In Delphi, circa 1999, if you were a forum owner you were happy to see visitor profiles on your message board forum. It didn’t matter who they were, or where they were from, so long as they were friendly. Even better if they posted to the board, visited the chat room, made return visits to read, and saved your forum to their favorites list.
The more visitors a forum had, the higher the forum would rank in the greater Delphi server community and at one time forum hosts could even earn a little money from Delphi if they had a large enough number of regular visitors. It was fairly common for a forum host to post welcome messages to new people and thank them for visiting.
Message boards were full of posts, including games like “The Last Word” and chats were full of people hanging out and engaging with all manner of conversation. Pranks were often pulled where one chat room full of chatters would all drop into another chat room of unsuspecting people and change their profile names to “March Hare”. It was fun.
It may have been the forum rankings that caused the first forum rivalries; which in turn caused the early and fairly informal factions. Even after Delphi stopped paying forum hosts for the traffic, forum ranking continued for years, for bragging rights. The rivalries turned into forum sabotage; dropping forums down the ranks.
In Delphi, circa 2005, if you were a forum owner it had become customary to keep a careful eye on the forum visitor log and inspect every unknown profile that came through. Brand new profiles were assumed to be “alias accounts”, extra profiles that belonged to established members attempting to be anonymous.
Established profiles that were unwelcome in a specific forum were always challenged, as if they had trespassed. Aged but unknown profiles were sometimes ignored and sometimes investigated through behind-the-scenes networking to determine if it was an older alias account or someone just passing through from another area of Delphi.
Each forum has a start page. The unspoken ‘forum etiquette’ was to read the forum rules on the start page and then follow the instructions for forum posting. Failure to read the start page rules and follow the instructions was grounds for challenge if not on the first visit, by the second. Failure to respond to a challenge resulted in hostile post and ban.
This was the first phase of “The Delphi Game” the online cult indoctrination process for the sub-set of forums that came to be known by its membership as “The Dark Forums“. An unfamiliar profile coming into one of these forums would give itself away in the first visit. Real newcomers usually missed noticing the rules on a forum’s start page.
The draw was always the message board or the chatroom; if the chat was open, members sometimes never saw the start page at all. But if an unfamiliar profile stopped to read the start page and followed the rules regarding first post to the message boards, they inadvertently identified themselves as a native to this collective of forums.
Most real newcomers to these forums were friends or acquaintances of native members. These were incredibly rare by 2005; by then for every real person passing through, 20 or more were aliases, and it would become a guessing game on who they really were and what they might really be up to (in general, spying to see what was being said in posts).
Real newcomers were treated with suspicion until their friend or acquaintance vouched them as legitimate. Or they got chased out of the first forum or two for failure to comply with rules; and this would continue until they chanced upon a rival faction forum, who might be more friendly and explain the rules about start pages.
Alias profiles pretending to be new would get everyone’s attention. People would watch to see which forums it went to first, and which ones it avoided to determine which faction it likely belonged to. From there, speculation on which faction member it was would commence; faction groups would spend hours speculating on real identity.
Bad attitude was a given across all faction lines by 2005. Even Delphi members from other areas of Delphi would meet hostility with hostility on the rare occasions where they would venture a forum new to them. On the message boards it would often be one person in a hostile message thread with five, ten, twenty other people.
Bans did not tend to happen right away; forum owners, moderators and friends would often spend three-four days minimum fanning a flame war because it would drive up posts, bring in more visitors and drive up forum ranking. It would also wear a person down fast trying to respond to a dozen people all posting hostile messages at once.
Sometimes this dynamic also played out in forum chat rooms where usually a new person (or someone pretending to be) would be interrogated until they left or got kicked out, by a room full of hostile people. Usually two-three people would handle the “interrogation” while one-two more would call attention to avoided questions.
This was Delphi’s version of information overload; it causes confusion in recipients because the communication is not only hostile, but becomes overwhelming due to the number of separate comments, anywhere from 5 to 25 coming in, to every one response. Members were conditioned to this behavior as part of a norm for the forum community.
For anyone who was new or successful in pretending to be, it generally became open season among the factions for getting to know them. Everyone wanted these individuals in their chats and on their boards for two reasons. First, to figure out if they were really new and if not, who they really were; second, to get to know them and recruit them.
Generally speaking friendship was offered fairly quickly, often in the span of a single chat of a duration of a few hours. Individuals would be encouraged to introduce themselves, they would be listened to, validated, friendship offered, and then protection. The offer of protection would naturally require explanation.
This was the natural opening, initiated by the newcomer, (and if the person was not really a newcomer at all, the opportunity they were seeking by “aliasing” in the first place) for the “Delphi History Lessons“, which always differed according to the teller (semantics, natural subjectivity, stories told according to biases).
