The world has known its fair share of cult leaders. From Charles Manson and David Koresh and R. Kelly, history is punctuated by the coercive and often deadly activities of individuals who just happened to be in the right place at the right time to tap into extremism’s zeitgeist.
Predominantly male (of the 68 cult leaders deemed worthy of their own page on Wikipedia, only 8 are women – though what they lack in number as leaders they seem to more than make up for in body count of victims), cult leaders trade on charisma, manipulation, and the creation of a strong sense of community and belonging.
It seemed for a while that organised cults that tended to exist in or gravitate toward communes – primarily a phenomenon of the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies and Eighties – were going out of fashion.
But then the internet and social media happened – and the internet is the stuff of a 1970s cult leader’s wildest dreams in which there was unlimited access to millions of people and no physical community to protect.
No door-to-door conversion campaigns, no preying on vulnerable young adults in bust and rail stations. Just a vast landscape in which the core message could be amplified and monetised beyond anything previously possibly monetised
The internet is tailor-made for the cult of personality. Advertising algorithms that constantly drip-feed a sales message are just the modern-day equivalent of someone with a soapbox and a compelling story to be endlessly repeated.
Rick Ross – one of the world’s most renowned and respected cult deprogrammers recently summed up the scale of the online cult recruitment problem when he warned that we now have a generation of children with smartphones who can be reached directly by any cult without their family ever knowing.
He went on to add that people are being recruited every day online and that the most recent data available suggests more than 10,000 individual groups have been identified in North America alone.
One prominent example he cites is the Tik Tok cult.
More worryingly, social media now parrots cult techniques to such an extent that so-called influencers like Andrew Tate not only spreading their harmful narcissistic bile on the internet – they also manage to induce people to pay for it.
The parallel universe of social media as a cult
Ultimately, social media has evolved radically over the last two decades. It has transitioned from its original, and largely benign intent to be a space for people to build connection into a sales platform that uses influence to separate people from their money.
In many, if not most cases that influence is legitimate – t-shirts, miracle degreasers and the like that, at worst, may be poor quality or may not do what it says on the tin. In others, it’s more insidious – the one-fix counselling, the faddish diet, the get-rich-quick schemes that never work.
And then there’s the authoritarian influencers – or belief cults – that exert undue and unhealthy influence. Social media is increasingly inclined to this end of the spectrum, if only because of the lack of transparency that’s applied around how people’s data is used.
Social media replicates the cult experience in a number of different ways.
Affirmation – also known as ‘love bombing’ in which people are made to feel good about themselves. In a cult this may be outward affection, on Facebook or Insta it’s positive notifications when you like or agree.
Reinforcement – we’re always inclined to believe what suits our own narrative. Cults actively play into this, and so do influencers, by seeking to tell you the story you’re most likely to believe and then tying it to their product or service.
Fear of Missing Out – yes, the old FOMO. Cults keep their hooks in people by creating the almost phobic belief that to opt out is to deny yourself benefit, opportunity or pleasure. Ditto social media influencers.
Half-truths – the golden rule of an effective lie is that it always contains a grain of truth. This is also a facet of both cults and influencers, where half-truths are bent and manipulated to reinforce a key message or doctrine.
Open doors – indoctrination, especially into extreme and unhealthy belief systems, begins by exposing people to ‘mild’ content that is likely to be at least partially aligned with their own views. This then creates a door that opens easily onto increasingly more extreme content that cements those same belief systems.
Positive language – in other words, the use of desirable language to create the belief that the product, service or lifestyle is tailor-made for whatever situation or need has brought you to this point already. Words like ‘awakening’ and ‘realisation’ are designed to solidify your own position and make you more susceptible to whatever message is intended.
So, are unchecked influencers the new cults?
First we need to understand what we mean by influence. The dictionary definition is the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behaviour of someone or something, or the effect itself.
