A Beginner's Guide To Spotting Cranky Websites & Culty Groups

So first of all, I have a lot of experience with this kind of thing. Back in the early 2000s, my family fell for the Nibiru hoax, which claimed that a rogue planet was going to swing close to Earth and cause a massive cataclysm in 2003. Obviously that time came and went with nary a cosmic cataclysm in sight.

These same people in my family also fell for many claims made by 9/11 Truthers, as well as many of the other conspiracy theories attached to it. And I can tell you, almost everything you hear from conspiracy theorists these days was claimed by conspiracy theorists twenty years ago, and with the exact same sense of urgency. Although some of the conspiracties have been updated to match the realities of our times, they are at the core the same old chestnuts and canards.

In the late 2000s, people began claiming that there would be a major shift of some kind in 2012, as supposedly foretold by the Maya. Of course, the Maya predicted no such thing.

Over the years, I've kept an eye on people and claims like these, and engaged with material created by people who analyze, criticize, and debunk their claims - which I highly recommend more people start doing, because we need more people who are able to recognize this stuff for what it is. I've also watched cultish groups rise online, and observed how those in charge manipulated and dominated its members, while those selfsame members rationalized the leaders' behaviors as fine and acceptable.

Last updated: May 23, 2021

They claim that a major Earth-changing event is just around the corner. They might claim that the veil is about to lift, or that the bad guys are going to be arrested en masse, that aliens will finally reveal themselves, or some other highly dramatic, Hollywood-esque event is going to happen any time now. People have been claiming this kind of thing for years, and it never, ever happens.

They blame the majority of the world's problems on a single cause or scapegoat. For example, blaming "religion" or "monotheism" as if they are all monolithic or identical in beliefs and goals. Or blaming Jews, whether outright or through dogwhistles like "globalists" or "bankers." Or blaming mental illness on "big pharma," as if mental illness was just invented in the 20th century. (Anyone who thinks it was should look up "melancholia.") Another one is blaming "the patriarchy," as if the entire world just has one big patriarchy that oppresses all women everywhere in the exact same way. (This isn't to say that patriarchal cultures don't exist, nor that patriarchy isn't a problem. Rather, this is a sign that they think all patriarchal cultures are united in or by their misogyny, and that misogyny manifests the exact same way in every culture. Basically, they have a non-intersectional understanding of feminism.)

They position themselves as your liberator or savior. For example, multi-level marketing schemes often frame themselves as uplifting and empowering women by giving them the means to start their own business, when what they're actually doing is getting women to buy absurd quantities of typically low-quality products they'll never be able to resell. A predatory religious movement might tell you that they, and only they, can save you from God's oncoming wrath. A predatory person might position themselves and their group as the only ones who can protect you from predators out there. A white supremacist group might might tell other white people that they, and only they, will be able to keep them safe when society inevitably collapses.

They claim to have silver bullet solutions. For example, health scammers often claim that their products can prevent or cure any illness. Many spiritual scammers claim that their pratices (and their practices alone) can get you in touch with God or heal whatever ails you. Financial scams often claim that they can easily relieve you of your debt and make you financially independent. This is why it's extremely important to investigate and research any person or group who claims to be able to help you easily solve your problems.

They act as if no one else is capable of autonomous, independent thinking. For example, referring to those they disagree with as "sheeple," "NPCs," "brainwashed," or even literally calling them a hivemind. This kind of rhetoric shows that they think of their opponents as subhuman or mentally inferior.

They act as if no one else is capable of being moral or exercising moral problem solving skills. This can include rhetoric like, "Without God's law, we'd all murder each other!" (One must wonder how so many cultures lived and thrived for thousands of years without Christianity.) They might claim that others are too selfish, greedy, or unintelligent to make meaningful moral judgments. They might paint outsiders up as cruel, selfish predators, or claim they're all lazy and worthless reprobates. They might show a generally snide and haughty attitude toward people with different or dissenting views.

They act as if they have exclusive or superior access to divine insight and knowledge. They might claim God has given them a special revelation, or that everything they hear from and experience with their gods is 100% objective fact and not merely just UPG (unverified personal gnosis). If anyone has a different viewpoint or has experiences that lead them to different conclusions, they may put their views and opinions down, rather than taking them as an alternate, but equally valid perspective. They might even claim that the divine is angry with people who express dissenting opinions and views.

The group's beliefs are valued over observable reality and lived experience. For example, Flat Earthers claim to care about truth and science, but whenever the evidence suggests that the Earth is round, either they ignore it entirely or attempt to "debunk" it with convoluted explanations that have no basis in observable reality. For another example, transphobes often claim that trans people are not accurately reporting their own lived experiences, whether because they're lying or because they're fundamentally incapable of accurately understanding their own minds and feelings. The idea that so many people would put so much effort into deceiving people for such a small payoff ("entering women's spaces" like restrooms, for example), or that they could all be so extremely alienated from their own minds, is absurd beyond belief. (Not to mention, the entire "bathroom predator" myth has no basis in reality, anyway.)

