IP#36 The Cult of Reality: Why we are all being brainwashed and what to do about it – 9th January

The Cult of Reality: Why we are all being brainwashed and what to do about it

Reading time: 10 minutes 31 seconds

On April 19, 1993, one of the greatest tragedies in America at the end of the 20th century unfolded in the heart of Texas. It occurred on the Waco plains where many dozens of souls burned to death. Vernon Wayne Howell, known for his charismatic allure, built a fiercely loyal community, captivated by his compelling personality and intricate doctrine. This was not just a congregation; it was a close-knit family, bound together by unwavering belief in their leader and his vision. The compound in Waco became their sanctuary, a place where they lived, prayed, and prepared for what Vernon predicted as an impending apocalyptic confrontation. Vernon was the leader of the Branch Davidians religious sect. He had renamed himself David Koresh.

51 days earlier, the ATF tried to execute a search warrant for the compound as they were led to believe there were illegal firearms inside. Gunfire erupted and a standoff began. The FBI surrounded the compound while Koresh warned his followers that the end might soon come.

Today, we find ourselves falling victim to many of the same strategies that Koresh and other cult leaders have leveraged throughout history. While this might not lead to as extreme an ending as in this example, we need to understand these strategies more deeply so that we can free ourselves from the brainwashing that is happening to us.

I want to identify six strategies used by cults and connect them with examples we are experiencing today through the use of the media and social media.

Cults versus Non-Cults

There are lots of groups we are influenced by but what separates cults from non-cults? Primarily, the difference is in primarily the degree to which they cultivate belief. Most people in cults such as the Branch Davidians are willing to die and sacrifice their family to the bidding of the leader. This level of belief is insanely powerful. It is one thing to get people to follow you but to get them to the point where they would do anything is another matter entirely.

There are plenty of tragedies that have occurred throughout history that involved a cult leader and their followers. As I draw parallels, I am not, for a second, suggesting that what is going on in the world today is as bad or as extreme as what happens in a typical cult. What I will do is unpack some of the strategies cults use and show how these same approaches are leveraged in the modern day through the media and social media.

1. Charismatic leadership

To believe strongly in a group, it is important to have a leader at the helm. We need someone to be the example and to be the author of our journey. We need someone to be the captain of our ship. Charismatic leaders have, for centuries, garnered much more support and cultivated divisiveness as a result of their polarizing personalities.

Our world is increasingly driven by the pursuit of entertainment and attention. Leaders who tend to be successful do not need to have brilliant policies or ideas. They need to grab and keep people’s attention. They need to inspire the emotions of the population. These days more than ever.

The media rewards attention. Social media rewards attention. Those leaders who get the most coverage, good and bad, tend to be the most successful. This is problematic. It means that we are choosing leaders based on their charisma or ability to command attention and not on their actual ability to get results.

Aristotle identified ‘ethos’ as a crucial element of persuasive rhetoric. Ethos refers to the credibility of the speaker. Indeed, once you really believe in a speaker, it is likely that you will believe anything they say. While cults often use the element of ethos to control the mind and behavior of the entire group, today it is used to gain political or persuasive power in the media.

We are no longer settling for news or subject matter experts. Prominent platforms are increasingly occupied by opinionated voices. While the news and subject matter experts inform us of the situation, the opinionists tell us what to think. They tell us which side to be on and they make a very compelling argument. And they get the most air time. The more charismatic they are; the more time they get.


2. Community reinforcement

When a cult recruits you, they will often use ‘love bombing’. Love bombing is a tactic where a group makes you feel exceptionally valued and supported, enticing you to join. In the world today, it can be only too easy to feel lonely. We crave feeling part of a group, cults target in on that need and embrace us.

As story wars rage through our society, it is not points of view that we are exposed to nor is it ideas. Instead, we are presented with two sides to almost every issue. The voices we hear present one of the sides with a community already aligned with it. It is not just a person’s opinion. It is a side of the issue and ‘we’ are all on the same side.

We enter echo chambers where we find ourselves only consuming content that supports our perspective. We get rewarded for this with a social media form of ‘love bombing’. Our comments online get liked and hearted and supported by more comments. Our friends share information with us and we do with them. We all support each other. The key messages that we understand are:

“You are part of us. We are a family. Only we can understand you.”

3. Thought stopping

Another very effective technique that cults use is what is known as ‘thought stopping’. Thought stopping is the process of shutting down any form of critical thought from a person so that you can keep programming them with the ideology of your group. They do this through catchy phrases and mantras. The idea is that not all thoughts are created equal. Rules are created for the kind of thoughts you are allowed to have and you learn techniques to stop those that don’t make the cut.

In the modern age, this is also a popular technique used across the various communication platforms. Phrases like ‘fake news’ or ‘you’re just a troll’ dismiss arguments without addressing their validity. It stops the conversation short and allows the person who uses such terms to simply stop listening.

Any form of criticism can be parried by the phrases ‘cancel culture’, ‘conspiracy theory’, ‘mainstream media’, or ‘stop being a sheep’. These are just some examples of what opinionists and political leaders do to shut down any criticism. They tell their supporters to immediately dismiss the other person’s perspective. They cancel credibility in anyone that doesn’t subscribe to their dogma and they do so with expressions such as these.

4. Stories that build a new reality

Every cult has a good story. By ‘good’ I don’t mean actually good but it certainly is engaging enough to tap into the followers’ need for meaning and community. To create the meaning that they want their followers to get from being in the cult, the leaders will shape a story that presents them as having attained some form of enlightenment.

