40+ Tactics Used by Controlling Groups

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“I’m surrounded by people who all believe, do, and value the same things as me! This is my home. These are my people!” Such is the ecstasy of belonging to a tight-knit group. 

We all crave community: a sense of belonging to a group. But in our quest for connection, we need to be careful that the groups we are joining aren’t too controlling. Control tactics are very effective at ensuring unity among group members; thus, controlling groups can be especially enticing to those seeking community.

A Compass for Finding Healthy Groups

Although controlling groups may satisfy our need for belonging, they can stifle some of our other human needs: authenticity, creativity, discovery, and autonomy. For this reason, I believe it is important to find healthy groups to belong to that allow us to meet all of our human needs (See “30+ Human Needs: A Comprehensive List”).

I made this list to act as a compass for finding healthy groups. The control tactics in this list act like red flags. Just because one or two are present in a group doesn’t automatically make it a controlling group. They are simply warning signs, suggesting I take my time to make sure it really is a healthy group.

And even though a group may use a lot of these tactics doesn’t mean it needs to be avoided entirely. For instance, I still participate in my local Mormon community, but I try to avoid the aspects of it that I find overly controlling. I try to limit my involvement to a level that allows me to be authentic while connecting with the religious community of my youth (See “Why I Almost Left the Mormon Church”). I understand that this isn’t always possible or desirable with certain groups.

The continuum of control

In my mind, groups exist along a continuum of control, some are more controlling/unhealthy than others. If a group uses more control tactics, it is likely more controlling. Yet, a group may use just one or two control tactics in an extremely damaging way and be far more controlling. You must take into account the number of tactics used and how powerfully each is used.

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In the end, there’s no exact way to measure how controlling a group is and there’s no cutoff for defining an organization as a “controlling group.” The key is to understand these control tactics, see them as red flags, and then interact with groups in the way that feels most comfortable to you.

Control tactics

I previously wrote an article entitled, “100+ Tactics Used to Control, Manipulate, and Verbally Abuse”, which focuses on tactics commonly used in abusive relationships. Many of those same tactics are used by controlling leaders, so you may also find that article helpful in avoiding controlling groups.

In this article, however, I wanted to specifically focus on tactics used by organizations as a whole. So, without further adieu, here are 40+ of the most common tactics used by controlling groups:

Dehumanizing

Dehumanizing is when a leader or organization treats those who disagree with them like they are inferior, crazy, or otherwise messed up.

Examples:

  • “The Nazis categorised Slavs as Untermensch (sub-human)” and Jews as “racially alien.”1
  • People’s Temple labelled those who no longer followed their teachings as “enemies” or “traitors.”2
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses consider those who openly disagree with church teachings as “apostates” and “mentally diseased,” and those who resign from the church as “wicked.”3

Punishment

Punishment is when a leader or organization purposefully causes suffering to make a follower pay for a previous mistake.

Examples:

  • If you held contrary ideas to the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, you would be considered a heretic and could be publicly killed.4
  • If you break a rule as a member of a Hell’s Angels biker gang, the punishment can be as severe as getting a tattoo burned off or being kicked out of the group.
  • ISIL will physically punish those who do not pledge allegiance to their leader and way of life. Breaking even the simplest of rules can result in brutal physical punishments.5

Threat of Divine Punishment

Threat of Divine Punishment is when a leader or organization teaches its members that if they don’t abide by its teachings, they will suffer divine punishment.

Examples:

  • Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that if you are not active in their church, you will not qualify for heaven. Those who do not qualify will enter an eternal sleep with no consciousness.6
  • The Mormon Church teaches that members who don’t continue to follow the religion after having been through their temple will be under the control of Satan.
  • “Heaven, hell, and purgatory were all very real places to the people of the Middle Ages, and one could not risk offending God by criticizing his Church and damning one's self to an eternity of torment in a lake of fire surrounded by demons.”7
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Victim Playing

Victim Playing is when a leader or organization exaggerates or fabricates their status as a victim.

