Cults are going virtual, but deprogramming needs one old-school tactic, say experts
For the first 15 years of her life, Daniella Mestyanek Young’s entire world was The Family.
Born to a mom who’d gotten pregnant with her at 14, Young lived with more than 100 people in a commune in Mexico. Children like her were expected to work for their keep. When younger siblings arrived, she taught them to read and write. When she was 11, she was put in charge of a communal kitchen serving 20 people.
“It was an extremely insular world,” Young tells Inverse — and it had its own insular vocabulary.
“Our chores were referred to as ‘Jesus Job Time’ or JJT. It was never, ‘Go do your chores,’ it was ‘Okay, JJT.’”
The chipper Christian exterior concealed an authoritarian environment and rampant abuse. The group’s founder, David Berg, was a pedophile who equated adult sex with minors with religious righteousness. Abused children in the cult were forced to hawk videos designed to recruit both adults and other vulnerable children. Young appeared in many of them.
“I was a big child star in a lot of these video productions that were sold on the streets around the world,” Young says.
Young existed inside a cell of the notorious Children of God cult. Berg set up the cult with his family in California in 1968 under the name Teens for Christ, which eventually came to be known as The Family or The Family International. At one point, the cult boasted it had 10,000 members in more than 90 countries.
With a new generation of influence-peddlers recruiting via targeted social media ads and message boards, cults are getting smarter about how they entrench new members. Today, people can get sucked into a cult ideology like Qanon without attending a single in-person indoctrination session.
As recruitment tactics go virtual, the best approach to deprogramming remains decidedly old-school: Find ways to physically and psychologically cut them off — or at least distract them — from whatever toxic echo chamber they’ve entered.
Deprogrammers of the 1970s used to literally throw cult members in a van and drive them off the commune. New science-backed methods of severing those cult connections are less traumatic: Research shows that asking specific questions can nudge cult members to rediscover their pre-cult selves and expose the flaws of their leaders.
Instead of yanking people out of a cult by their shoulders, these methods can motivate them to climb out under their own steam instead — and stay free.
“A.I. is the new commune wall.”
Now a 34-year-old mom, public speaker, and combat veteran, Young watches in horror as other Berg-like operators suck people in using the same mind-control tactics that kept her cowed for years.
The difference today is that many cults recruit members on social media, extending their reach far beyond geographic regions.
You don’t even have to leave your living room to join a group like QAnon, which began on the notorious online forum 4chan. According to one poll, some 15 percent of Americans believe in QAnon, thanks partly to the operations promoting its dogma. (Adherents believe that Donald Trump is crusading against a global ring of child sex traffickers led by top Democrats.)
NXIVM, a cult founded by convicted child sex trafficker Keith Raniere, is another archetypical example of cults of the internet age. Among its tactics for recruiting converts was a news analysis website called The Knife, educational programs, and even exercise groups.
In traditional cults, “the walls keep the world out, keep you in because isolation is such a big part of programming,” says Young, who is working on a memoir titled Uncultured. “Now we have isolation on the internet.
“A.I. is the new commune wall. It keeps you in with your like-minded people.”
This idea is supported by research: In a University of California, Los Angeles study, researchers confirmed that people tweeting about QAnon pass along the same kinds of simplistic messaging, creating a walled-off echo chamber. It’s easy to get into such thought bubbles and, in part thanks to algorithms, hard to get out.
However, what has evolved alongside these isolating persuasion tactics is a suite of research-backed strategies people can use to break free — and counsel friends and loved ones drawn into cult groups.
Cult deprogramming was once a hotbed of dangerous experimentation.
“Often strong men muscle the subject into a car and take him to a place where he is cut off from everyone but his captors,” one 1970s guide on cult deprogramming explains. “He may be held against his will for upwards of three weeks.”
Nowadays, experts say these forcible tactics often backfire. Cult members who find their way out are usually the ones who grow motivated to deprogram themselves.
Why do people join cults?
Insular groups with charismatic leaders and deviant belief structures have been around for millennia. For most of that time, if cult members wanted to recruit you, they had to corner you and flatter you in person. That’s what happened to Steven Hassan, who was deep in the Unification Church (aka, the “Moonies”) cult for years.
“I was 19 years old, waiting in the cafeteria for my next class, and three women flirted with me,” Hassan tells Inverse. He is now an author and founding director of the Freedom of Mind Resource Center, which specializes in helping people escape cults and combat mind control.
“I had no idea what I was getting into.”
“We live in the age of undue influence.”
Today’s cult indoctrination methods are more sophisticated. Organizers now have the option of approaching vulnerable marks using strategies like those Cambridge Analytica refined to sway the 2016 election, Hassan explains, sweet-talking them with enticing ads or messages.
