Back in nineteen-ninety-neveryoumind, in the halcyon days of dial-up, AOL, and LiveJournal, I was involved in an online discussion forum devoted to the process and craft of writing fanfiction.

Don’t judge. It was good fanfiction, honestly.

Anyway, someone hadn’t liked someone else’s “piece,” and said so quite rudely. Because this was the Internet, flame wars ensued. Somewhere between the fulfillment of Godwin’s Law (that is, the longer an online discussion lasts, the more likely it is that someone will bring up a comparison to Nazism or Hitler) and the inevitable dramatic exits, someone dropped a “c” word .

That is, “cult.”

Now, I knew that our literary clique, for all its drama and mudslinging, wasn’t any kind of high-demand group. However, back in those days, I hadn’t even heard the phrase “high-demand group,” let alone “undue influence,” so I couldn’t for the life of me say just why it wasn’t a cult. Until you’ve been taught to see the actual hooks and levers behind the curtain, unethical persuasion is almost impossible to see. After all, who would knowingly submit to an abuser?

Some people scoff at the idea of any kind of online discussion forum being a cult, but I don’t. I know that there are, indeed, such creatures as cybercults. Even a coercive relationship of two can become essentially a cult (albeit a cult with only one follower), and such manipulation can and does happen remotely, every bit as easily as it can happen face-to-face – whether it’s of one person or of one million. People can be coerced through print, via phone, and, yes, even online.

But don’t go blaming the Internets yet. Instant worldwide communication isn’t inherently bad: it’s just instant (and worldwide). With each new leap forward in communication, we don’t create fresh evil or fresh good, but we do change the nature of our interaction – and widen our reach. So when we gained the internet, we gained not only instant information and positive things like internet activism, but also the horrors of online bullying, stalking, fraud, pedophile grooming, murder – and, yes, destructive coercive groups. Sadly, the cyber-cult is every bit as real – and every bit as deadly – as the “real-life” item. No face-to-face contact is needed – only a few essential dynamics need be in place.

However, some of these dynamics of unethical persuasion can be easily disguised as part of normal human interaction – or whatever passes for normal these days. Non-coercive, non-abusive human interaction can sometimes resemble the behaviors found in destructive cults. When you add in the fact that, due to the semi-anonymous nature of the Internet, we are often on our worst behavior … well, to put it bluntly, people don’t need to be in a cult to behave like total dunderheads.

So, how do you tell the difference?

Well, a lot of pundits will erroneously start with “hero worship” as one of the qualifications, but unless you’re going to start counting any online fan club – especially Justin Bieber fans – as a cybercult, you might want to think again. Now, if the Beliebers started claiming that the Canadian teenybopper was the only Way to Salvation, or even (God forbid) the only authority on music, then I might get worried, or at least more worried than I am. It’s worth noting that, using these criteria, one could argue that Kanye West is a cult with himself as a the only member, but let’s move on, shall we?

Simply put, in a cult, there is only one “correct” source of information, and that’s the leader – or leaders – of the group. A non-coercive group will have information coming in from many people and sources, with the people running the group often turning to outside experts for information, and certainly not claiming any monopoly on the truth. When a blog says that everyone else’s viewpoint is wrong, backspace the heck out of there. A reputable chat forum will recognize that it’s only one site in a community.

Similarly, in a coercive discussion, there’s only one point of view. Disagree – even politely – and you will be told that you are wrong (and possibly evil), in no uncertain terms. Keep voicing a dissenting opinion, and you will be blocked or banned. Usually, on a non-abusive discussion forum, people are only blocked or banned for being disruptive to the group or abusive to other members – those who disagree politely can comment all they want. Generally speaking, a “normal” forum’s rules will focus on respectful behavior to others, while an unethical group will demand conformity to the worldviews, beliefs, and even lifestyle approved by the leadership.

Also, if I happen to have a friend who’s been banned from a non-cult group, I can still talk to that person, still have them over for lunch, still be their friend – no one is going to care, because it’s none of their business. Only in a coercive relationship would someone care whether or not I’m friends with someone they don’t like, and only a cult would try to control who I bake my special biscotti for.