Examples:

  • “People in the QAnon community often talk about alienation from family and friends. ... Though they typically talk about how Q frayed their relationships on private Facebook groups. But they think these issues are temporary and primarily the fault of others.”8
  • Hitler and the Nazis emphasized that they were victims of the Jews and others, rallying support for their cause.
  • The Mormon Church strongly emphasizes Joseph Smith’s victimhood, barely acknowledging that he had committed some serious crimes, which may have led to his poor treatment.

Ordering

Ordering is when a leader or organization makes demands of its followers.

Examples:

  • ISIL makes many demands, asking their followers to live according to a strict code of conduct.
  • New members of a fraternity/sorority “are asked to do trivial, pointless tasks, many that may be publicly humiliating.”9
  • Most Christian religions believe in commandments coming from God and His representatives. 

Monitoring

Monitoring is when a leader or organization monitors its followers activity, location, or behavior.

Examples:

  • When eight young members of the People’s Temple left the church, leaders sent search parties after them to track them down.10
  • The Nazis closely monitored local religious and educational leaders’ activities and speeches. If one of them promoted even remotely anti-Nazi sentiments, they could be killed or sent to concentration camps.11
  • Local leaders in the Mormon Church will track how much certain members are attending church. If you are no longer attending enough, they may ask the missionaries or other ward members to reach out to or visit you in an effort to “reactivate” you.

Isolation

Isolation is when a leader or organization does things that isolate its followers from others outside the group.

Examples:

  • Heaven’s Gate asked its members to leave mainstream society and migrate with the group across the country, sleeping in tents and sleeping bags along the way. They later lived in the same house together.12
  • The Amish live in communities separated from mainstream society. Their strict rules prevent most Amish from having any connections with the outside world.
  • The People’s Temple asked its followers to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with the congregation instead of their own families. They also convinced many of the followers to migrate as they set up new headquarters.13

Information Isolation

Information Isolation is when a leader or organization seeks to control what information is available to its followers.

Examples:

  • Jehovah’s Witnesses are discouraged from attending universities. They are also discouraged from studying religious texts from outside their organization.14
  • In the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, “in order to talk to God or understand the Bible correctly, one relied on one's priest”15
  • “The Nazis wanted Germans to support the Nazi dictatorship and believe in Nazi ideas. To accomplish this goal, they tried to control forms of communication through censorship and propaganda. This included control of newspapers, magazines, books, art, theater, music, movies, and radio.”16

Indoctrination

Indoctrination is when a leader or organization shares information as unquestionable truths, typically starting with members when they are very young and impressionable.

Examples:

  • Many Christian churches have classes for children during which they are taught the beliefs of the church through activities, songs, and memorized recitations.
  • Hitler banned the Boy Scouts and instead required kids to participate in the Nazi Youth program, which taught them the Nazi ideology while preparing them for war.17
  • ISIL recruits young children, putting them through a program that trains them to want to sacrifice themselves for ISIL. You can read a very sad firsthand account of this here.
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Name-Calling/Labelling

Name-Calling/Labelling is when a leader or organization gives labels to those who follow/don’t follow its ideology.

Examples:

  • People’s Temple labelled those who no longer followed their teachings as “enemies” or “traitors.”18
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses consider those who fail to submit a proselytizing report for six months “inactive,” those who openly disagree with church teachings as “apostates” and “mentally diseased,” and those who resign from the church as “wicked.”19
  • Fraternity/sorority members call each other “brother/sister,” label people as “active/nonactive/probationary” and those who had a parent in the group are known as “legacies.”20

Public Humiliation/Shaming

Public Humiliation is when a leader or organization shares embarrassing, shameful, revealing, or personal information/stories about someone in front of other people.

Examples:

  • The leader of People’s Temple, Jim Jones, would challenge individuals in front of the entire congregation during sermons.21
  • New members of fraternities/sororities are often required to do publicly humiliating tasks.22
  • Publicly making fun of users’ opinions or outsiders is common in online forums and social media.

Shunning/Silent Treatment

Shunning is when a leader or organization asks its followers to limit or break contact with those who have left the group.

