Loneliness as a Pandemic: The Dangers of Online Cult
Thu, 11 Jun 2020 || By Perdana Karim

Before COVID-19 emerged itself as a pandemic that affected millions of lives, there was another silent deadly killer which could also be considered as a pandemic: loneliness. The sense of loneliness, alienation, and self-fortitude that people have felt over the last decade could be contributed by how our technology has advanced. In hindsight, technology has closed those that are far and distanced those who are close. This sense of loneliness has created a sense of vulnerability that in one way or another, the internet could fulfill.[i] In many cases, people are now distancing themselves from real life and indulging themselves on the internet. This is due to the fact that when one experiences loneliness, they are then met with what is known as a ‘crossroads phase’. A phase in life where one has difficulties and doubt about what to do with one’s life and therefore try out new things to fulfil their sense of emptiness. Trying out new things as a coping mechanism for loneliness isn’t necessarily such a bad thing, however, due to the vulnerability that one may feel it could end up leading them in to trying things that give them more harm than good. This article would talk about the dangers that cults, and in this case online cults, could bring in the sense that they pose as an imminent threat for those who are lonely and vulnerable.

 

What is an Online Cult?

 By definition, and online cult is no different than a regular cult. The only differences being that the platform that these online cult use, target audience, and the reach that they have. A cult is essentially an organization that could be defined as a form of religious belief that is centered around a charismatic leader that dictates its followers. To differentiate cults between old and established religions, religious scholars have given a few criteria as to what dictates as a cult and what does not. These criteria being 1) the existence of a charismatic leader, 2) followers who abide said leader with their heart, and 3) there is a single belief that is echoed throughout its followers which they willingly believe with all their hearts. What makes a cult a problem is how they tend to exploit their followers.[ii] By having followers who are lonely and vulnerable, these charismatic leaders could tend exploit them to either do their bidding or gain profit off of them. The extreme cases of such exploitation can be seen in cult known as Peoples Temple lead by charismatic leader Jim Jones. In 1978, Jones lead 900 of his followers into committing mass suicide.[iii] What makes online cults even more dangerous than a normal cult is how their ideology are no longer bounded by geographical borders. Ideologies that were once landlocked are now free to roam with the spread of online information.

The breeding grounds for online cults could typically be found in anonymous online forum threads such as Reddit. 4chan, 8chan, and many more. 4chan for example being one of the more public and popular yet also fully anonymous forum threads could be considered as stepping stool for these distorted ideologies to breed. From the writer’s own experience, threads such as /pol, /k, /b, and /r9k are only some to name a few that are a safe haven for people to spread their unfiltered ideas with people backing them up and agreeing with them. Places where people to voice their opinions without there being any tangible consequences and are also then supported or echoed by others who feel the same way, thus further perpetuating that their opinions are correct and valid (even though that may not be the case). This is most likely to happen as mentioned within the opening that people who are lonely are prone to experiencing new things and are also yearning acceptance, and in this case people who have distorted views can also find people of the same opinion within the corners of the internet.

 

Dangers of Online Cult

A sad example of what the dangers of online cults can do is with the case of the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand. As many as 50 people were killed by Brenton Tarrant.[iv] It was later discovered that Tarrant was an active 8chan user and had spread his ideologies regarding immigrants and even leaving behind a manifesto online.[v] Tarrant had used 8chan to learn and further justify his right-wing extremist view.

This tragic case is an example as to how dangerous these online cults can be. In short, the dangers are much like the dangers of an echo chamber, only in this case it escalated to real life dangers with tangible harms. These opinions are given a safe space to breed, manifest, and also be accepted by many others. Which would then lead to the believe that their opinions are right and what they are doing is the truth. Seeing from these examples we can see the tangible effects that online cults have within our real life. Even though it rarely escalates to that extent, it does not mean we can deny the fact that it does happen. When it does happen, it is usually something horrible.

 

Conclusion

What we must do as a collective is to ensure that these situations and scenarios do not happen to the people closest to us. Loneliness is inevitable, especially during times like these where we are advised to keep our distances between each other, but that does not mean that it is something we cannot avoid. Be mindful towards each other and have an open arm towards other people. People who are trapped within cults do not realise that they are in one and it’s up to us to help as much as we can.


Author: Perdana Karim (Research Assistant at CfDS)
Editor: Amelinda Pandu Kusumaningtyas (Project Officer of Research CfDS)


Read another articles written by Perdana Karim
 


[i] Amichai-Hamburger, Y. and Ben-Artzi, E., 2003. Loneliness and Internet use. Computers in human behavior, 19(1), pp.71-80.

[ii] Netflix, 2018. Cults, Explained. [video] Available at: [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[iii] Melton, J., n.d. Peoples Temple | Religious Group. [online] Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: [Accessed 18 May 2020].

[iv] BBC News. 2019. Christchurch Shootings: How The Attacks Unfolded. [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[v] Smith, S. and Banic, V., 2019. New Zealand Attack Exposes Right-Wing Extremists' Fascination With Balkans. [online] NBC News. Available at: [Accessed 18 May 2020].