People are understandably curious about fanatical social movements and clandestine groups that inspire intense devotion in their followers. Capturing popular imagination in recent years are multi-level marketing scheme NXIVM, the pseudo-religious conspiracy communities of QAnon, antivaxxers, and the MAGA movement. The public can hardly be blamed for asking how and why people get involved, and whether this should be a cause for concern.
Desperate for some sort of authority who could shed light on this topic, podcast hosts and journalists have leant on the expertise of so-called cult experts and exit counsellors, experienced practitioners in the world of anticult activism. Groups like NXIVM and Trump supporters, they tell us, are just like the dangerous cults made famous in the latter decades of the 20th Century, which used sophisticated programmes of mind control to exploit their vulnerable members under the guide of religiosity. By happy coincidence, the damage inflicted by this brainwashing is best remedied through the services of experienced cult experts.
These sorts of explanations are ubiquitous, and have been adopted by figures in media, who are comfortable parroting jargon like ‘deprogram’ and ‘thought reform’. The experts that are called upon to contextualise these movements come from a surprisingly small roster of characters, with some of the most common being former members of the Unification Church (Moonies) Steven Hassan and Diane Benscoter, and “the world’s preeminent authority on cults” Rick Alan Ross. Hassan, a frequent guest on CNN, tells us that cults can psychologically condition people to engage in acts of lethal violence, and that one third of Trump’s followers, who have all the characteristics of a cult, are likely to do so. Benscoter, who recently provided Vice with her expert opinion, claims that her professional anti-brainwashing services have been requested by over one hundred relatives of QAnon supporters. Ross, who featured in HBO’s 2020 documentary series on NXIVM, explains that the driving force behind cult-like groups are their leaders, who use mind control to gain ‘undue influence’ over their followers. Where we have incidents of extreme violence involving cults, Ross maintains that the responsibility lies with the leader.
Heady stuff, but all of this raises the question of the veracity of these theories, and whether their proponents ought to be trusted on these topics. Should we welcome their inclusion in media about these strange, confusing, and often concerning groups?
Though cult experts are routinely afforded glowing endorsements, speaking with authority isn’t always the same as having credentials. While Hassan is a mental health counsellor with a PhD, Benscoter claims no such qualifications, and Ross never attended college. What’s worse, it seems to have escaped the notice of the journalists who wheel out these experts that all three were involved, to a greater or lesser extent, in a practice that was essentially kidnapping. Convinced of the dangers posed by cults, Ross became a deprogrammer in the 1980s, a practice which sometimes involved the involuntary seizure and days-long detention of individuals belonging to fringe religious groups. This practice is only intelligible from within the logic of undue influence and coercive persuasion: how else to help those who are totally controlled by manipulative cult leaders possessed of mind-bending powers, other than forcibly remove them from the influence? Ross would continue to advertise these services to the concerned relatives of cult members until in 1995 a jury in a civil case held Ross and two others liable for conspiracy to deprive 18-year-old Jason Scott of his civil rights and religious liberties. Ross was ordered to pay $2,500,000 but would eventually settle with Scott for a significantly lower amount.
Benscoter was also arrested for kidnapping in 1988 after attempting to deprogram a member of her former religion. After being deprogrammed herself, she worked as a deprogrammer for 5 years before her brush with the law dissuaded her from continuing. Hassan has a history with the practice too, admitting to his participation in a small number of involuntary deprogrammings in 1976-7, where individuals were held by Hassan and others against their will.
Even today, cult experts are often reluctant to unequivocally condemn involuntary deprogramming. Hassan claims that he knows of no cases of deprogramming which involved physical abuse, describing the negative reaction to the practice as the result of cult propaganda and public relations campaigns. Ross has praised the inventor of deprogramming Ted Patrick, who admitted to committing physical abuse, for “building the foundation of intervention work”. Despite their sometimes-complicated relationship with the practice, all three of our cultbusters gave up involuntary deprogramming decades ago, and now, if they do hold interventions with adults, these are only conducted on a voluntary basis.
What hasn’t changed is the rationale that justified the use of these techniques in the first place. Brainwashing theories have proven to be compelling to the public, welcome to family members who resent their relatives’ participation in fringe groups, and convenient for professionals who stand to benefit financially. The academic community is, however, significantly less enthusiastic. The American Psychological Association (APA) rejected a report on the scientific basis for brainwashing arguments in 1987, stating that it failed to meet the standards of scientific rigor expected of APA reports. Further, several studies conducted by social scientists challenged the brainwashing hypothesis, including Eileen Barker’s landmark The Making of a Moonie. Barker could find no evidence that members of the church joined because any such coercive persuasion was deployed on them.
Ultimately, providing often unqualified anticult activists with a platform allows them to advertise their services, which are designed to respond to a public health concern which hasn’t been demonstrated to exist. Perhaps this would be reason enough to question the respect they enjoy in media, but scholars like Stuart Hall suggest that the promulgation of these theories could have further disastrous consequences. Conventional wisdom would have us see cult dynamics as internal, with members’ behaviour being solely the result of, for example, the actions of a leader. Instead, Hall identifies external social interactions as a significant factor in the extreme violence that erupted in the 1993 Waco disaster. Hall maintains that federal agents, who Ross claims to have consulted with during the protracted siege, failed to anticipate that their strategies could lead to the escalation of apocalyptic conflict because they adopted anticult stereotypes about the total control exercised by cult leaders.
— Jo Banks
 An American multi-level marketing scheme and “sex cult” founded by Keith Raniere, who was convicted of racketeering, sex trafficking, forced labour conspiracy, and wire fraud conspiracy in 2019. https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/tv/a33658764/what-is-nxivm-sex-cult-celebrities-stars-the-vow-hbo-true-story/.
 A pseudo-religious movement which claims that Donald Trump is a champion chosen by the forces of good to undermine an evil global conspiracy controlling world governments and media. https://inform.ac/qanon/.
 Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again”.
 The world’s most listened to podcast, the Joe Rogan Experience, has featured anticult guests several times https://www.jrepodcast.com/episode/joe-rogan-experience-680-steven-hassan/.
 Hassan, S., 1990. Combatting cult mind control. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, p.113.
 Patrick, T. and Dulack, T., 1976. Let our children go!. Dutton, p.76, 188-9.
 Robbins, T. and Anthony, D., 1979. Cults, brainwashing, and counter-subversion. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 446(1), pp.78-90.
 see Gallagher, E., 2015. The ‘Cult Wars’ in Historical Perspective. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.
 Barker, E., 1984. The making of a Moonie. Oxford: B. Blackwell, p.233-5, 250-5.
 Hall, J.R., Schuyler, P.D. and Trinh, S., 2000. Apocalypse observed. Religious movements and violence in North America, Europe and Japan. London, p.71-2.
 Wright, S.A. ed., 1995. Armageddon in Waco: Critical perspectives on the Branch Davidian conflict. University of Chicago Press, p.195.