As an observer of internet culture and media, I am intrigued by the spread of social ideas, or memes, and the behaviour that drives them. From Gangham Style to catching Kony, the internet has changed the way in which ideas spread. In some cases this has been enormously beneficial, with crowd funding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo allowing the creation of new products that may never otherwise see the light of day.

It’s not all positive though, the ability of the internet to connect like minded folk allows conspiracy theories and dangerous ideologies to flourish in the fertile soil of shared ignorance. In a world where unlimited information is at our fingertips, increasing numbers of people are retreating to the comfortable bubble that supports their chosen world view. Welcome to the new age of the cult.

The interesting thing about ideology is the way it spreads. Humans are social creatures, and we have an interesting quirk in our tribal makeup. We like to share the world view of others, to be part of the group, but we also like them to share ours, and a significant subset of people feel threatened when our views are challenged. Historically attached to religion, these behaviours have spread to affiliations with issues like climate change or anti vaccination.

We are programmed to listen to people and learn. Throughout our lives we listen to our parents, teachers, friends and colleagues. All social contact contains a social contract. In a historical context, each social grouping was fundamentally controlled by factors like proximity and power. Divergent opinions found it hard to gain traction, and non conformists were branded heretics and excluded from their social order. Many of history’s notable migrations are a result of ideological and social persecution. In today’s world however, a divergent view need only travel as far as a Reddit for companionship.

Western society is one in which divergent views are tolerated but the thing about crazy people is they don’t think they are crazy. To them, the evidence of their world view is irrefutable and everyone else is simply blind to reality. In most cases a casual observer can see the inconsistencies of a position quickly enough to categorise the ideologue as a heretic. Some ideologies however are subtle enough, or generate an instinctual response that cannot immediately be discounted and our pre-programmed social response is to listen to story tellers.

Not everyone in a cult has to be crazy. They just have to subscribe to the ideology and suspend critical examination of it. People become affiliated with cults because of an interesting social dynamic. They are insufficiently critical or have sympathy with the cult ideology. The cult “reveals” information to people, the act of which creates a social obligation on the new prospect to reciprocate with a statement of affiliation or leave the group. Under social pressure, such a statement creates a cognitive hazard for the new cult member. They need to “educate” themselves but do so through the guidance of existing cult members, with information revealed in a way that supports the ideology. Conflicting information will be ignored or discredited. Once indoctrinated, the cult member will refute any evidence to the contrary of their position, either with counter evidence, or by faith. Science becomes lies. Counter views become conspiracies of governments or corporate interests.

I am particularly interested in the current resurgence of the anti vaccination cult. Science and decades of evidence have demonstrated the efficacy of vaccination in preventing disease and suffering. Those who work with charities in the third world are universally pro-vaccination, seeing the devastating impacts of disease first hand. But despite being utterly discredited by science, the claims of anti vaccination proponents triggers an instinctual response from parents. They want to protect their children. What if vaccination carries a risk of autism (scientifically dis-proven)? What if a vaccination triggers an adverse reaction (possible but misrepresented by anti vax proponents)? Most parents in western countries are living in largely disease free communities thanks to vaccination. They don’t see the risk of disease, so the risk of vaccination and the parental instinct becomes the trigger for susceptibility to the cult message. Despite all the science to the contrary.

Irrational fear meets conspiracy theory and a new religion is born, providing comfort and rationalisation. We are unfortunately living in a new age of ignorance, where people choose their bubble of certainty against all evidence to the contrary. The hilarious observation is the way these cults interact, with anti vaccination proponents arguing that climate denialists are ignoring the scientific evidence or vice versa. Welcome to the religion of the internet era, where the heretics are priests and Reddit and Facebook are the church.