The term behavior control means exactly what it sounds like. It is a component of Cognitive Dissonance Theory and it is generally more applicable in offline dangerous cult environments but can be applied to an online environment; something that no one I knew ever suspected much less expected in 2007. Steven Hassan defined behavior control as “the regulation of an individual’s physical reality. It includes the control of his environment.”
By control of an individual’s behavior including environment, Hassan meant control of the following: the clothes an individual wears, the food an individual eats, the amount of sleep a member gets. Members of cults have their actions regulated by the group, from what actions they perform, to the rituals they participate in, to the jobs they work. Behavior control is carefully regulated through daily schedules where members must account for every minute of the day.
In offline cults members must ask permission to do anything; permission must be asked before buying something from a store and permission must be asked before going to a doctor. Permission must especially be asked before a member can contact outside non-members such as friends and family. Behavior is also controlled through group indoctrination sessions, group rituals, and goal or task assignments; the idea is to restrict a member’s free time.
Members of a cult are also controlled through the idea that everyone must live, eat, sleep, work, and go through indoctrination sessions together as a group. Individuality is discouraged; and members are never left alone for even a moment of privacy. Individuals are paired together or assigned to small groups of half a dozen members (notice the similarity to the description of a terrorist cell organization). Member behavior is controlled by being kept busy at all times.
Offline cult environments are carefully regulated; there is usually an established hierarchy and an authoritarian leadership. There is usually a “praise and punishment” system, if a member does what the leader wants; they get public praise, perhaps a promotion. If the member does something the leader doesn’t like or does not perform to the group’s standard, they will find themselves publicly singled out, criticized and possibly humiliated.
Members are usually kept off-balance and guessing on where they stand with the leadership and the “praise and punishment” system often includes member confessions of any infractions; this is effective in making a member actively participate in their own punishment. When this happens the member comes to believe they deserve the punishment for failing to adhere to the standards or beliefs of the group and the leader.
According to Hassan, every cult-like group “has its own distinctive set of ritual behaviors that help bind the group together. This can include mannerisms of speech, posture, and facial expressions as well as the more traditional ways of representing group belief.” This is true of most groups; the terms “lingo”, “jargon”, and “key words” refer to the distinctive language used in different business industries for instance. This allows insiders to identify other insiders while at the same time screening outsiders and determining if they “fit” or not.
Lastly, “Obedience to a leader’s command is the most important lesson to learn. The leaders cannot command someone’s inner thoughts, but they know that if they command behavior, hearts and minds will follow.” To understand how this related to the Delphi “Dark Forums”, one has to look at the Delphi server environment. It is an online server community consisting of forums and chat rooms; topics range from spirituality/religious, role play, flirt, politics, and many others.
The “Dark Forums” themselves were a conglomeration of light role play, some permitted flirting, others did not, and role play itself consisted of members mostly being themselves though in the context of fantasy-based artificial environment. The environment was peppered with spirituality topics, and political intrigue. Officially there were forum hosts (forum owners), forum staff (not to be confused with Delphi Staff), forum members, and forum visitors.
To be a forum host, members had to pay a membership to Delphi; forum staff was forum assistants and moderators with some access to forum controls. Forum members were individuals who placed a forum on their favorites list and visited regularly; forum visitors were members that may or may not be members, may become members, or may be former members of a forum. Informally, there were also community elders, houses and clans, founders/leaders, house or clan elders and family members. There were also allies, spies, and enemies, and alias profiles.
There was also “The Delphi Game” which was at best quasi-dogmatic; typically it was described as something that “can’t be explained, it is something you have to experience.” Basically, individuals were left to “figure it out on your own” or brought into a faction group that would show them the ropes so to speak; one could not “get it” with “The Delphi Game” until one had been fully submersed in it; one “had to learn to sink or swim”. It took about two years for a member to be fully acclimated to “The Delphi Game”; it was the “cult doctrinal truth”.
The Delphi environment was intended to be controlled by forum hosts; backed up by Delphi Staff as needed. However, because of the claim of false authority made by two individuals of one forum and faction, forum hosts became answerable to “community elders” (appointed by them). If a forum host was not a house or clan leader, but a member of a house or clan, then they were answerable to their house or clan.
Unaffiliated members were answerable to the host of whatever forum they were in. If the forum host was a house or clan leader, or a member of a house or clan, the unaffiliated member was answerable to a whole group of people, most especially the forum host and house or clan leader. If the forum adhered to the “community rules” (and sometimes if they didn’t), everyone could be considered answerable to “community elders” and the self-appointed lead forum. Unaffiliated individuals generally had to run a gauntlet in order to be accepted and it usually started rough.
First, the unaffiliated visitor would visit a forum and usually got ignored for the first visit or first few visits depending on the custom of the forum and forum host. If the unaffiliated visitor returned frequently but did not post, it was usually questioned on message board posts. If it fled with posts unanswered, it was usually locked out. If it returned and responded, it was usually asked to read the start page and post an introduction. If it survived, it would get invited to chat.
By 2005 there were few unaffiliated members circulating within the Dark Forums; it was rare because most individuals joined a faction for the safety of numbers. There were however, a rare few that would traverse the forums, known, but otherwise ignored or harassed depending on the forum. There were virtually no real unknown, unaffiliated profiles, though there were probably a couple hundred alias profiles circulating. These were extra profiles used mostly for spying.
Known members, belonging to factions or no, would use alias profiles to access forums they were not welcome in. Some took to using them as disguises, pretending to be new, so that they could get information about themselves or others from “enemies”, usually to “prove” they were “enemies”. Some used “aliases” to escape The Delphi Game political intrigue which was usually a fast-paced constant state on the server. The intrigue is what took up hours of a day or night.
