Feb 27, 2021



As whistleblowers documented in the critically-acclaimed HBO series The Vow, Sarah Edmondson and Anthony “Nippy” Ames have a lot to say and burning questions for people who’ve been through similar experiences.  With the launch of their new  A Bit Culty podcast, the husband and wife co-hosts explore life after NXIVM and discuss the healing process with the help of cult experts and fellow survivors.

Ames says: “We want to be as responsible as we can with our platform, and help other people by having the honest, informed conversations we wish we’d heard when we were in NXIVM.”

Part rollicking coffee date and part deep dive on everything from multi-level marketing schemes to Lululemon, A Little Bit Culty offers up frank conversations and a surprising number of laughs as Sarah and Nippy tackle a gritty and misunderstood topic with the care and compassion of two people who’ve been there.

Edmondson says: “This is going to get personal as we reclaim our identity and provide a roadmap for people to wake up, leave abusive relationships, and to heal.”

Recently wrapped episodes feature interviews with survivors-turned-advocates Dr. Steven Hassan, Janja Lalich, Leah Remini, and Mike Rinder. A Little Bit Culty is a must-listen for fans of Scientology: Fair Game, Armchair Expert, and Cults by Paracast Network.

A Little Bit Culty is available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.

To learn more visit the podcast’s official website at: 

Feb 24, 2021

Can Cult Studies Offer Help With QAnon? The Science Is Thin.

Can Cult Studies Offer Help With QAnon? The Science Is Thin.
Many families have become divided over online political conspiracy theories, but the science on “brainwashing” is weak.

February 24, 2021

DAYS BEFORE THE inauguration of President Joe Biden, at a time when some Americans were animated by the false conviction that former President Donald J. Trump had actually won the November election, a man in Colorado began texting warnings to his family. The coming days, he wrote, would be “the most important since World War II.” Trump had invoked the Insurrection Act, the man believed, and he was arresting enemies in the Vatican and other countries. Predicting turbulence ahead, the man urged his wife and two adult children to begin stockpiling essential goods.

“Watch how the world and the United States are saved!” he wrote.

The man had shown an affinity for conspiracy theories in the past, according to one of his sons, who shared the text messages with Undark, requesting that his name and other identifying characteristics of his family be withheld because he feared exposing his father to public ridicule. Recently, however, his father’s preoccupations had taken a more hard-edged and political turn — often following the twisting storylines of QAnon, a collection of right-wing conspiracy theories that describe Trump and his allies battling an international cabal of liberal pedophiles.

His father’s texts about preparing for national upheaval worried the man, and he says he began checking corners and closets in the house to see if his father was indeed stockpiling supplies. He also ordered a book by Steven Hassan, a mental health counselor in Massachusetts who calls himself “America’s leading cult expert.” And he began looking — mostly, he said, just out of curiosity — for resources on “deprogramming” a loved one whom he worried had been brainwashed.

He is far from alone in trying anew to make sense of conspiracist thinking. Since Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, many carrying signs and wearing clothing emblazoned with references to “Q,” deradicalization experts who cut their teeth on studies of militant Islamic ideologies have turned their attention to Trump-aligned right-wing extremists. Social psychologists who study conspiracy theorists and misinformation have also seen a sudden spike in interest in their work.

But some Americans have also begun using the language of cults and turning to specialists in cultic studies to make sense of the surge of online disinformation and conspiratorial thinking that have accompanied Trump’s rise.

“It is not hyperbole labeling MAGA as a cult,” the progressive activist Travis Akers wrote on Twitter in late January, referring to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, and adding that hard-line Trump supporters “are sick and need help.” Television journalist Katie Couric asked “how are we going to really almost deprogram these people who have signed up for the cult of Trump?” Democratic U.S. Representative Jamie Raskin, the lead impeachment manager during Trump’s second trial, recently compared the Republican Party to a cult. And in a Reddit group where anguished relatives of QAnon adherents gather for support, or to swap various anti-cult strategies, there are many references to Hassan’s and other experts’ work.

“I’m inundated, daily, with families freaking out,” said Pat Ryan, a cult mediation expert in Philadelphia. Daniel Shaw, a psychoanalyst in the New York City area who often works with ex-group members, also described an uptick in interest. “I’ve been receiving many, many inquiries from terrified family members about a loved one who is completely lost — mentally, emotionally — in the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories,” Shaw said.

Hassan, Ryan, and Shaw are part of the small field of cult experts who focus on the experiences of people who join intense ideological movements. Some are trained psychologists and social workers; others are independent scholars and uncredentialed professionals. Many identify as former cult members themselves. But for families hoping to “deprogram” a QAnon-obsessed loved one, it’s unclear how much evidence there is behind the methods of these practitioners.

“I’ve been receiving many, many inquiries from terrified family members about a loved one who is completely lost — mentally, emotionally — in the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories.”

There’s broad agreement that “some groups harm some people sometimes,” said Michael Langone, a counseling psychologist and the director of the International Cultic Studies Association. But members of the field have sometimes clashed with academic experts, and even among themselves, especially over the notion that otherwise healthy people who subscribe to unorthodox belief systems are victims of a mental hijacking. Such thinking has received scant scientific reinforcement since sociologists, psychologists, and religious studies scholars first started pushing back on anti-cult hysteria in the U.S. decades ago. And while few cult specialists today claim to do the sort of deprogramming that gained popularity in the 1970s, some anti-cult practitioners — and licensed psychiatrists — do still embrace the idea that brainwashing and mind control pose real threats, and that they apply to online conspiracies.

