According to Steven Hassan, the first thing a cult has to do once it meets a potential recruit, befriends them, learns enough about them and cultivates enough influence, is to disrupt the person’s identity. How do you go about disrupting someone’s identity? First, you determine the operational definition of the word identity; what it is made out of. Identity consists of beliefs, emotions, thinking processes, and behavior.

Your beliefs, emotions, thinking processes, and behavior tend to establish a definitive pattern. Your beliefs, emotions, thinking processes and behavior and thus your definitive pattern, is influenced by life experiences, education, and the interactions with other people, notably friends and family. Last but not least, identity is influenced by how much freedom we have to make life choices.

If you remember in the last post I mentioned the word milieu; it means social environment; and with social environments can come social groups, group norms, and social group narratives. We each pretty much have our own corresponding social environment from which we drew much of our identity. Disruption of identity is what occurs when a dangerous group provides an “artificial reality” and “artificial identity”.

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Memes; I like to think of them as the road signs of internet culture. Maybe it’s just me.

This means that the cult will exert enormous social pressure on the potential recruit to get the recruit to adhere to conform to a proscribed cult identity rather than the identity the recruit previously chose for themselves. Cult mind control is a social process that involves a group of people and requires immersion in a milieu of the cult’s own creation. A recruit has to accept the new identity in order to function in the  new milieu.

Anything that might remind the recruit of their old identity or confirm their former sense of self is pushed away and replaced by the group’s reality. The group’s narrative and ideology is internalized by the recruit and it supersedes the previous belief system. Even if  the recruit starts out “just playing along”, it eventually becomes real. This process can take a few hours, but usually takes days or weeks to “solidify”.

This is when others tend to notice a radical personality change in the cult recruit. There is also a major life course change or interruption. A recruit might start wearing different clothes, reading only sources of information approved by the cult, they may quit school, quit jobs, quit their previous social environments, and avoid or attempt to recruit previous friends and family members.

Delphi was a message board and chatroom community; quintessentially a social environment consisting of tools with which members could construct their own virtual social environment. In the course of socializing with others and creating a social environment that drew mostly like-minded members, an artificial reality was created; one with social pressures, group norms, narratives, and artificial identities.

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A social environment you get to design yourself, and invite all your friends? What’s not to like? And much less expensive than buying a house.

Were radical personality changes going on offline? Not in the case of Delphi; at least not to the level of drastic that Steven Hassan described as typical of offline cults. Delphi members tended to increase the amount of time spent online, on the server than had been normal previous to joining Delphi. Some members started spending less time sleeping at night, or more time on the server while at work.

But most did not start wearing a cult-like approved uniform, or start ascribing to radically different religious or political ideological narratives. None the less, families likely did notice more and more attention being directed online, to the server; more anger, frustration, tears, as members got more and more engrossed in the online drama playing out in the forum message boards and chat rooms.

But online, on Delphi, there was a drastic change in individual personalities; in individual identities, as factions formed, imploded, re-formed, exploded, narratives evolved, sides changed so different versions of the same narratives were accepted along with new alliances. As forums came and went, the milieu shifted by degrees. As “The Delphi Game” indoctrination commenced; online and offline personalities diverged.

Members began doing things and saying things to each other that they never would have likely done or said face-to-face. People who would never even think to go to a friend’s house and secretly record a conversation unbeknownst to the friend, then share it around to other people in order to prove the friend had done something to be shamed for in a community. But they went to each other’s forums and stole chat logs and posts.

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There is just something really low about doing things online that would have constituted lines we would never consider crossing offline. And for what?

It was ridiculously common for individuals in Delphi to say things like “you are not the same person I met and got to know when I first came to Delphi“. Or “I remember the first time I met her, she was so nice, I don’t know what happened to make her so vicious now“. Or, “When I first met that guy, he was really cool; we’d talk about everything going on in our lives for hours. Now, he doesn’t talk at all, to anyone, ever.”

Signing off from the server, we resumed our normal lives and normal identities. But signing online and into Delphi, into our false reality, we took on our false identities. We all knew when a brand new profile, empty except for gender specification, hit the forum visitor log, it was someone trying to be anonymous, in the forum to spy and steal information. When it posted and signed off with “Be Well“, they weren’t “new”.

We all knew who we could talk freely in front of (because we’d tested them before and nothing ever grew legs and wandered to someone else’s private folders), and who we couldn’t (because anything said grew legs and wandered to someone else’s private folders). We knew who to get information from, because they would talk, and we knew who to give false information to, and then kick back and see where they took it.

