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This Week in Corona Scams: Cult Mentality

“What is a cult, who’s in a cult, and why the hell must we talk about cults again?” Yes, I hear the grumbling already. And yes, this is actually a very important and topical discussion for us to reenter. So let’s jump back into the murky world of cults to figure out why the Influencer Infodemic continues to perpetuate the pain and suffering of the COVID-19 pandemic.

WARNING: Today’s story covers some very dark subject matters, including physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. Reader discretion is advised.
Joe Biden, COVID-19, This Week in Corona Scams, cult, COVID-19 vaccines
Photo by Andrew Davey

Throughout this series, and in several of our COVID-19 Updates, we’ve contrasted the Biden administration’s public health leaders’ struggle to encourage more vaccinations with the alarmingly powerful megaphones of “Corona Scammers” who seem to get away with selling all kinds of snake oil regardless of how absurdly deceptive they are. On one side, these public health leaders seemingly hem and haw amidst the constantly depressing tallies of COVID-19’s “American Carnage”. On the other side, an army of telegenic “anti-establishment mavericks” promise hope by way of “alternative medicine” and “exciting business opportunities”.

Even though Biden and his presidential transition team received briefings on the dangers of the Influencer Infodemic as early as December 2020, the Biden administration didn’t begin to take a more aggressive stance against medical disinformation until the Delta Surge had already begun to rip through America this past summer. Even though some federal health officials continue to scratch their heads over why we’re in this mess, medical professionals on the ground regularly remind us that this is really nothing new.

As we’ve become so accustomed to warning everyone – This did not “come out of nowhere”. We’ve seen ample evidence of what happens when “sincerely held beliefs” go viral on the internet, and when the awful truth gets buried amidst a torrent of seductive lies. 

Let’s review our past notes, and let’s bring some new cults into the chat.

Last December, we jumped into the world of NXIVM to better understand the appeal of cults. When we review the footage of docuseries like The Vow and Seduced, we see the imagery of successful businesses, thriving artists, stronger relationships, and even more amazing achievements in “personal development”. Since then, we’ve run into even more examples of “miraculous” organizations and networks that use glitzy, glossy veneers to hide their darker purpose.

In April, we dove deeper into the world of conspirituality and discovered multiple examples of “self-help gurus” who promise “enlightenment”, “abundance”, and “freedom” for the low, low price of entrance into their sales funnel and rejection of “evil establishment” medical science. In May, we really hit the deep end with an exploration of two more shadowy organizations – “The Garden” that went viral on TikTok, and the ethereal livestreamers at Love Has Won. Both appeared to be harmlessly weird at first, yet both hid dark and dangerous secrets that eventually exploded for the entire internet to behold.

Last month, Amazon released their docuseries LuLaRich that examines what on earth happened to the multi-level marketing (MLM) company LuLaRoe. As The Atlantic’s Sophie Gilbert noted in her review of the series, LuLaRoe positioned itself as a solution for overburdened mothers who could use “part-time work with full-time pay”. By the time LuLaRoe peaked around 2016, it appeared to be the ultimate life hack where stay-at-home moms suddenly had “lucrative businesses” where all they needed to do was sell colorfully patterned leggings on Facebook Live to make some serious money. 

Also last month, HBO Max released their docuseries The Way Down that takes a closer look at Remnant Fellowship and the Weigh Down Workshop. Gwen Shamblin Lara launched the Weigh Down Workshop while working on her master’s degree in food and nutrition at Memphis State University. She seemingly seamlessly linked health science with Christian evangelical theology to bring in people who wanted to lose those pesky pounds, then keep them in with the promise of gaining a better relationship with God and better living from the inside out.

Why would anyone join a cult? See above, then come back down. We’re more vulnerable than we want to believe.

We’re all looking for ways to improve ourselves. So many of us seek human connections, a loving community, a greater purpose, and a more valuable sense of meaning. Sometimes, we struggle in life and need some help. 

Not all cults are exactly alike, but they all share some core traits and warning signs. Whether they’re religious cults, commercial cults (as in, so many MLM’s), political cults, personality cults, or some other type of cult, they all promise some form of “enlightenment” and some form of “improvement”. Their initial requests often seem quite modest: just attend this seminar, or just read this book, or just buy this “starter kit”. If we really want something better, isn’t this the least we can do?

This is always just the beginning. Since the promise of a better future seems so tantalizingly within reach, why give it up now? Why not stay the course, “double down on success”, sign up for that convention, book our tickets for the retreat, and put some more effort into making this work? 

Partly due to the desire to do better and become better, and partly due to the fear of being shot down by the shame of succumbing to defeat, we want to continue. We want to succeed. After all, what’s the harm of trying? 

Reality check: A cult may not seem “obviously culty” at first, but here are some ways we can protect ourselves and each other. 

As you can see above, the vast majority of cult victims and participants don’t just wake up and choose violence. It often starts with the understandable desire to do better before it descends into the maddening hellscape of despair and destruction. We’ve already discussed the horrific fallout of NXIVM and Love Has Won in prior stories. We’re still living through the fallout of QAnon and Trumpism. We’re still learning about the people whose lives were wrecked (including an eight-year-old child who lost his life way too soon) by Gwen Shamblin Lara’s insatiable hunger for the aesthetically perfect empire. We have yet to learn about what will become of LuLaRoe after the founders agreed to a $4.75 million settlement of the State of Washington’s pyramid scheme lawsuit against this MLM. 

