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How Social Media Features Parallel Cult Techniques

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How would you know if you were in a cult? If not a cult, then at least under undue influence? The truth is, with social media, we’re all under undue influence. In other words, we’re being induced to think and act – either consciously or subconsciously – in ways that may not be fully reflective of our own thoughts and desires.

On a recent Your Undivided Attention episode, we spoke with cult deprogramming expert Dr. Steven Hassan about the extraordinary parallels between cult techniques and social media features and how we can have sovereignty over our minds.


Social media platforms and cults share a similar underlying goal: influencing people. Social media platforms keep users engaged in order to profit via ad revenue, while cults keep members committed in order to keep power and, in some cases, make money.

As Dr. Hassan notes, influence is on a continuum. There are “healthy cults” which give informed consent and “authoritarian cults” which pursue undue influence. Many social media practices are closer to the “authoritarian” end of the spectrum since social media companies don’t practice transparency with users (e.g., sharing what data they’re using or how they’re using it).

While social media leaders aren't cult leaders, nor are all social media users part of a cult, social media's means to keep users engaged can parallel how cults keep members committed.

Here are a few examples of the parallels:


Social media is designed to instill dependency and keep us engaged. Knowing this, what exactly can we do? Dr. Steven Hassan offers a  4-step process of reality-testing, the Strategic Interactive Approach, to help people free themselves of undue influence:

  1. Detach from constant reinforcing influences. For example, take a social media sabbatical.
  2. Learn about Dr. Hassan's BITE (behaviors, information, thoughts, emotions) model of authoritarian control and assess parallels for your own relationship with social media.
  3. Deliberately seek out “formers” (i.e., those who left a social media platform) and talk to them about their choice.
  4. Evaluate your satisfaction with social media – are you experiencing what you had hoped when joining? Is participating on social media a net positive in your life?

To hear the complete conversion with Dr. Steven Hassan, listen to the episode “How to Free Our Minds.” For an 11-minute snapshot of the conversation, watch a live recording of the podcast.


Thank you to Dr. Hassan for informing and guiding the creation of this Catalyst article. Learn more about Dr. Hassan's work at


On Tech Policy

  • The bipartisan CA Age Appropriate Design Code passed the CA Assembly with 66 votes in favor and 0 against it. The bill, which would require companies to consider the privacy and protection of children in the design of digital products and services, now heads to the state Senate for negotiation.
  • The Supreme Court has blocked Texas law HB20 from going into effect as it's deliberated in lower courts. If allowed to pass, the bill would enable individuals and state attorneys general to sue social media platforms for removing posts due to the viewpoints they express. Casey Newton examines the implications of this law through the case of the domestic terrorist attack in Buffalo, noting that there is a strong business case against forcing platforms to host all types of content.
  • Sen. Michael Bennet (CO) introduced the Digital Platform Commission Act, a new bill that would establish an expert federal watchdog for digital platforms. CHT supports the bill, as we believe it builds the regulatory capacity that a 21st-century democracy needs to align our rapidly changing digital landscape with the public interest. There is a section-by-section summary for those that want to dive into the bill.

On Twitter and Musk

On Humane Tech

  • Rest of World released their ROW100 Global Tech’s Changemakers list. The list highlights exceptional individuals – outside of Silicon Valley and the West – making positive strides in tech to solve real-world problems across policy, infrastructure, finance, and more.
  • My Friends My Data Coalition (MFMD) is advocating for social media companies to allow users to transfer their followings between platforms. This change would impact platforms’ network effects, minimizing their monopoly power and forcing them to design their platforms to encourage participation instead of locking users in.
  • We recently hosted an event, “What is Liberatory Technology,” with Aden Van Noppen and Davion “Zi” Ziere, Co-Directors of Mobius. The event, part of our Foundations of Humane Technology course, explored what it would look like to have a more compassionate, accountable, and just tech ecosystem.
  • Recordings from All Tech Is Human’s “Improving Digital Spaces” event are now available online. You can watch our own Maria Bridge moderating a panel on algorithmic transparency with Renée Cummings, Irene Solaiman, and Natalia Domagala.

Published on
June 2, 2022

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