For real newcomers hearing the “Delphi History Lessons” repeatedly, often changing only as they were relevant to the point of view of the story-teller, quickly became confusing and overwhelming on its own. Especially since the stories conflicted with one another; the adversary in a story becoming the protagonist and vice versa.
Individuals had to decide for themselves who was the most credible; or at least who they would decide to go along with depending on their own perception of factions, powers, and personal agendas and motives. Once declared for a specific faction, they were to accept the narrative version of “The Delphi History Lessons” and believe no other.
Every forum faction would offer warnings of specific individuals, and much of the “Delphi History Lessons” narratives would involve specific details on why. This was often the reason for offers of protection to new people, to keep them from being drafted and abused by a rival faction. These sessions were also important to regular members.
Regular members who were pretending to be new would carefully listen to what their rivals had to say about them and their friends, and go through great lengths to get copies of posts or transcripts of chat logs, usually with a number of screen shots as well. While they were collecting “evidence” the tellers were pinpointing their known identities.
Additionally, other individuals would move between factions, pretending to be friends with both sides. They would hang around, be friendly, listen, and collect information to hand off to one faction or the other. This instigation often led to further factional rivalry and fights on the boards. If such individuals got caught, they got caught.
They’d go away for a little while, let things cool off, then come back, apologize, get back in with specific individuals, hand them information on their enemies to win back trust, rinse, and repeat. It could be a completely fabricated rumor, it could be a partial truth removed from the original context. It could be a carefully and creatively edited chat log.
The goal was to ruin trust and friendship by making trust an extremely rare commodity and friendship a matter of leverage and control. Both became part of a manipulative process where a “friend” would use situations, like getting attacked on a message board by a rival, as an opportunity to play the victim and extract loyalty from others.
The would-be victim would give a one-sided story to their faction friends, devoid of any mention of their own role in the conflict. The friends, provided with this one-sided story, could not question the story; if they did, they were being “disloyal”, and were immediately counted as “untrustworthy”.
Those who were “loyal” and did not question “facts” were considered “family” and pressure was then artfully placed on “defense of the family”. In short, they were expected to engage in flame wars with any factions hostile to their would-be victim, in defense of the home faction. The term for this was “wind-up hero”.
Basically, the so-called “friend” manipulates the sympathies of anyone who will listen. “Nobody cares about me” is a means of making an unsuspecting individual feel honor bound to prove the “friend” wrong, to validate them, show them approval, rush to their defense to prove loyalty, and it results in getting that member recruited to the faction.
Because once an individual defends a specific person or faction, all other factions associate them with that specific person or faction; guilt by association. This indoctrination process occurs to every single individual and faction in this sub-set of the Delphi server; and repeated every time factions caused other factions to disintegrate.
And re-form, implode, reform, explode, reform, over and over again. When members of the server hit this stage it’s not much different from going to a seminar or retreat where people in a face-to-face context keep you too busy to think about what you are hearing, seeing, or doing, from dusk until dawn, it is all information overload.
Information overload is known for creating a hypnotic effect which short-circuits an individual’s cognitive processes. Information overload creates a state of mental confusion where individuals are overwhelmed with more information than they can process; difficulty processing input is what causes the hypnotic effect.
Consider that for a moment; particularly as it relates to flame wars anywhere on the internet: in Delphi one individual could get roasted on message boards of one forum or several forums, hundreds of posts, all aimed at them alone, roasted in chats, in regular gang up sessions; and it goes on everywhere now.
On Facebook, on Twitter, on LinkedIn, on every website, blog, and news feed with a comments section. There is talk now about echo chambers, and political polarization, and truth decay, but there is also information overload causing a hypnotic effect due to the difficulty in processing information.
In 2007, in Delphi, there were “wind-up heroes” proving loyalty to factions by engaging in flame wars with their rivals. In more recent years up to the present, the internet in general has “trolls” proving loyalty to religious groups, political factions, hate-groups of one flavor or another. Proving loyalty by cementing their guilt by association.
There is also a hypnotic effect caused by staring at computer monitors for long periods of time. Think about this for a moment:
“We sign onto the internet, and go to a server to meet people we have something in common with. Nobody in their right mind would ever think that a SERVER might be a vehicle for mind control tactics.
We join these forums because of the people we meet, who in large part, really aren’t stupid. They are often at first, funny, intelligent, kind, even vulnerable. Later on, we always seem to be asking ourselves, “why am I putting up with this shit again?“” -Kitsuzo, 2007
We join social media sites because of the people we know, or the people we meet, like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Reddit, Instagram, WordPress, Medium, and countless others, we join their groups, and these people, our family members, our friends, they really aren’t stupid. They are often funny, intelligent, kind, vulnerable. And then later on….
“Why am I putting up with this shit again?“– Cherilyn (and millions of others), 2018
Much more to come.
***This is part 3 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.