Group 4

Can creators help to deprogram cult members?

YouTubers are using their platforms as a safe space for ex-cult members to find information and community


Thumbnail and banner: Shelise Ann Sola / Cults to Consciousness

Text: Marianne Eloise

It’s a familiar scene on YouTube: a pretty young woman sits looking at a camera, chatting to a guest about their life. On Shelise Ann Sola’s channel, Cults to Consciousness, the content (and intent) is very different to other lifestyle podcasts. Shelise is an ex-Mormon who started the channel as a way to connect with and support people who’ve left other groups: Scientology, sex cult NXIVM, Children of God. She is empathetic, calm, and most importantly understanding of the traumas that guests uncover on the podcast — sexual abuse, ostracisation, neglect. She lets them speak, interjecting occasionally with a question or to remind them that they don’t have to talk about anything they don’t want to. She’s just one of a growing number of creators who are using their platforms as a safe space for other potential apostates to find information and community.

“The internet offers a safe way for people to look at things from a distance. It's a lot safer than asking a family member a question who may shun you for it,” says Shelise. Experts use different terms to describe what we understand to be cults. “High demand group”, which describes what it is in plain terms, helps to let down the defence mechanism that the “c word” can invoke. She also uses the term “coercive control group”, because a group can be high demand without being a cult. “If you have two options, and one option gets you to heaven while the other gets you to hell, you are being coerced to make that decision based on the theology that was given to you”, explains Shelise. The language used to describe cults and abusive relationships is often the same.

Controlling knowledge is essential to cult leaders, and when they aren’t able to isolate members physically, they can do so online.

While social media and cult apostate creators may not have the power to shut down these high demand groups, they do offer a salve for the loneliness that many feel when they decide to turn their back on cults. Leaving is difficult and often as financially and interpersonally complex as leaving an abusive relationship. As many as 3% of people will be involved in a cult in their lifetime, and, while many of us like to believe we’re immune, the reasons are all relatable. Many are looking for a family, purpose, or a sense of identity and guidance within a group. Many others are born into coercive groups because their family were drawn in. These human needs are manipulated by abusive individuals who wield power over the group, and controlling information is one way of keeping them in.

Often, people are forbidden from engaging with anything negative about the group, and if they do, they are dissuaded from believing it. The internet initially posed a challenge for cults, and one way Scientology found around it was by distributing a software package that blocked out anti-Scientology websites in the 1990s. Failing that, the group tries to sway public opinion to such an extent that anyone with an IP address linked to the church is banned from editing Wikipedia pages. Controlling knowledge is essential to cult leaders, and when they aren’t able to isolate members physically, they can do so online.

Born and raised in Utah, Shelise knows that a combination of empathy and information is key to leaving a high demand group. After a Bishop told her that oral sex was “unnatural” and made her feel guilty for her desires, she researched Mormonism and was shocked at what she found. “Joseph Smith was just a con artist paedophile. How is it that I'm being shamed for giving my boyfriend a blowjob but the founder of the church was sleeping with 14-year-olds and marrying women who were already married?” she says now. It was after that revelation that Shelise uncovered serious childhood sexual abuse and went on an intensive Ayahuasca retreat in Peru, where she realised she had to share her story. “I felt like I could do a good job at getting to the bottom of someone's story and making them feel heard”.

Offering people information and a safe place to go when they are ready to leave is essential, but speaking out about leaving a cult is a high-risk game. These channels exist as a buffer zone, a liminal space neither in-group or totally out of it, offering guests a safe space to work through their trauma with an understanding partner. “I try to shed light on the things that these people are dealing with after they leave so that other people can have a better understanding of how to connect with them on a deeper level”, says Shelise. That empathetic approach comes from personal experience, including an interviewer asking her invasive questions about her sexual abuse. Now, Shelise had a framework for how to handle people’s complex stories with sensitivity and care. 

The internet is a two edged sword, and it cuts both ways. The overwhelming majority of groups called cults are still around, and they are utilising social media platforms to recruit people.

Rick Alan Ross

Shelise isn’t alone in this space. There has been a rise in interest in cults and high-demand groups, with the release of documentaries like Shiny Happy People, Going Clear, Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults, and more. But these documentaries are often sensationalised for maximum shock value and made by people with no experience in these coercive situations. Platforms like YouTube offer a unique way for people to tell their own stories: Amanda Rae posts videos about life in The Order, Mark Vicente opens up about working for NXIVM, and on Growing Up in Scientology Aaron Smith-Levin gives insight into one of the most secretive cults. Sal Osborne, who recently starred in Mormon No More about her and her wife’s experiences leaving Mormonism, hosts the podcast Peace Out and coaches people through coming out as Mormons. This growing network allows people who have been ostracised and abused by one group to find a new community, even when they aren’t from the same background.

These channels interview other people leaving cults and high demand groups, showing that finding a new community can be essential when leaving an overbearing, controlling one. The comments are full of people saying they’ve been through something similar, and it’s clear that, as with different forms of abuse, just being open about it can lead people to realise that what they have been through is not OK. In the comments of an interview with Amanda Rae on Shelise’s channel, people share their own experiences of cults and abuse, with some even saying that these videos have helped them to “see themselves” or now “see the truth”. 

While these spaces and creators offer hope and healing to those leaving cults, on the flipside, social media has become a powerful tool for those recruiting. Rick Alan Ross is a cult deprogrammer and the founder of the Cult Education Institute, the oldest and most extensive cult information database. He launched the Institute in 1996, so he was at the forefront of this movement. “I was very hopeful that the internet would be a cure for destructive cults, because helping people to leave cults is information driven,” says Ross. He points to the Church of Scientology as one group that was destabilised by the internet exposing their secrets. However, “the internet is a two edged sword, and it cuts both ways. The overwhelming majority of groups called cults are still around, and they are utilising social media platforms to recruit people”. As with the dissemination of fringe politics, atomisation can also lead more people down cult pathways, as they are fed soundbites and snippets of cult talking points that may lead them down a rabbit hole. 

If sharing information and offering paths out isn’t enough, what will it take? Ross believes that platforms need to better police their users. “We need regulation, but that's a very touchy subject in the United States. Destructive cults often hide behind the first amendment and a façade of religion in order to avoid accountability”, he says. Ross lists a dizzying number of groups and individuals who’ve recruited online very recently, some to tragic ends: Amy Carlson of Love Has Won, Eligio Bishop of Carbon Nation, and Bentinho Massaro “the Tech Bro Guru” to name a few. “We're going to have to confront this as a public safety issue. Many of these groups are very extreme and can cause irreparable damage to families and individuals. It’s going to continue because there are always going to be more cults and more cult leaders. It’s a very lucrative business model”.

Apostates are often demonised and ostracised by leaving. However, by sharing their stories, they can show those still in these groups that they are human and maybe prompt them to question their own beliefs. “All it takes is a slight perspective shift”, says Shelise. “All you need is to gain some compassion and empathy for the people who have left, and question if something is off. When you have people being so open and vulnerable, it's easy to see that what happened to them wasn't right. When there’s one person, maybe there’s six other stories behind them, and maybe you look into it. All it takes is a perception shift for the goggles to come off”.