Their claims drastically contradict scientific and academic knowledge. I'm not saying that academia knows everything, and I'm definitely not denying that academia has had a white, male, cishet, abled bias for years now. Rather, I'm talking about are things like claiming that we don't know who built the Great Pyramids, when we've found the very towns the construction workers lived in. This also includes claiming that Wicca is an ancient religion forced into hiding by the Catholic Church, when it's well-known that Wicca was actually created in the mid-20th century. It can also include things like claiming vaccines cause autism, which has been debunked for ages.

They claim there's a supermassive cover-up. This is often done to explain why the world at large doesn't seem to agree with their ideas, or why nobody's heard of their ideas before now. An example of this are Flat Earthers claiming there's a ridiculously vast and sprawling conspiracy hiding the fact that the world is flat - by necessity, every airline pilot, geologist, astrophysicist, mapmaker, GPS designer, and space engineer would all have to be part of the conspiracy with literally none of them coming out with actual evidence of a cover-up. You might run into a fraudulent spiritual leader who claims that their "spiritual truths" were suppressed by the Vatican for years, as if the Catholic Church was some kind of all-powerful entity capable of crushing any and all dissent with nary a trace. (If they were really as powerful as all that, one must wonder how groups like the Waldenses could have ever existed, let alone how Martin Luther could've started the Protestant Reformation.) For a final example, back in 2011 people were claiming that comet Elenin was actually a brown dwarf that was going to destroy us that autumn and that its name was actually an acronym for "Extinction Level Event Nibiru Is Near," but that They were just covering it up for some reason.

Of course, this isn't to say that a lot of information hasn't been severely distorted or prevented from becoming public knowledge, because it has. There's been loads of corporate cover-ups, after all. But the thing is, most people responsible for perpetuating and defending misinformation aren't mustache-twirling villains who know they're spreading lies and deceit. Rather, it's more often people who are simply unaware of their own biases and knowledge gaps, and/or those who are emotionally invested in thinking they're superior or that they have the truth. This doesn't mean their actions are harmless, but it does mean that the massive sinister conspiracy model is fundamentally wrong, and therefore not a useful means of solving the problem.

They tell you to "do your own research," but they don't tell you how to do good research. Doing good research includes fact-checking your info and finding out whether or not it's actually backed up by reputable sources - EG, academic works that cite their sources, actual experts in relevant fields, people with actual lived experiences, and so on. To cranks and cult leaders, "research" effectively means digging up rumors that seem to confirm their beliefs, finding things they can force their interpretations on, and engaging with the works of other cranks. For example, they might tell people to go and read the alleged testimonies of people who claimed to be members of massive Satanic cults, but never encourage them to consider and look into whether there's any actual physical evidence of the massive Satanic cults they described. (Which there never is!)

They mistake synthetic thinking for critical thinking. Many groups that pride themselves on "thinking for themselves" are guilty of this. Synthetic thinking is the process of combining multiple ideas into new concepts - for example, what would a combination of an apple and banana look like? It's a good skill to have (it's certainly an essential element of creating art!), but it's not actually critical thinking. Critical thinking involves asking yourself how you can be certain that your ideas and conclusions are actually true. For example, a conspiracy theorist might pick every tenth word out of a politician's speech, string them together, and attempt to interpret meaning from them; then pat themselves on the back for "uncovering the truth" without ever asking themselves why or how they can be so sure that the politician's speech was actually intended to convey a message this way. If these people were actually using critical thinking skills, they'd be asking themselves how they can be sure they're gathering and gleaning accurate data, rather than imposing and inferring their own meanings.

They claim to have special or unique insight into old myths, legends, or prophecies. Basically, they claim to have the "truth" on what this stuff was really all about, and it's all very conveniently somehow about modern politics and/or congruent with their current understanding of the world and human nature. They show no regard for genuinely understanding the sociopolitical realities, actual scientific knowledge, and philosophical views of the times and places these things came from. Instead, they just carry on as if it was always about the beliefs and worldview they personally subscribe to. An example of this is claiming that ancient gods were all extraterrestrials while ignoring that many of those gods represented Earthly phenomena such as storms, volcanoes, the emergence of vegetation in the spring, and whathaveyou.

They casually impose a modern Western worldview on premodern mythology and folklore. This can include assuming that pre-modern cosmologies line up with our modern, post-microscope and post-telescope comprehension of the world, rather than a worldview that was limited by what people could see with the naked eye. It can also include imposing a false dichotomy of intelligent/superior and animalistic/inferior on mythological and folkloric beings; EG, claiming that "intelligent" dragons are inherently superior to "unintelligent" dragons, or that "unintelligent" dragons aren't truly dragons at all. It also includes defining the so-called Western dragon as the only "true" dragon, while acting as if all other dragons are lesser or variant forms of that. It also includes trying to fit everything into a good vs. evil, light vs. darkness, "Jesus versus Satan" paradigm.

