top of page - How the internet brought fringe cult leaders and wild conspiracy theories to mainstream

By David Williams (he/him)


c/w suicide

David Williams dissects how the internet has fostered a community of highly addicted and vulnerable individuals who are more susceptible to the power and influence of radical dialogues.

Several years ago, *Sarah happened upon a post that her daughter *Casey had shared a few months prior. The post was a photo of a woman with her fingers pointed to her head like a gun. In response to the post, several people had posted a link to a video. In the video, self proclaimed ‘spiritual leader’ Teal Swan talked about suicide, suggesting that it can be seen as “our safety net or our re-set button that’s always available to us”. Two weeks after that original post, Casey shot and killed herself.

(* names changed)

While YouTube has now taken the video down, as of November 2019, the video was among the top results in a Google search on terms related to suicide. People such as Teal Swan are in many ways ‘cult leaders’ espousing dangerous views and achieving a status of worship and awe among their followers. But gone are their remote farms in the hills; the new home of these figures is online.

Cults have always used specific tactics to grow their followings, and they continue to employ these same tactics today; however, it is now online. Journalist Jennings Brown said of Swan, “Teal probably would not have the influence or the global reach and following that she has if it weren’t for the internet.”

The first steps cults take when searching for prospective members, according to an exposé of the seven steps by Vox, is to search for vulnerable people. Today, social media networks have done the work for them. Social media has created an entire populace of vulnerable, anxious users with low self-esteem and mental health issues. It has conditioned users to associate likes, follows and views with self-worth. Former VP of growth at Facebook Chamath Palihapitiya says, “We curate our lives around this perceived sense of perfection. We get rewarded in terms of hearts, likes, thumbs up. We conflate that with value and we conflate that with truth".

A consequence of this phenomenon s social media users searching for validation, for community, and worth, and they see accounts with a high number of followers as more successful, more popular and, unfortunately, greater arbiters of truth. These are the kinds of users cult leaders prey upon. The leaders leverage the psychological manipulation created by social media networks as a tool to recruit followers, make money and spread their misinformation. The Conversation editor Misha Ketchell says, “An expert may have credentials and years of experience, but they are unlikely to be as compelling as an attractive lifestyle guru who is ‘instafamous’, with a highly curated social media feed to verify their advice.” The internet has created a community of highly addicted, highly vulnerable people, and cult leaders use this to their advantage. Journalist Sarah Berman says of Teal Swan, “she brings in a new level of 21st-century internet literacy as she uses YouTube and SEO to find desperate people".

The second step is to find commonality, and they find this through a common story. They were once like you, but through following their teachings, they have become who they are now, a leader, a guru, an instafluencer. The wellness industry particularly profits from this angle, promising followers that they were once like you, that any regular person can achieve what they have. Moreover, unlike traditional services, or even traditional cults, these leaders are present online at all times. And, because of that, users feel a greater connection to the leader rather than a traditional help system. Journalist Jennings Brown says, “If you google something about suicide, you’re probably going to find that suicide lifeline up top, but it’s not very human. It’s just a number."

The results of these tactics have seen an increase in users subscribing to medical advice they have found online. In 2019, a Cleveland clinic study found that 44% of Americans take health advice from people they have found on social media. This increase in people searching for medical advice online has alarmed doctors and medical professionals. A 2019 study by the University of Glasgow found that online health influencers give out bad advice 90% of the time.

In December 2020, on Instagram, wellness influencer and nutritionist Steph Lowe preached vaccine scepticism against the COVID-19 vaccine. She claimed there was a “medical tyranny” and that she does not support vaccine mandates. Lowe’s nearly 40,000 Instagram followers ate it up.

The third step for any cult, is to create an alternative reality in which their beliefs can take hold. Through social media we have more information available than ever, however each social media network has created their own algorithm to recommend the best content they feel will keep the user engaged. This often means negating conflict, feeding you information and content that may be new to you but will align with your pre-existing interests, beliefs and views. Former Google engineer Guillaume Chaslot, who worked on the YouTube algorithm, says, “People think that the algorithm is designed to give people what they want. It is not. The algorithm is trying to find a few rabbit holes that are very powerful and find which rabbit hole is closest to your interest. If you start watching one of these videos, it will recommend it over and over again.” For social media companies, the goal is not to promote posts that will tell the truth, their goal is to make money. for online cults, these algorithms are promoting their content that was once in the dark depths of the internet to a wider populace.