We also need to understand that Influence isn’t binary. It can be positive or negative, or something in between. It can also be fluid, moving from positive to negative depending on the audience it reaches and how that audience manipulates this new-found truth.
Pride and vanity are factors because as someone begins to attract attention, human nature demands more, and more attention increases the demand for it.
Self-worship is a strong drug – and it’s nearly impossible to kick.
But what does it look like and how
First off, the cult influencer can’t bear criticism. Period. Not even a little. If your view differs from theirs, one of two things will happen: either your comments will be deleted and you’ll be blocked, or – worse – those who’ve been drinking from the Kool-Aid fountain will come charging to their leader’s defence. Cue a torrent of hatred and abuse.
And why? Because there is no room anywhere in a cult for dissent. The cult influencer’s worst fear is that your dissenting voice will be the pin that bursts their bubble, because in the end it’s always only about them.
True influencers display true and genuine leadership. Their goal is to serve those that follow, and they lead with humility and respect, and accept their fallibility.
Every one of us at some point is an influencer, because we don’t need a mass following to be able to influence. We can lead at work, at home, in friendships, in parenthood, and in sudden and unforeseen adversity.
It’s when pride and self-worship are to the fore that influence becomes destructive.
One of the internet’s biggest influencers is Andrew Tate, the self-proclaimed King Of Toxic Masculinity, professional misogynist, and until recently, Romanian prison inmate.
Over the course of his infamy, he has accrued millions of online followers who are devoted to his divisive content, much of which advocates male supremacy and power as well as the subversion and exploitation of women.
Tate peddles a noxious narrative. He has previously been quoted as saying women should “bear responsibility” for being sexually assaulted, that they “belong in the home,” and that they are a “man’s property”.
This is music to the ears of those who struggle to form mature and rewarding relationships.
A cursory look at Tate’s Twitter account, the profiles and content of his 6.7m followers and the hashtag #FREETOPG lays bare slavish devotion of his followers.
In the morass of disturbing content are those who have promised to travel to Romania to break him out of jail, another from someone promising to go on hunger strike until Tate is released, and still more hailing him as the last truly living masculine essence on planet Earth.
Many of Tate’s followers do not support women hosting their own Instagram accounts, never mind running a business or an opinionated Twitter account. Do the women who follow and laud him see their support as being some sort of edgy way to break with convention, or are they simply blind to the fact they have succumbed to his divisive rhetoric?
Why does Tate’s blank machismo have such influence right now, and why over young men?
Andrew Tate has some sensible advice for young men around working hard and going to the gym, both of which are good for mental health and self-esteem. But even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day
Similarly, many cults tend to start with a good hook, otherwise no one would ever join.
The People’s Temple, led by the famously charismatic Jim Jones, for example, started life in 1955 as a progressive movement advocating for civil rights and providing supportive housing for the elderly and those with mental health issues.
Some 23 years later, living in self-imposed exile in a commune labelled Jonestown in Guyana, Jones induced 909 followers to commit mass suicide by poisoning.
Even with a veneer or respectability, it’s astounding how many people have fallen for the Tate experience.
But then, certainty is seductive – and Andrew Tate is certain that he is right. It’s a dogmatic certainty of binary proportions: black and white with no space in between for any grey.
However, we need to beware of the pull of certainty. That’s hard when anxiety is high and we’re looking for an emotional lifeboat. But when we become seduced by certainty we can miss the opportunities we have in life and we’re also more open either to being manipulated or becoming manipulative.
The seductiveness of certainty in increasingly uncertain times creates the tendency to fall for the bullshit du jour.
Andrew Tate’s brand of certainty has been swallowed whole by an endless stream of certain corners of the Internet. And it is this certainty that characterises every cult leader who has gone before and will come next.
Tate’s brand of certainty is gross, in the truest sense of the word. It objectifies people (usually women) and devalues them by the very act of ascribing low value to them.
