“Many cults start off with high ideals that get corrupted by leaders or their board of advisors who become power-hungry and dominate and control member’s lives. No group with high ideals starts off as a ‘cult’; they become one when their errant ways are exposed.”- Phillip Zimbardo
It was the summer of 2007, June to be exact; and I was living in South Florida. I was working a regular full-time job in security, keeping a private blog on LiveJournal and running a message board at Delphi Forums. Delphi had being going through a slow death spiral for years; members had been abandoning the server due to online fighting.
That fighting, in the cross-section of forums to which my own forum was known (forums are indexed by similarity and interest) had been on-going since 1999. It originated from forum rivalries and the development of member factions. This is not an uncommon occurrence. Groups form, people identify with an in-group and identify an out-group.
I was there in the beginning and saw some of the original forum rivalries. I started my own forums, and one of them became the target of another forum and faction until I took my forums private, removed members of the other forum from my own, and kept to a policy of avoidance. To be blunt, they made me nervous; they looked like a cult.
A year or so went by and I ignored the rest of Delphi; then Delphi itself started charging for membership, alienating my group, and most of us jumped over to LiveJournal. My forums in Delphi were effectively “mothballed” and a few more years went by. A couple of offline friends remained and I heard the forum that targeted mine disintegrated.
The members that were left mostly went their own separate ways, but two in particular stuck together and started a new forum. The fighting worsened and new depths were discovered as members found new ways to get under each other’s skin, and on each other’s last nerves. Factions continued to form, implode, reform, implode again.
I came back to Delphi in 2005 and I am not going to lie; I had heard a few colorful stories about how bad things had gotten on the server. There were allegations of hacking, everything from sabotaging workstations belonging to the employers of members, to stealing personal information and using it to threaten each other offline.
Rumors were going around that the hosts of one forum were using behavior modification techniques on forum and community members. Another rumor was going around that one of the two hosts in question was trying to “wage a server war”, meaning, run people off the server completely. I laughed those rumors off at the time; in 2005.
I heard stories in the chats whether I wanted to hear them or not; most of the time, I did not. As far as I was concerned, it was the equivalent of junior high school gossip; the whining and complaining of adults about other grown adults, of who did what to whom, when, where, why, and how. I was told repeatedly this was “Delphi History”.
It was important to certain members that I know “the Delphi History”; the idea I got about this, is that it explained the factional rivalries that were still going on. Aligning yourself with certain individuals meant that certain other individuals should not be permitted access to a forum. Such individuals were not to be trusted, or talked to.
Or associated with in any way. I am not the kind of person that has much tolerance for this sort of thing. I don’t think most people are; not when it is introduced the way it was introduced to me. For most of these people however, they saw things differently because for them, it was first-hand experience. They lived “The Delphi History”, they were there.
For me, the “Delphi History Lessons” as I came to refer to them were an annoyance, and then a matter of resentment, and finally a serious point of contention. I found myself neck-deep in other people trying to tell me how to run the forum I created, and paid for. I had people, supposedly friends, throwing fits because I was talking to an “enemy”.
So I did what any sensible person would do. I put my foot down, declared my forum “neutral ground”, told everyone, I pay this membership, not you. I own this forum, not you. It’s my rules, not yours, and simplified it into a catch phrase “My Forum, My Rules“. Then I proceeded to spend the next two years arguing with just about everybody.
In an online server there really isn’t much else to do but communicate, talk, chat, etc. It is much like social media, except that on a message board, posts can get copied and stored in private folders in other forums. Chat logs could be copied, saved, shared, altered to say just about anything, and all of it could be used as “evidence” against other members.
What happens when one friend doesn’t like another friend, and you are stuck in the middle of an argument, with the both of them trying to get you to take their side? They both work hard to persuade you. If they have some sort of “evidence” to prove the other person did something really horrible, they hand it over, whether you want it or not.
It is sort of like the media pundits, the “Talking Heads” actually. They get to talking about the political controversy of the day, they spend hours discussing it, right? The language gets emotional, the mockery toward the opposing viewpoint comes out, the political biases show, and the “other” gets mocked, ridiculed, vilified; that’s what Delphi was.
That was what Delphi had become; the “history lessons”, the constant arguing and fighting. The sneakiness of people stealing posts and chat logs and taking them elsewhere to use against other people, to turn some people into “wind-up heroes”, and others into Delphi’s Most (Un)Wanted. And some appointing themselves as forum judges and juries.
Calling for multiple-forum wide bans of individuals for “offenses” that were not real offenses. Calling in Delphi Staff for anything anybody did that was against Terms of Service (like stealing and publishing chat logs and forum posts from other forums, in your own forum) to get someone banned from the server, after talking them into it.
Some of you may have seen some of this kind of activity showing up in Facebook lately. Some of you in LinkedIn have been talking about trolls showing up and giving you a hard time. I saw it in LiveJournal when the membership declined in the mid-2000’s and it was one reason why I took my journal private before ultimately deleting it.
I doubt its new to WordPress either; whenever a piece of online real estate has been around for a while, you will have members who develop long-standing associations; and rivalries, to one another. In Delphi, certain parties granted themselves a superior status based on the age of a profile, how long an individual had been a member of the server.
Anyone with a profile dating back to 1999-2002 was considered an “Elder” within these communities. This was not something instituted by Delphi Forums staff. It was not something other communities within Delphi did, and it really didn’t mean a thing, except that to some people, they felt they had a right to tell other members what to do.