Despite this, many other researchers today say that these notions simply discount human agency. For the most part, they say, people gravitate to ideas and assertions they’re already inclined to believe, and those disposed to get enthusiastic or obsessive about things will do just that, of their own volition. Still, for families divided over political conspiracy theories — and even over belief systems involving left-wing, Satan-worshipping child sex rings — many cult experts ultimately settle on advice that makes restoring and cultivating relationships the primary focus.

“Number one: Do not confront. It absolutely does not work,” said Steve Eichel, a clinical psychologist in Delaware and specialist in cult recovery. And number two: “Maintain your relationship with that person no matter what.”

THE ANTI-CULT MOVEMENT emerged in the 1970s, as a wave of new religious groups attracted young followers in the U.S. These included the Rajneeshees, whose rise in Oregon was the subject of a viral 2018 Netflix documentary; the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, better known as the Hare Krishnas; and the Unification Church of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. These were joined by radical political organizations like the Symbionese Liberation Army, which gained national attention for the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst, an actor and heir who went on to participate in an armed bank robbery with the group.

In some cases, adherents made dramatic changes to their lives, espousing beliefs that many of their friends and relatives found to be bizarre. Some groups took extreme paths: In particular, more than 900 followers of the Peoples Temple, a group based in San Francisco, died in 1978 at Jonestown, the compound their leader had built in Guyana, most from drinking a cyanide-laced punch.

Some alarmed parents and commentators labeled many of these movements cults. They described what happened to their children as brainwashing, and even as a new kind of pathology. “Destructive cultism is a sociopathic illness which is rapidly spreading throughout the U.S. and the rest of the world in the form of a pandemic,” Eli Shapiro, a doctor whose son had joined the Hare Krishnas, wrote in the journal American Family Physician in 1977. Symptoms of the pathology, Shapiro wrote, included “behavioral changes, loss of personal identity, cessation of scholastic activities, estrangement from family, disinterest in society, and pronounced mental control and enslavement by cult leaders.”

News reports throughout the 1970s and 80s offered a steady drumbeat of concern over cults — and related concepts like mind control. But over time, researchers raised questions over the efficacy of “deprogramming” interventions, as well as the idea that members of new religious movements were being brainwashed. Visual: Undark

In response, people began to organize. The American Family Foundation, launched in 1979, offered resources to families in distress. More hard-line groups, like the Cult Awareness Network, helped arrange deprogrammings of group members. In some cases, deprogrammers would kidnap a group member, detain them for hours or days, and use arguments and videos to try to undo the brainwashing.

The anti-cult movement soon ran into opposition from many sociologists and historians of religion, who argued that the anti-cultists often targeted religious movements that, while exotic to most Americans, were doing nothing wrong. They also questioned the very idea that brainwashing and deprogramming were real phenomena. In one landmark study, Eileen Barker, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, spent close to seven years studying members of the Unification Church, whose members are sometime called Moonies, after their leader. Barker followed people who entered church recruitment seminars, and she gave them numerous personality tests to measure things like suggestibility.

Barker argued that, far from experiencing brainwashing, the large majority of people who attended recruitment seminars opted not to join the Unification Church. Those who joined and stayed, she found, actually appeared to be more strong-willed and resistant to suggestion than those who had walked away. People who joined such groups, Barker told Undark, did so because they found something that, for whatever reason, “fitted with what they were looking for and lacked in normal society.” In other words, they were members because they wanted to be members.

Today, scholars like Barker tend to eschew the term cult because of its pejorative connotations, instead sometimes referring to groups like the Unification Church as new religious movements, or NRMs. In response, some cult experts have accused sociologists and scholars of religions of whitewashing the behavior of abusive groups. But the brainwashing model also failed to gain the endorsement of many psychologists. In 1983, the American Psychological Association convened a task force to investigate the issue. The group’s members — mostly clinical psychologists and psychiatrists involved in anti-cult work — argued that groups did indeed draw members in through “deceptive and indirect techniques of persuasion and control.” But the APA’s expert reviewers were skeptical. One complained that sections of the draft report the group produced in 1986 read like an article in The National Enquirer, rather than an academic study.

“In general,” the members of the APA’s ethics board wrote in a letter rejecting the task force’s findings, “the report lacks the scientific rigor and evenhanded critical approach necessary for APA imprimatur.” (Clinical psychiatrists have been warmer toward the idea of brainwashing than research psychologists; since 1987, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, an authoritative source for the field, has warned of “identity disturbance due to prolonged and intense coercive persuasion” that can result from “brainwashing, thought reform, indoctrination while captive,” and other traumas.)

The cultic studies field evolved. The hard-line Cult Awareness Network was bankrupted by legal actions, including a lawsuit stemming from a botched intervention in which deprogrammers seized an 18-year-old Christian fundamentalist, restrained him with handcuffs and duct tape, and held him captive in a beach house at the behest of the man’s mother. Today, Eichel said, deprogrammings are no longer done “by anyone ethical.”

The American Family Foundation began to make peace with the sociologists. The organization also renamed itself the International Cultic Studies Association. And while differences remain among people who study cults and NRMs, Langone, who has run the organization since 1981, said he is now friends with Barker and other scholars who once clashed with his organization.

Michael Kropveld, who runs the Center for Assistance and for the Study of Cultic Phenomena, or Info-Cult, in Montreal, got his start in the field in 1978, when he helped organize the deprogramming of a friend who had joined the Unification Church. Since then, his approach has mellowed — the organization long ago abandoned deprogramming, and Kropveld said that he now finds the concept of brainwashing to be lacking.