Tate’s modus operandi – rating women on a scale of attraction and men on materialistic achievement – says more about his own infantilism, insecurity and low self-esteem than it ever says about those who he is describing.
And even the most blinkered, when given time and opportunity to reassess his belief system and their own, would surely have pause to question its validity.
The characteristics of a cult leader
Generally speaking there are three key accepted characteristics of a cult leader:
Charisma: a key factor in the power of cult leaders. Many are able to inspire and motivate their followers through their charm and energy, making others feel they are part of something bigger than themselves, a misconception that can be very appealing and empowering.
Manipulation: something Tate has in spades, is another tool used by cult leaders to maintain control over their followers.
Community: Through his online presence, Tate has given a safe haven to like-minded individuals in search of a safe haven for their views. By bringing people together around a common goal or belief, Tate has been able to foster a strong bond with his followers.
Other core characteristics include narcissism, dominance, discipline, sociopathy and psychopathy, authoritarianism and control freakery, intolerance, and a sense of being a self-proclaimed visionary.
The trouble with developing such an unbreakable sense of belonging is that it can be very powerful and makes it difficult for people to leave the group, even if they are unhappy or uncomfortable, even when there is new information coming through.
Cults are not born equal. Some are relatively benign, others are dangerous – especially when they are able to control their influence through an endless and unfiltered diet of divisiveness on social media.
Tate is a celebrity case in point. The truly terrifying reality is there are thousands more out there who are quietly spreading their tentacles into our homes without us necessarily knowing it, and regardless of what happens to Andrew Tate there will always be Wish Catalogue versions waiting to take his place.
So, is Tate a cult leader? Rick Ross again:
“Certainly he’s a charismatic personality. He fits the profile of a very seductive, very charismatic leader, and certainly he has become iconic to his following. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they worship him, but in the same sense that many women want to be like one of the Kardashians, many men following Tate want to be like him. So, to what extent he actually can be proven to have employed thought reform and coercive persuasion, again undue influence, over the women or over his following, and then either exploits his following based on that undue influence or harmed the women based on his control, that will be the evidence that he is a cult leader”
But to know whether Tate really is a cult leader, we need to benchmark his behaviour against the ten scientifically accepted signs of whether someone is involved in/with a potentially unsafe group/leader:
- Extreme obsessiveness regarding the group/leader resulting in the exclusion of almost every practical consideration
- Individual identity, the group, the leader and/or God as distinct and separate categories of existence become increasingly blurred. Instead, in the follower’s mind these identities become substantially and increasingly fused–as that person’s involvement with the group/leader continues and deepens
- Whenever the group/leader is criticised or questioned it is characterised as “persecution”
- Uncharacteristically stilted and seemingly programmed conversation and mannerisms, cloning of the group/leader in personal behaviour
- Dependency upon the group/leader for problem solving, solutions, and definitions without meaningful reflective thought. A seeming inability to think independently or analyse situations without group/leader involvement
- Hyperactivity centred on the group/leader agenda, which seems to supersede any personal goals or individual interests
- A dramatic loss of spontaneity and sense of humour
- Increasing isolation from family and old friends unless they demonstrate an interest in the group/leader
- Anything the group/leader does can be justified no matter how harsh or harmful
- Former followers are at best-considered negative or worse evil and under bad influences. They can’t be trusted and personal contact is avoided
You need to do your own research and decide.
Good mental health doesn’t need the cult of certainty
Good mental health for men isn’t about thinking you’re better than everyone else and it doesn’t require you to be a millionaire. It certainly doesn’t matter what colour your Bugatti is.
Tate is successful because his mantra utilises a powerful splitting response where women are objectified and reduced to sexual conquest in service of one’s self-esteem and where any consideration of the opposite is not tolerated and viewed as weakness.
In the end, Andrew Tate must face the case against him.
The question now is whether we have learned anything as a society from the bile spouted by him and others like him – and whether we’re happy to allow that stain to continue to infect the online spaces we inhabit.