The theory of cognitive dissonance comes from the psychologist Leon Festinger who described it as having three main components. Those components are control of behavior, control of thoughts, and control of emotions. The original theory stopped at three components but Steven Hassan suggested there was one more; control of information. Hassan felt that cognitive dissonance, plus control of information, combined with behavior modification, conformity, and obedience to authority, makes up the psychological foundation for cult mind control.

According to Festinger, we can tolerate a small amount of discrepancy between our thoughts, feelings and actions, which make up the different components of our identities. Festinger’s theory states, (and further research has supported) that if you can change one of those three components, (thoughts, feelings, or actions) the other two components will shift to reduce the conflict generated by that change. If someone were to change all three components of Festinger’s theory, thoughts, feelings, and actions, then we are “swept away”.

The uncomfortable feeling you get when you conform to social pressure you do not necessarily agree with or don’t understand is cognitive dissonance. In conforming you are changing one or more of the following: behavior, thoughts or feelings. Something is out of congruence which causes the uncomfortable feeling.

Steven Hassan illustrates Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance by describing an alien contactee cult in the 1950s. The cult’s leader promoted the idea that aliens would appear on a certain date, to pick up the group and save them from a disastrous flood. When the flood didn’t happen, the group was laughed at by the public. The leader’s explanation to his group was “the aliens saw our faithful vigil, and decided to spare the planet from this flood.” The majority of the group accepted the explanation because doing so minimized the cognitive dissonance.

It was easier for the cult members to accept that “aliens had observed their proscribed behaviors and decided to spare the planet from a flood”, because it allowed them to continue behaving, thinking, and feeling positively toward the leader. Otherwise, they had to accept media criticism of their behavior, thoughts, and feelings about the leader they had chosen to follow. If they changed their behavior, they also had to change their thoughts and feelings and vice versa.

Another way of thinking about it is that we use information to help us justify our thoughts, feelings, and then we behave accordingly. Within groups, there are social pressures to modify behavior, especially in the interest of conformity and obedience to group norms, rules, and leader directives. In cults, there is all of that but it tends to be more rigid, more dogmatic, all outside, unapproved information is discredited and members are prohibited from accessing it.

“Aliens”. Oh come on, you know you were thinking it too. 😉

Information content provided to members of a cult is screened, approved, or created, and it is disseminated in ways that minimize questions and alternative interpretation. The only correct interpretation of the information is the interpretation approved by the leadership. Thus, controlled information controls individual thinking, feeling, and behavior. But behavior can also control thoughts and feelings; which means it can be used to reinforce information.

In 2007 I discussed an example of Festinger’s cognitive dissonance with Hassan’s additional thoughts on information control, behavior modification, conformity, and obedience to authority in the context of Delphi for the Delphi membership, using familiar examples. This example involved the originating forum, called The Dark Realm (TDR) which appeared sometime in 1999 or 2000. Delphi had a thriving sub-section of religious and spirituality forums; it wasn’t unusual.

This forum was different because it claimed to be a “dark spirituality” forum and this was new and novel. Nobody really knew what this was supposed to be about, and many thought it involved Satanism or secular humanism. The forum members were fairly secretive; chats were usually full, and uncharacteristically devoid of public conversation (apparently there was chatter going on in chat private messages among insiders).

One of the more unsettling personality changes that took place among TDR’s cadre, some of them friends at the time, was the sudden seriousness and reserve; and then occasionally expressions of “darkness” like this one.

The tone of the message boards tended to be generally neutral, civil, and polite but not overly friendly, not overly welcoming, and definitely not cheery. Most of the members that joined were known from other parts of Delphi; fairly extroverted and feisty in temperament, most were there to engage in lively conversation and joking around. But in this group they all became uniformly and disturbingly serious. No jokes in chat, no conversation in chat, no humor on the boards.

The tone of the forum was so atypical to the rest of Delphi that it began to catch a lot of curiosity, most of it friendly since nobody really knew what to expect our of this new faction. Inquiries as to whether the group practiced Satanism did result in unusually sharp-toned retorts from the members so word spread fast to not even bring up that word. TDR’s members continued to go to other forums but they no longer engaged in friendly banter.

Curiosity naturally continued to increase about the nature of this group; what they were all about, so they continued to attract more and more attention. Then the trolling started, seemingly out of the blue. Random individuals from other forums all over the Delphi Forums server started coming in and dropping angry messages on their message boards; they were pretty detailed and included accusations of members of TDR harassing members of other forums.