As renowned cult experts like Dr. Janja Lalich and Dr. Steven Hassan have explained, it’s wise to take note of groups’ “excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment” to their respective leaders, groups’ rules on who members are allowed to communicate with, groups’ “mind-altering” practices that function in suppressing any doubt about the group and their leader(s), groups’ discouraging of individual thought and independent decisions on how to live one’s life, groups’ leaders’ refusal to take accountability and/or respect outside authorities, groups’ normalization of violent threats and/or violent actions, and groups’ proclamations that “there is no life outside the context of the group”. 

This is not meant to be some rant against groups in general. This is more of a warning against groups who impose undue influence over their members. This is a warning against groups who promise “enlightenment” and “empowerment”, but only if you give them control over your life. 

Let’s connect some more dots. Let’s examine the cult mentality behind some of the most notorious attacks against science-based medicine.

Before we proceed, let’s just get this out of the way: We’re not trying to accuse anyone and everyone who opposes vaccination of being in a cult. Rather, we’re pointing out how pervasive cult mentality and cults’ influence can actually become.

It’s no accident that so many cults reject science-based medicine and command their members to use their own nostrums instead. From the ongoing and incredibly lurid saga of the Miami-based Centner Academy’s mandates against vaccination to the conspirituality-aligned “influencers” and their viral videos chock full of anti-vaccine lies, and from “wellness-oriented” MLMs’ time-dishonored practice of lying about the “healing qualities” of their products to MLM participants’ use of false conspiracy theories to discredit science-based medicine, we see examples of cults directing members to look to their leaders for “healing” instead of seeking legitimate medical aid they’re told is tainted by “Big Pharma”. 

And as we’ve previously warned, these snake oil peddlers seize upon “Big Pharma”, the other failings of our health care system, working parents’ worries that they’re missing out on their children’s lives while they’re getting overworked and underpaid at the office, family members’ desire for “cures” to the diseases that plague their loved ones, and the simple desire that so many of us have to just get better. They take our best hopes and dreams, and they take our worst torments and fears, then they twist it all into knots in order to entrap us in their scams and schemes.

Say it ain’t so, Joe: Traditional appeals to authority don’t work when we face record-high distrust of “establishment” authorities.
Joe Biden, COVID-19, This Week in Corona Scams, cult, COVID-19 vaccines
Photo by Andrew Davey

Even before President Joe Biden was inaugurated into office, he and his public health team had begun to utilize the classic appeal to authority to make the case for their COVID-19 public health agenda. But as they continue to learn the hard way, the appeal to authority doesn’t carry much appeal for Americans who lack trust in traditional governmental and business authorities. “Corona Scammers” and other bad actors take full advantage of this broad societal distrust to lure people into “something better” – something “less invasive”, something “all natural”, something “faith-based”, something with “remarkable healing power”, and something with “unlimited earning potential”. 

Regardless of how sound the science of the COVID-19 vaccines and public health safety truly is, the pre-existing conditions of extreme economic inequities, lack of affordable and accessible health care, rampant corruption, and overall dysfunction laid a terrifyingly strong foundation for the Influencer Infodemic that rages across America today. And now that we have an internet full of social media platforms where monetized algorithms reward content that keeps people engaging on these platforms longer, anti-vaccine activists have potent digital tools to control information and manipulate followersperception of reality

Again, this is not some blanket statement assigning any one cult label to all people with anti-vaccine sentiments. Rather, this has been an exploration of how cult mindsets have infected our digital public spaces to the point where our public health remains in clear and present danger. Hopefully, this will also come across as a call to action.

Finally, some closing thoughts
COVID-19, COVID-19 Vaccines, vaccine science, health care, San Diego, Encinitas, California, travel,
Photo by Andrew Davey

As we like to say around these parts: We don’t have to blindly accept this as our fate, and we certainly don’t have to participate in the normalization of dangerous disinformation as “alternative medicine” and/or “anti-establishment viewpoints”. 

We have the ability to counter lies with truth. Our government has the ability to regulate the social media operators at the heart of these disinformation campaigns. Our government also has the ability to address and solve the underlying conditions that opened the door to the Influencer Infodemic. We have the ability to hold accountable the politicians and companies that enable these dangerous entities. As dangerous as the cults of “alternative wellness” are, we are anything but powerless against them.

If you have further questions about COVID-19 and your health, check Immunize Nevada for more information on vaccine availability in your area, check Nevada Health Response for testing in your area, and check Nevada 211 for more health care resources. If you’re in need of additional aid, check the Nevada Current’s and Battle Born Progress’ resource guides. If you can afford proper treatment and you are fortunate enough to help others in need, please donate to larger operations like Direct Relief and Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, and to local groups like Three Square. And for goodness sake, please maintain best practices to help stop the spread.

The cover photo was taken by me.

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