“Using terms like brainwashing or mind control tend to imply some magical kind of process that goes on that happens to people that are unaware of what’s happening to them,” he said. Kropveld believes that techniques of influence exist, but he thinks the reasons people gravitate to groups tend to be more complicated and individualized.

Still, he acknowledged, ideas like brainwashing have an appeal. “Simplistic messages” with vivid labels, he said, “are the ones that get the most attention.”

SOME CULT EXPERTS continue to find ideas like brainwashing to be useful. One of the most prominent is Steven Hassan, a former member of the Unification Church and the author of “Combating Mind Control.” In the past, Hassan has described the internet as a vehicle for mind control and “subliminal programming,” and he recently alleged that transgender “hypno porn” is being used as a form of “weaponized mind control” to recruit young people into gender transitions.

Watching Trump run for office in 2016 led to “a bizarre kind of déjà vu,” Hassan wrote in his most recent book, “The Cult of Trump.” “It struck me that Trump was exhibiting many of the same behaviors that I had seen in the late Korean cult leader Sun Myung Moon, whom I had worshipped as the messiah in the mid-70s.”

“To jump from not liking Trump to Trump as cult leader, I think, is a bit of a leap,” Langone said.

In the days since the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, Hassan has offered expert analysis for CNN, The Boston Globe, Vanity Fair, and other outlets, and he has fielded questions from a popular Reddit group for people whose loved ones are QAnon adherents. (Through an assistant, Hassan declined requests for an interview with Undark, citing a busy schedule.)

Some people outside the cultic studies world have also made similar arguments, including Bandy X. Lee, a forensic psychiatrist and consultant for the World Health Organization who, until recently, taught at Yale. In an email to Undark, Lee, who has helped promote Hassan’s work, wrote that a segment of Trump’s followers resembles cult members and suggested that the former president had cultivated a kind of mass psychosis.

She applies that analysis to a wide range of right-wing positions. Asked in a phone interview whether someone who believes that climate change is overblown and that progressive tax policy is a bad idea could be said to have an individual pathology, Lee demurred. “No,” she said, “I describe them as being victims of abuse.” Specifically, she explained, they suffered from “the abuse of systems that politics and industry have employed to psychologically manipulate the population into accepting policies that undermine their health, wellbeing, and even livelihood and lives.”

Not all experts in the cultic studies world buy this. Langone, the ICSA leader, specifically praised Hassan’s contributions to the field, but acknowledged that he’s skeptical of describing Trump followers as cultists. “I can understand why people don’t like Trump,” Langone said. “But to jump from not liking Trump to Trump as cult leader, I think, is a bit of a leap.” He also fears the cultic element of QAnon is “overplayed by some of my colleagues in this field” and that the influence of QAnon itself may be overstated by media coverage.

Allegations of brainwashing are also out of step with some recent psychology research on misinformation and conspiracy theories. “How much of someone going down that rabbit hole is due to that person’s need, in a way — or this misinformation or this activity, this community — rather than these methods being pushed by whatever person is in charge?” asked Hugo Mercier, a cognitive psychologist at Institut Jean Nicod in Paris and author of the 2020 book “Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe.”

Mercier argues that the brainwashing model often gets the process backward: Rather than tricking people into harmful thinking, effective propaganda — or even pure misinformation — gives them permission to openly express ideas they already found appealing.

Gordon Pennycook, a social psychologist at the University of Regina in Canada, also argues that, while it may seem to relatives that someone has changed suddenly as they fall down a rabbit hole, such accounts typically misapprehend the sequence of events. “It’s not that their minds are being taken over,” he said. “Their minds were susceptible to it in the first place. What’s been taken over is their interests, and their focus, and so on.” People who gravitate to conspiracies, Pennycook says, have consistent personality traits that make those ideas appealing. “It’s not the conspiracies that are causing them to be overly aggressive and resistant to alternative narratives,” Pennycook said. Instead, those traits are “the reason they are so strongly believing in the conspiracies.”

Many scholars of new religious movements are also skeptical of the idea that disinformation and conspiracy theories should be understood as somehow hijacking people’s minds. Megan Goodwin, a scholar of American minority religions at Northeastern University, said she has heard people describe outlets like Fox News as brainwashing. “People who are watching it are adults who are making choices to consume that media,” said Goodwin. Similarly, she said, “the people who mounted an armed insurrection to take over the Capitol are adults that made choices.” An idea like deprogramming, she added, “makes it sound like, okay, well they’ve had their agency and their faculties taken from them.”

She sees no evidence that’s the case, even if, she said, that narrative can be comforting. “They make shitty choices,” she said. “People you love are going to make shitty choices.”

SOME FAMILIES HAVE gravitated toward cult specialists in the hopes that they can, indeed, help rescue a loved one from the tangled communities that grow around online conspiracy theories — and there are such specialists who say they can offer useful guidance, even if they can’t stage a full extraction. One of those is Ryan, the cult mediation specialist in Philadelphia. Raised in Florida, Ryan joined the Transcendental Meditation movement in his late teens and spent more than a decade as an avid practitioner of the popular global meditation movement, which was founded in the 1950s. Eventually, he came to believe he was part of a cult and left.

Whether it’s to field worries about a conspiratorial loved one or to mediate disagreement over membership in a religious movement, families who work with him fill out long questionnaires and may eventually participate in sessions that involve Ryan, his business partner, and a licensed psychiatrist. (Ryan, who has a degree in Eastern philosophy and business from Maharishi International University in Iowa, is not a licensed mental health counselor. That lets him intervene in “a way that it would be difficult for me to do given my professional license,” said Eichel, the Delaware psychologist, who sometimes refers families to Ryan.)