Examples:

  • People who leave after being baptized as Jehovah’s Witness are considered disassociated and are shunned.23
  • Moderators of online forums can ban you from a group if they don’t like you or your way of thinking.
  • The Old Order Amish ask their membership to shun individuals found guilty of certain offenses, such as marrying a non-Amish person.24

No Legitimate Reason to Leave

No Legitimate Reason to Leave is when a group doesn’t recognize there being any legitimate reason for leaving the group. Someone who leaves the group is always considered wrong, even evil.

Examples:

  • The Amish believe that you must believe in Christ and follow the church’s rules, so leaving the church is always a bad idea.
  • In the Mormon Church, members are taught that the church is the one true church on the face of the earth, so leaving it is always the wrong decision. They are also taught that people who stop following its teachings will be under the power of Satan and in greater danger of losing their salvation than those who never joined the church at all.
  • People who leave the Catholic Church may be told that they are leaving Christ behind, doing Satan’s work, and making a terrible mistake.25

Exit Abuse

Exit Abuse is when former members of a group experience abuse when leaving the group.

Examples:

  • A few members tried to leave the People’s Temple headquarters in Jonestown, but they were intercepted and shot by members of the People’s Temple.26
  • Those who choose to resign from Jehovah’s Witnesses are labelled as “wicked,” and members are told to shun them.
  • Communities of people who had left the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages “were routinely condemned by the Church and destroyed, their members massacred, and whatever lands they had confiscated as Church property.”27

Rewriting History (AKA Whitewashing)

Rewriting History is when a leader or organization rewrites how events occurred, or omits certain events to their advantage.

Examples:

  • A Nazi-era textbook for German students taught history from the lens of the Aryan race being responsible for all of history’s triumphs.28
  • A Catholic homeschooling textbook teaches the colonialism of America from the lens that the conquistadors brought civility and god to the savage Aztecs and Incas. The mass genocide of the native people is glossed over, focusing on the importance of spreading Catholicism to the new world.
  • For many years, the Mormon Church has depicted Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon by reading gold plates in front of a scribe like this when in reality most of the translation was done using a Seer stone in a hat like this. Additionally, the Mormon Church avoids mentioning details such as Joseph Smith having 40+ wives in its histories of the church.29

Us-vs-Them

Us-vs-Them is a form of black-and-white thinking in which a leader or organization encourages an us-vs-them mentality.

Examples:

  • Jehovah’s Witnesses consider all other religions to be false and label them as “Babylon the Great” or the “harlot” of Revelation 17 from the Bible.30
  • The first Ku Klux Klan painted blacks as the enemy. The second clan “emphasized anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant and later anti-Communist positions.”31
  • Nazis viewed themselves as the perfect, chosen race and all others as inferior. Jews, communists, and practically anyone who didn’t fit the mold was deemed an enemy.32
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Fear of the Outside World

Fear of the Outside World is when a leader or organization encourages fear of the world outside the group.

Examples:

  • Jim Jones, leader of the People’s Temple, encouraged his followers to move with him and escape the wickedness of the outside world.33
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that human society and human governments are controlled by Satan. They teach their people to remain separate from the outside world because the rest of mankind is ruled by Satan.34
  • QAnon members believe that politicians, the media, and Hollywood are controlled by child-eating pedophiles.35

Elitism

Elitism is when a leader or organization encourages the idea that its followers are special and unique from the rest of the world.

Examples:

  • Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that only Jehovah’s Witnesses meet the requirements to survive Armageddon. They also believe that they act as representatives of God’s kingdom on earth.36
  • Hell’s Angels biker gang members wear a patch with a 1% insignia on it, signifying their elite status.
  • ISIL believes their leader is the one true caliph (political and religious leader) on the earth and that the rest of the world needs to pledge obedience to him and their ideology.37

Monopoly on Truth

Monopoly on Truth is when a leader or organization teaches that they have the one and only truth.

Examples:

  • Jehovah’s Witnesses refer to their body of beliefs as “The Truth.”38
  • The Mormon Church teaches that it is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth.”39
  • Catholics teach that they are the one true church of God.40
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Monopoly on Paradise

Monopoly on Paradise is when a leader or organization teaches their followers about a future state of paradise, which only worthy members of the group will qualify for.

