Once a person has been broken down and indoctrinated into a new belief system he must be “built up again” as a “new man or woman”. The new identity must have new activities and “a new purpose in life” in order to solidify. The techniques of the previous two stages, unfreezing and changing are still occurring in this, the third stage, re-freezing. Cult leaders want to know that the cult identity being formed is strong and fully internalized in the new recruit before letting the recruit out of the immediate environment.
“The first and most important task of the new identity is to criticize the previous self”. The worst thing is for the recruit to act like his or her old self. The recruit must act like the new self which fully forms after several months. As the process occurs the recruit’s memory distorts, minimizing good things in the past and maximizing sins, failings, hurts and guilt. Special talents, hobbies, interests, friends and family must be abandoned, preferably in dramatic public acts if they compete with commitment to the cause.
Confession is used to purge the person of his or her past and further embed him or her in the cult. This process allows reinforcement of approved behaviors as well as reinforcing the ideas about behaviors that bring disapproval from the group. This also reinforces the group’s knowledge of past behaviors that can be used against the recruit later should the recruit step out of line with the group either ideologically or behaviorally speaking (or both).
During the re-freezing phase the primary method of passing on new information is called modeling. Modeling is a well-known, very common learning method and involves pairing a learner with a more experienced mentor. This is because it is the first and earliest learning method; children learn by imitating parents. In this case it involves pairing new recruits with experienced members, the new recruit learns by imitating the mentor. In cults, the recruit may be referred to as a “spiritual child” and the mentor “the spiritual parent”.
This rewards the mentor with ego gratification while keeping the mentor on his or her best behavior. It also provides the new member with a role experience to look forward to; the new recruit will look forward to a future time when they can become a respected role model and mentor, trusted to train junior members of their own. The new group now idealizes itself as the new member’s “true family” and some cults insist on a literal transferral of family loyalty.
In re-freezing the new identity, some groups will give the recruit a new name, they may change the recruit’s clothing style, hair style, and whatever else may remind them of their past identity. They are taught a new jargon that is distinctive to that group (or “loaded language”) that fosters a sense of unity with the group identity. This is the point where a group can get a person to donate their possessions and financial assets. This benefits the cult, makes it harder for recruits to leave, and freezes the recruit to the commitment because it is painful to admit to making a big mistake.
Sleep deprivation, lack of privacy, and dietary changes are sometimes continued well into this phase (usually), and can last several months or longer. Relocating a new member to another city serves to move them beyond the influences of family and friends. Moving a member away to another city and away from familiar surroundings also fosters a dependency on the group and its authority figures [this kind of isolation can also be non-cult affiliated; people move to new cities and then onto online servers seeking companionship – making them vulnerable to online radicalization].
“The new member is typically assigned to proselytizing duty as soon as possible. Research in social psychology has shown that nothing firms up one’s beliefs faster than trying to sell them to others. Making new members do so crystallizes the cult identity quickly.”
Some groups will send recruits to proselytize in particularly humiliating and difficult circumstances in order to foster an idea of martyrdom and suffering for the cause which helps freeze their commitment even further. After a few weeks, the recruit is sent back for re-indoctrination and the process becomes a cycle repeated dozens of times for several years; proselytizing for the group, then re-indoctrination (likely with repeated group criticism and confession with the idea of seeking performance “improvement”).
“After a novice spends enough time with “older” members, the day finally comes when he can be trusted to train other newcomers by himself. Thus, the victim becomes victimizer, to perpetuate the destructive system.”
In a Delphi Forums online context, after all is said and done; folks had been through “The Delphi Game” for a few years, the “loaded language” had been learned, and the “spontaneous fights” in chats or forum boards have been determined to not have not been “spontaneous” after all. When one has learned that chat logs can be faked, edited, passed around, you get to a point where nothing much really surprises you anymore. You have learned how to spot the start of another argument by who is involved, and how and why it is about to erupt. Like lining up a bowling ball for a strike.
