It sounds far-fetched, the idea that there is a hypnotic effect to information overload, doesn’t it? Imagine that you are in a situation where you are getting a barrage of information from all sides, everywhere. Your brain has difficulty keeping up in processing the information, and then the information becomes contradictory; conflicts.

Now your brain is not only attempting to keep up with the amount of information, often from several sources at once, but it is also trying to sort the information and link it to each source. Simultaneously, your brain is trying to make sense of conflicting, contradictory information; it is stuck trying to make the information make sense.

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The typical look when a message board thread starts off amiably enough and then a few hours later, a flame war has erupted and now there’s 500 posts to scroll and 10 people yammering in your IM, threatening to hold you and your forum responsible because Cindy got called a bad word on your board….

Brains tend to process pretty quickly under normal circumstances, but normal circumstances include prioritizing stimuli; information. We consciously miss information as it comes in, which can be absorbed subconsciously, and we concentrate on the most important, relevant information first. Information missed can be retrieved later.

When the brain is overloaded by too much stimuli coming in too fast, which conflicts, the brain loses the ability to make sense of it all, it stops trying to process the information as it is happening. This is what causes the hypnotic state; the brain is forced to concentrate on input instead of processing. The person is literally overwhelmed.

In that moment, whatever is being said to the person ends up stored in their subconscious mind rather than their conscious mind; they hear it, but they don’t process it. The processing mechanism is short-circuited from an active mental state to a passive mental state; this is much like hypnotic suggestion.

This is a known concept now, and it was known in 2007 relative to offline, in-person cult indoctrination. The idea that individuals could be overloaded by mental stimuli over the internet was a whole other story, even in 2007. If anyone was considering the possibility, it was not likely well-known outside of purely academic, social science circles.

According to Steven Hassan, a person could be relegated to such a confused mental state in an offline context that they could be induced into a hypnotic state without ever being aware of it. The question of whether it was possible to do this to people online, over the internet was never addressed. If it had, it likely would have been considered ridiculous.

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And if the flame war thread erupts unexpectedly in your own forum, or you are unexpectedly the target, you end up looking a lot like this.

By 2007 bullying offline among children was beginning to be taken more seriously, likewise cyber-bullying. Workplace bullying and harassment was being paid more attention to, so was on and offline stalking. LiveJournal.com was 8 years old; MySpace was 4 years old; Facebook was 3 years old; YouTube was 2 years old;  Twitter was 1.

Use of the computers and the internet to commit crime on and offline were underway, so was the study of how computers and the internet were being used to commit crime off and online. Policy-makers were drafting and trying to pass legislation on cybercrime and cybersecurity as early as the Clinton administration, on state and Federal levels.

But laws have always been slower to draft and pass than computer technology has advanced, making it easier to commit crimes on and offline using computers. While the Federal Government is prohibited from using computers and the internet to invade privacy of American citizens; marketers get around it with Terms of Service Agreements.

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There is so much confusion in fact, that the viewpoints literally change with the context: Take privacy, civil rights and civil liberties for instance. It’s all fun and games when you click the service agreements to use Microsoft on a new computer, for browsers, for various apps and programs, for site memberships, for anti-virus and anti-malware software so you can use them. It’s all business when you click “I agree” to the service agreements for paying bills online; like utility bills, or online shopping accounts, to receive coupons and advertising from favorite retailers. But everyone loses their minds when privacy, civil rights, and liberties come up in the context of the Government. But then, rightfully so; Microsoft and Amazon probably won’t storm through your house and haul you away for political dissension.

But it wasn’t until relatively recently that anyone took the idea of cult indoctrination and recruitment over the internet into dangerous political and religious groups seriously. Awareness of this began when terrorism and counter-terrorism experts began noting the use of social media and websites by Al-Qaeda and Islamic State to spread propaganda.

It was not until certain lone wolf attacks took place in Europe and the United States in which perpetrators were linked through social media to the spread of  jihadi extremist propaganda that radicalization processes online have been taken seriously. What is the radicalization process if not a cult indoctrination process? They are the same. 

But what does it look like? In 2007 most of the members of Delphi’s sub-section of forums colloquially referred to as “The Dark Forums” had been on the receiving end of demands to appear to the members of a certain forum whenever they had “transgressed” “community rules” (note, this had nothing to do with Delphi’s Terms of Service).

Members were ordered by other members to “account” for themselves and their actions on the server, in their own forums and chat rooms, or the forums and chat rooms of other forums other than the self-appointed forum making the demands. Upon appearing, these members would be subjected to multi-person, hostile and abusive confrontations.

These confrontations were barrages of posts (often very long) containing accusations, criticism, abusive language, threats – in short, if it had been going on in an offline workplace, participants would have been terminated by HR for contributing to a hostile work environment. Organizations would have been held liable for litigation otherwise.

