“Life in a cult is a roller-coaster ride. A member swings between the extreme happiness of experiencing the “truth’ with an insider elite, and the crushing weight of guilt, fear, and shame. Problems are always due to his inadequacies, not the group’s. He perpetually feels guilty for not meeting standards. If he raises objections, he is likely to get the “silent treatment” or be transferred to another part of the group.”
“These extremes take a heavy toll on a person’s ability to function. When members are “high”, they can convert their zeal into great productivity and persuasiveness. But when they crash they can become completely dysfunctional.”
“Most groups’ don’t allow the “lows” to last very long. They typically send the member back through reindoctrination to charge him up again. It is not uncommon for someone to receive a formal reindoctrination several times a year. Some long-term members do burn out without actually quitting. These people can no longer take the burden or pressure of performance. They start to point out inconsistencies in group policy. They may be permanently reassigned to manual labor in out-of-the-way places, where they are expected to remain for the rest of their lives, or if they become a burden, they are asked (or told) to leave.”
Keeping in mind Steven Hassan wrote the book for application to face-to-face offline cults, and not with any applicability to the internet in mind; still Delphi had its own version of this. When an individual was in a group or faction’s good graces, they were often included as part of the “insider elite”, provided a larger amount of contact with others, were privy to information not given to “outsiders”. If the individual was not a member of the faction they were usually recruited or at least courted as an “ally” during disputes with rival factions.
The “low point” was when one was “cast out”, considered an “outsider”, attacked for being a member of the rival group or faction, or for being perceived of as an “ally” of that rival group or faction. When a member was considered a big enough “threat” to the entire server that all the factions participated in a collective “community ban”, the rejection coming from friend and rival alike was a real blow, especially for those who suffered such bans alone.
The “high point” came from the approval and acceptance, always temporary and conditional, that an individual earned for defending someone else, even when it was someone they ordinarily would not defend. One always earned approval and acceptance from the person or group one defended during an argument, but there were times when rivals would cross divides to defend one another in very rare instances where there was real threat to members of the community.
As an example, around 2004-2005 a new faction arrived in the Dark Forums community, one of the members of which was confiding a secret to individuals from other factions. The new faction’s members would befriend members of another faction; and one member of their faction would “confide” a “personal secret” to members of the other faction, one on one, swearing each to “secrecy”.
This “secret” led the members to believe she was being seriously physically abused offline, and was possibly in danger of being killed. Once the “secret” had been delivered, other members of the new faction would come forward and “verify” the “secret” as true, claiming to know the other member offline. Some factions didn’t buy the story and broke off friendly relations, quietly warning other factions that something wasn’t right about this group.
The new faction would then start conflict against disbeliever factions, adding accusations of having broken the “trusted confidence” and otherwise stirring up other factions against the disbelieving faction. Meanwhile other factions this new group befriended were “confided in”, and in some of those factions, members had experienced real domestic abuse situations in their own pasts so were particularly sympathetic, and frightened.
These factions usually quietly compared notes internally with one another and debated what to do, believing the story plausibly true. Meanwhile two other “members” of the new faction came forward and made assertions leading the other faction members to believe they were aware of this “abuse” and were helping their fellow member as best they could offline. They were taking note of those willing to break confidence and discuss the supposedly abused member’s situation.
This would go on, with the narrative becoming more and more “dire”, and the other faction members becoming so frightened they started sending money to this new faction’s members in hopes of helping her escape her real life situation. If anyone questioned the story at any point, the new faction would “discover” that the other faction had been discussing the “secret” internally amongst themselves, and turn on them, attacking their credibility publically in the community.
This had been going on in other parts of Delphi before the new faction got to the Dark Forums sub-set, then took about a year and a half to work themselves around through all of the factions within the Dark Forums. Finally, they worked themselves to the last faction, the self-appointed “protectors of Delphi”, who had quietly been watching them go from one faction to another, friendly than turning hostile, and so this group was aware something was amiss.
Yet even they wanted to believe in this story at least at first. But they also quietly reached out to all of the other forums, including their biggest rivals, invited everyone to bring their logs and private folder posts, to compare notes on this new group’s story, tactics, etc. Long-term enemies became friends with the self-appointed “protectors of Delphi” again, because in the process of comparing notes, the bigger pattern emerged.
Several members had contributed real money to help someone they believed was being physically assaulted regularly to the point of requiring hospitalization; this was a genuine case of internet fraud. They contacted the FBI and the new faction, believed to be a group of four people, was investigated. One member was eventually charged with internet fraud; two of the four people did not actually exist, they were alias profiles; the other real person could not explain why she participated as an accessory in the fraud scheme and eventually left Delphi altogether.
In the wake of this discovery, there was quite an emotional high in Delphi that persisted for a while as members of factions that had not spoken civilly in years experienced an unexpected reprieve from the hostilities long enough to rekindle previously lost friendships. The factions that had experienced community banning due to this new faction turning on them because they didn’t believe the narrative, were invited back into the community and formally apologized to.
There were other types of emotional highs and lows on the server orchestrated against factions or individuals by other factions or other individuals. Someone was always being singled out for group abuse, chat room interrogations, hundreds of hostile posts full of accusations, mockery, threats involving offline information, both overt and implied. Often these arguments occurred because someone pretended to be a friend so they could collect information and set the person up to be criticized and abused later. This was possibly one of the worst emotional lows of all.
