“One of the most attractive qualities of cult life is the sense of community that it fosters. The love seems unconditional and unlimited at first, and new members are swept away by a honeymoon of praise and attention. But after a few months, as the person becomes more enmeshed, the flattery and attention are turned away toward newer recruits. The cult member learns that love is not unconditional but depends on good performance.”
“Behaviors are controlled through rewards and punishments. Competitions are used to inspire and shame members into being more productive. If things aren’t going well– poor recruitment, media exposes, defections– it is the members personal fault, and their ration of “happiness” will be withheld until the problem is corrected.”
“In some groups people are required to confess sins to be granted “happiness” and, if they can’t think of any, to make some up. Ultimately, they come to believe they really committed those made-up sins.”
“Real friendships are a liability and are covertly discouraged by leaders. A cult member’s emotional allegiance should be vertical (up to the leader), not horizontal, (toward peers). Friends are dangerous, in part because if one member leaves, he may take others with him. Of course, when anyone does leave the group, the “love” formerly directed to him turns into anger, hatred, and ridicule.”
“Relationships are usually superficial within these groups because sharing deep personal feelings, especially negative ones, is highly discouraged. This feature of cult life prevails even though a member may feel he is closer to his comrades than he has ever been to anyone before. Indeed, when cult members go through hardship (fundraising in freezing cold or broiling heat) or persecution (being arrested for violations of law or harassed by outsiders), they do feel a depth of camaraderie and shared martyrdom that is exceptional. But because the only real allegiance is to the leader, a closer look shows that such ties are actually shallow and sometimes just private fantasy.”
On the Delphi Forums server, the whole point of its existence is the promotion of online community. New members are usually welcome in the various forums and friendships can and do develop among members. Some friendships go back decades; to the time Delphi was an Internet Service Provider as well as message board, before the internet was even commercialized. But under normal conditions server friendships took time to develop.
In the “Dark Forums”, there was more emphasis on the “Dark Forums community”. First-time meetings between strangers were often intense and yet superficial. A veteran member would approach someone relatively new, impart a small bit of confidential information, and ask for secrecy, stating they felt the new person was someone they could “trust”. Suddenly, one had a “new best friend” on the server and the total time for relationship development; one hour.
But the interest and the warmth tends to be fairly conditional; the price is regular attendance in the forum and chat room, attentiveness to the new “friend”, especially during the “Delphi History Lessons” (indoctrination process) where one is given the history through the perspective of the storyteller (or storytellers). It helped to be open to agreement with your new “friend” or “friends”, regardless of the topic of discussion; and also open to discussing your offline life.
Sometimes the new “friend” would be a faction leader, other times it would be a faction member who was no longer the focus of the recruitment attention. New recruits to a faction went through a “honeymoon” phase until someone new presented themselves for recruitment and then either they resisted the leader’s attempt to recruit another new member, or they didn’t and accepted the new recruit as a potential ally within the faction itself.
In factions, love was conditional, though Delphi factions did not work toward financial gain, they did work toward status, prestige, and for many years, forum rankings. Productivity in the context of Delphi was determined by the amount of loyalty one showed to the faction leader, and to the faction, and how much presence and activity one had in the chat room and message boards. Overall, it was determined by the willingness to be active and protective of the group.
This behavior is learned fairly early on as new recruits are encouraged to observe and take part in chat room and message board activities. If veteran group members underperform by not being as active in the forums or chats, they might be openly criticized. If a member was silent during faction conflict, the silence was at the very least questioned, and usually punished. Any act of “disloyalty” was questioned and usually punished with removal from the group.
Likewise factions went through a similar process in terms of the forum faction that appointed itself as “guardians of the community”. Loyal factions were praised, treated respectfully and given at least the trappings of “trust”. Factions’ leaders and members were generally welcome in the forums and chats and free from questioning or harassment so long as behaviors conformed. Faction leaders and members that did not adhere to the “rules” were frequently harassed.
Members were also punished or rewarded based on how easy they might have been to manipulate into turning on a faction leader and faction. While being talking out of one faction and into another, the member might be rewarded with a great deal of approval and attention. Once out of the undesirable faction, they might be humiliated and driven off the server for betraying their faction leader and faction.