Ryan stressed that interventions are rare; usually, the extent of their work is helping families develop strategies to maintain a relationship. When Ryan and the family do decide on an intervention, it involves months of preparation. They sometimes employ elaborate ruses to coax the person into the room for a conversation with their relatives and Ryan.

“They make shitty choices,” Goodwin said. “People you love are going to make shitty choices.”

Whether such methods are reliably effective is difficult to ascertain, and, practitioners acknowledge, there is little research on outcomes. “You can be simplistic, and lucky, and get the person out,” said Langone, the ICSA head, stressing that people’s reasons for joining and leaving groups are often highly individualized. “There are not good statistics on the effectiveness of exit counseling,” Langone said.

During a conversation in late January, Ryan estimated that, within the past year, he had consulted for roughly 20 families dealing with loved ones who had gone deep into QAnon or a similar community. He has not recommended formal interventions to any of them. “The basis of what we would recommend is to stay connected, and how to do that,” said Ryan. “Because to influence someone, you have to have a relationship with them.”

For now, the son of the Colorado conspiracy theorist said he’s gotten adept at finding ways to exit uncomfortable conversations, and he does what he can to lay low and avoid confrontation. He thinks anything else is likely to be ineffective. “I think it’s just going to ride itself out,” he said earlier this month.

He’s now less confident that will happen — especially since after the inauguration his father moved on to sharing anti-vaccination theories with his family — and he’s unsure of what the future will hold. “I just I don’t know where any of this is going to go,” he said, “with the way that there’s just so much crazy going on right now in the United States.”

Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications.


Feb 22, 2021

Here's What We Know About Convicted NXIVM Sex Cult Leader's Legal Strategy to Appeal 120-Year Sentence

Law & Crime
February 19, 2021

Convicted NXIVM sex cult leader Keith Raniere is planning to appeal his 120-year prison sentence based on alleged courtroom error and complaints that he didn’t receive a fair trial.

Defense attorney Steven Metcalf made the case for his client, who is currently recovering from COVID-19, during a Thursday appearance on the Law&Crime Network.

“You have a legitimate business that’s operating with hundreds of people who are benefiting from it and are actually gaining tremendous life experiences as a result of it–and employed—and all of a sudden that becomes deemed a federal RICO,” the attorney argued—referring to Mafia-focused, anti-racketeering legislation which makes charging criminal conspiracies relatively easy for federal prosecutors.

“That federal RICO, the charges that could result to sex-trafficking charges, 100 percent tainted the entire proceedings going forward, from the beginning to the end,” Metcalf argued. “It had chilling effects on the defense that could have been presented.”

Law&Crime Daily host Brian Buckmire noted that over 15 victims testified against Raniere and that five women in his inner circle pleaded guilty to exchanging sexual favors and to branding many of those women who were lower down the hierarchy in what Smallville‘s Allison Mack termed a “secret society.” The host also drew attention to post-trial allegations from at least one woman that Raniere used video footage to blackmail his alleged sex slaves and keep them in line.

“That’s not people’s feelings, I would argue, that’s just what came out, and I don’t see how that’s interpreted differently,” Buckmire said.

Metcalf, in a preview of the defense’s appeal, pointed out that many of those allegations were not used as part of the prosecution’s case during the trial itself.

“Those weren’t used as part of the government’s proof,” the defense attorney said. “Those were used as part of showing and establishing restitution and how that ultimately led a judge to sentence this man to 120 years. So that impacted, even the judge’s view, and ultimately led to that sentencing.”

“The evidence presented at trial to produce and substantiate these charges was completely different than those victim impact statements and that’s what we are claiming was lacking at the trial level,” Metcalf added.

Prosecutors are currently seeking additional restitution in additional to the already $1.75 million fine assessed against the onetime self-help guru.

Raniere defense attorney Joseph McBride also leveled a series of more vague complaints about the trial and investigative process during an appearance on the Law&Crime Network.

“There are a lot of questions,” he said. “There are a lot of holes. We have a lot of questions about the FBI’s work in this case. People here were hurt on some level but the question is about criminality. The question is about proving each element of each crime beyond a reasonable doubt. We don’t think that the government did that in this case.”

As for what McBride was getting at, recent comments to local CBS affiliate KOLD shine additional light on what court watchers should anticipate in the defense’s appellate briefs.

“Even if Keith were guilty on the facts, which we certainly believe that he is not, but even if he were, he has to lose by the rules,” McBride told KOLD. “There is a system of laws and procedures set in place and if somebody’s going to lose their trial, it’s got to be a fair trial. They’ve got to lose on the facts, by the rules. And if they don’t, then it’s a no-go.”

Raniere is currently serving his sentence at United States Penitentiary, Tucson.


CultNEWS101 Articles: 2/22/2021 (NXIVM, Legal, Polygamy, QAnon, Anti-Vax)

NXIVM, Legal, Polygamy, QAnon, Anti-Vaxx
"NXIVM leader Keith Raniere is recovering from COVID-19 in his Arizona prison.

And the convicted sex trafficker has some new attorneys to help him attempt to legally recover from his federal convictions and 120-year prison sentence.

The new lawyers, who will be working on Raniere's appeal, are closely tied to the fight against wrongful convictions — and are affiliated with Christopher Darden, a prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson trial.

Raniere, 6o, the disgraced personal growth guru known as "Vanguard," was feeling good after contracting the coronavirus, according to Joseph D. McBride, a Manhattan lawyer who recently joined Raniere's legal team.

"Keith is still recovering from his bout with COVID-19," McBride told the Times Union. "Our understanding of the situation is that Keith began experiencing symptoms shortly after being transported from MDC but somehow did not test positive until arriving in Tucson."