Another strategy had both emotional high and low components; a “friend” would come to “vent” a complaint against someone else. This someone else might be another friend, or a mutual rival; the “venting session” was intended to get the listener’s sympathy and support, and manipulate them into becoming a “wind-up hero” on the server. The “high” came from being “confided in” and “trusted” with this “venting session”; and defending the “victim” from their “aggressor”.
The low however, came about in the process of defending the “victim”; the “friend” who came to you to “vent” about some other person. If one were the type of person to react first and think later, one might have felt protective of the “friend” and gone to challenge the person that caused them grief; throw out accusations and heap abuse on them in righteous indignation, and in the ensuing fight, discovered that one forgot that there are two sides to every story and your “friend” forgot to mention their own non-victim role of instigator in the original conflict.
On the other hand, if one were the type of person to think first and react later, one might have carefully listened to the “friend” who “vented” about someone else. One might also have logged the conversation and avoided saying anything against the other party, because the “friend” also logged the conversation with intent to use it with the party they complained about to make it look like you were the one doing the trash talking. One may have asked questions of this “friend”, who may have interpreted the questions as a failure to support their “side”.
Failure to support the “side” of this so-called “friend” would usually cost you a friendship; especially if the other person was also a friend and you were not willing to accept only one side of the story. Asking the other party for their side of the dispute (called “dialing direct” in the loaded language of the “community”) would start a fight with the first friend, who would get angry about your “betrayal” and “disloyalty”. Either way, you’d be in a fight with somebody; there’d be accusations, “demands for accounting”, shaming” and other people jumping into it.
When people were brought to a “low point” in Delphi, they tended to stop talking; trust had been violated by supposed “friends” so why communicate any further? They would leave or get “banned” from the “Dark Forums”, go to other areas of the server, spend less time on the server; other times they’d leave Delphi entirely. Forums would be abandoned or deleted; members stopped creative writing projects such as poetry or fiction. The fighting would become a distraction that ruined the social enjoyment of the server.
And the self-appointed “protectors of the community” would cheer and laugh about having gotten rid of another “pixel person”, another person who paid a membership to Delphi, and paid to host one or more forums. They would laugh about how that person was “weak” and a “coward”, and then they would look for another target. They would continue to justify “The Delphi Game” as something that was “fun”, and members would go along to avoid being next.
Today, it’s generally not as cut throat as Delphi got in terms of inducing emotional highs and lows, at least in terms of members setting each other up and betraying each other’s trust. But today we have news media headlines, propaganda (fake news), and truth decay, religious, political, and other special interest groups that pay large amounts of money to influence and polarize ordinary voters who may not really have much understanding of how government works at any level.
Depending on the political ideology and narrative one subscribes to, often influenced offline by family members, friends, and institutional social circles like churches, volunteer organizations, etc., these headlines can affect news audiences by creating emotional highs or lows. If one identifies as Right Wing Conservative perhaps the idea of border walls and illegal immigrants being rounded up and detained in camps, children taken away, will inspire an emotional high, while others experience emotional lows.
The propaganda, misinformation, truth decay, coinciding with indoctrination and information control leads individuals ascribing part of their own identity to a larger group identity to read, listen to, and watch only group proscribed news media outlets; i.e. “echo chambers”, where the individual is self-feeding themselves the group narrative. The group has sabotaged all outside sources as “fake news” including government, scientific, and academic sources so ascribing individuals avoid or disbelieve everything.
This is how individuals self-radicalize through the internet without necessarily meeting with a terrorist group (or individuals) in person. They create for themselves a media echo chamber, they make connections with others who also self-identify with the radical narrative, they interact online on websites, chat rooms, instant messengers, social media sites, blogging communities, seeking out and connecting with like-minded individuals. They may or may not undergo a drastic personality change.
The drastic personality change depends on the nature of the physical social and familial environment. A Muslim American family may likely notice a radical personality change because the family subscribes to a moderate version of Islam. An American family that ascribes to Right Wing, Conservative, and racist views would likely support the further radicalization of an individual who joins a White Nationalist group or the Klu Klux Klan because their biases already run in that direction and for them it would be normative.
Last but not least, emotional highs and lows are provided through social media interactions between individuals, and their friends and family members. As individuals ascribe to a political group and identity, create the self-imposed echo chambers, and add connections to those who ascribe to the same narrative and ideology, the increasing polarization in the news, any friends and even family that subscribe to the opposing viewpoint either argue and insult one another until they end up blocking one another.
This is the pattern previously seen in other countries, Afghanistan in the late 1970’s before the Taliban took over, and in Iran, about the same time, when the Revolution occurred that put Ayatollah Khomeini in power. Polarization between specifically, a Conservative Right Wing, and a Liberal Left; it also occurred in Syria prior to the start of the civil war, when the Left Wing attempted to overthrow President Assad’s government. This is how civil wars happen and how both fascist and failed states are made.
We are coming up on the end of this series; only two more posts to go. If you have made it this far, an extra special thank you to you. 🙂
***This is part 28 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.