The Dangerous Appeal of Echo Chambers

…or, How Free-Thinkers Get Co-Opted into Political Cults
In recent months, we have seen the rise of many groups or organizations that are bent on changing our political and social world. These groups have always existed, but there has been an undeniable uptick in political involvement and activism in the past couple of years, spurred by a highly contentious Election Cycle. From Political Action groups like Justice Democrats to various Facebook media organizations, there is no shortage of circles that one can belong to and find like-minded individuals. However, a big problem presented by the “filterability” of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter – where a person or group you disagree with can be instantly blocked and you never have to see or hear anything from them ever again – is the creation of an Echo Chamber.

While Echo Chambers are not really out of the ordinary (just ask any DC insider – they are so

Screen Shot 2017-03-30 at 4.39.27 PM
Political Facebook Group openly declares itself to be an Echo Chamber

out of touch with anything outside of the Washington Political Echo Chamber, it’s truly ridiculous), sometimes entire groups can become Echo Chambers for their members. Group Charters have been written up that state that any outside thinking which does not fall within certain guidelines will be removed, and the person posting that information will be banned from the group. This results in an Echo Chamber that can be many tens of thousands of members strong, which only serves to reinforce the already strict thought policing of the group. It becomes a one-vision, single-minded group – sometimes referred to as the “Hive Mind”.

Pendant symbol of the little-known New York-based “New Salemers” cult

There are a lot of single-minded groups and organizations out there that fill many different roles in the world. And, while most of these groups and their members are relatively harmless (albeit somewhat annoying in their close-mindedness), some of them have effects that reach outside of the confines of the group and its members.

Perhaps the most dangerous of these is what is called a “cult”. Many people make the mistake of believing that cults are strictly religious, made up of devout fanatics who follow the insane spiritual ramblings of their exalted leader. While this is certainly true for many cults, there are other cults that focus on things like Financial Success, Self-Improvement, and, yes, even Politics.
It can be very easy to find yourself in a cult-like group of people without realizing it at first, but sooner or later, red flags will begin to pop up. Critical thinking and skepticism can help to avoid these types of groups and identify those red flags when they do begin to arise. But, because some people are so impassioned, so charismatic, and so stalwartly convinced of the “rightness” of their group or organization, sometimes those red flags might not be so easily seen.
To identify a cult or cult-like group, we must first understand what a cult actually is. The modern definition of a mind control cult is any group that employs mind control and deceptive recruiting techniques. In other words, cults trick people into joining and coerce them into staying.
Some of the red flags that can help identify a cult are those mind control and deception techniques. “Mind control” doesn’t mean that the group is using some form of hypnosis, drugging, or subliminal messaging (though this actually has been reported in some cases), or some top-secret mind control serum. No, “mind control techniques” actually refers to the psychological manipulation that the cult uses on its members. These techniques can be so subtle that the members don’t even notice what is happening when they are being employed.
Not an actual Prozac ad…

In fact, many of these very same techniques are used by corporate marketing teams in TV commercials or online ad placement. In the cult setting, “Mind Control” refers to a dishonest influence placed covertly on cult members by other cult members or the cult leader – usually both, as the cult members try to convince people of that which they themselves are completely and undeniably convinced.