"People think that the algorithm is designed to give people what they want. It is not."

The best-known example of this algorithm in action is the explosion in flat earth believers. A 2019 Guardian article contained quotes from attendees at the flat earth conference admitting that they had become believers after watching YouTube recommendations on flat earth theory. “The interviews revealed that most had been watching videos about other conspiracies... when YouTube offered up Flat Earth videos for them to watch next. Some said they watched the videos only in order to debunk them but soon found themselves won over by the material."

One alternative view is followed by recommendations for others, and soon the algorithm has constructed a reality where it is only feeding you these alternative views, negating reliable sources and information that contradicts this alternative reality. A more dangerous example of this is the spread of the Pizzagate conspiracy, in which both Hillary Clinton and John Podesta were accused of running a child trafficking ring in the basement of a Washington DC pizzeria. This conspiracy started on the online message board 4chan, however it slowly migrated to Facebook, TikTok and other social media platforms. Members of flat earth groups, alt-right pages and other conspiracies were recommended Pizzagate groups, videos and content by social media algorithms. Stanford Internet Observatory Research Manager Renée Diresta called Pizzagate “an example of a conspiracy theory that was propagated across all social media networks. The networks are voluntarily serving this up to people who had never searched for the term pizzagate in their life.” People do not need to go searching for the conspiracies, because the conspiracies are searching for them. The consequences of the internet facilitating the spread of misinformation are having violent real world impacts.

In December 2016, 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch drove from North Carolina to Washington DC and fired several shots inside the restaurant involved in the Pizzagate conspiracy. He claimed he wanted to “self-investigate” to make sure that there were no children in the basement of the pizzeria.

People do not need to go searching for conspiracies, because the conspiracies are searching for them.

Elsewhere, the mother of a 13-year-old Oregon girl with cancer stopped her daughter’s chemotherapy treatment and instead opted to treat her with CBD oil and vitamins after seeing its use in online wellness communities. The state has since charged the mother with criminal mistreatment and taken custody of the daughter, resuming her medical treatment.

To fully immerse users in these alternative realities, an external enemy is necessary, and this is often where these cults have grown to become so dangerous. Holistic health is waging war against the medical industry and vaccines, while the likes of QAnon, Pizzagate, and flat earthers have found a common enemy in their distrust of government, and ‘deep state’. This distrust has always been there and it has always been dangerous, but it was among fringe communities divided by the limitations of pre internet communication. Now, social media has not only brought them together, but developed ways of encouraging and growing their platform and the platforms of similar leaders and beliefs. 40% of Americans, and three quarters of Republicans still don’t trust the results of the recent presidential election.

On the Reddit board QAnonCasualties, one user wrote, “Here I am at 80, a recent widow and mother of a precious daughter who has spent the last two years immersed 4-5 hours a day ‘doing research’ on what is really going on in the world. Globalists vs nationalists, good vs evil, her recently acquired vocabulary. She is married and the mother of four teens...”

While profiling Teal Swan’s wellness cult, podcaster Jennings Brown remarked that the biggest takeaway was “young, controversial figures who make big promises like Swan will continue to find an audience as long as there are gaps in mental health resources.”

Decades of underinvestment in health and wellbeing resources combined with increasing economic pressures have forced millions to search for an easy answer. They feel like society is letting them down, and so they search for another community. The internet is allowing these ‘leaders’, these ‘influencers’ and these conspiracies to step into that void and offer fake promises and easy answers. Promises and answers that are able to spread across platforms and countries at unmatched speeds, a threat to our democracy, and a threat to our lives.

The internet is awash with fake news. It is important to remember that anyone can fall victim to it, especially when the internet seems to be working for the other team. It is important to not blame and ridicule those that do fall victim, but rather work to have meaningful discussion. These people are our loved ones, our friends and our neighbours. Your mother may not be off on a commune, but she may well be down the rabbit hole.


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