This article was originally published on VICE Canada.
On July 15, Steven Mineo was found dead from a single gunshot.
According to his girlfriend, Barbara Rogers, Mineo was seated on the ground cross-legged in his Pennsylvania apartment when she pulled the trigger of the Glock. Rogers also told police that her boyfriend wanted to die.
For years, the two allegedly belonged to a cult started by Sherry Shriner, an online conspiracy theorist. Shriner works through the internet with a website, a podcast, and a YouTube channel. She preaches that a group called the New World Order—made up of reptilians and aliens—is plotting to take over the world.
Speaking with police, Rogers said that Mineo wanted to die because of a feud with the Shriner and her followers. She said the troubles started with Shriner seeing a picture of Rogers eating raw meat. Upon viewing this image Shriner dubbed Rogers a reptilian and excommunicated the two from the group. The two were then harassed by Shriner's followers for three months. It didn't end until Rogers shot Mineo in the head—Shriner for her part says that Mineo was killed by NATO.
On her website, Shriner writes long diatribes with titles like "The Coming Alien-Locust-Giant Invasions" and "How Aliens Target, Manipulate, and Control Mankind." While Shriner preaches from Ohio, her videos are used as a global entry point to recruit believers from all over the world. Her website has a YouTube subscriber count of over 6,000, and cumulatively her videos have been viewed more than a million times.
This isn't a phenomenon unique to Shriner. Essentially, social media—especially YouTube—has become a secret weapon for cult recruitment.
"What I think most people don't realize is how a group can be just totally in the ether," said Rick Ross, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Cult Education Institute. "People interface with them using social media—using Skype—they don't meet face-to-face."
"This is a phenomena that we're seeing more and more of—we're seeing it every day."
Join a cult without leaving the house
The definition of a cult has become a little bit of a moving target over the years. Perhaps the closest to the definitive explanation was proposed in a 1981 paper, wherein Dr. Robert Lifton, a psychologist known for his theory of thought reform, wrote that regardless of its ideology a "destructive cult" had three recurring themes: an authoritative or all-knowing leader; the existence of a thought control program that breaks down critical thinking to gain undue influence; and the exploitation of its members.
Steve Hassan, the founder of Freedom of Mind Resource Center and a mental health counselor who specializes in helping those in cults, says familiar exploitation tactics are increasingly being applied online. "The younger generation has grown up on the internet. This is the fertile recruitment zone," Hassan told VICE. "They're now more likely to be recruited in social media than in person."
Major cults such as Raëlism, The Brethren, The Moonies, and The Family International all have prolific YouTube presences. Raëlism—a cult founded in the 70s whose members believe humans were created by aliens—has what they call Rael TV and the Rael Academy, where they post videos aimed at people who don't know about the group but want to learn more. Some have hundreds of thousands of views.
For every one of these larger, more established groups, there exist several smaller ones like the Divine Truth, Trumpet Call of God, and Shriner.
Some videos recruit by twisting established religions, while others claim to offer a more secular "truth." Some encourage followers to self isolate and only communicate with other group members online, all while sending money to the leader. A few simply tell people to drop everything and join a compound. While each cult differs in tactics, there is a recurring theme—they can all recruit you from the comfort of your own home.
"It's creepy," said Ross. "You're a parent and your kid is in his bedroom, and he's on his smartphone, and he's in a cult, and he's in your house. You're there watching Netflix and your kid is interfacing with cult members and a cult leader on his smartphone."
Some of the groups and leaders subsist solely off YouTube. One alleged cult called Fellowship of the Martyrs—focused on demonology, among other things—is run by a man named Doug Perry, who has about 15,000 YouTube subscribers and 1,300 videos posted so far. All the videos are just Perry talking into the camera, proselytizing on his religion like he's giving a sermon to a congregation.
Two experts consulted for this piece stated that on a purely technical level, ISIS is the most successful cult at harnessing the power of the internet. The radical Islamic terror cell operates an extremely sophisticated network of online propaganda. This propaganda makes it possible for people to self-radicalize and commit terror attacks without ever physically meeting anyone in the group.
While YouTube is one of the bigger platforms utilized by cults, they'll use any tool available to extend their reach, said Ross. The utilization of social media—paired with the platform's ability to allow people to entrench themselves into a bubble—is further exacerbating the issue.
