THE CULT-IFICATION OF EVERYTHING

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“God will look different than we always imagined”, digital sculpture by Nusi Quero

I recently stumbled across an Instagram story warning its viewers of a dangerous cult’s recruitment tactics. It detailed a series of manipulative text messages, which would be sent to you by a friend. The texts are triggering and demoralizing, designed to make you lose trust in yourself quickly. At the end of this browbeating the recruiter offers you an alternative: waste away in your dead-end life, or join us. The cult’s name? DayLife Army.

I had never heard of them, and the alarmist tone of the story post made me curious, so Google led me to this article from 2016. The short version is that DayLife Army is an internet-savvy MLM that invokes the vocabulary of leftist social justice movements to promote extreme asceticism, turnabout fascism and entry-level sex magic, all under the auspices of a convenient alien overlord. However, amongst all the bizarre details, a particular line stood out: “According to [one of the group’s leaders,] Koa, the cult currently has 12 full members and 50-100 people who hover on the periphery.” A more recent exposé doesn’t give an updated member count outright, but does note that at the group’s peak, all of its IRL members could fit into two cars. DayLife Army’s Instagram account has 431 followers at the time of writing, even after receiving media attention.

Ah. So in the grand scope of things, it’s literally no one?

In a different world, DayLife Army would be nothing. Groups of people congregating online to meme in l33tspeak derivatives and talk a big game about ego death are a dime a dozen. It sounds like any given subforum on FetLife. Get enough of these people together, and eventually the most fanatical of them will feel called to pile into a car and take the psychosexual control show on the road, until inevitably it falls apart from inter-hierarchy disputes and privation. This is not particularly threatening or particularly novel. By and large, high-control groups are pretty common, in the way that LuLaRoe and Tupperware parties are common, and likewise, in the way that extremist intellectual subgroups that start online are pretty common. All of these fringe contingents promise the same things – camaraderie, validation, fulfillment, survival. They are also breeding grounds for narcissistic and abusive behavior. These are not the greatest tragedies of our times. Sometimes people get suckered. But we live in a polarized world, where things that aren’t entirely peaceable are entirely dangerous, so instead of writing these people off as a tiny faction of weirdos operating off their own faulty intuition, they are dangerous, and brainwashed, and assumed to be widespread, and they are coming for YOU!

It is worth noting that the terminology of “cult” was chosen by DayLife Army’s founding members, and they’ve set up a reasonable facsimile of the classic formula: charismatic leaders with spooky divine providence, ceremonial tithes, and the prolonged isolation of members from their social networks to render them dependent on the group. Other internet personalities have used the same formula. DayLife Army has an analogue in Unicult, another online spiritual group, whose YouTube videos have the look and feel of an Urban Outfitters guerrilla ad campaign. Again, a self-appointed leader under divine, alien influence will teach you how to exist on another plane – as long as you purchase the privilege. This is the thing about the internet that has been lauded and decried for decades. Everyone has a soapbox. Influence is amplified in an outsized manner, and credibility has a tendency to get assumed based on charisma alone. Anyone who wants to be a cult leader is a cult leader. Anything proclaimed to be a cult, then, is assumed to be as dangerous as other cults historically have been, drawing inevitable Jonestown comparisons from people who write listicles who could also, reasonably, be ignored. Meanwhile, because I used to live near them, I know that Unicult is a group of perhaps 5-10 young roommates in a big house in a leafy neighborhood of Seattle. Their garden is cute and they make whacky YouTube videos. They are, from an outsider perspective, no one of import.

The propensity to make a cult of anything forceful and authoritative on the internet has seen its terminus in what major liberal news networks have termed Trumpism, which I don’t believe I need to define. But Trump’s brand of evangelical fascism isn’t new or unique, as anyone who has followed US politics for the last 20 years can tell you. Right-wing evangelicals have always had the makings of cult leaders, but in previous eras their spheres of influence were somewhat more constrained. Now, because of the internet, Trump-as-cult is everywhere, splintering into doomsday funhouse iterations via QAnon, accelerationism, the Boogaloo and others. “Trumpism” is a cult inasmuch as it has been made into one by the media. On a nuclear level, Trump supporters are an ill-informed mass of people who all made a conscious decision to believe in one garbage man, as is, unfortunately, their right. The liberal internet, in this case, did the rest, by creating a pathology of it. They were never inherently infohazards. Trump and his policies are objectively villainous. But they deserve your contempt, not your fear.

In terming something a cult, you validate its most dangerous tendencies. You have willed it into being in a manner that grants it undue presence and influence. The best way to deplatform a cult is to belittle it and ignore it. It defeats its fundamental mission. A cult leader without an audience, these days, is just a vlogger. Trump, without constant validation, is just a crybaby.

Online, any attention is good attention. So look closely at where your attention goes, whether it is alarmist, whether it is undeserved, and know when to pull the plug.