We knew who to be careful giving out phone numbers to, and who was going to use a phone number to track down a physical address. We knew to never reveal where we worked because a rival would track the phone number, call a boss and say things that weren’t true. We knew not to ever sign into Delphi from a work station computer because we knew of others who had, got hacked as a result, and lost their jobs.

We knew to adhere very closely to the letter of the Delphi Terms of Service because if you crossed it, ten people were going to report you in an attempt to get you banned by Delphi Staff. We all knew (and to this day, know) we are not the same people who first joined Delphi two decades ago; we know why we aren’t. Because in the course of learning “The Delphi Game” we got conditioned to the milieu and how to act.

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The lowest point of all is when you have some jerk gloat at you, about learning “The Delphi Game” so well, as if you had been a willing apprentice and he the master, only to realize you may as well have been willing.

We all came into Delphi as ourselves, our own personalities, our own milieu, and our own identities. We all became part of the Dark Forums milieu, we became our artificial identities on the server; conditioned to act through “The Delphi Game” indoctrination process. Members still talk about other members who, through acts of kindness and emotional support, saved their lives; and then they changed; became unrecognizable.

Did Delphi change people for the worst? Does Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Reddit, various blogging platforms, websites? No, not really. They are just places on the internet where people go to read, generate content, communicate. What they communicate, how they structure the tone of their communications, to what degree individuals can shape the social environment of the platform; THAT is what changes people.

Delphi’s artificial reality within the “Dark Forums Community” evolved by mutual consent of the members. A few people decided on “community rules” and people in factions decided on the content of their factional narratives. A few people decided what the “community” norms were going to be, and what methods and strategies would be used to bring about conformity across all of these forums.

In other places on the internet, artificial realities are the rule, not the exception. They too evolve by mutual consent of their members. A few people decide on “rules”, and a few people cultivate narratives sympathetic to their cause, and everyone else is offered the opportunity to accept the rules, the norms, the narratives, the artificial reality and an artificial identity within the greater group (cult) identity.

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Case in point: wandering into an online hub for Vegans anywhere on the internet, just quietly leave and make no mention of not being Vegan. Even if you like Vegan food along with non-Vegan food. Trust me.

Every one of us is guilty of one thing. Every time we enter a new environment, social or otherwise, online or otherwise, we tend to adopt a When in Rome… policy. We decide if we want to stay based on what we learn of the environment and the attachments we make to others we find. We lose (or give up) our individuality to a group “hive mind”. We create enemies and unite against them, build a collective identity and cede our own.

The “us against them” mentality creates fear; it provides a false common ground, and establishes a dependence on a leadership that may not even be chosen. When there is an “umbrella of protection” extended, there is often a negation of choice, independent thinking, and the ability to make decisions for oneself. Eleven years ago, in Delphi, there were people who told other members not to read the original blog.

They convinced members of several factions that I had nothing worthwhile to say, and then they set about giving their followers a negatively biased description of the blog contents. That was a prime example of mind control at work. If someone convinces you to not read something for yourself, to not form your own opinions, to rely on them to give you their opinions, then you are not under your own control.

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To be fair, there are people who would still say I have nothing worthwhile to say. That’s fine, people pleasing is not a master talent 😉

It was a really simple problem for me to resolve. I didn’t need to beg anyone to read the original blog entries dealing with cult mind control. I didn’t need to argue, I didn’t need to send others out to convince people to read it, or give them a more positive spin of its contents. I merely pointed out that the members were capable of thinking for themselves; they were free to agree, or disagree as they saw fit.

People have become used to basing their opinions and beliefs on the opinions and beliefs of others in their social environment. This environment means family groups, social circles, school campuses, employment coaches, churches, workplaces, marketing departments, sales and advertising, all the way to the Klu Klux KlanStormfront, the Sovereign Citizens, Al-Qaeda, and Islamic State.

We all should ask ourselves whether it is wise to take the word of someone who makes a business of telling us what they think we think. We should ask ourselves whether it is wise to trust the judgment or the word of people who clearly don’t think we are smart enough to think for ourselves. We should ask ourselves where our self-doubts came from, where the lack of confidence came from, how did we end up with low self-esteem in the first place?

All I had to do was remind the Delphi members that they were all capable of reading the blog for themselves. They weren’t too young, or too stupid, they didn’t need self-appointed caretakers to read something to them and then tell them what to think. They could read whatever they want and think about what it means to them. They didn’t need anyone else to interpret their native language for them.

They just had to trust their own judgment and decide for themselves.

Further reading:

https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/ideology/white-nationalist

 ***This is part 7 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.