Here are just a few of the “Mind Control” techniques a cult or cult leader will use:
1) A cult recruits and operates using deception – often a slick, well-rehearsed Public Relations statement or ideological stance, where you will hear how they help the poor, or support research, or peace, or the environment, or how their ideas and theories will save humanity and the planet from certain doom. Many different groups have a statement or stance like this, but when combined with other techniques described here, and especially if group members are expected to accept this stance as their own without question and ignoring any outside thought, evidence, or influence, that is a HUGE red flag.
Sooooooooo…. This exists.
2) Exclusivism – you can only be saved/successful/find peace in that group or organization alone. Everyone else has it wrong, but somehow this one organization or group has it all figured out, and you can too. Just read this book, or listen to this person, and follow along, follow, follow, follow
3) Fear & Intimidation – for religious cults, disagreeing with leadership is the same as disagreeing with God. For non-religious groups, questioning the leaders or the program will be seen as a sign of rebellion and stupidity, and those individuals will be admonished publicly within the group. It could never be possible that the program doesn’t work, and certainly nothing is ever the leader’s fault. If something isn’t right, it must be the group member or recruit who “just doesn’t get it”. Often, the group member will be “rehabilitated” with further immersion in the group – members may be told to read more of the literature, or a “weekend retreat” might be called for reinforcement of the group dogma. Other Fear and Intimidation methods include Character Assassination (attacking the person rather than addressing their skepticism or questions) and Breaking Sessions (where two or more Cult Members relentlessly attack a doubter until they break psychologically).
Another red flag can be found in the Cult Leader themselves (or, rather, there are usually several red flags, and probably an alarm or two). Every cult leader displays certain common characteristics, from Jim Jones to Charles Manson to Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles of the Heaven’s Gate cult (yes, sometimes cult members have multiple leaders, but usually there still exists an hierarchy of sorts). Those characteristics will usually include many or all of (but are not limited to) the following:
– Charm and charisma
– Manipulation
– Inflated sense of self
– Pathological lying (belief in their ‘truth’ even when shown to be wrong)
– Lack of remorse, shame, or guilt
– Shallow, no emotional depth (except their passion for their ‘Truth’)
– Incapacity for love (while claiming their ‘Truth’ is all about ‘the love’)
– Need for stimulation, and constant testing of followers’ belief
– Callousness
– Impulsive Behavior
– Promiscuity
– Parasitic Lifestyle (“This ‘Truth’ is my life’s work, I need your financial support”)
– Criminal Entrepreneurial Versatility
– Prone to Fits of Rage
Even if the leader of the cult does not openly display any of these characteristics, there are lots of other red flags to look out for regarding the group or organization, its members, or any of the leadership hierarchy:
– The Leader/Guru/Prophet is Always Right
– You are Always Wrong, Unless You Echo the Leader
– Cult-speak
– Group-think, Suppression of Dissent, and Enforced Conformity
– Irrationality

– Suspension of Disbelief

…aaaaaaaaaaand so does this.
– Denigration of Competing Groups or Organizations
– Personal Attacks on Critics
– Insistence that the Group’s Vision is “The Only Way”
– The Cult and its Members are Special
– Unquestionable Dogma, Sacred Science, and Infallible Ideology
– Appeals to “Holy” or “Wise” Authorities as Proof of “Rightness”
– Instant Community
– Personal Testimonies of Earlier Converts (i.e. “At first I was skeptical, but then something clicked and I finally ‘got it’!”)
– Self-Absorbed
– Aggressive Recruiting (“Come Learn Our Secrets!” or “Our Program Will Save You!”)
– Disturbed or Mentally Ill Leader and/or Followers
– Group Ideology is Always “Right” Over Any Experience, Observation, or Logic
– Demands for Total Faith and Total Trust
– Belief Equals Truth
– Highly-critical Leader Who Tolerates No Criticism
– Members Tolerate No Criticism Except From Leader(s)
– Dispensed Truth and Social Definition of Reality
– Separatism
– Group Visions Solves All Problems (“We Have The Panacea”)
– Scapegoating and Excommunication
– Enemy-making and Devaluing the Outsider as Lesser or Less-Deserving People
– Black And White Thinking
– Threats (legal or physical) to Someone Who Leaves or Criticizes the Group
– Total Immersion and Total Isolation
Not every group, organization, or person that displays a couple of any of these characteristics will be a cult. Sometimes people become so passionate about a cause or a program that they simply will come off that way, but are mostly harmless. HOWEVER, when a group, or a large portion of that group’s members, displays a lot of these characteristics, it is definitely a reason for concern. Watch out for yourself and those you care about, and be wary of anybody or any group that swears they “only have YOUR best interests in mind, as long as you buy my book and don’t question anything, shhhhhh, don’t think, just listen, shhhhh…..”

Richard Waite is the author and creator behind A Mostly Accurate View and all media associated with it.

Disclaimer: There is no such thing as the “New Salemers” cult (in real life).


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