Secular Cults Series: Social Media
A Word On Cults
Cults are a dichotomy. There are people who adore cults and people who abhor cults. There are people that rule cults and people ruled by cults. There are cults that align themselves with science and cults that employ a more mystical doctrine. There are cults determined to save people and cults that end in mass suicide.
On a micro level, there is a part of me that sympathises for the humans exploited by cults. Often they are well-intentioned but misguided individuals, going through troubling times, searching for a purpose and a way to benefit themselves or the world. There are also large numbers of people born into cults who know nothing else.
Conversely, there is a part of me that sheds no sympathy for those who invest their faith and life savings in these manipulative organisations, for if it weren’t a cult that stooged them it would probably just be something else: infomercials, a pyramid scheme, a socially accepted religion.
What Defines A Cult?
The purpose of this series is to examine secular organisations and practices that don’t undergo the same scrutiny a budding religion would and explore whether these seemingly innocuous groups employ and promote the same behaviours that make cults so dangerous.
Before we can do that though, we need to know how to identify a cult. Dictionary.com’s definition for the word is ‘a particular system of religious worship.’ However, this is an inadequate definition that doesn’t convey what a cult really is and fails to explain the reason why no new religion wants the connotation that comes with the term. Nor does the definition make an effort to differentiate cults from socially accepted religions or address the harm cults cause. If you were to omit the theology from any harmful cult – Branch Davidians, Heaven’s Gate, Scientology – they would still be a dangerous organisation employing manipulative tactics.
So then, how can one diagnose a cult if not for its blatantly false religious beliefs? There is no universal cult practice, but there is a range of common symptoms:
Submission: Unquestioned trust in leadership that is rewarded in a manner that makes the member feel important.
Persecution Mentality: A black & white, Us Vs Them, mentality. When corrected or contradicted, members interpret it as validation (think of the way members of the Westboro Baptist Church interpret insults).
Control: Controlling the way members act, think and communicate.
Love Bombing: Love of the group by the group that builds dependence upon the group.
Elitist View: Members are always right. They are the only ones who know the truth and this makes them feel superior to outsiders.
Salvation: Only the cult knows the route to salvation. Therefore, any means justify the ends. Salvation can only be reached by maintaining association with the group.
Cognitive Dissonance: Avoiding critical thinking and logic. Denying facts that contradict the group.
Loaded Language & Jargon: Creates camaraderie and promotes elitism. Dictates how members act, think and communicate. Becomes second nature and isolates members from outsiders while also inviting outsiders to join and learn for inclusion.
Groupthink: Coherence maintained by blindingly following doctrine, leaders and policies while discouraging disagreement.
Disconnection Policy: Isolating members from those who don’t share the group’s views. This can be family, friends or society at large and reinforces dependence on the group.
Internal Enforcement: Obedience of the group’s scripture is maintained by an internal enforcement agency.
Deception: Employing deceptive and manipulative acts to sign members up and keep them in the group.
Charismatic Leader: This one is obvious, right? Provides members with someone to worship and idolise.
Repetition: Repeating any or all of the above to brainwash members.
Using this information it should be easy to answer the question…
Is Social Media A Secular Cult?
Let’s start by analysing how social media companies operate and indoctrinate. The article will mainly focus on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as they are the most notable social media platforms, but the practices are widespread throughout the digital world of social media and are applicable to most, if not all, incarnations.
Cults rely on deceptive recruitment methods. They are never upfront about their true purpose and often use a Trojan horse (charity, self help, etc) to sneak into and take over people’s lives. Is social media guilty of this same practice? The message on the Facebook homepage states “Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life” while Twitter claims their “mission” is “To give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.” Neither of these statements even come close to explaining the way in which either company works though.
Put simply, Facebook is an advertising weapon, one with such an efficient aim it rarely misses. Every aspect of the media is dedicated to deceiving users into telling Facebook exactly what products interest them, what their budget is and even where they’re located in relation to stores. Twitter operates in a similar fashion, selling any relevant information to the highest bidder.
But before one can use social media, they must first submit to various terms and conditions, the wording of which is never simple. The language in these contracts (or scripture) is so vague and deceptive that it’s almost as if the text is deliberately worded in a way that seeks to confuse the user rather than inform them what they’re actually signing up for.
