Cover photo for Social Media and the Virtual Cult
Culture and Society,  Politics,  Psychology

Social Media and Virtual Cultism


It is undeniable that people on social media tend to be a bit more…extreme. Some blame it on the oft-anonymous nature of the internet. Others believe the cult-like extremism to be nothing more than an unrepresentative vocal minority. And others still believe that the most outrageous posts simply garner the most attention. Maybe social media users fall into the same “if it bleeds it leads” trap as the news.

All of this is true…in part.

But there is something about social media that brings out this behavior in even the most sensible people—something that causes our calm, rational conduct to be replaced by a passionate, irrational, cult-like behavior the moment we jump online.

It is known as social implosion: the cutting off of any ties with non-group members, resulting in an enclosed echo chamber of ideas. It’s one of the main tactics that cults use to keep their members. It is also a natural product of social media.

The Structure of Social Media

The frequency and severity of the mischief (a pair of troubled teens) get into as a team is likely to be more than merely double what the first one would do on his own (…) A gang is more dangerous than the sum of its individual parts. – David Lykken

Cults foster the belief that the only ideas worth hearing are those that come from within the group. So, they enforce minimal contact with the outside world. They suggest that to even entertain an alternative opinion is proof of ideological impurity. So, they will shame and excommunicate anyone who disagrees with their agreed-upon ideology.  These actions solidify the “unity” of the group.

Similarly, people on social media often follow only those with whom they agree. And they block, report, or otherwise shame anyone with whom they disagree. Groups tend to tread common ground, talking only about things that everyone already knows, and doing so from already agreed-upon perspectives. Dissenting voices and alternative perspectives – rare as they are due to the social pressure of the group – tend to be drowned out by the majority, even if many in that majority silently agree with the dissent.

Followers will normally see a post at a much higher rate than non-followers. So, those dissenting opinions that are voiced tend to be outnumbered, to carry less social proof, (they receive fewer likes and so hold less weight), and to be countered by followers defending their “leader.” This creates the same forced ‘consensus’ that is found in a cult.

Social Media, Stress, and Proper Judgment

On social media, every post is a performance. So, users of Twitter, Facebook, etc. are subject to evaluation apprehension, an anxious feeling associated with the possibility of being negatively judged by others. Such effects are higher in the presence of strangers than in the presence of friends, and so one would expect evaluation apprehension to be quite high on social media. This causes members of social media circles to more readily parrot the assumed consensus of the group.

As research on eyewitness testimonies has shown, even if you are unsure when initially giving a statement, the very fact that you said it out loud will lead to a self-reaffirmation effect. If you did not wholeheartedly believe it at first, you will after giving your “performance.” Again, this is a common tactic in cult indoctrination: verbal affirmation that you align with the beliefs of the cult.

For many, Twitter is an exercise in seeking out the thing that most triggers them that day, which is why negative posts spread farther and more rapidly than positive ones. This, along with the aforementioned evaluation apprehension, leads to higher levels of stress and emotional arousal. These, in turn, cause one’s attention to narrow, another cult tactic which makes a person “more susceptible to poorly supported arguments, social pressure, and the temptation to derogate non-group members.”


(Warning: This video contains vulgar language which some may find offensive.)

This narrowing of attention was readily apparent in both the coverage of and the subsequent response to the fiasco with Nathan Philips and the Covington students. The MAGA hats worn by most of the high schoolers were a clear indicator that, for many, these kids were the “outgroup.” They did not belong to the “right” social circle.

So, people saw what they wanted, or expected, to see: non-group members attacking ingroup members. The social pressure of the group, combined with the heightened arousal so often present on social media, led to the intense derogation of the kids by the majority of non-MAGA groups. Even in the presence of true racism, sexism, etc. the high school students were made out to be the “oppressors.”

Another of the driving forces behind cult mentality and mob formation is the natural radicalization of social group. When a group is generally aligned on any given topic, the initial aggregate attitude of the group will strengthen in the direction of the general consensus. Whatever the initial opinion of the group, if every member is at an “8,” expect the group to be at a “10.” (Amusingly, the French researchers demonstrated this by showing that a group of Parisian students – who only disliked Americans a little bit – hated them more than twice as much after discussing it as a group.)

This also applies to politics. In other words, a group of moderate conservatives will become stauncher in their conservatism. A group of liberals will become more radically liberal.

Social Media and Political Polarization

Sure enough, the increase in political radicalization and polarization has mirrored the increase in social media use. Pew surveys from 1994-2004 show a relatively stable distance between the views of the average Democrat and Republican. However, the time between 2004 and 2011 saw a massive increase in radicalization, coinciding with the skyrocketing popularity of social media. By 2017, the political divide in the U.S. was more than twice as large as it had been just a decade prior.

Pew research demonstrating an increasing ideological divide between Democrats and Republicans.

It is unwise to assume causation from correlation. However, social media does seem to isolate and radicalize group members in a way that could lead to similar results. At the very least, it doesn’t seem to be helping matters.

Social Media and the Virtual Cult

Last week, the Covington Catholic High School was forced to close for a day due to the alarming number of death threats that its students were receiving. The bulk of the threats likely came from the anonymous and (hopefully) unrepresentative minority. But the lunacy was not relegated to some small, unseen corner of humanity. Politicians were fantasizing about punching children, celebrities were calling for them to be doxed and punished, and when the narrative had fallen apart, journalists were scrambling to find any justification at all to continue all of this.

Again, we are not talking about a radical fringe of people reacting this way. Everyone from the left to the center-right seemed to get this one wrong. The reaction was often far more extreme than would be expected from any of the individuals in a typical setting.

This is not a product of hateful people. It is a product of social media—the inevitable result of a closed group which has become more radical than the sum of its members.

It is the result of tight-knit social media circles, each of which is, in itself, a virtual cult.


(Cover photo from The Simpson’s Movie (2007) directed by David Silverman)


Tyler Watkins graduated magna cum laude and with Honors with a BA in Psychology from the University of Iowa. He has since worked in the fields of medical and psychological research at Harvard University, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the University of Iowa. Now pursuing a career as a writer, he's published in Quillette, Intellectual Conservative, and Areo Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @WatkinsDoOp

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