Examples:

  • Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that only members of their group will qualify for a future state of paradise.41
  • The Mormon Church teaches that only those who receive all the ordinances of Salvation from the Mormon Church can qualify for the highest degree of heaven.
  • Catholics teach that only those who receive Catholic ordinances can attain salvation.42

Speaking for God

Speaking for God is when a leader or organization teaches that God speaks through them.

Examples:

  • The two leaders of Heaven’s Gate implied to their followers that one of them was Jesus reincarnated and the other God Himself. They represented the sole authority for the group.43
  • The Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses imply that their teachings and doctrines come from God.44
  • The Catholic Church of the Middle Ages “was the manifestation of God's will and presence on earth, and its dictates were not to be questioned... It had the last word on any subject as God's voice on earth.”45

Discouraging Doubts and Independent Thinking

Discouraging Doubts and Independent Thinking is when a leader or organization discourages listening to internal feelings or external information that goes counter to or speaks poorly of the group.

Examples:

  • The Mormon Church tells its members to “doubt their doubts.”46 The Mormon Church also tells new members that if they feel that the Book of Mormon is true, so is everything else the church teaches; therefore, there is no reason to question the validity of the church’s teachings once you’ve received a witness of the Book of Mormon’s truthfulness.
  • “The teachings of the [Catholic] Church were a certainty to the people of the Middle Ages. There was no room for doubt, and questions were not tolerated.”47 Currently, the Catholic Church teaches its followers that doubt can lead to spiritual blindness and encourages followers “to reject everything that is opposed to” their faith.48
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses are discouraged from formulating their own ideas through personal scripture study.49
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Discouraging Criticism

Discouraging Criticism is when a leader or organization discourages its followers from openly disagreeing with the group.

Examples:

  • Jehovah’s Witnesses are told to "not advocate or insist on personal opinions or harbor private ideas when it comes to Bible understanding... Members who openly disagree with the group’s teachings are expelled and shunned.”50
  • The Catholic Church of the Middle Ages “repeatedly crushed dissent, silenced reformers, and massacred heretical sects”51
  • “Starting in 1934, it was illegal to criticize the Nazi government. Even telling a joke about Hitler was considered treachery.”52

Spiritualizing

Spiritualizing is when a leader or organization teaches that certain people, objects, or ideas are divine or holy.

Examples:

  • Catholics spiritualize the pope, the cross, holy water, the chalice, the altar, candles, and much more.53
  • Hell’s Angels treat their motorcycle vest as if it is sacred, doing whatever it takes to prevent it from getting tainted.54
  • The Mormon Church spiritualizes Joseph Smith, the prophet, the temple, the Book of Mormon, the baptismal font, etc.

Feeling the Truth

Feeling the Truth is when a leader or organization teaches its followers that they can feel if something is true. 

Examples:

  • The Mormon Church encourages people to pray about the Book of Mormon. If someone feels the Book of Mormon is true, they are told that this means everything else the church teaches must also be true by default.
  • Marshall Applewhite, leader of Heaven’s Gate, told his followers: “At least ponder this, that you go into the privacy of your closet. Don’t ask your neighbors, your friends. You go see if you can connect with the purest, highest source that you might consider God. And say, ‘What about this? Is this for real?’”55
  • This video shows clips of people from a variety of groups offering a similar testimony they gained of their group’s truthfulness through feeling the truth.

Controlling Personal Decisions

Controlling Personal Decisions is when a leader or organization requires its followers to make certain personal decisions. This may include telling followers what to wear or not wear, to eat or not eat, who they can love, who they can be friends with, how many children to have, how to parent their children, or what they can do or not do for work.

Examples:

  • Jehovah’s Witnesses are asked to abstain from military service, blood transfusions, immodest dress, marrying outside the group, remarrying unless the divorce was due to adultery, and celebrating major holidays such as Christmas and Birthdays.56
  • The Mormon Church requires its members to avoid tea and coffee and wear a specific church-made underwear in order to be worthy of certain benefits such as attending wedding ceremonies.
  • ISIL believes in strict adherence to the same moral code given by Mohammad over 1,000 years ago. Women are told to wear a “"wide, loose jilbab, stay in [their] homes and leave them only in cases of necessity." Men are told how to wear their beard, when to pray, and to avoid drugs. These and many other rules are enforced by “morality police” who will physically punish those who don’t follow them.57

Donation Pressure

Donation Pressure is when a leader or organization requires or pressures its followers to make (often large) donations.

