Steven Hassan, PhD, is a licensed mental health professional and one of the leading experts on cults and undue influence in the world. A former member of the Moonie cult, Hassan left the group 45 years ago and has dedicated his life to helping people out of cults and destructive situations. He has written four books, including Combating Cult Mind Control and The Cult of Trump. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
In 1974, I was recruited into a cult. Known as the Unification Church, but often referred to as the Moonies, the group was — and still is — a far-right cult founded by the Korean cult leader Sun Myung Moon. The Moonies believe that Moon was greater than Jesus and is God’s “Messiah.” His teachings, followers have said, supersede conscience, the Bible, laws and universal human rights.
Thankfully, after two-and-a-half years, I was deprogrammed and realized my mind had been hacked. With the help of ex-members and my family, I was able to break away. Looking back, though, I see that the fear tactics that Moon used to recruit and keep me in the cult are the same ones that leaders of the anti-vaccination ideology are using today to attract and retain followers via social media and other outlets.
While there are many mind control techniques that destructive cults use, emotional control is one of their most powerful weapons for keeping people dependent and obedient. Known as phobia indoctrination, it exposes a person to a series of persistent, irrational fears that initiate a closed cycle of fearful images, thoughts and feelings. The goal is to cause people to fear things that are actually harmless in reality. The cue can be internal or external, such as a thought, image, word, smell, feeling or behavior. This stimulus causes a person to generate negative feelings (often doom).
For instance, when I was 19 years old, I was indoctrinated to believe that I couldn’t trust my own thinking because unseen Satanic forces were affecting my mind. Moon did this by taking me and other cult members to see “The Exorcist,” a movie about a little girl who gets possessed by the devil. He was able to implant a phobia — a persistent irrational fear — by repeatedly telling us that God made the movie and that it was a prophecy of what would happen to us if we left the group. That phobia — the fear of being possessed by the devil — is one of the primary things that tethered me so deeply into the cult and prevented me from leaving.
Anti-vaccination groups are doing the same thing today. Everyone is susceptible to mind control when under great stress and disorientation, and these groups use social media to bombard their targets with messages that sow doubt, fear and confusion about the Covid-19 vaccine. As a result, a significant portion of the US population is refusing to get vaccinated and putting themselves at risk of being hospitalized or dying from Covid-19.
Helping people to overcome these fears is the only way to end this pandemic.
Here are three specific ways anti-vaccination groups use deception to influence the public:
Withholding vital information
There is a difference between fears and phobias. Legitimate fears are good — they help keep us from danger. Phobias, however, are powerful fears of something bad happening that are irrational, very small or nonexistent. For example, some people are phobic of elevators or of leaving their homes. Telling someone that elevator accidents happen each year, without telling them how many elevator trips are successful, deceives them into believing that elevators are dangerous.
Anti-vax influencers tout anecdotes of adverse reactions without mentioning how rare they are. These anecdotes are a form of phobia indoctrination. Anti-vaxxers withhold information about the vaccines, causing people to fear that by getting vaccinated, they would be putting themselves at a high risk of severe side effects. The reality is that instances of serious negative physical reactions to the vaccine are very rare.
It’s important for people to think critically about the actual risks of Covid vs. the risk of the Covid vaccine, and not just succumb to irrational fear. Unvaccinated people are at a much higher risk of dying from the virus, and doctors overwhelmingly agree that getting vaccinated is by far the safest, best choice.
Rather than trusting anti-vax influencers, people with concerns about the safety of the vaccine should be looking at the facts and trusting the experts.
Anti-vax groups distort information by misinterpreting data and casting doubt on the scientific process. For instance, many anti-vax influencers claim that the vaccine is dangerous because it is new and was rapidly developed. But in reality, Covid-19 vaccines make use of technology that has been extensively studied for decades, and the vaccine had to go through usual rigorous testing for emergency approval.
Anti-vax campaigns to distort information remind me of the way fears were implanted in me when I was a Moonie. I was programmed to hate democracy and believe that it was Satanic. After deprogramming, I realized that the Moonies had used corrupt brainwashing tactics on me to support their anti-democratic political agenda.
Anti-vaccination social media campaigns spew outright lies to sow doubt and confusion about the vaccination process.
Last year, an anti-vax propaganda film went viral. The film falsely claimed that the Covid vaccine is a money-making scheme for a group of elites, who are hiding evidence that the vaccine causes medical harm. It likely successfully implanted vaccine phobias for many who watched it.
When people are not properly informed, deciding whether or not to get vaccinated can be a scary decision. People are constantly exposed to lies about the vaccines online, including false claims that they alter DNA or lead to infertility.
Of course, we know that billions of doses have been administered worldwide. That is a huge sample size, and the absence of any widespread serious side effects speaks to the vaccine’s safety.
Phobias are common, but curable. If we do not take the time to analyze the data and actual risk, and if we allow ourselves to trust people and sources that are untrustworthy, we can go down a rabbit hole of paranoia and end up in real danger. Helping people overcome these fears is the only way to end this pandemic.
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