By this point there weren’t very many people left in our index of Delphi; 50-60 people at most. Most new profiles were long-time members trying to pretend they were new. Some were tired of the hassle of interacting in their original profiles; others were pretending to be new so they could catch others talking trash about them.
Members who had been in Delphi for fewer years were coerced into acknowledging certain parties as their “Elders” and into obeying their rules, especially regarding banning people who were not liked. Anybody who did not obey ended up on the “disliked” list, and crazy as it all sounds, some obeyed to keep their forums populated.
I was not one of them.
I could see how friendship, trust, approval, and validation were being used on the server to control people. I saw it, and I still did not want to believe it. It sounded insane then; and it still sounds insane to me now. I wasn’t alone in my refusal to obey the self-appointed “masters” however; and my friends kept pointing out those old rumors.
Behavior modification; “server war”. Nah….LOL. That’s Bananas. But there was a process and it was acknowledged by all of the members. The “Delphi History Lessons”, the factional in-group, out-group, form, implode, re-form, explode, re-form process. They called it “The Delphi Game”. Another member, a real newcomer called it something else; a cult.
The self-appointed server “masters” had both been members of that first forum that I had run afoul of in 2000. Another former member identified the member who had been responsible for bringing in behavior modification techniques. Someone else pointed out the deliberate posting of quotations from The Art of War to disobedient members.
When you know someone hasn’t read something like “The Art of War“, it can be easy I suppose, or fun, to start messing with their heads. Follow them around and drop ominous looking quotations from the book. Especially if you want them to follow your lead, and they are afraid you will empty their forum of visitors and verbally attack them.
I started doing some research into cults and their mechanisms of control. I didn’t really believe the new member that was calling Delphi a cult, or these forums a cult, because I did not believe it was possible for cults to control people online, over the internet. Not for real; not for one second. But I thought about my own experiences in Delphi.
I considered the arguments over “Delphi History Lessons”, the constant fighting, the constant spin-doctoring; how people could place the most negative of biases on bits and pieces of conversation that had been collected, usually out of context, and then used against other people in some effort to get them driven out of a group or a forum.
“The Delphi Game” matched up with the process known as cult indoctrination except for one difference. Usually, cult indoctrination has to occur face-to-face; in person. In isolation from any friends or family that might be able to interfere with this process. It is not supposed to be something that can happen online, on a server.
That should have been impossible.
By June 2007, I was pretty well convinced that it was not only possible, but it had been going on in this indexed set of forums for at least 5 years, more likely 7. I decided to let the other members decide for themselves. Out of the books I had on the topic, the best information came out of Steven Hassan’s book: Combatting Cult Mind Control.
In 30 posts to a Delphi based blog, between June 28, and August 31st, 2007, I described cult mind control in the context of Delphi, and “The Delphi Game”. In the process of writing, I couldn’t help noticing that these techniques were also occurring on a much wider scale in the real world, in the media, and in politics.
In Delphi the typical reaction was blanket denial, but it arrested “The Delphi Game”. Most of the remaining members left the index of forums this all occurred in; including the self-appointed “Masters”. There was one last round of in-fighting in 2009 which mostly failed to implode the groups involved before it fizzled out, and that was it.
Eleven years have since passed and nothing remotely on the scale of “The Delphi Game”, has occurred, not on Delphi anyway. The real world on the other hand; the indoctrination process is everywhere. In the news media, the conspiracy theory sites, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, the Russians are hand feeding us propaganda; “Fake News” is a thing.
And Al-Qaeda and Islamic State have proven beyond all shadow of a doubt that what I suspected was possible in 2007, is real, and it is really happening. The “Delphi History Lessons”? They may as well have been called “Truth Decay”, because essentially, that’s what they were; they were the Delphi version of truth decay.
On June 28th, 2007, I posted the first post describing the types of cults Steven Hassan talked about in his book. The cults described were religious, political, commercial, psychotherapy and educational, but that wasn’t what made them cults. Most groups, social, business, theological, educational, fall into one of those categories.
What defines a group as a cult is how it exploits and profits off of its members. What defines a group as a cult is its methods of recruitment and exploitation, and its control of members through the manipulation of information, emotions, and thinking processes. The assumption is you have to be pretty stupid to get pulled into a cult. That’s not true.
The smarter you are, the more susceptible you are; your intelligence gets used against you to recruit you and to keep you with the group; doing, believing, feeling, saying, and thinking exactly what the cult wants you to do, believe, feel, say, and think. Status, a desire to belong, trust, validation, approval, all of these things will make you susceptible.
Status, a desire to belong, to prove trust, validation, approval, and the fear of losing them makes people susceptible to all kinds of very unethical and even illegal behavior. It leads to GroupThink. But the glue that brings it all together is this: every cult is an in-group; and in order to survive and thrive, it must have out-groups; outsiders; others; enemies.
***This is part 1 of a series of posts on cults and cult indoctrination online. It will focus on the book that played such an integral role in ending the indoctrination process on the Delphi Forums server; Combatting Cult Mind Control by Steven Hassan. This series will be heavily revised and updated; the purpose is to show that Delphi is not unique.
The same process occurs elsewhere on the internet; Al-Qaeda and Islamic State did not invent it; they did not even innovate. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, none of these sites were first to find themselves the vehicles of fake news, propaganda, or truth decay. There are much bigger cults out in the world; awareness is key to stopping the cycles.