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Nobody ever escapes being dragged into flame wars for long; not on Delphi, LiveJournal.com, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, etc., etc., etc.

A member appearing in a chat would be exposed to the chatroom equivalent of the board/post activity, which is to say, would usually be alone with a large number of hostile, aggressive, and abusive accusers. The result was information overload; the victim would be so overwhelmed that any resistance on their part would be lost.

The individual accused of “wrong-doing” would be so overwhelmed by sheer numbers that their own arguments would be shut down before even being fully made. In chats, there was no chance provided to make a counter-argument; the individual would be so overwhelmed it was virtually impossible to do anything but accept the narrative.

You don’t get the chance to think of a counter-argument much less the chance to provide one. I was summoned to such a chat once, accused of failing to appear there and post an introductory post on their message board. I didn’t recall in 2007 who was there, but there was around 5-6 people. Accusations flew and I was temporarily convinced I was guilty.

In addition to feeling indignant at being accused of something so ridiculous, I had a sense that there was something amiss about the accusation itself, but I was kept too busy to even begin to think what it might be. It didn’t dawn on me until after I closed out of the chatroom that I had left an introduction post on their message boards. I had forgotten.

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“Did I go to X forum on the 5th of September 2005 at 1258 PM, enter the chat room, and declare that Vlad was an evil, two-faced $%#@? Dang, I don’t remember, maybe? I’ve slept since then…”

Showing up to a chatroom or a hostile message board thread full of accusations, hostility, mockery, etc., proved that an individual had something they feared losing; something this self-appointed policing forum could take away from them. In some cases, it was status, in some cases, friendships; approval, acceptance, and a need to be validated.

I had no idea I could be susceptible to such a thing online or off. I had never previously studied cults, cult indoctrination, mind control, and had not gained any understanding yet of the deep psychological forces that come into play between individuals within groups. Back then, I said “No way in hell. Online? That’s crazy” right after experiencing it.

I saw it done successfully in forum message board flame war posts. I saw it done in chats. I was both subjected to it, and a participant in it many times. Very few members of the Delphi server escaped being subject of information overload, not even as objective observers who read but did not otherwise participate.

Threads could go from 1 to 800 posts in the course of a single weekend. Disputes with multiple flame war threads could engulf every one of the forums in the Dark Forums sub-set resulting in 30-40 threads across 20 or so forums, numbering the thousands of posts. The idea was to force the accused to accept the accusation.

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“This one time, in Delphi….THREE WEEKS AND SIX FORUMS LATER…they’re still losing their minds….”

Once the accused party accepted the accusation, or refused it, the self-appointed controlling forum would make a judgment, often decreeing that all other forums abide by their judgment against the accused. This judgment often involved boycotting a forum owned by the accused; and banning the accused from all other forums.

Any forum that did not follow along would be the next to find themselves summoned to the controlling forum for a “demand for accounting”. Failure to comply with such summons resulted in accusations of cowardice, lack of integrity, lack of honor, and “proof of guilt”, judgment would still be passed; and forums and hosts punished.

People who obeyed were rewarded with attention, acceptance, validation, and approval. People who did not obey were punished by the withholding of acceptance, validation, and approval; the shunning of forums, the banning of individuals from the forums of others. At least until the next fight and a new accused party was found. Rinse, repeat.

Providing attention, acceptance, validation, and approval when desirable behavior is given, versus withholding attention, acceptance, validation, and approval when behavior is not desirable is the essence of behavior modification. Usually, behavior modification is done by licensed, experienced, therapists; not by amateurs on an online server.

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“I’ve been banned in 26 forums all because I ate Cheetos in a chat room in X Forum and the moderator got mad.” This actually happened to a friend of mine.

Behavior modification is useful for exactly what it sounds like; modifying negative behavior into positive behavior. Getting children to refrain from temper tantrums in public, eating their vegetables, putting their toys away, cleaning their rooms, doing their homework. Not for controlling people on internet servers or social media.

It is not meant to be used for influencing people’s religious beliefs, political opinions, morality, ethics, or for that matter, consumer purchasing decisions. But it is, isn’t it? All over the internet we have a dynamic of information overload, fake news, truth decay, and behavior modification going on, mostly by people who are not aware of it at all.

This is what is behind the radicalization process; religious and political narrative; it is cult indoctrination. Next up, what happens to people who successfully resist indoctrination?

Further reading:

The evolution of terrorist propaganda: The Paris attack and social media J.M. Berger https://www.brookings.edu/testimonies/the-evolution-of-terrorist-propaganda-the-paris-attack-and-social-media/

Psychology in organizations: The social identity approach (2nd Edition). Alexander Haslam.

Inside terrorism. Bruce Hoffman.

 

 

***This is part 4 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.