"To put it lightly, his journey from New York to Arizona was grueling," McBride added. "Moreover, his legal team was unable to communicate with him for long periods of time. Be that as it may, Keith's spirit remains unbroken and he seems to be recovering well."

That legal team, which at trial included lawyers Marc Agnifilo, Paul DerOhannesian, Teny Geragos and Danielle Smith, now includes McBride and attorneys Steven A. Metcalf II, Martin H. Tankleff and Jennifer Bonjean, the latter of whom has represented comedian and convicted sex assailant Bill Cosby.

Metcalf's firm, which includes McBride, is affiliated with Darden."

CBC: French assembly passes bill ensuring 'French values,' banning polygamy, forced marriage
"French lawmakers overwhelmingly approved on Tuesday a bill that would strengthen oversight of mosques, schools and sports clubs to safeguard France from radical Islamists and ensure respect for French values — one of President Emmanuel Macron's landmark projects.

The vote in the lower house was the first critical hurdle for the legislation that has been long in the making after two weeks of intense debate. The bill passed 347 to 151 with 65 abstentions.

The wide-ranging bill that covers most aspects of French life has been hotly contested by some Muslims, lawmakers and others who fear the state is intruding on essential freedoms and pointing a finger at Islam, the nation's No. 2 religion. But it breezed through a chamber in which Macron's centrist party has a majority.
The legislation gained added urgency after a teacher was beheaded in October followed by a deadly attack on a basilica in Nice.

The bill known as Art. 18 is known as the "Paty law," named after Samuel Paty, the teacher beheaded outside his school west of Paris.

The legislation makes it a crime to endanger the life of a person by providing details of their private life and location. Paty was slain after information about his school was posted in a video.
The bill bolsters other French efforts to fight extremism, mainly security-based."

"QANON IN THE U.S. has taken on the militaristic quality of a religious crusade with Q as the prophet and Trump as the Messiah. In Canada, the response has been more muted.

QAnon has been wildly successful and expanded beyond what the apocalyptic prophet Q intended. The identity of Q is speculative; s/he could be the online avatar of the American pig farmer Jim Watkins or someone connected to Watkins. Supporters are called "Anons."

The success of QAnon has been its skill in connecting unrelated ideologies into a tangled narrative.

QAnon has brought together incoherent groups into a big-tent scheme, complete with flowcharts of the "theoretical functional relationships" of the supposed cabal of pedophiles that is operating an international child sex-trafficking ring, and a Sephirot Map of the Pharaonic Death Cult. British writer Hari Kunzru explains the appeal of QAnon:

"Yet despite its incoherence, there is, in a strictly aesthetic sense, something sublime about it, or at least about the experience it is trying to represent, the experience of scale and complexity, of a world that is beyond the capacity of the human mind to apprehend." (Harper's magazine, January, 2021)

At the gut level of QAnon is a primal fear that children are being murdered and trafficked for sex.
QANON IN THE U.S. has taken on the militaristic quality of a religious crusade with Q as the prophet and Trump as the Messiah. In Canada, the response has been more muted."

"In an insular world on the social media app TikTok, young Christians act out biblically inspired scenes in which they are forced to take a vaccine for the coronavirus, only to end up splattered in fake blood and on the brink of death.

The melodramatic videos are an attempt to represent how the introduction of coronavirus vaccines could herald the biblical End Time. Along with hundreds of thousands of other vaccine-questioning posts by social media users all over the world, they're demonstrating the ways in which health misinformation is targeting Christians, some reaching sizable audiences.

Some churches and Christian ministries with large online followings — as well as Christian influencers on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube — are making false claims that vaccines contain fetal tissue or microchips, or are construing associations between vaccine ingredients and the devil. Others talk about how coronavirus vaccines and masks contain or herald the "mark of the beast," a reference to an apocalyptic passage from the Book of Revelation that suggests that the Antichrist will test Christians by asking them to put a mark on their bodies.

The rapid spread of this material has triggered debate and concern among U.S. Christian leaders and experts who believe the religious movement against vaccines is growing, even as many leaders such as Pope Francis and Southern Baptist Convention policy leader Russell Moore are urging people to get shots. Both approved vaccines, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, passed rigorous federal safety reviews and were shown to be more than 94 percent effective at preventing disease."

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The Original Plandemic: Unmasking The Eerily Familiar Conspiracy Theories Behind The Russian Flu Of 1889

Alex Knapp 
Forbes Staff

Covid-19 truthers believe that 5G technology is dialing up the disease. More than a century ago, telegraph poles and other mysterious causes were blamed for influenza. And each gave rise to dubious cures.

As the Covid-19 pandemic swept the globe in early 2020, a conspiracy theory about the disease went viral on social media: The genesis of the illness, proponents claim, was not the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Instead, this pandemic was actually caused by the introduction of 5G broadband, and radiation from cell towers equipped with the technology is the real culprit.

It doesn’t take Dr. Fauci to know that conspiracy theories have always been a predictable symptom of pandemics. More than a century ago, the truthers of the day tried to blame a deadly influenza outbreak on a similar technological innovation.

On January 31, 1890, the European edition of the New York Herald ran an item suggesting that the electric light was somehow responsible for a global influenza outbreak. After all, “the disease has raged chiefly in towns where the electric light is in common use,” the article noted, and went on to note that the disease “has everywhere attacked telegraph employees.”