Examples:

  • The People’s Temple encouraged its members to live communally, giving everything to the organization.
  • Members of the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages were required to pay 10% of their annual income to the church each year. They were also able to lessen their time in purgatory by purchasing indulgences from the church.
  • “Economists Fryer and Levitt argue that the rapid growth of the [Ku Klux] Klan in the 1920s was partly the result of an innovative, multi-level marketing campaign.”58

Lack of Financial Transparency

Lack of Financial Transparency is when a leader or organization hides information about its finances from its followers.

Examples:

  • A recent “study found that 61 [U.S. Roman Catholic] dioceses posted no financial data to their websites, and 75 dioceses did not post parish financial guidelines. The researchers reported that this lack of transparency could mean these dioceses consider financial data and parish financial guidelines to be need-to-know information, and believe the laity – without whose financial support the hierarchy could not function – do not have a need to know.”59
  • “Rev. Jim Jones reportedly stashed at least $10 million in secret bank accounts around the world during his reign over the Peoples Temple.”60
  • The Mormon Church propagates the idea that its leadership is composed of volunteers. Yet, it’s top leadership (Apostles and Seventies) are paid $120,000 per year as a “living stipend.”61
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High Time Investment

High Time Investment is when a leader or organization requires its followers to invest a large amount of time in group activities.

Examples:

  • Jehovah’s Witnesses meet together as a congregation twice a week for a total of 3.5 hours. Before 2009, they met three times a week. Additionally, they are required to proselyte regularly.62
  • “The lives of the people of the Middle Ages revolved around the [Catholic] Church. People, especially women, were known to attend church three to five times daily for prayer and at least once a week for services, confession, and acts of contrition for repentance.”63
  • Hell’s Angels biker gang members are expected to put the club above all else, riding more than 12,000 miles together every year. Regularly missing events is frowned upon.64

Proselyting Pressure

Proselyting Pressure is when a leader or organization requires or pressures its followers to proselyte or share the group’s teachings with others.

Examples:

  • “The [People’s] Temple used ten to fifteen Greyhound-type bus cruisers to transport members up and down California freeways each week for recruitment and fundraising."65
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses are told to proselyte as much as they can. They are required to submit a monthly “field service report.” If they fail to submit the report, they are considered “irregular” and if they fail to submit reports for 6 months, they will be considered “inactive.”66
  • The Mormon Church tells young men that they are commanded by God to spend two years of their life on a proselyting mission. Missionaries must pay the church $500/month and are required to follow a rigid schedule from sunrise to sunset.

Ends Justify Any Means

Ends Justify Any Means is when a leader or organization promotes the idea that the mission of the organization is worth any sacrifice. For this reason, followers may end up doing very extreme things that they would not normally do.

Examples:

  • Jim Jones, leader of the People’s Temple, ordered his congregation to drink Flavor Aid with cyanide in it, killing 918 people, including 276 children.67
  • The Ku Klux Klan used threats, violence, and murder in an effort to achieve their white supremacy goals.68
  • The Nazis killed millions of people in order to achieve their goals. Everyday people were tasked with systematically murdering others in concentration camps.
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Charismatic and “Divine” Leadership

Charismatic and “Divine” Leadership is when a group is founded by a very charismatic leader who is ascribed with divine qualities and given complete authority over the group.

Examples:

  • Jim Jones, leader of the People’s Temple, taught that he was a special manifestation of Jesus.69
  • QAnon members believe that Donald Trump is a messiah sent by God.70
  • ISIL believes its leader is a new caliph, a political and religious ruler like Mohammad.71

Hazing

Hazing is when a leader or organization requires new members to go through an abusive trial period in order to be part of the group.