Maybe you think “I should just delete this profile and dump this place for good” except you have a lot of time invested here. Perhaps a lot of money has been invested in forum fees and profile memberships, and perhaps there has been a lot of emotional investment as well. We became attached to those individuals we considered friends. Some may have even developed a touch of affection for their biggest rivals. We had been indoctrinated.
We had been indoctrinated in forum chat rooms, message boards, by veteran peers and by personal experience in dealing with other individuals on the server who seemed determined to cause trouble and grief. Members did something hurtful, begged forgiveness, then did it again, and we had been indoctrinated to respond in proscribed ways. “Mess with me, fine. Mess with my faction and it’s war” is a perfect example. Does that seem like a reasonable, rational line of thinking?
Faction full of grown adults on an internet server got all worked up because other grown adults said something cruel in a message board post (usually in private, but somebody leaked or stole it), and suddenly some people needed to be defended from others, and some people had to do the defending? If a faction is so “tough” why weren’t the members expected to defend themselves and why didn’t the leaders insist on their members taking responsibility?
Why did people need to defend or be defended instead of taking responsibility for what they said, did, or thought, in public or in private? Why did anyone have to care about whether or not someone liked them or not, or if they liked them publicly but maybe not so much privately? It gave everyone an excuse to invade each other’s privacy; to criticize, to demand confessions of “wrong-doing”? It gave everyone an excuse to be cruel, to intimidate, and to refuse to trust.
We had been indoctrinated to save chat logs; both from Delphi and also from the instant messengers especially when we had prior knowledge that the person we were talking to was in the habit of saving them and passing them on to others. More so when someone had to talk to a person known to instigate fights by trying to set people up; often using creatively edited logs. One learned the hard way, save a log or be the victim of one used against you.
Some had been indoctrinated to believe that one particular group had “authority” on the server; in the subset of Delphi forums called “The Dark Forums” even though they were paying members just like everyone else. Some people had been indoctrinated to believe that this group could bestow status or take it away, that staying on their good side meant acceptance in the forums, some were afraid to speak against that group for fear of reprisal and harassment.
Some had been indoctrinated to believe that other factions in opposition to this dominant self-appointed “authority” were dangerous; some were reputedly “criminals”, “cult-leaders”, “evil”, “abusive”, “immoral”, “depraved”, at least one was supposedly a “drunk”. Everyone else needed to be “protected” from these opposition factions; they were out of control and bad for good relations in the “community”.
The “authority” would work to “get proof” of their claims, especially if they could do it by turning a member against their own. Usually the “proof” would be something ordinary, but the content would be taken out of context or otherwise used to argue some sort of “wrong-doing”, and the more one protested, the more one looked “guilty”. Members of factions that were turned would be forced to confess and exiled from the forums or the server.
Some were indoctrinated to believe that two factions who were friendly with one another must have a “secret alliance” (manipulating them into forming one). Sometimes they just got along and were friends. Some were indoctrinated to believe that if someone was hanging out with a faction, they were going to join that faction; manipulating the faction into accepting the individual and the individual into joining the faction.
All were indoctrinated into the idea that being friendly with an individual or with a faction meant that if that individual or faction got “attacked”, they had to prove their friendship by adding to the defensive arguments. Thus a faction under attack could be divided from other friendly factions if they failed to take a side. And individuals could be divided from other individuals for the same reason; failure to take a side. One was not permitted to be a “fence-sitter”. Neutrality was against the “rules”.
“Fence-sitters can’t be trusted”; but not being a “fence-sitter” usually meant you had to take the role of being a “wind-up hero”. Leaders of factions usually were the “wind-up heroes” or their lieutenants were. Factions usually ended up adopting individuals who were attacked; this too could be manipulated if you wanted to put someone into a rival group without the rival group suspecting anything. You just got someone to play the picked on victim.