The illness in question was the first modern influenza pandemic, known as the Russian flu or “La Grippe.” The disease likely emerged somewhere in the Russian Empire in 1889 and quickly spread around the world in successive waves. It took only four months to hit every part of the globe, with the United States seeing its peak in January 1890. More than a million people (of the 1.5 billion on earth) were killed worldwide in that first wave.

The Russian flu was in part a consequence of a newly globalized world. Railroads and transoceanic steamships were perfect conduits for the disease, accelerating its growth across countries and continents. As with Covid-19, the earlier pandemic also caused a spread of misinformation, conspiracies and countless dubious therapies. Instead of the internet, these ideas were promulgated by newspaper and telegraph—but the impact was similar.

“People have an epistemic need to know the truth and they also have an existential need to feel safe,” says Dr. Karen Douglas, a researcher who studies the psychology of conspiracy theories. “In times of crisis, these needs are unmet so conspiracy theories can seem appealing.”

When reports of the Russian flu first emerged, medical science was in the middle of a major transition. The early 19th century was dominated by what’s known as “miasma theory”—the idea that diseases spread through the inhalation of “bad air” from rotting matter. By the mid-19th century, though, the germ theory of disease— what we now understand as the idea that illness is caused by microbes—became increasingly popular, though miasma proponents persisted even into the early 20th century.

Even with the advances in medicine by 1889, the causes of the Russian flu pandemic were still unknown. While scientists such as Edward Jenner and Louis Pasteur had already developed vaccines to protect against and prevent diseases, the discovery of the first virus was still three years away. And it wasn’t until the early 1900s that viruses capable of infecting humans would be discovered. That the Russian flu and the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 were caused by influenza viruses wouldn’t be definitively determined until 1933.

This vital knowledge gap in 1889 meant that doctors and researchers were at a loss to explain the new illness spreading around the world. Contemporary newspaper accounts chronicled the many and varied theories that doctors at the time had about the outbreak. One account in The Boston Globe noted its similarities to dengue fever. An article in the New York Times NYT +2.3% compared it to the disease that felled President William Henry Harrison in 1841. Such uncertainty about the nature of influenza helped fuel conspiracy theories and wild speculation about its causes.

The proto-trutherism from the Russian flu has close parallels in today’s pandemic. Although scientists know quite a bit about the novel coronavirus causing Covid-19, that hasn’t stopped speculation about its origins. One prominent conspiracy theory is that the virus was deliberately bioengineered in a lab to cause the pandemic. Depending on which theory you believe, the culprits behind Covid-19 range from the Chinese government to the U.S. government to Microsoft MSFT -1.2% cofounder Bill Gates. The coronavirus behind this pandemic almost certainly naturally evolved—there is already considerable genetic evidence pointing to it—but that doesn’t halt the rampant speculation.

“This is a classic example of a phenomenon in conspiracy theory research that people perceive patterns that are impossible, or at best very unlikely,” says Dr. Douglas. “People essentially ‘join the dots’ when connections shouldn't be made. When there is so much information going around, and pieces of information often contradict each other, people are more likely to see these illusory patterns.”

While there weren’t any whispers about genetic engineering in the 1890s (after all, DNA itself wouldn’t be discovered for nearly 70 years), that didn’t stop more fantastical theories about the origin of the Russian flu from infecting the public. In addition to the idea that telegraph poles or electricity might be responsible for the spread of the disease, Dr. William Gentry of Chicago caught the attention of newspapers by claiming he had isolated the microbes that caused the pandemic.

The source of these microbes, Dr. Gentry claimed, was stardust passing through the Earth’s atmosphere at regular 16- to 17-year intervals. Other physicians soberly rejected Dr. Gentry’s idea—preferring instead to consider the role of volcanic dust, bird migrations or other equally misguided causes.

This lack of understanding about the new deadly strain of flu left doctors perplexed as to the best way to treat it. An 1889 article in The Lancet conceded that “our want of complete knowledge of the nature of the disease renders it difficult to suggest measures of prophylaxis other than the uniform observance of general hygienic rules.” (That’s another sobering parallel to today’s pandemic—as of now, the only approved therapy for Covid-19 is remdesivir, which has been granted an emergency use authorization by the FDA thanks to clinical trial findings showing it can reduce hospital stays.)

In the absence of science-based treatments for the Russian flu, many dubious therapies flourished—taking advantage of people scared of a disease for which no known treatment existed. This, too, has parallels in today’s pandemic. The FDA has sent multiple warnings out to a variety of companies pushing specious cures, ranging from herbal teas to colloidal silver solutions to ingesting detergent.

Newspaper advertisements from the 19th century similarly tout a number of “cures” for the Russian flu. Castor oil was a treatment pushed by at least one newspaper, and other protocols included a bronchial inhaler and an electric battery (which promised to improve eyesight, to boot.) Even doctors promoted the idea that drinking brandy and eating oysters was the key to staving off infection.

The most famous remedy for the Russian Flu, however, was the carbolic smoke ball. These were manufactured in London and widely advertised. The balls released a “smoke” of finely ground phenol powder (an ingredient commonly used in soaps at the time) that would be inhaled through the nostrils. The company that manufactured this treatment promised that it would prevent customers from catching the Russian flu. And if the product failed, the company promised to recoup its customers £100— or about $13,000 today. In December 1891, Mrs. Elizabeth Carlill purchased one of those products and used it on multiple occasions. Then she succumbed to the epidemic.

Because the carbolic smoke balls failed to work, Carlill and her husband filed a claim with the Carbolic Smoke Ball Company, but it was ignored. In 1892, the couple took their case to court. In the case of Carlill v. Carbolic Smoke Ball Company, the court found that that Mrs. Carlill was entitled to the money and that the Carbolic Smoke Ball Company was in breach of contract for failing to pay her upon submitting the claim. The ruling was a vindication for Mrs. Carlill and the case itself is still cited as precedent throughout common law jurisdictions, including the United States, and is frequently taught in law school classes to this day.