A few years ago, Twitter received backlash when they updated their terms to include the right to sell any content (photos, Tweets, metadata) to third parties (newspapers, advertisers, marketers, anyone). Twitter swiftly modified the wording to sound more esoteric but the practice persists to this day and is far from exclusive to the platform. Instagram’s terms reserve the right for the company to use “your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take… without any compensation to you” and, of course, grant their parent company, Facebook, these same rights.
This might seem like a fair and common practice but that is only because every social media site employs these sorts of tactics. Is it really that different from the way in which a cult might use any content (wealth, assets, family members) a member brings into the congregation however the cult deems appropriate? No other service requires its users to concede such rights. Libraries, for example, do not require the right to use a borrower’s likeness when the user enters a branch. Banks don’t track your location. And supermarkets don’t analyse the cost of your phone, your shopping habits and interests in order to sell you more. So why is it common practice for social media companies to do so? And why do these companies hide their true intentions behind misleading slogans and inside the digital equivalent of fine print they know most people don’t read?
Another cult-like practice social media companies have normalised is the way in which they control users. In addition to filtering out ads that are unlikely to result in sales, Facebook also omits news and views the company disagrees with (usually right wing ideals but also any news that relates to Facebook) while promoting agendas they do agree with, directly controlling the information users have access to. Facebook, in true cult style, deny doing so but there are numerous accounts online from ex-curators who confirm this happens regularly, just as there are numerous testimonies from ex-cult members that corroborate stories the cult denies.
Snapchat controls how long users can share media for while Twitter controls the amount of characters users can use. These may sound like innocent novelties but both practices actually restrict the way users can communicate, condensing complex issues to soundbites and forcing users to choose a side. Left or right. For or against. Black or white.
One of the most glaring symptoms of a cult is a disconnection policy. This act alone is the reason many people criticise Internet philosopher Stefan Molyneux as being a cult leader. While social media companies don’t actively encourage users to disconnect, disconnection is a native part of every social media platform, casualising the practise. One click is all it takes to defriend, unfollow or block another user. Civilized society forces people to interact with those they don’t like or agree with. These interactions aren’t always pleasant but do force people to experience, understand and analyse views and opinions that differ from their own, promoting critical thinking and empathy.
Every social media employs their own internal agency to enforce the company’s doctrine (T’s & C’s) and reprimand anyone who strays from this outlined scripture.
As for charismatic leaders, well Google Mark Zuckerberg. Almost every article refers to Facebook’s CEO as a ‘boy genius’. Then there is the more-fiction-than-truth 2010 movie The Social Network, written by Academy award winner Aaron Sorkin and directed by Golden Globe and BAFTA winner David Fincher, where Zuckerberg is portrayed as a supremely intelligent funny smartarse that is so sure of himself and his abilities he can’t even take the multiple court cases against him seriously.
How about the users of social media? Do they behave like cult members?
On social media, users love bomb one another with posts, shares, likes, retweets, tags, snaps and comments, sometimes so much so that the topic they are discussing trends and repeats across the medium. These trending topics (that Twitter sells and Facebook filters) discourage users from further research as all the user needs to stay up to date with the rest of the group is right before them in an easy-to-understand box.
Users subscribe to forums and groups only made up of members who share and regurgitate the same views as them, isolating themselves from wider perspectives and discussion. These groups are full of social media activists who often employ a black and white/us vs them attitude, claim to know the route to salvation and indoctrinate followers with these beliefs. Members usually block or report anyone who disagrees with their one-sided views and interpret any criticism that does make it through as validation. You only need to visit any social media activist’s page to see them playing the victim after an unwelcomed interaction with someone from the other side of the fence who is unable to continue the dialog as they’ve been blocked.
Models and brand promoters on Instagram deceive other users with filters that make images appear more flattering than they really are and only select photos that portray an appealing but unrealistic and fake lifestyle in an attempt to gain followers. A practice that is identical to the way cult promoters portray a false utopia to increase membership.
On top of all of this, social media has a very specific language. Memes, hashtags and internet slang, that an outsider couldn’t understand, create a sense of community among users. They become second nature, transfer over to real life conversation and make it tedious to interact with those who don’t understand. The slang is constantly evolving, providing even the most avid (or faithful) users with new jargon to learn, maintaining their commitment to the group. Posts, tweets, comments, snaps, trending topics and deceptive click bait articles (that ignore evidence and logic while dissuading the reader from critical thinking) incorporate and perpetuate this new language while inviting the uninitiated to join.
We leave you to come to your own answer to the question ‘Is Social Media A Secular Cult?’