The next step was a round of “Delphi History Lessons”; faction members would tell the “newcomer” the “history” of the server, of the Dark Forums, of the various factions and individuals that were part of those factions. It would be the version specific to that particular faction, and the faction telling the story might embellish or edit the story relative to the faction the “newcomer” was suspected to be from. Misinformation would also be made part of a faction conversation in front of “newcomers” especially if they were suspected of being a spy.
Over a period of weeks or months, a “newcomer” might earn the trust of a faction by becoming a regular presence in the forum and in the chats, if information discussed did not seem to be appearing elsewhere in private folders of other factions. If the “newcomer” was prone to accepting what they were told without question, were obedient to the faction leadership, and quick to defend the faction from others; they might become trusted enough to be invited to join the faction.
Sometimes they stayed; revealing their former identity to their new faction leader and were given a new identity, perhaps the rest of the faction would be told, other times they might be kept in the dark. Sometimes keeping the rest of the faction in the dark would come back to bite the faction leader and be used as the impetus for the rest of the faction to leave. Sometimes the “newcomer” stayed for a time, and stole the contents of the faction’s private folder messages for their real faction and the self-appointed lead faction of the community.
Behavior in Delphi was controlled by the factions and leaders much like it is in a real family. Individuals help each other out with favors (forum html and css, and profile “sig” pictures were a fast track into someone’s confidence). Faction leaders and members encouraged behavior emulation, regular forum and chat attendance, defense of faction, leader, and forum, and intelligence collection on all other factions, leaders, and members. If a newcomer was less than enthusiastic in any of these behaviors, they would be informed of leader distrust.
If individuals stuck around, learned and complied with the expectations of “The Delphi Game” eventually they would conform to one group or another. They would eventually learn to be obedient to one “authority” or another. As they modified their behavior to conform to the demands set upon them, so too, did they modify their thoughts, and emotions towards their chosen group, and that group’s “enemies”. In justifying behavior, thoughts, and emotions with loyalty to the faction they would create their Delphi identity. Loyalty always had to be proven.
Proving loyalty to one’s faction usually consisted of not talking to members outside of your own faction or the members of allied factions. Because individuals frequently changed factions and factions frequently changed from “allied” to “enemy” status, friendships were either severed or they persisted clandestinely out of the purview of faction leaders. Some leaders also might ignore it if their faction member was using their friend as an unwitting informant on the other faction. Sometimes friends simply refused to be parted, so they would don an alias and flip factions.
In the ensuing arguments and drama phrases like “neutrality doesn’t work” and terms like “fence-walker” were used to encourage mistrust between members of factions. Individuals would be shown mounds of “proof” of their friend’s “offenses” and “Delphi crimes” in an effort to coax them into severing the friendships. If they continued to refuse, and did not slip away, don an alias and join their friend’s faction under a new name, they usually got kicked out of their faction for being a “traitor”; or at least a suspected traitor.
Individuals who flipped factions too much would be criticized and held accountable for it; called “unreliable”, and gain a reputation for “switching sides and being disloyal at the drop of a hat.” The self-appointed protectors of Delphi would usually take the lead on persecuting such members, encouraging new factions to kick them out, encouraging other factions to ban them from the forums, and encouraging these individuals to leave Delphi altogether as “unaccepted”. Or, they would try to prove loyalty to one faction or other by spying at least until caught.
In some groups, tasks were assigned. The first official use of “spies” and “aliases for spying” was done by The Dark Realm forum, whose leadership assigned its members to spy on other forums, individual outsiders in Delphi, and their own inside group. This included intelligence collection of offline information through phishing and use of scripts and programs. In one instance, an outsider was asked to stalk an insider offline because both parties lived in the same city. Members that knew each other offline were often the targets of intelligence collection.
Intelligence collection on an individual or a faction was also used by TDR and its legacy forum; the owners of which would make it their sole mission to “accuse” other members and factions, of “wrong-doing”. Forum owners, faction leaders, and members were often subject to accusations, “demands for accounting” abuse, and humiliation if they refused to comply. Other factions were pressured to aid in bringing others into conformity by participating in calls for confession.
God help you if you did confess to something in Delphi. Like any offline cult that practices forced member confession, a member might be “forgiven” but if they stepped out of line again, anything and everything that was ever confessed, was brought right back out again in a laundry list of “Delphi crimes”. The individual, sometimes whole factions were driven out of forums and nearly out of Delphi altogether. Individuals and groups were “outcasted” from the “community”.
Friends would be forced to shun the individual at least publicly or suffer the same fate. Other individuals who had never met the outcast individual or faction would be shown the “list of Delphi crimes” and confessions. These members would be literally conditioned against the outcast members and might never realize there were levels of context to which they were never privy. In short order, factions developed minor distinctiveness in personality; the Dark Forums developed a very distinctive uniformity in behavior including group posturing and norms.
TDR members came to be known for the public image of “tall, dark, and scary”, complete with glacial attitude. It was so pronounced I could not help but ask if they had to sit in the dark with flashlights held under their chins any time they typed. Another faction insisted its members (and chat guests) behave with the mannerisms and decorum of the Victorian era. A guest got kicked out for pretending to eat Cheetos in the chat room. Members even developed prejudices against fantasy-based persona archetypes because of faction fighting.
By controlling the emotions and thoughts in an online format behavior can be controlled. Al-Qaeda and Islamic State as well as other groups have proven that it is possible to radicalize individuals on the internet. Luckily in the Dark Forums the controlling faction was not interested in controlling members offline; perhaps because their rumored goal was to drive members out of Delphi altogether. But there are many other groups out there that benefit from control of members offline; specifically in the form of money.
Money buys influence, power and control.
Coming up next is a closer look at thought control in an online cult environment. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading.
***This is part 12 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.