In David Koresh’s example, he presented a story where he was the final prophet and talked directly to God. He claimed that he was asked to interpret the Book of Revelation and the end of the world was imminent. Koresh suggested that his duties required him to have multiple wives including underage girls. He reinterpreted the bible to fit whatever he wanted to get them to do. Since this was a religious cult and involved life after death, it was only by following Koresh’s rules that the community would find meaning.

The opinionists and leaders of today are engaged in a constant story war. They interpret the events of the day from their perspective. They do what they can to feed us their story. Their story provides us with an understanding of what things ‘should’ be like. It is their own form of ‘enlightenment’.

Instead of a story as to why someone is wrong about their opinion on COVID for example, we position them as part of a huge conspiracy who are maliciously trying to lead us astray whereas they are the brave freedom fighters battling the mainstream media. Instead of a story as to why someone is on the wrong side of an issue, they are exactly what is ‘wrong with this country’ or one of the ‘deplorables’. These stories weaponize opinions.

Once we believe it, we will do their bidding. We will believe whatever else they tell us. We will vote for them. We will subscribe. We will watch them on their show. This is how the world works. And this leads to the next approach.

5. Insiders and outsiders

One of the most critical strategies that cults use is to categorize people as insiders and outsiders. Once a cult has drawn you into their group, they next need to isolate you from your old groups. They discourage you from contacting your family and friends.

While they can’t always do this completely, they can inoculate you from the objections your loved ones might have. They can predict the responses and provide you with a story to interpret why they are saying that and what is ‘really true’.

They position themselves (and you) as ‘believers’ and everyone else in a second category of ‘unbelievers’. Unbelievers are shunned. They are impure. They are bad. They will not go to the special place. Anyone who questions the doctrine is shunned and ostracized.

Effectively they ‘out-group’ you. An in-group refers to the people with whom you belong. An out-group refers to the people that are not part of the in-group. Usually, the terms used to describe the out-group of a cult are not terms that would be used by those that they are labeling. You are also significantly more likely to dismiss or ignore any challenges to the cult as any other response threatens your membership.

This happens in modern culture too. For instance, in America, those on the extreme left will often use terms like “fascist, bigoted, right-wing, Nazi-like racists” to describe their out-group on the right. Those on the right will often use terms like “commie, woke, snowflake, libtards” to describe their out-group on the left. If you aren’t fully in agreement with their perspective, you risk being labeled with those terms.

Effectively, this works just as it does in cults. Being labeled this way can be devastating, leading many to do anything to remain aligned with their group.


So, what can we do to prevent these techniques from effectively manipulating us? Here are some strategies that can help you:

1. Change the categories

Stop thinking in polarities and categorizing two sides to an issue. Start to look for commonalities you share and communities you share with people who have a different point of view than you. While you might be more conservative and they more liberal for instance, both of you might love traveling…. be a big Star Wars fan… or support the same team. Find as many ways as you can where you’re in the same category as ‘them’.

2. Start thinking in nuance

Notice the hyperbole used to grab your attention. Stop allowing yourself to think in extreme terms. Most of the events that occur in the world don’t happen in black and white but in gray. Embrace the gray and have more nuanced perspectives on things. Let yourself think and think widely and deeply about the issues you come across.

3. Unfollow the leader

Focus on the flaws of the people you constantly listen to. Instead of being bummed out when an opinionist or political leader you support gets something wrong, celebrate your ability to see that they make mistakes. Learn to listen to the point of view rather than focusing on who the person is.

4. Challenge the stories

Remember that the stories we are being told are just stories. Expose yourself to more than one story about the same event. Hunt for a deeper, more meaningful story by understanding the various sides of the issue. Realize that true ‘enlightenment’ happens by depth not surface-level one-liners.

5. Bring more people into your mental ecosystem

Hunt for information that goes against your point of view. It won’t necessarily feel nice but it’s like eating healthy. Vegetables mightn’t taste as good as fast food does, but it’s really important you eat them. Listening to people you don’t agree with isn’t enjoyable but really can help you break free from buying into ideas that have been programmed into your mind by those you trust.

A matter of life and death

On that fateful day in April 1993, the FBI entered the compound and tried to force the members out through tear gas. Within a few hours, huge fires broke out. 76 followers perished including 25 children. Many did not try to escape or save their children because the kind of flames that raged on were exactly what Koresh had told them would happen.

It was not the fire that had been started but rather their conviction in his story that led to their death and the death of their children.

While examples like Waco are hard to believe and certainly an extreme example, people are still dying every single day as a result of the beliefs of a certain group. Wars fought throughout history have led to hundreds of millions of victims who have all been driven by what the leaders believed.

When we look back at tragedies, whether it be Waco, the Holocaust, Rwanda, or the purges of Stalin to name but a few, we must remember they will continue to happen as long as we continue to allow ourselves to fall into the same brainwashing traps that continue to be used on us.

Unity can only be achieved by broadening our definition of ‘us’. We must stop allowing ourselves to think in polarities. We must hunt for the shared humanity that exists between us and ‘others’. We need to stay vigilant against the attempts to convince us to buy into any story that can be used to manipulate us. We must break free from the propaganda that engulfs our minds and understand that, once and for all, lives are at stake.

In her compelling Ted Talk, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie leaves us with one of the most important reminders that we need to have when we are working out what is going on in the world:

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

To believe better, we must have more than one story.



P.S. If you are interested in reading more editions of Inner Propaganda, you can find them here.



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