In another parallel with the Covid-19 pandemic, there was also a class of drugs that existed on the border of sound science and wishful thinking. During the 1889 pandemic, quinine, an antimalarial drug that is the antecedent of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, was promoted by newspapers and doctors as a treatment for the Russian flu. Though many members of the medical establishment appear to have opposed the use of quinine as a treatment for the disease, these warnings went unheeded.

In December 1889, a Boston newspaper chronicled people taking quinine to combat the disease. That same month, an investigative article in the Kansas City Star bemoaned price gouging for quinine pills and noted that demand for them was keeping medicine out of the hands of people suffering from malaria. This has its own parallel today, where there have been multiple reports that excess demand of hydroxychloroquine may cause harm for those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, for which that medication is often prescribed as a treatment.

While studies are still being conducted about the efficacy of these Covid-19 treatments, there is little doubt that these drugs can be highly toxic and several clinical studies bear this out. In one tragic case of desperation, a man in Phoenix died (and his wife was hospitalized) after ingesting a chloroquine derivative intended for use as a fish tank cleaner to prevent the illness.

That tragedy also has an unfortunate parallel in the Russian flu. Newspapers in January 1891 reported at least two instances in which families suffering from the Russian flu mistakenly took the poison strychnine, thinking they were ingesting quinine. Several of them died as a consequence.

An unhealthy dose of misinformation, conspiracy theories and the embrace of dubious treatments is quite common during epidemics and pandemics, says Dr. Douglas, who adds that the psychology around them is intertwined. “Research suggests that people who believe in conspiracy theories are more likely to turn to alternative remedies and distrust mainstream medicine.” 

More alarming, the spread of misinformation and the lack of trust in scientific evidence has the potential to cause real harm. Turning to untested treatments can lead people away from getting the care they need, exposing them to greater risk. And while some alternatives, such as drinking herbal teas, are relatively harmless, others are not. Colloidal silver, for example, which the FDA has warned against, can cause permanent skin discoloration and make it difficult for your body to absorb medicines, including antibiotics.

Occasionally, the spread of conspiracy theories can cause actual harm as well. In the United Kingdom, where the idea that 5G causes Covid-19 has taken a firm hold in a significant segment of the population, there have been dozens of attacks on telecom towers. While no one has actually been killed yet, it’s not for lack of trying—the UK conspiracy theorists are hiding razor blades in anti-5G posters on telephone poles and threatening harm to people who work on those cell towers.

Even as companies are racing to develop a vaccine for Covid-19, conspiracy theorists may prevent people from taking them. Anti-vaxxer activists have pounced on Covid-19, protesting against vaccine development efforts and teaming with protesters fed up with stay-at-home orders. “Experimental research also shows that exposure to conspiracy theories increases vaccine hesitancy,” says Dr. Douglas. And polling bears that out: In a recent poll, 1 in 5 Americans said they would not take a vaccine for the coronavirus if it became available.

Perhaps the most insidious conspiracy theory about Covid-19 is one that seems more innocuous—the simple downplaying of the harms of the disease. You don’t have to go deep into Facebook or Twitter to find speculation that Covid-19 fears are overblown. Similarly, there are numerous opinion pieces and TV segments devoted to the idea that the economic damage from stay-at-home orders causes more harm than the disease itself.

“This is very common because it allows people to pretend that nothing is wrong and they can get on with their lives,” Dr. Douglas says. “This is an example of motivated reasoning. People believe what they want to believe.”

Once again, there is a historic precedent in the Russian flu pandemic. In an article about the illness in a December edition of The New York Times, it was reported that while the disease was spreading, it was mostly harmless. “There is nothing fatal about the universal cold,” wrote the author.

By time the epidemic subsided a few months later, the Russian flu had claimed the lives of more than 2,500 New Yorkers, making it the hardest hit city in the United States.

Alex Knapp
I'm a senior editor at Forbes covering healthcare, science, and cutting edge technology. 

Disinformation Fuels A White Evangelical Movement. It Led 1 Virginia Pastor To Quit

Rachel Martin.
February 21, 2021

Jared Stacy is still processing his decision to leave Spotswood Baptist Church in Fredericksburg, Va., last year. Until November, he was ministering to young parishioners in their 20s and 30s.

But in the four years since he had joined the church as a pastor, Stacy had found himself increasingly up against an invisible, powerful force taking hold of members of his congregation: conspiracy theories, disinformation and lies.

Stacy has seen the real consequences of these lies build up over the years; he says it has tainted the name of his faith.

"If Christians in America are serious about helping people see Jesus and what he's about and what he claims, then the label 'evangelical' is a distraction because it bears, unfortunately, the weight of a violence," he told NPR. "I would not use that term because of its association with Jan. 6."

That's the day the U.S. Capitol was attacked and invaded by a violent mob driven by what's commonly known as "the big lie": that President Biden wasn't legitimately elected. The rioters moved toward the Capitol following a rally held by then-President Donald Trump, during which he repeated that big lie. Rioters say they were compelled to stop Congress' certification of Biden's election, which was happening at that time at the Capitol.

The lie is so powerful that a recent survey by the conservative American Enterprise Institute shows that 3 in 5 white evangelicals say Biden was not legitimately elected.

Among them is Pastor Ken Peters, who founded the Patriot Church in Knoxville, Tenn., last year.

