I’m still in the early phase if thinking about this subject (my earliest thoughts are in Online Cults), but as I read about offline cults, a thought occurred to me about how to sift out what’s necessarily in person from what isn’t.
Many cults use techniques to pull people in quickly which rely on being in-person, especially cults that use very long classes which cause sleep deprivation and hunger to dull the thinking of their victims. But while this may be a common tactic, it may simply be more effective than the tactics which can be used online. Hence if it’s available, it will be preferentially be used but where it is not available its lack of use will simply lead to less (or slower) efficacy.
Of course, it’s always important to be careful with this line of thinking, because if applied incorrectly it can be used to wave away crucial distinctions in a plausible-sounding way. But I don’t think that’s the case here; and I think this can be seen by looking at something of an analog. Nigerian Oil Scammers (the scams where someone claims to be nigerian prince with lots of money he needs to hide in a foreigner’s bank account) tell a very implausible story, and I’ve heard the theory that this is to weed out anyone who isn’t extremely gullible. Every person who responds costs them time, so their time will be better spent with as few false positives as possible. Accordingly, they make their story sound ridiculous so that the only people who respond are people who will believe and go along with anything. This of course means that they get false negatives—i.e. people who, with a defter hand, could have been swindled. It seems very plausible that something analogous is working, or could work, with online cults.
They can’t be with a person every minute, they can’t make a person not eat or sleep, but they can sucker in those who simply don’t think well enough to require those sorts of impairments to be convinced to join. Especially since they won’t be asking nearly as much of the applicant. If you remove the requirement for all attractive female cult members to sleep with the leader and all male cult members to travel far and wide to attract new cult members, they don’t need to be nearly as brainwashed to join. Essentially, cults may exist on a spectrum.
Again, this is all very speculative, and further any time one defines things as being on a spectrum one has to answer the question, “how far along the spectrum do you have to go before there’s actually a problem?” Spectra can easily be used to tar the low end with the reputation of the high end.
But there is the curious thing that many atheists one meets online do have an odd sort of aggressiveness, a hyper-pronounced us-vs-them mentality, an inauthenticity to their conversations which makes it feel like one is dealing with a robot or a telemarketer, and an odd obsession with scoring points as if that somehow accomplishes anything. It’s suggestive, but as of yet I’m not sure precisely what it suggests.