years ago, and she remained close with her father.
When Ekwoge and her dad lived in the same state, they would take walks and talk about other things. Then last year, she says, he told her he believed that the world was flat. People who thought otherwise, he told her, had their minds controlled.
"And at that point, things started to happen more frequently," she says. "He believed that people were being injected with the coronavirus or the virus wasn't real. This was mid-March, like a year ago, and he was already [saying] this is 'plan-demic,' you know, this is completely fake."
That term — "plan-demic" — comes from a viral video conspiracy that has been widely debunked.
Ekwoge's father has sent her 50 videos related to various conspiracy theories since March 2020 — about one a week — to, he has told her, help protect her.
"And those are just the ones that he's forwarding," she says. "so I don't know how many he's watching." NPR reached out to Ekwoge's father for this story but received no response.
Almost all of the videos her father sent her contain some version of mis- or disinformation, and all are still accessible on YouTube. (Misinformation is false but not necessarily intentionally false. Disinformation is designed explicitly to change people's perception of something. To avoid the spread of false information, NPR is not linking to the videos mentioned in this story.)
But even if she isn't reacting to them, others who follow his social media feeds, where he posts them, are. And then when they then share the videos, it gives new life to the lies.
"I know that when he's sending it, he's getting more reception because you've got more and more people falling into this online believe-everything-on-YouTube," she says.
And she says they have gotten more and more inflammatory, including a video from a popular YouTube comedian who was misrepresenting statistics about COVID deaths.
"Essentially he was heavily implying that people in car accidents or with terminal cancer were being counted as COVID deaths," she said.
Ekwoge did her own research and confronted her dad about the false COVID stats in the video.
"And he didn't want to hear that. It was just very emotional, and so we had a heated exchange, and he said, 'Renee, shut up,' " she says. "He's sent me since then, three more videos, even though I have repeatedly asked him to stop. I haven't responded to any of them because what's the point? To have another fight?"
"The dominant domain"
YouTube has faced heavy criticism over the years for hosting content that is either false or misleading.
In 2019, the company changed its algorithms to "ensure more authoritative content is surfaced and labeled prominently in search results." From October 2020 to December 2020, YouTube says it removed 1.4 million videos containing "spam, misleading information or scams." For reference, consider that the company also says that over 500 minutes of content are uploaded to the platform every single minute.
The YouTube video with the misrepresented COVID statistics is still available on the platform. The company told NPR that the video does "not violate our COVID-19 medical misinformation policies."
Kate Starbird, co-founder and researcher at the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington, says she understands why YouTube chose to leave the video online. It's meant to be satirical, she says, and shouldn't be taken as a fact, even if some people do.
But videos like these are one of the reasons YouTube is the biggest proliferator of false information, she says.
She's studied mis- and disinformation in a variety of areas including the 2016 election and the civil war in Syria as well as conspiracy theories of crisis events like the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the 2018 false missile alert in Hawaii, and she calls YouTube "the dominant domain in those conversations." Other social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook pull in content from YouTube, where they continue to spread.
"It's actually a problem for the whole information ecosystem — the fact that YouTube hosts and allows those videos to be resources that are repeatedly mobilized in these other platforms at opportunistic times to spread mis- and disinformation," she says.
Starbird says it's hard to understand just how big the problem is because YouTube provides fewer tools for researchers to look at their data. YouTube also restricts how much data the public can access.
"Twitter has been very liberal in terms of how they allow access to their data. For Facebook, it's much harder. There's only certain kinds of access," says Starbird. "For YouTube, we really feel like we're kind of navigating in the dark a little bit. The platform itself has decided not to make their data as accessible."
Too little, too late
In the months since they've last talked, Renee Ekwoge has turned to a forum on Reddit where people share stories about loved ones lost to conspiratorial thinking.
"All the time growing up, my story was extremely unique. I had no friends whose parents were conspiracy theorists," Ekwoge says. "And now it's just everyone has the same story. And it's heartbreaking because you just think [of] all these people that were these doting grandparents and doting parents and kind and wonderful people, now all they can do is send you these videos that are just full of hatred and fear and ugliness."
Ekwoge is grieving the path her relationship with her father has taken, but she's not sure when or if she'll speak to him again. She hopes that sharing her story will keep others from losing relationships with loved ones.
She appealed to her father directly: "We all miss you."
Editor's note: Google, which owns YouTube, is among NPR's financial supporters.