The Magic of Misinformation, Conspiracies, and Cults

From The Editors | The Magic of Misinformation, Conspiracies, and Cults | Issue 5 | June 2, 2021

Have we made the extraordinary so ordinary in our attention-driven economy that only the impossible grabs attention? In the process did we create the perfect environment for misinformation to swirl into viral conspiracies, and conspiracies to blossom into full fledged cults on and offline? 

In the latest edition of the Purple Principle in Print, we highlight some well-known cults and conspiracy theories that continue to grab and hold attention. Attraction toward cults and conspiracy theories are connected by common reliance on “magical thinking” – an irrational belief that one thing influences another. 

Cults, for example, often preach that members can “manifest” events through ritual; conspiracy theorists insist coincidence proves secret influence. In both cases, magical thinking creates support for views difficult to find in the real world. Sadly, if predictably, this is increasingly common within our hyper-partisan politics. 

We often hear, for example, that “The woke left is a cult.”  Or that “The Republican base are just crazy conspiracy theorists.” The epithets “cult” and “conspiracy theory” are often hurled at the opposition during partisan bickering, but is there anything to the accusations?

Highlighted here are several former GOP members of Congress characterizing their own party as cult-like during the Trump era. Similar accusations have been made by critics of a left-wing “cancel culture” that chastises anyone not in step with progressive orthodoxy. Each of our guests on two recent conspiracy & cult related episodes have bemoaned the rise of magical thinking throughout society. In Episode 8, filmmakers Nick Andert and Daniel Clark capture that magic at work within the large and growing Flat Earth community.

In Episode 7, Rachel Bernstein, cult therapist and host of the Indoctri-Nation podcast, conveys our collective anxiety toward magical thinking permeating our political discourse:

“I do think that there need to be moderate voices everywhere… And I think if you have voices of reason in your parties, then you have diplomacy, then you have sanity. Then you have a system that is the way it was set up to be where there can be discourse, even if there is disagreement.”

— Rachel Bernstein

We hope you’ll read on below, listen to these TPP episodes, and pass the Purple Principle in Print or podcast onto a friend. But don’t tell them it’s magical, just possibly worthwhile. 

waving flag, us republican party elephant emblem, background, 3d illustration

Is the GOP turning into a cult? Ask these former Republican lawmakers…

“[The GOP] has become a cult. It’s no longer a political party. It’s a cult. It’s the kind of a cult that when the leader of the cult does anything, no matter what it is, or how awful it is, [GOP members of Congress] voted. They voted to question the election results even after people came into the Capitol, tried to kill them and killed a police officer who was trying to protect them. And they did that.”

— Rep. Mickey Edwards (R-OK) Jan. 15, 2021

“Part of the Republican Party is heading toward cultism and there are various kinds. There’s the homophobe cult, the abortion cult, the conspiracy cult and the no-mask cult. There’s the follow-law-and-order cult and the get-government-out-of-your-life-and-leave-me-alone-cult.”

— Sen. Alan Simpson (R-WY) Jan. 12, 2021

“My party is a cult. I’m a conservative Republican; Fox News won’t have me on. Conservative media will ignore me because they’re a cult with Trump. The Republican parties in each state: they are a cult for Trump. I didn’t sufficiently get all of that and that’s made this really hard.”

— Rep. Joe Walsh (R-IL) Feb. 2, 2020

“If we’re looking at just a cult of personality in the Republican Party where ideas and policies sort of go away, we have a real problem.”

— Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-VA) Oct. 25, 2020

“This president won’t be there forever. He’ll either be gone by this time next year or four years from now. Then what happens to the Republican Party? My fear is people out there know that, even if this is not an impeachable offense, that the president did something wrong, and for Republicans to maintain that he didn’t is just wrong, and this has long-term ramifications for the party if we act as if we are just devoted to the president no matter what, and this cult of personality that we’ve seen, we certainly saw it in the House.”

— Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) Jan. 20, 2020

“We’re in a strange place. It’s becoming a cultish thing, isn’t it? It’s not a good place for any party to have a cult-like situation as it relates to a President that happens to be purportedly of the same party.”

— Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) June 13, 2018

Highlights & Insights From The Purple Principle

purple principle episode artwork with headshots of podcast guests dr. doni whitsett, dr. steven hassan, and rachel bernstein
purple principle episode artwork featuring headshot of podcast guests Daniel Clark and Nick Andert

“I think cults do still occupy a physical space and it’s just in the brain. Many people are getting into very controlling organizations, just having never met the people in person. So I think the distance can actually create more of a bond, because you fill in the blanks with what you want to be true about the group.”

— Rachel Bernstein

“There’s an open question about whether there’s a rise of conspiratorial thinking right now. But I personally feel, at least after working for so long, that the internet’s enabled it to such a huge degree…Let’s say you were in some small town in Nebraska in the 1970s, and you said, ‘the earth is flat.’ Chances are, everyone around you is going to be like…’it’s not.’”

— Nick Andert

What We’re Reading

Vaccine Hesitancy and Conspiracy Mentalities in Germany: A Deadly Duo?

Fleishman Hillard

Conspiratorial beliefs are common in Germany and may be a contributing factor to widespread vaccine hesitancy there.

The ‘Shared Psychosis’ of Donald Trump and His Loyalists

Scientific American

This interview with Dr. Bandy X. Lee, forensic psychiatrist and president of the World Mental Health Coalition, outlines the dangerous but magnetic social psychology of narcissistic symbiosis that characterizes Trump’s most loyal supporters.

How the Kim Cult of Personality Came to Dominate North Korean Life

NK News

Perhaps the largest cult today, Kim Il Sung’s cult of personality is a definitive characteristic of North Korean politics, culture, and daily life. This article details the unsettling history and practices of the cult of Kim.

These Coloradians Say Earth is Flat. And Gravity’s a Hoax. Now They’re Being Persecuted

The Denver Post

This 2017 article chronicles the rise of the “Flat Earth” movement in Colorado, a cult of “globe-busters” who found common cause through YouTube videos. We’ll be launching an episode later this month featuring Daniel Clark and Nick Andert, who produced a documentary about the Flat Earthers.

The Prophecies of Q

The Atlantic

QAnon has become a ubiquitous talking point for pundits, news media, and politicians over the past year. How did this internet phenomenon capture the imaginations and fears of so many Americans so quickly? This deeply-detailed report explains the methods and motives of QAnon adherents, the virality of its spread across different internet platforms, and the continuities it shares with other millenarian religions and faiths.

Study Worth Studying

“Conspiracy Theories and the Paranoid Style(s) of Mass Opinion”

In this article by Eric Oliver & Thomas Wood, over half of survey respondents indicated what they believed at least 1 of 7 prominent conspiracy theories listed. Characteristics most commonly associated with belief in conspiracy theories–like being politically uninformed–actually don’t predict belief as well as indicators of “magical thinking”, like also believing in ghosts or an impending “end time”.

Partner In Purple

The NCRI is a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that tracks misinformation, manipulation, and hate across social media channels through systematic audits and sophisticated data analysis. Former GOP U.S. Congressman Denver Riggleman, the NCRI’s chief strategist, recently lost his reelection bid and has turned his energies to combatting the lies and false beliefs that have radicalized and transformed a wide swath of the Republican base.

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