For individuals who find themselves in a cult and want to leave, the first step is to establish secure communication with the outside world. Here’s how to do that.
The challenges of leaving a cult
Cults are broadly defined as social movements centered around the adoration and veneration of a figure or object. This is almost exclusively accompanied by a rigid social structure and unusual belief system. Subcategories of cults can include, but are not necessarily limited to: religious, polygamist, racist, political, doomsday, or terrorist to name a few.
Like victims of domestic violence, cult members are trapped in abusive and controlling situations that can often become life-threatening. But some argue that being caught up in a cult can be dicier in certain ways, as cult members often do not fully realize or recognize the abusive situation they are in.
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Between the 1960s and ’80s, families would hire specialists to kidnap cult members before subjecting them to hours of intense debriefing. This is now recognized as causing more harm than good. For one thing, abduction is illegal, plus these debriefing sessions would quite often cause a similar level of mental anguish as a cult’s own destructive practices.
But times have changed and we need digital solutions for the digital age.
Digital solutions to getting out
These days, the ultimate goal is to get cult members to agree to exit counseling sessions, which essentially use the same methodology as traditional cult debriefing methods but in a relaxed atmosphere where cult members are free to come and go as they wish.
The biggest hurdle to actually exiting, though, is establishing an avenue for safe and effective communication.
Whether you’re in a cult or trying to get a loved one out, try your best to stay anonymous and keep your online identities hidden.
Please note, for the purposes of this article, we are addressing members of cults (or new religious movements) who have access to the internet. For help regarding cults that live in isolation with limited digital access, please consult local law enforcement or other specialists.
If you’re in a cult
There are always avenues out and things will get better over time. Once you’ve made your decision to leave the cult, begin securing all of your communications with the outside world.
Start by ensuring that your instant messages are private or anonymous. Many chat apps are not as private as they seem. Using a secure messaging app like Wickr can allow for self-destructing messages and content shredding and doesn’t require a phone number or email address. For extra protection, you can configure your iPhone or Android so that it is hidden on your smartphone, and take care to ensure that notifications are turned off.
Switch to a more secure email provider like ProtonMail, which provides self-destruction functions and the ability to send encrypted emails to any recipient, regardless of their email service provider.
For a safer browser, begin using Firefox or Tor. Firefox is extremely secure, customizable, and privacy focused. Make sure that you use private browsing windows for communication, research, and planning. Tor, on the other hand provides comparable privacy but with added anonymity. See our guide here on how to set up and use Tor.
If you’re worried about device confiscation, add hidden volumes to the hard drives and computers that you use. Hidden volumes are encrypted containers within other encrypted containers. When an outer layer is decrypted, it is impossible to determine that there is a hidden container within. This becomes important for hiding or backing up sensitive information and data. You can go one step further by using a hidden operating system, such as TAILS, on your computer, either through direct installation or running it off a USB.
If your friend or family member is in a cult
Take caution in your approach to get through to your friend or loved one.
If they aren’t ready to leave, don’t try to force them. You might end up pushing them further into their ideology. Do not speak ill of the cult or its leader, as this might encourage the cult to cut you out of your loved one’s life. Do let your loved one know you are ready to talk any time.
If they’re already thinking about leaving, be patient and take small steps. Work on an exit plan together and ensure them that their safety is absolutely paramount. It often helps to show testimonials from those who have successfully left cults and regained control of their lives.
If a cult has become aware that you’ve established contact with a member, take extra caution to defend yourself from possible online stalking or doxing attempts. Keep in mind that like you, they’ll do everything they can to keep this person a part of their family.
Above all else, continue to provide a safe and secure avenue for communication.
Resources for leaving cults
Digital security for abusive environments
- Securing your device
- Securing your files, data, and important information
- Securing your device against surveillance
- Securing your financial independence
- Securing your computer activity with TAILS
Cult information and support groups