“We live in the age of undue influence, and in particular, undue influence through our digital environments,” Hassan says.
“If you’re a cult and you want to recruit wealthy people, you can buy data, find out who’s depressed, who’s anxious, and you can target people,” he says.
While Hassan is speculating, his line of reasoning is based on some solid ground — there is evidence of QAnon adherents using covert tactics to get around Facebook censoring Q-related content, by using paid ads to encourage people to “Connect with Cue” — and leading them to a page filled with QAnon content.
Insidious influence tactics, along with skyrocketing social and economic uncertainty, have made people more vulnerable to cults than at perhaps any other time in history.
In a Ghent University study, researchers found that before extremist groups recruited extremists, they actively searched for answers in life and felt the world was treating them unjustly. During the pandemic, Hassan points out, millions of people felt unmoored in this way.
“People are confused, people are anxious, people are fearful,” he says. “And that creates the ideal setting for these authoritarians that come in and say, ‘Oh, we can fix that,’ or ‘We know what the future is, because we have the inside track.’”
Flattering overtures from other members — like the “love bombing” tactics that got Hassan into the Moonies — may intensify a person’s budding attraction to groups like QAnon or The Family into a fully-fledged obsession.
For example, when people who took part in a University of Amsterdam study got a happy reaction from other group members, they contributed more to a collaborative task, suggesting that this kind of positive emotional feedback encourages group engagement. And while it is tempting to think that some people aren’t susceptible to these tactics, the science shows otherwise.
“All of us are potentially susceptible because we’re human,” sociologist Robert Futrell tells Inverse. Futrell is a researcher at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“We’re talking about people who are really struggling with a sense of their place in the world or a sense of belonging, and they find it,” he says. “Then they get drawn in.”
How to deprogram your brain
When someone gets sucked into a cult, real or virtual, concerned loved ones may try everything they can think of to reverse the process: marshaling facts, begging people to reclaim their former selves, or even ambushing them with an intervention. Often, nothing seems to make a dent.
Is it even possible, you might wonder, for someone so brainwashed to find a way out? The answer is yes — former Scientologist Leah Remini is vocal about her escape, for example — but effective deprogramming doesn’t follow a ‘90s-era Jerry Springer script.
To stick, it has to be primarily self-directed.
When Daniella Mestyanek Young started intensely questioning her upbringing in The Family cult, for example, her doubts were spurred by a cataclysmic event: The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. As she watched coverage of what was happening on TV — something she was normally not allowed to do — the suspicion started to creep into her mind.
“Are we the baddies? Are we the religious extremists?”
“I’m avidly watching, super interested,” Young says. “I'm hearing this term ‘religious extremists’ over and over again and seeing people falling out of towers.” She was struck by what seemed like parallels between The Family and the extremist hijackers — and once those parallels occurred to her, she couldn’t stop thinking about them.
“I had that — ‘Are we the baddies? Are we the religious extremists?’ — moment.”
A catastrophe spurred Young’s awakening, and her case is a little different because she grew up in a cult — it wasn’t her choice to join.
In most cases, though, Hassan says that the ideal time to nudge someone away from a cult group is near the beginning of the influence process.
Hassan knows this from his own experience.
Soon after Hassan first learned about the Unification Church, he went to his rabbi for advice, but the rabbi — thinking Moonies members were just ordinary church-goers — didn’t recognize the cult for what it was.
“He could have said, ‘Promise me you're not going to go back or be in touch with them for the next few weeks and let's research it together.’”
If he had heard that kind of caution from his mentor, Hassan says, “I would have taken a few weeks off.” Instead, he went all-in with the Moonies, remaining with the cult for more than two years.
University of Amsterdam researchers confirm that as people become more indoctrinated into a radical group, alternate points of view are less likely to sway them.
But that’s not to say you shouldn’t try: In a Nantes University study, 58 percent of former cult members reported that some social intervention, like a conversation with a friend or loved one, helped set them on the path to leaving.
These kinds of conversations are more likely to hit home if the person you’re talking with is internally questioning — even just a tiny bit.
Just as a rip tends to lengthen once it’s been torn, people’s nagging doubts provoke further doubts. This process often begins when some landmark event prompts them to take a hard look at the lifestyle they've chosen.
“All of us are potentially susceptible because we’re human.”