They teach you to believe you can't trust anyone but themselves and their group. They might tell you that other people are manipulative and predatory. They might tell you that they're unspiritual and deceived. They might tell you that they're puppets or trapped in mind control. They might tell you that they're government shills and agents. Or it might be something else. In any case, anyone who explicitly or implicitly makes it clear that you're only allowed to trust are themselves and their own supporters and cronies is bad news. People should be fine with you seeking opinions and getting information from outside sources, and they definitely should not pressure you to discard and cut off people who don't immediately agree with everything they say.

They're obsessed with being better than everyone else. They might talk about how they have "superior DNA," or how they have "the Truth," or how they're so glad they aren't like those moral reprobates out there. They might talk up the accomplishments of Western civilization while clutching their pearls at its perceived degradation. Or they might claim they're no better than anyone else if asked directly, but nonetheless show constant disdain for anyone who doesn't belong to their group or subscribe to their ideas. They might even talk about how such people are going to Hell, or how they'll end up completely ruined, or how karma will get them, or somesuch.

There's a focus on DNA as something that's spiritually or culturally significant. The idea that DNA makes people special or gives them special powers has its origins in eugenicist pseudoscience - it's nothing more than a spiritual spin on the concept of "superior DNA." Every spiritual group or leader that tells you that they can help you "awaken your DNA" or whatever is buying into these ideas, however unknowingly. The same goes for the idea of indigo children and crystal children, who are often said to be the next step in evolution. (Meanwhile, the alleged symptoms of being an indigo or crystal child line up with autism and ADHD, which are neither new nor magical.)

The regular members are constantly nitpicked and criticized, while the leaders and their cronies are allowed to say and do pretty much anything. Regular members are held to strict, often legalistic scrutiny, and are readily berated for not being pure or committed enough. Meanwhile, those in charge constantly grant themselves excuses and permission to do whatever they want, even things that regular members are lectured, harangued, and harassed over.

Members are corrected in harsh, punitive, degrading ways. For example, if a member unknowingly says or does something offensive or wrong, rather than, say, DM them or take them aside to say something to the effect of, "Hey, heads-up, you should know that doing X isn't okay because Y" and leaving it at that, they might lecture, rail, and demean this person for several minutes or more, particularly in front of an audience. If members ask questions, they might get snide answers that implicitly or explicitly insult and degrade them. It is never acceptable to abuse people over mistakes or shame them for asking questions, ever. Those who position themselves as leaders and educators always, always have a responsibility not to take out their frustrations on those they're supposedly leading or teaching.

They respond to questions and criticism with accusations and rage. For example, if someone asks how they know that the meanings they tease out of cryptic messages posted by an anonymous source are accurate, they might call them a shill or a disinfo agent. Or if someone questions whether the leader's teachings are really channeled from God, enlightened aliens, or whathaveyou, the leader might lash out and call the person evil, demonic, or something along these lines. They might threaten violence or claim their god is angry.

They often complain about the world's problems, but don't describe or encourage any actionable steps. No problem can ever be fixed without action, and those who genuinely want things to get better will generally search for and offer actual steps people can take. Meanwhile, those who do nothing but complain are probably less interested in actually fixing problems than they are in being the center of attention and nursing a superiority or martyr complex. Of course, it's unrealistic to think that anyone who complains about something should have a detailed plan for dealing with it right on the spot. But if they've been on the topic for a long while now and haven't come up with anything, and often ignore or discourage actions people might take, something's probably wrong.

Members are blamed for the group's failures and ineptitudes. The whole "God never fails you, you only fail God" routine. For example, a spiritual group might promise people that it can fix their depression and anxiety. When they are unable to do so, they don't ask themselves whether they promised too much or whether their methods might be flawed, but instead blame members for not trying hard enough. Those who fail to make money in MLMs are often told that they're not working hard enough or thinking positively enough, even though MLMs are deliberately rigged to keep most people from making money. If the prophesied arrival of the golden age fails to manifest, members might be told that they were weren't loyal or faithful enough and God decided to hold back because of that.

Those who leave are trash-talked, stalked, and/or harassed. Members and leaders of the group might claim ex-members were weak, unworthy, or disloyal. They might claim that they never believed in the cause, or that they were secretly agents sent to undermine them. Members might be allowed or even encouraged to stalk and harass those who leave.

I hope you found this article helpful. If you liked it, please share it with your friends and on your social media, and consider supporting me on Patreon or buy me something from my wishlist. Have a great day, and thanks for reading!

More pages you might be interested in:

Sketchy Spiritualities & Shady Pseudohistories: What People Need To Know
How To Get In Touch With Nature (It's Easier Than You Probably Think!)
How To Sharpen Your Intuition
Tips To Identify Hoaxes, Urban Legends, & Scaremongering
Six Ways to Debunk Any Conspiracy Theory (Offsite)

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