In Delphi “confessions” were in the form of long message board posts detailing specific accusations, addressed to an offending member, sometimes on the message boards of multiple forums. These were called “demands for accountings” and if the member they were addressed to responded, they were usually bombarded by literally every member with any interest in the proceedings. This usually resulted in the member leaving the forum, or Delphi or “confessing”.
If a confession was obtained, the member might be banned from all of the forums or “forgiven” until they stepped out of line again, which case they would be revisited by the full list of accusations and reminded of their past server transgressions. The point was to humiliate and discredit the member as well as bring them back into a state of conformity with the rules. It also served to reinforce the “authority” of the “guardians of the Dark Forums Community”.
On the Delphi server, it did not much matter whether faction leaders cultivated the loyalty of a new member to themselves (some did), or to the group members. The self-appointed “guardians of the Dark Forums” tended to target factions they disliked by using others to befriend members and use them to gain information they could use to manipulate individuals against peers or the group leader. Resentment and jealousy were useful for such exploitations.
Sometimes the self-appointed “guardians of the server” didn’t need to instigate anything against a particular faction. Sometimes the faction’s leader would foster competitiveness, jealousy, insecurities, and resentment between faction members and this would result in internal strife with some members turning against the leader because the leader did not take a side in the squabbling. In a few instances, the group members would turn on their faction leaders because friendship had been encouraged and allowed, even with outsiders; some of the outsiders instigated it instead.
It was also common for faction loyalties to be strengthened by the feeling of group persecution; and factions to implode if ignored by everyone else long enough. This is why “community” bans were such an effective threat. But ultimately the climate in Delphi was corrosive to the point where members learned, usually the hard way, to not discuss personal real life problems for fear of being ridiculed on the server, or sabotaged offline with jobs and family.
They learned to say nothing negative about other members of their faction groups, especially not about the faction leaders, either to anyone inside the faction, and especially not to anyone outside of it. Members generally did not discuss Delphi with people offline because to an outsider it sounded pretty damned ridiculous; why anyone would put up with abuse over a server was hard to fathom; but for members, leaving was not really an option if it meant abandoning the group.
Members learned to record every chat in the chat rooms, every instant messenger or email communication, and copy posts they might need to refer back to later after being locked out of forums due to a fight. Even when members did not want to have to do this; inevitably, whomever they were talking with would, and they might have to prove a conversation was or was not authentic, had or had not been creatively edited, and used against them to split a faction.
Ultimately it was the hardships on the server, most of them arbitrarily created by others, which held factions together. Without the hardships and the fights, the constant feeling of an “enemy at the gates”, factions fizzled because there were no real friendships that weren’t superficial other than perhaps to the leader. If the leader left, usually so did everyone else. This is because groups generally require a purpose to form and maintain itself; if there is no purpose, they cease to exist.
Today, on and offline we can still see how groups form and people feel a sense of camaraderie through group experiences, especially through the shared feeling of group persecution. Church groups are known for politics; mainstream religions for sectarian politics and violence. Militia and hate groups have become defunct after leaders were arrested or killed. The same has occurred with terrorist groups including Al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda enjoyed a great deal of success in unifying independent terrorist groups under their brand and franchise until Osama Bin Laden was killed. New leaders were less successful at recruiting other groups and some groups did not agree with following the direction of new leaders. Islamic State is one example of a faction whose leader was able to lead his faction away and start an independent brand and franchise of terrorism.
The one universal is the idea that happiness comes from good performance; it just comes down to the particular group, the context and the concept of what good performance looks like. In Delphi it looked like being part of a faction and representing that faction’s leader any time it needed defending. But it can also mean defending a worldview, a doctrine, a narrative, and the leaders that espouse those worldviews, doctrines and narratives.
It can mean believing leaders when they say the group is being persecuted for any reason whatsoever, and espousing the same view to peers, and working hard to convince others of the rightness of those same worldviews, doctrines and narratives. Why is it necessary to convince other people your worldview, doctrine, or narrative is the only right one? Why is it necessary to convince other people your leader is the best leader of all?
Is there pressure being placed on you to believe what others say? Is there pressure or coercion being placed on you to get you to see things the way others want you to see them? Is there pressure or coercion to perform in a way that pleases a leader, or your peers, and is this performance which is intended to better position the leader and group positioned as a path to salvation, redemption, peace, tranquility or “happiness”?
***This is part 26 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.