By this point TDR had acquired quite a large membership roster of recruits; many of them also members of my own forum Borderlands. Having taken notice of the uncharacteristic level of seriousness from people I had known for a while at that point, I began keeping an eye on TDR, making regular visits to study the message boards and visiting the chat a few times. With no apparent chatting going on I did not stay long, and never formally joined the group.

When the first “trolls” began showing up to drop their angry messages on the board, the reaction out of the members of TDR was startling. En masse, as a group, they would drop two, three, four dozen posts to every “troll” post, like they had all been poised on the forum patiently waiting for the “troll” to arrive. The return messages were cold in tone and surprisingly harsh; they tended to consist of accusations of religious persecution and defensive on grounds of Freedom of Religion.

It was hard not to draw an analogy between Delphi’s Dark Forums and Cold War nations; especially given the common context of “enemies”, “allies”, “instigators”, and “spies”, and the pressure for forum owners to ban individuals in accordance with “Dark Forums Community” policy.

Initially this caused a lot of the onlookers like me to become sympathetic and rally around the TDR members, many of them were still long-time friends and associates on other forums. Most of us had no understanding of what kind of beliefs the group had; they wouldn’t talk with outsiders about it, but none of us had been given any reason to go on the attack so we could not fathom why members of other forums from other areas of Delphi would be doing so.

The “controversy” did not make sense. Even when other spirituality forums had fought on account of rivalries, it was nothing like this. And then one day a friend of mine sent me an invitation to a private forum she owned that was otherwise unknown. While looking at the message boards, I came across a whole thread where TDR’s leader had blitzed her with several hostile and scathing posts. It was not clear why; something to do with control of TDR.

Later, I found out my friend had been the original owner and founder of TDR, she had developed the original set of members, but then this individual had joined, along with two other notable individuals, and they had succeeded in gathering support from her group in favor of this other person to become the leader. Apparently it was a bitter enough fight that she surrendered the forum to this other person and either the attack was a final run at her to drive her out of the group, or he was angry that she was leaving, I wasn’t sure.

So there I was looking at posts from TDR’s leader in someone else’s forum, on the offensive with a friend of mine and basically daring her to come back to TDR and have her say to him there. And it clicked right then and there on why TDR had been getting “trolls” from all over Delphi (who were really just angry forum owners following “trolls” home to tell them to never come back to their forums again because of the way they had behaved there). The members were going out and picking fights in other forums and leading angry members back to TDR.

On purpose; deliberately making it look like their forum was under constant “attack” by “religious bigots”. The truth was, the rest of Delphi could not have cared less about their “dark spirituality”, but they needed the appearance of “controversy” to keep the rest of us onlookers interested, to potentially recruit us, and to create a false dichotomy; “us versus them”. They were controlling the information by controlling the situation; controlling behaviors to control feelings and thoughts. This united front against “enemies” gave TDR a measure of power.

Consensus is a term that means general agreement or harmony in groups; or solidarity. While all of us make our own decisions, there are instances where our decisions are made based on awareness of social opinions and norms. In this decision-process, most people choose the opinion that has the most adherents, making it a “numbers game”.

This fed the “narrative” as TDR’s leadership began instructing their members publically to only go to forums “known to be friendly”. The faction’s leadership began to engage familiar forum owners as “allies” where their members would be “safe” from “attackers”, which tightened TDR’s position with these other forums and brought members even closer to group recruitment. Some of the TDR members were groomed to spy on other forums, friendly and otherwise, looking for whatever could be used to undermine individuals and weed out undesirables.

Antisocial behavior was encouraged toward outsiders, and because they were a “dark spirituality” forum nobody had to feel bad about the way outsiders were treated. Attacking “enemies” of TDR was considered protectiveness and a show of loyalty to the group. It was one way an outsider could more quickly become an insider. The harder you worked to protect the group, the more likely you were to be admitted to the group.

Members were also discouraged from going elsewhere in Delphi; by this point the forum was being “attacked by trolls” daily and paranoia was rising about members being ambushed if caught alone in unfriendly forums. Likely this was a means of keeping members in the TDR forum and ignorant of fight instigation in other forums around the server.

In hindsight, I have no idea what my friend’s intention really was when she invited me to that forum to witness the barrage of hostile posts from the individual who pulled a hostile take-over of her group. For all I know, she staged it because I had been deemed an “undesirable” by this second leader. At the time, I didn’t concern myself with my friend’s motives; I likely did exactly what they wanted me to do.

I confronted TDR’s leader about the barrage of hostile posts, stating he was acting like a cult leader. He did not respond directly. Instead, members of TDR began lurking my forum around the clock for several weeks in organized shifts. Apparently I was expected to follow him back to TDR and demand an explanation for his attack on my friend, and when I did not, they hoped to instigate me to attack them on my forum.