"People can cocoon themselves in a kind of alternative universe," Ross said. "You choose who you friend on Facebook, you choose who you follow on Twitter, you choose who you watch on YouTube, and you can kind of create an alternative reality."
"I've been doing this for a long time, and people can embed in such a way that they cut themselves off from reality," he added. "There is this self-reinforcing alternative universe they occupy. It's something people can create more and more effectively right now."
A former follower's tale
Marisa O'Connor was in her early 20s when she was turned onto Freedomain Radio (FDR) and the teachings of Canadian pseudo-philosopher Stefan Molyneux.
It started when one of O'Connor's friends gave her the name of a bald, pleasantly accented man preaching about anarchism on the internet. This was a subject she was interested in, so she decided to give it a try. From the get-go, O'Connor "was pretty much hooked" by Molyneux's long diatribes in which he stares directly into the camera for hours.
"It started off with him talking about anarchy and then he gets into criticizing religion and saying stuff like all the worlds problems are caused by 'bad parenting,'" O'Connor told VICE.
Listening to Molyneux for hours on end, O'Connor convinced herself that her parents didn't really love her and were instead abusive and manipulative. She also learned that Molyneux has a solution for people who end up falling into this line of thinking: deFOOing, completely dissociating yourself from your family.
"[Molyneux's] theory was that if enough people did this—made this sacrifice—then he would send a message to the world that parents need to treat your kids better," said O'Connor. "So that's what I believed I was doing, I was taking part of this mission to protect children."
You may have heard of Molyneux or seen his face. In recent days, he has garnered attention as a pro-Trump media figure—his work was just touched on in a New York Times write up about YouTube being the new far-right talk radio. On YouTube, Molyneux regularly gets high profile interviews and boasts about 650,000 subscribers. His videos have been viewed over 185 million times—he also has a subscription service on his websites that can cost his listeners up to $500.
For almost a decade now, experts and former members have stated Molyneux's Freedomain Radio (FDR) functions as a de-facto cult because of deFOOing—as it results in self-isolation and devotion to Molyneux. The Cult Information Centre in Britain, which has been around for 30 years and offers help to cult victims and their families, has even gone so far as to deem Freedomain Radio a cult, while the group's overarching cultyness has been touched on by outlets like The Guardian and the Daily Beast. Steve Hassan is one of the experts critical of Molyneux. On Hassan's website Freedom of the Mind, it states that FDR utilizes behavioral and emotional control such as excommunicating people who criticize him or the group, and inspiring fear of the outside world to his followers.
Molyneux has previously disputed claims that the FDR is a cult, and did not respond to VICE's request for comment.
A FDR member was actually the first person that Hassan was hired to help who had been "recruited in his own apartment" after spending "hours and hours listening to podcasts and watching videos." Hassan said the political conversations and interviews are the entry point to deFOOing. People watch Molyneux, Hassan said, because he's charismatic, picks hot button issues to speak about, and puts on the image of a man who knows what he's talking about.
"People like this say three true things and slip in something unverifiable or untestable and the mind, in its shortcuts, goes yes, yes, yes, yes, and even though that last one is not a yes, it's a question mark," said Hassan.
In 2008, believing her family was abusing her, O'Connor completely cut ties with them while distancing herself from friends who questioned her actions. She was convinced by Molyneux that these people were cowards. After about a year, her work life became strained; she was "so immersed in this other world" that she was fired.
From here on out she was completely isolated, only interacting with other FDR members either through forums or Skype. While money was tight, she continued to subscribe to Molyneux's premium podcasts and services, paying about $50 a month. Molyneux became the biggest part of her world—she was her hero, her teacher.
"When I was isolated, my whole world was FDR. I would come home and listen to the podcast with a fellow member and we would talk about the podcast and have phone conversations with other people in the group," said O'Connor.
This state of self-isolation lasted for years. She said Molyneux "had the word, he had the truth, he would tell you what to think about." However, after getting into the inner circle and seeing how it worked, O'Connor started to pull away. While the reasons were numerous, she told VICE the biggest occurred when one of her friends left FDR. O'Connor expected this friend's life to crumble after turning her back on FDR—something the group was led to believe would happen—but it didn't. She saw her friend flourish.