"I believe that right now we have an illegitimate president in the White House and he was not elected by the people," Peters told NPR. "I believe the truly 'We the People'-elected, should-be president is residing in Florida right now."

On its website, the Patriot Church is described as a movement: "a church interceding on behalf of her nation." That movement has a name: Christian nationalism. Some conservative evangelical circles have incubated and spread these kinds of conspiracy theories — some of which have led to violence – for years.

Andrew Whitehead, who has spent several years researching Christian nationalism at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, defines it as the belief that America is a Christian nation, one that should privilege white, native-born politically conservative Christians.

"We do find evidence that Americans who embrace Christian nationalism are much more likely to embrace conspiratorial thinking," Whitehead told NPR. "The leaders of those movements have continually cast doubt on who you can really trust or even the federal government."

Trump seized on the opportunity to exploit their distrust for his own political survival. He made himself a champion for evangelical social issues — abortion being at the top of the list. He won their confidence — and their blind loyalty.

For Stacy, the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6 is not something he fathomed when he decided to step away from his mainstream church in November.

Rather, it was a slow burn of other conspiracy theories that had been churning at his church and others for years.

The danger of ambivalence

During the protests last summer after George Floyd's killing, Stacy noticed his congregation making a turn toward a conspiracy theory about child sex trafficking.

"I began to see on social media people ignoring or pushing away Black Lives Matter by saying, you know, oh, well, no one's over here talking about trafficking," Stacy told NPR. He said the concern about child trafficking started out as legitimate — it is an awful truth that exists. But he quickly noticed that his parishioners started using it as shorthand for a lie: that Democrats with prominent roles in business, media and government are running child trafficking rings.

It was that conspiracy theory that compelled a man named Edgar Maddison Welch to fire inside a family pizzeria in Washington, D.C., in December 2016.

That false notion became prevalent again nearly a year later at the center of QAnon, an umbrella of conspiracy theories that has amplified false ideas about an evil liberal agenda and that casts Trump as a savior. QAnon has coalesced since then, perpetrating the lie that President Biden's election was illegitimate.

Stacy was afraid of what he saw taking root in his church. "This is about a wholesale view of reality — what is real, what is true," he said.

He saw some people in his own congregation — mostly the parents or elders of the young adults he worked with — elevating the idea of sex trafficking of kids and what he called "Democrat pedophilia."

"It was people who I respected, and that's even more complicated because they were [my] elders," Stacy said.

"The crack, the split was kitchen tables, where you have two completely different information streams, one that the parents use and one that their kids use," he said. Those two streams of information divided families: Older members of the church were entertaining conspiracies, and younger members were pushing back.

Stacy tried to have conversations with the members who believed these falsehoods. He saw it as his duty, even though the church he worked for avoided these discussions.

"As a church we're not in that discussion," a member of Spotswood Baptist Church leadership told NPR. "We have no interest being involved in that. It's not something that's been in any way discussed or on our agenda."

But Stacy couldn't separate his role as pastor from the conspiracy theories that were putting a strain on the younger parishioners he worked with. "The danger was of them being given a co-opted Jesus, a Jesus who believed in Q, a Jesus who believed in deep state, a Jesus who automatically voted Republican."

He said he could see several outcomes, none of which was any good: Either the younger members would leave the church altogether, or they'd buy into the conspiracy theories or they'd just learn to tolerate them.

That tolerance — and ambivalence — could be what do the most damage. They're how conspiracy theories spread.

A threat to democracy

When asked about the QAnon conspiracy theory that political leaders run a sex trafficking ring, Peters of the Patriot Church in Knoxville, Tenn., wouldn't disavow it.

"I don't know if they're right or wrong — I have no evidence personally to go one way or the other," Peters said. "Let's investigate that instead of investigating preachers who were at the [Jan. 6] rally as if we started some sort of insurrection." Peters was among those who participated in the Jan. 6 rally with Trump.

What can come off as a benign plea of ignorance and a feigned desire to learn the truth is enough to keep the theory going — and have it gain steam. According to a recent study by Lifeway Research, 49% of Protestant pastors say they frequently hear members of their congregations repeating baseless conspiracy theories.

The recent study by the American Enterprise Institute showed that 27% of white evangelicals — the most of any religious group — believe that the widely debunked QAnon conspiracy theory about political leaders running a child sex trafficking ring is "completely" or "mostly accurate," and that 46% say they're "not sure."

'How Did We Get Here?' A Call ignorance about that conspiracy theory, he fully embraces the big lie that led to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. In a video of a sermon on Jan. 24, he shouts from the pulpit, "Biden was illegally put in as president, [the] fake president of the United States."

Mixing God and country in this way is a danger to the American way of life as we know it, researcher Whitehead explained.

"Christian nationalism is a threat to a pluralistic, democratic society because it sees particular ends, like keeping a certain person in the presidency, as that is what God has desired and that God wants. It's really difficult to ever come to the conclusion of 'We should share power or compromise or even abide by the democratic process' because if God does desire to, who are we to stand in the way of that?"

Taking distance to gain clarity

Stacy needed distance to figure out what was happening in his church. He's living in Scotland with his wife and kids and earning a Ph.D. in theology at the University of Aberdeen.

He eventually wants to come back to the U.S. and pastor a church again.

He reflected back on the conversations he had with his older parishioners: "It's almost like putting a pebble in someone's shoe, and eventually you just got to stop walking and you've got to sit down. You have to take your shoe off and you have to figure out what in the world is it that is making me limp forward here?"

"That is what those conversations were designed to do."

But he's going to have to figure out if planting pebbles of truth is enough to dismantle a mountain of lies.