The gradual cascade of doubt is perhaps critical to whether adherents can get themselves out of a cult for good. At Nantes University, a team of researchers identified three doubt-generating factors that may compel people to leave cults:
- Becoming disillusioned with the leadership
- Feeling abused
- Losing status within the group
Together, these factors can help people establish mental distance from the cult’s core beliefs, and they may start to question the dogma rather than swallow the doctrine whole. Some QAnon adherents have faced such a reckoning after one of the group’s core tenets — that Donald Trump would be re-inaugurated as president on March 4 — failed to pan out.
And it is exactly what happened to Young — the doubts that crept in in the wake of the Twin Towers attacks gnawed at her psyche. By age 15, she had made up her mind: She had to escape the only world she had ever known.
She started deliberately doing things that group leaders told her would get her kicked out of the sect, like sneaking out of the commune’s confines. Finally, Young admitted to her mom that she wanted out.
To Young’s surprise, her mother told her that she had permission to bring Young to the border between Mexico and the U.S. and stay in Texas with a relative. Young said yes.
Dropped off in 2003 without a penny to her name, Young built a new life in the U.S., working to extricate herself from her personal mind-control nightmare.
But it wasn’t until a couple of years later, when a news story about the cult appeared on TV, that the full effect of Young’s experience began to hit her.
“There was a murder-suicide being reported, and it was the founder’s son,” she recalls. “They kept saying over and over again, ‘the Children of God.’ And we didn't even call it that growing up. We called it The Family.”
Young says she froze up as she tried to process what she was hearing.
“I am standing there, in my senior year of high school, just staring at the television, and I’m like, ‘Oh, I was in a cult. That’s why I can’t fit in. That’s why I’m struggling.’”
“The single most powerful technique is asking a question.”
Doubts may also grow as cult members ascend in the cult’s hierarchy and get a clearer view of how the sausage is really made, family therapist and cult specialist Rachel Bernstein tells Inverse.
Witnessing the leader disregard the group’s own rules drove former cult member Janja Lalich to rethink her devotion. Lalich was a member of the Democratic Workers Party, a San Francisco-based political cult active in the 1970s.
“You’re battling — ‘How can it be right for the guru to be having sex with all the women in the group when everyone's supposed to be celibate?’” Lalich tells Inverse. “You see these things, you know they're wrong, and yet you’re in an environment where things have been turned on their head.”
How to talk someone out of a cult
As these ideological cracks start to form, friends and loved ones need to be careful about how they proceed.
“What doesn’t work is to just pull someone out of the situation without their consent,” Bernstein says. “If you are pulling someone away, you don’t necessarily help them and give them insight. You just give them whiplash.”
She adds that old-school deprogramming tactics can destabilize people and cut them off from relationships that sustain them, no matter how toxic others think those relationships might be.
That dislocation can drive people back to the cult that friends and family are trying to help them escape. It’s more productive to soft-pedal your concerns and take an open, exploratory stance.
“The single most powerful technique is asking a question,” Hassan says.
Some great questions to ask include:
- Where was the person in life when they first heard about the group?
- Did they always think the leader was supreme, or were they initially skeptical?
By asking about these kinds of memories, “you’re helping people to have perspective on the fact that they're fanatical true believers. You’re reconnecting with their identity before they got programmed,” Hassan explains.
Talk to other former cult members
Non-coercive exit counseling, the gentler successor to old-school deprogramming (physically carrying people and hiding them away from the cult), inspires some to reconnect with their pre-cult values and educates them about common influence tactics.
Social encounters with people who've left cults can be equally transformative since they show wavering cult devotees that it’s possible to lead a productive, moral life after leaving the group.
Before Hassan had such encounters, “I had never met a former member who was educated about what was wrong with the group,” he says.
“And seeing that they weren’t crazy, and they weren’t frothing at the mouth or possessed by Satan or anything, that was powerful.”
“Why do I believe that? Where was it programmed into me?”
A day or a weekend outside the bubble — say, a camping trip to somewhere that has no cell or Internet access — can also help people get back in touch with aspects of their pre-cult selves.
“People who had to take some time away realized they felt so much better when they didn’t have constant contact and pressure coming in,” Bernstein says. “They didn’t have to check their phone every two minutes. They realized they didn’t need it to be happy and that nothing bad happened to them.”
For Young, undoing The Family’s influence has been a decade-plus undertaking, one that’s stretched her in a multitude of directions.
Craving the same clear direction and hierarchy she’d had as part of the cult, she joined the army — only to find she chafed against the rigid structure she thought she needed to survive.
Now, she guards against any influence that requires her to accept without questioning.
“I describe my process as trying to almost do an inventory of every thought and belief that I have, and just see, ‘Why do I believe that? Where was it programmed into me?’” she says.
“And if I can figure out where it was programmed into me, I can go back in time, figure out if I can correct that code.”