"Something I've learned coming out of this is just how much of this there is in the world," O'Connor said. "It's so scary because we think of the internet as an incredible resource of information, and I guess we have to realize that a lot of it is bad—a lot of it is bad information."
O'Connor said that she's noticed Molyneux doesn't mention deFOOing as much these days, but she still sees followers self-isolating to this day. Molyneux hasn't turned down the us-versus-them rhetoric. In a recent video, Molyneux asked his followers to send him money because the "big fight" against mainstream media he's been "gearing up for thirty years" is nearly here.
O'Connor's story is just one of many, and FDR is just one of many groups preaching online. When asked what could be a possible solution for this problem, Ross told VICE that he believes the answer lies within the platforms themselves.
"I think the social media needs to self-police," he said. "I'm not saying that in violation to freedom of speech or the First Amendment, but when a group is overtly violent or engaged in outright fraud and financially bilking people and really being abusive, I think YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, whoever it is, needs to self-police to that extent."
While the vast majority of the content on YouTube is not, in any way, connected to cultic activity, some intensely easy-to-find videos are. Recently, YouTube stated they would be self-policing "controversial" videos—specifically referring to terror groups—more rigorously than ever before. This includes working with experts, applying tougher standards, and working with counter extremists. The new policies include a measure that drew the ire of many after they announced they would be placing some "controversial" videos that don't violate their terms in a sort of limbo where they won't be recommended, monetized, and will lack key features.
Hoyt Richards—a survivor from a cult in the 1980s who now works to help people transition from cults—said that one of the biggest impasses for those fighting cult recruitment is a lack of understanding of what they are and who can be affected. Recounting his own experience, Richards told VICE he was "so convinced it can't be a cult from the mere fact I was in the group. Categorically, the biggest problem is people don't understand what it is." This is a notion that O'Connor reiterated. "Honestly, the people that I knew were very smart and it seems like it's harder for intelligent people to come out of it," she said.
Since the onset of the internet, Ross has been hired numerous times to work with people who have joined cults through the web. One of the men Ross was hired to work with was university educated and considered highly intelligent. This man's job required him to work from home and spend hours upon hours on his computer. He was going through a hard time following his best friend's death, and stumbled across videos for a group called Israelites United in Christ.
"He basically marinated his mind in their YouTube until he was swimming in the Kool-Aid," said Ross. "Then he went to the first meeting, but by the time he went he had been convinced and completely captivated by these YouTube videos. He showed up there for the first time as a true believer."
Ross has been working as a cult deprogrammer since 1986 and says he has worked on over 500 cases. His time working with former cult members isn't without controversy. Ross was consulted in the disastrous handling of a cult in Waco—where a botched siege burned down the Branch Davidians compound outside the Texas city and 76 people died as a result—and his involvement was criticized by other experts. In 1995, Ross was sued by Jason Scott, a man deemed to be a follower of a pentecostal cult whom Ross tried to deprogram. In a civil suit, Scott was awarded millions. Ross also faced criminal charges, but was acquitted by jury. The case bankrupted the Cult Awareness Network, which had been in operation since 1978.
While the internet and its platforms allow these groups to operate and to recruit, it also works as a tool for escape. Online there is a lot of information on what cults are—Rick Ross' Cult Education Institute runs a free database that offers information on cults and has contacts for family members who believe a loved one is in a cult.
The internet also offers a community for those reentering the world after freeing themselves from the grasp of a cult. There exist forums and support groups, some of which are even particular to certain cults. FDR Liberated is a website critical of Molyneux that provides support and community to those who have stopped listening to the "philosopher."
"FDR Liberated was incredible for me—it was huge," O'Connor told VICE. "I honestly have no idea what I would have done without it... The forum itself I really appreciated when I was struggling more, to have this place to go and talk about these things."
Hassan said that cult leaders and manipulators will always utilize tools to further their thirst for money, power, or what be it.
"People who think they have the truth with a capital T explore every existing application or platform—maybe even make their own—in order to find their true believers or to find their core membership. It's going to just keep evolving over time, it's not static," Hassan said.
"Whatever it is on today," Hassan said, "in three years, it's going to be on new apps and different ways of doing things."
An earlier version of this story referred to The Brethren as Church of the Brethren. VICE regrets the error.
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