Funny taunt but the truth is that terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda, Islamic State, and others find more adherents to their rhetoric and narratives after we “bomb the shit out of” them, because we killed family members and friends in those bombings. Many Americans join groups like the Sovereign Citizens and the NRA because of a fear of what might happen to friends and families from internal and external “enemies”. The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were not just successful because of the number of victims, they were successful because they got us to attack two countries and kill thousands of civilians; which helped them recruit more adherents.

I locked their members out instead and never went back to TDR. Had I done what everyone else in Delphi had done, I might have exposed myself to accusations of a nature that would have undermined the trust and friendships in my own forum. TDR may have recruited members of my forum to their ranks as a result. Likely I would have been harassed into deleting my forum and profile, and lost several offline friendships.

Consider the political climate in the United States over the last 18 years to the present; and especially in the wake of the 2016 Presidential Election. In 1999 the vast majority of people could not have cared less about the affairs of Washington DC. Most of it had little to no effect on them. The night of the 2000 Election, several people I knew had no idea who was running for President and didn’t care.

Generally speaking, most people didn’t like or trust politicians and it didn’t really matter if they were Republican or Democrat, Conservative or Liberal. Churches were prohibited from being government sanctioned at any level; they weren’t taxed but they also did not receive government funding for the provision of public services. The Religious Right had already organized but few took them seriously as a threat to democracy.

In the years since there has been a steady increase in politicization and polarization on all levels of society. The terms “Conservative” and “Liberal” have become emotionally charged labels at best, derogatory terms at worst. Politicians espouse extremist views on both sides, Christianity looks more like a political party than a religion, and Human Rights, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties are being championed by Atheists and Satanists.

So very true; though in several places this kind of polarization has led to many instances of real violence between specific religious groups, and factions within religious groups. Christians versus Muslims, Atheists, and other Christians; Muslims versus Christians, Atheists, and other Muslims; none of this is new but in theocratic dictatorship countries, or countries where one religion is favored by government, this gets real people really killed. 

Over the years as the internet has continued to evolve and public discourse has moved from primarily paid news media employees and newspaper editorial sections to news media rss feeds, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, websites and blogs, individuals have progressively gotten more political, in some cases more religious, in others, more anti-religious. Hate groups and militia groups rose and fell, rose and fell and rose again.

As violent hate rhetoric has increased from the Right, the Left has answered back with its own; and ordinary citizens have not only been identifying themselves as Republican or Democrat, but as Conservative, Moderate, or Liberal, and as members of the Right or the Left. Arguments erupt into flame wars, and people are ending friendships and blocking their own family members from their social media sites.

Hate crimes are up, gun sales are up, mass shootings continue, propaganda and misinformation is everywhere, and the CEO of Facebook is explaining how social media works to Congressional Policy-Makers who are brutally clueless. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center there are 31 active hate groups in Ohio alone; 954 active hate groups in the United States as of 2017, most of them have an online presence.

All of them have their own brand of rhetoric and narrative. All of them work hard to control the behaviors of their members. All of them work hard to control the information their members have access to. All of them work hard to control the feelings of their members. All of them work hard to control the thoughts of their members. All of them spend a great deal of time and energy on recruitment.

Two-thirds of participants in Stanley Milgram’s experiment believed they were killing someone but continued to do it because they believed responsibility would fall to the authority figure instructing them to continue. There was no threat of violence against them if they refused and yet, two-thirds did not refuse. Two people with no real authority controlled a sub-set of forums (over 20; probably close to 60 individuals) for about 6 years, just by saying they had authority and manipulating most of the rest into agreeing to it.

Just like the terrorist groups in the Middle-East, Africa, and Southeast Asia do. Al Qaeda, Al-Shaabab, Islamic State, Boku Haram, and many, many others, are cults; so are some of these American hate groups. They organize like businesses, in some cases business franchises. It would not surprise me if some of them have shareholders. They organize online; they spread their rhetoric and narrative online. The cause insurrections against governments both good and corrupt alike. They do so to seize power without elections.

Hate is effectively both a domestic and an exportable product; but the ultimate end goal is regime change. The problem is there are a few different groups that want to be the new regime and there is no guarantee on who would eventually win. Yemen, Libya, Syria, the Somalia’s; these are all countries where ordinary people are in the cross hairs of military from multiple other nations and terrorist warlords; forced from homes, jobs, and lives.

Next up, a closer look at the individual components of cognitive dissonance: control of behavior; control of emotions; control of thought, and control of information.


***This is part 11 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.