Why couldn’t groups stand down and let other groups defend themselves without being treated like “betrayers”? Why couldn’t individuals be expected to stand up for themselves without the rest of the faction running to the rescue? Why were individuals always expecting their friends to come running to their rescue every time they did or said something they didn’t feel like taking responsibility for? And for that matter, why couldn’t they take responsibility for their actions (it was considered weakness)?
“The Delphi Game” indoctrinated everyone to think, feel, and behave in a high state of constant paranoia; so much so that one could not talk about Delphi or “The Delphi Game” to outsiders unfamiliar with the server, because it made no sense. This kept members in Delphi reliant on one another for support. The process of unfreezing, changing and re-freezing within an online environment was in its own way isolating.
People went in to Delphi often already isolated offline for one reason or another (mostly normal reasons, like following jobs from one city to another), looking to meet like-minded people they could converse with minus superficiality or judgments that typically go along with face-to-face conversations. They had a healthy and intact capacity to trust and build social connections; and as those connections were made, they got caught up in a dynamic they never expected.
They would be manipulated or coerced into joining factions; they would, in many cases, be given a new online identity, a persona, and these personas would change if they moved from one faction to another (how much of a change depended on the faction). The would be schooled in “The Delphi Game” and in the idea they had to defend the faction and leader at all costs; whom to obey, and whom to avoid; their status depended on it.
In Delphi’s case, offline personality was not destroyed, but it was sublimated; on the server, one had to behave, feel, and think in the manner approved by those within the Dark Forums subset of Delphi. Real life information had to be kept to a minimum so that it could not be used against members, which meant their offline personalities were purposely diminished to near non-existence. By the time a person entered re-freezing they’re online personality was radically different.
Most members exhibited a high degree of paranoia; especially of unknown profiles. The capacity for trust was all but eradicated. No one trusted anyone, not even within their own faction. What little trust might still exist was usually conditional; based on faction ties, held together by common-cause, and actualized through appeals to self-interest. In fact, appeals to self-interest became a better gauge of someone’s momentary trustworthiness than any other factor.
Today there is a great deal of attention being paid to the radicalization process as it relates to the internet and internet communities, including social media. This is because of high-profile cases of lone wolf terrorism involving people who have never been to the Middle East or come face to face with jihadi extremist groups. American citizens contribute financially and join terrorist groups so much it had to be criminalized by law.
Whether the term lone wolf terrorism is a myth or a legitimate concept is moot; people can be radicalized on the internet. It is not really so different than how they can be radicalized in the offline context. The need for human interaction and contact, for emotional attachment, validation and approval, are all universal. So is a desire for life to be meaningful, to serve a greater or higher purpose, and to live up to social expectations.
It is easy for individuals to perceive themselves as failing when it comes to achieving their needs, even when the perception is wrong. Individuals are often far more critical of one another in close familial relationships and believe this constitutes being loving and supportive. Individuals are rarely taught how to fail or to appreciate it as a learning experience because society itself places so much pressure on people to succeed.
Failure, real or subjectively imagined, and especially fear of failure can open people up to seeking places to fit in and worldviews where they can be important; a hero, a rock star. Ultimately, everyone falls into the trap of thinking the grass is greener on someone else’s side of the river. Everyone wants to be the king or the queen, and be able to boss everybody else around. This is the lure for groups like Islamic State and Al-Qaeda.
This is the lure for groups like the Klu Klux Klan, the Sovereign Citizens, the whole of the White Nationalist Movement, it was the lure for the German Nazis in the past and it is the lure for the “Alt-Right” in America today. Power. Money. Influence. Control. When the otherwise powerless or moderately empowered, are determined to take power, they first take it from individuals; then small groups, and then progressively larger ones.
They do it with persuasion and coercion and they sell it to everyone by appealing to their needs and their self-interest. They unfreeze a person’s identity and personality, change it, and refreeze it in the shape most useful to the group; often in the image of the group’s leader.
Up next; a small comment on the final section of the series, the critical themes of life in dangerous groups that use mind control techniques on followers, then a closer examination of those themes.
***This is part 19 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 it. 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.