Another thing that cults control is information – the usual protocol of a group bent on keeping people in (and away from any “competing” groups) is to lie, lie, and then lie some more. The moderators of a cybercult will not only tell you they have the only correct view of the Qur’an, of workers’ rights, or how to make the perfect clam chowder, they will say anything to back these claims up – from issuing false quotes, to manufacturing tales of how their group is being harassed, stalked and blackmailed. However, anyone asking for proof of these claims shall not find any evidence forthcoming. Instead, depending on their perceived loyalty to the group, they shall be treated to anything from a coy “all shall be revealed in due time,” or a defensive “isn’t our word good enough?”, all the way down to a chilly “you must have an agenda to ask us something like that.”

And speaking of agendas, yes, money is a powerful motivator. That said, many blogs, YouTube Channels, Facebook groups and other social media sites have bookstores or similar these days; I know a fellow who sells a delightful line of T-shirts you can buy to help him finance his video channel on critical thinking. Commerce is not a crime – it’s when you’re forced to lay down your hard cash or Face The Consequences (such as having your “loyalty” to the group examined) that the red flags should start waving – not all destructive groups grab for your wallet, but all of them suck away your spirit, as well as your time.

There’s no way to leave a cult on good terms, or even an acceptable reason to take a break. You have to dedicate your time to their activities and causes. Those trapped in abusive groups or relationships don’t have much else going on; the person or people pulling the strings have taken over all their time, energy and identity. A cyber-cult member’s affiliation is all there is to that person – nothing else is, or should be, more important than the group and its aims. Indeed, they might spend nearly all  their waking hours hunched over the computer, living their entire lives in the narrow cyberspace of their group’s domain.

With a regular, human discussion forum, the people popping in and out of the comments section have other identities – they’re members of different churches, synagogues, mosques, temples or even covens. They identify themselves by their professions, their families, which football team they root for. Outside of the discussion, they have separate lives, completely independent of the blog. They most likely belong to several different chat forums and don’t think of themselves as “loyal” to just one particular group. Also, in a free discussion, participation is not required – comment or don’t, lurk or don’t, check back every day, or only check in every few weeks. If I want to stay away from my favorite chat forum for a couple months, I know that I can return with no more drama than a cheery “Penny! Where you been?!?” when I get back.

Another hard and fast sign of a destructive cult is the question of identity: the member of a coercive group takes on a new identity during indoctrination, often with a new name, new behaviors, new expectations. There’s a very visible, discrete line between the “pre-group” life and life in the cult. You were lost, now you are found – you were sinful, now you’re saved, and it’s all thanks to the group. Membership in a non-coercive group might change someone, but the change is from within, and not to satisfy anyone else’s demands, even if they claim to speak for Mohammed, Jesus, Jehovah, Buddha, Lao Tze or the Good And Decent People of America.

And finally, one of the best indicators I’ve ever seen of a destructive group is how they revile those that disagree with them. People who don’t agree with the group’s views, or are critical of the group’s actions, are painted as foolish or misinformed at best, and resolutely evil at worst. Legitimate criticisms of the group’s actions or questions about the leadership’s statements will not be defended with facts or answers, but attacked with personal insults. A healthy discussion forum will engage its critics and explain, clarify and debate, while a destructively restrictive group will call its detractors names, and engage in black-and-white thinking: those people don’t like us! They must be the enemy!

A free discussion forum will do what it says on the box – a knitting circle will focus on knitting, a cooking blog on cooking, a support group for survivors of domestic violence will focus on issues facing those healing from abusive relationships. A newsgroup will give you the news, a pet chat room will be full of pictures of peoples’ cats, dogs, budgies and even iguanas.

A destructive cult will spend much of its time and energy talking about its “enemies.” Now, all of us vent from time to time, especially if someone else online says something we think is totally stupid, but if only ten percent of the posts in Cousin Charlie’s Chowder Club are about chowder, and the remainder of the discussion is all about how horrible Bob’s Bisque Blog is – and not only calling Bob nasty names, but insulting anyone who comments to disagree – then you definitely have a cultic atmosphere brewing, rather than any good soup.

No recipe is worth that much trouble.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about a manipulative group that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!