Written by: Debra Van Neste
Social media is no longer a mere program you access through your computer. Rather, it has become an extension of our self and our relationships with others and the entire world. On the one hand, many have met and married through online dating, reconciled with family etc. Further, many have been deeply affected and ruined by stalking, harassment and bullying. It’s no longer relevant too merely state to someone “get over it, it’s just the internet”, as someone’s life has been torn by online harassment.
It is no surprise that cults have invaded this arena and have various outlets. The massive influx of social media is staggering. It is not just Facebook, there are hundreds of social media outlets in which a cult can start recruitment. Sadly, if we are to state “there is a war on cults”, then I think the evidence is on the side that cults are winning. Though there is awareness and incredible media attention, it seems we are not cult proof yet. There has been a surge of shows, news and articles on cults, as documentaries, exposes, podcasts and impressive media coverage is now everywhere. Perhaps because cults are not a war to be won, but instead we must look at the human dynamics and understand why cults are successful and understand about manipulation.
The media attention on cults created a supply and demand to seek “experts on cults”, some of who are ex-members that have specialized in studying their own cult exclusively. The problem is, however, that whenever anyone makes a statement on a cult, no one ever questions it, and often more confusion can result concerning what constitutes a cult. Definitions of cultish behavior vary.
Some experts are not really experts, but rather skilled media manipulators, claiming anything to make sure they stay on the media priority list. They promote and sell their books and often market themselves as “deprogrammers”, “exit counselors” or a wide variety of similar titles. The public accepts such experts because they seem like heroes and brag about previous cases or their involvement on how they escaped a cult.
Because we want a united front against cults, many anti-cult organizations do not criticize or speak out towards one another because there is so few of us out there. Cults threaten, harass, have websites on us that are horrible and libelous. Further, fake Facebook pages are using our names, pictures, and children. Even our jobs are called. I had an ex-cult member confess to me she wrote an email to my boss at work. Our anti-cult pages are reported and flooded out with trolls. Cults fight back hard and dirty. This is a business of manipulation and they are not allowing anything to bring them down. What I am suggesting instead to those that get media attention and can speak about cults, is this: a plea to raise the bar. What might be helpful and in the right direction with victims watching and reading your articles, is guidance towards proper education and mental stability. The real fight against cults is not concerned with glory and debasement, but rather with education and prevention.
So, what can make a change? Right education and “aftercare”. Many cannot afford therapy, but references to understand critical thinking and skepticism might at the very least be a stepping stone. There are no proven studies that show this, however, because there are no programs that provide this. What is needed is not debasement and tales of victory, but rather references to books, websites, ethical caring organizations and crisis hotlines.
Cults need to be exposed, not for a type of trophy hunting, but in the name of socio-ethical care. The topic of cults must be approached in the light of harmful behaviors, rather than to be concerned with “wacky” beliefs, how someone dresses, or how many times someone has been married, etc. There is too much of an attitude to exploit victims of cults, rather than towards resources. Too often one reads anti-cult pages on social media where people laugh at the victims of the cult, such pages might as well be on the side of cults.
There needs to be respect for leaders and educators in the field of cults. This is a big one because we need to know what the definition of leadership is. What is an expert on cults? What makes one an authority? I think the media is very gullible and easily applies that label to anyone so their stories can sell better. An expert is one that has the highest education in the field of behavioral science. Their goal is to educate and offer insights to help the public understand the process of cults and how anyone can fall for a cult.
An educator is one who does public speaking and likely specializes in one cult they may have been involved in, a good example of such an educator was Laura Kohl, who flies all over the world and conducts educational seminars on The Peoples Temple, a cult she narrowly escaped. Skepticism needs to play a role in our lives when we read about cults, however, if one barely understands how a cult works, we are hardly likely to question the authority of someone speaking out against them. Only a few people will be able to have this type of discernment. Any form of advocacy, activism or education takes on great responsibility. We must strengthen and showcase the right ethical organizations that can help. We can all point to something that can help and be a resource. It’s great to tell your story, I tell mine too, it validates you and draws in people who are suffering. But what is next? That is the big question. Are your actions focused on your story, is your story a hook for awareness and education? Or is it a hook for self-aggrandization?