Examples:

  • In fraternities and sororities, hazing of potential members is common and can “include sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, paddling and other types of spanking, use of stress positions, forced runs, busy work, forced drinking and mind games.”72
  • In Hell’s Angels biker gangs, potential members go through a several year trial period during which you will likely be subjected to hazing and being told to do the most menial tasks.73
  • Many military organizations have bootcamp, which is notorious for putting new recruits through serious mental and physical anguish.

Impending Catastrophe

Impending Catastrophe is when a leader or organization focuses the group’s attention on preparing for a future cataclysmic event such as the end of the world.

Examples:

  • The Heaven’s Gate leadership told group members that they were preparing for an event that would take them to Heaven aboard a UFO.74
  • Jim Jones, leader of the People’s Temple, taught that there would be an imminent nuclear apocalypse.75
  • ISIL teaches its followers that the final Day of Judgement by God is near.76

False Predictions

False Predictions is when a leader or organization leads its followers to believe in a future event, which is later proven to be false.

Examples:

  • “The ‘Storm’ became QAnon parlance for an imminent event in which thousands of alleged suspects will be arrested, imprisoned, and executed for being child-eating pedophiles.” This is just one of 19+ failed predictions made by QAnon.77
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses have “made various unfulfilled predictions about major biblical events such as Christ's Second Coming, the advent of God's Kingdom, and Armageddon.” 78
  • This article lists countless examples of failed doomsday predictions.

Avoiding Accountability

Avoiding Accountability is when a leader or organization seeks to evade accountability to the government or the general public.

Examples:

  • “The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found that of 1,006 alleged perpetrators of child sexual abuse investigated by Jehovah's Witness elders since 1950, ‘not one was reported by the church to secular authorities.’”79
  • Members of Hell’s Angels biker gangs refuse to rat out their fellow brothers and they won’t talk to the media.80
  • Joseph Smith ordered the destruction of the Navoo Expositor, which was attempting to publicize his secretive polygamist activities.81
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Secret Keeping

Secret Keeping is when a leader or organization tries to keep its activities secret and asks members to keep secrets.

Examples:

  • Each chapter of the Ku Klux Klan was highly secretive about its plans and members wore costumes that would hide their identity.82
  • Fraternities/Sororities often have secret handshakes, rooms, and initiation ceremonies.83
  • Hell’s Angels are highly secretive of their activities.84

Oaths

Oaths are when a leader or organization asks its followers to agree to specific oaths usually as part of a ceremony or interview.

Examples:

  • In the Ku Klux Klan, “an applicant should be asked if he was in favor of ‘a white man's government’, ‘the reenfranchisement and emancipation of the white men of the South, and the restitution of the Southern people to all their rights’.”85
  • Fraternities/Sororities require their members to take an oath, including that they will not reveal group secrets to outsiders.
  • In Mormon Temples, members are asked to agree to certain oaths such as being willing to sacrifice everything for the church, even their lives if necessary. They are also asked to keep certain hand signs and handshakes a secret.

Political Control

Political Control is when a leader or organization seeks greater control over its followers through having power in governmental structures.

Examples:

  • “The Catholic Church of the Middle Ages held tremendous political power. In some cases, Church authorities (notably the Pope, the head of the Catholic Church) held more power than kings or queens. The Church had the power to tax, and its laws had to be obeyed.”86
  • The Nazis killed government leaders of opposing political parties in order to gain total control over politics in Germany.
  • Leaders in the early Mormon Church sought political office with Joseph Smith even running for president of the United States. Moving to Utah gave church leaders great control over the local political and educational institutions.

Glorifying Extremism

Glorifying Extremism is when a leader or organization glorifies examples of extremism.

Examples:

  • A popular story in the Bible is of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son. Abraham actually goes to do this, and he is applauded by many Christian churches for his obedience.
  • ISIL publicizes gruesome beheadings, drownings, and tortures of their victims, who they consider apostates.87
  • Extreme posts on social media tend to get the biggest reaction from users, so they get circulated more.
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  76. Ideology of ISIL” by Wikipedia
  77. QAnon” by Wikipedia
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