Cult experts issue warning about disturbing trend on TikTok: ‘It can become dangerous’

Cozy footage of a man jumping on muddy grass fades into a shot of a group of earthy hipsters playing instruments and reading together, which transitions to video of people painting and playing pool.

It’s a gorgeous, rainy day in Tennessee. An enthusiastic, red-haired man known as @treeisalive invites you to join in on the low-key party. He even provides the address right then and there.

This was the setting for a viral TikTok in February 2021, which introduced the world to The Garden — an off-grid, “intentional community.” The commune’s website describes the area as “a place to sprout, bloom, and grow in harmony with nature.”

Critics describe it as a cult.

What happened to The Garden?

Over the next few weeks, a number of creators emerged from the community with a steady following. At its peak in March, @treeisalive had 83,000 followers, @rocknrelmusic had 42,000 followers and @amillandbritt had 18,000 followers, according to Insider.

The commune attracted people who said they don’t fit into mainstream society, per a 2018 Facebook post from the group’s co-founder, Patrick Martion.

The Garden’s fan base grew as its good-natured residents shared its back-to-nature mantra on TikTok, but as follower counts rose, so did the number of detractors.

Members had to work all day to get basic access to food and shelter, then they retired to bed in shared bunk. Critics said it made The Garden seem like a cult, but its members swore working to sustain the community in exchange for food is pretty standard for a commune.

In their most basic forms, a commune is a group of people living together and sharing possessions and responsibilities, while a cult is a group of people with religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange and sinister.

Related: Vet warns against participating in dangerous TikTok trend

The term “cult” is very broadly defined in the dictionary, but experts agree that true cults must have a leader — like Jonestown’s Jim Jones, who led hundreds of his followers to their death when they drank a powdered drink laced with cyanide in 1978. More recently, cult leader Keith Raniere used the guise of self-help to coerce his followers engage in sex trafficking and forced labor. The Garden has founders and TikTok-famous members, but no leader.

Everything began to fall apart for The Garden when @treeisalive said in a live stream in early March that the commune killed a stray cat who killed their chickens and then ate the cat so it wouldn’t go to waste. He also said it “tasted like chicken.” To some, that was a “sinister” act that pushed the commune over the edge into cult territory.

From there, The Garden began to face the wrath of CultTok, a group of TikTokers wary about cults. Some even created entire pages dedicated to taking The Garden down.

Credit: TikTok
Credit: TikTok

“We didn’t take the criticism to heart originally … I think my somewhat ‘charisma’ was turned around and represented as me being a ‘leader,’” @treeisalive told Input Mag later that month. “I was just a guy making TikToks. I’d only been at The Garden for three months; this is a community that has been going for 12 years.”

Ultimately, TikTok’s algorithm derailed the push to attract only like-minded people interested in sustainability and off-grid living, and ended up drawing hundreds of thousands of bystanders to the posts, which served The Garden a healthy dose of skepticism and an unhealthy measure of harassment.

@treeisalive left the commune to pursue other ventures, as did @amillandbritt, who told Insider they “suffered greatly from death threats.” @rocknrelmusic deleted her account entirely. Though the commune still exists, its reputation is undoubtedly damaged and its remaining members are struggling to pick up the pieces.

Multiple experts told In The Know that The Garden is not a cult, but it could easily become one. Communes and cults tend to attract similar types of people.

“[The Garden] doesn’t have a leader, but there are things present there that are also present in cults,” Elizabeth Kriesten, a misinformation and extremism expert who is also a lead researcher at Bridges Across the Divide, said. ”We’re seeing the fringe become mainstream.”

Is it worth the moral panic to question whether TikTok’s commune trend could give way to genuine cults? To answer that, we need to examine the appeal Commune TikTok has to people.

Why are people drawn to communes?

Peter Foster, an academic specializing in communal living, told Vice the pandemic prompted people to look inward and reconsider what really matters to them, inspiring a renewed focus on communal public health and safety.

“The loneliness of city life is a motivating factor for joining a community, and the sense of isolation imposed by the lockdown will definitely act as an impetus,” he said. “I do hear people talking more and more about the need to connect with people, and current lifestyles just aren’t satisfying that.”

Members of Commune TikTok such as @communecowboy,@urcommunefriend and @egg_lena have created an appealing niche at the intersection of Sustainability Tikok and Spirituality TikTok with Commune TikTok. They provide resources for people looking to find communes — and warn that you should instead call them “intentional communities,” “artist refuges” and “community living situations.”

Though The Garden’s marketing push backfired and swarmed the commune with skeptics, Commune TikTok has taken a stigmatized lifestyle and made it sound like a desirable alternative for those disenchanted by the thought of a lifelong 9-to-5 job — especially since these creators control the image they put out into the world.

Spending your days feeding animals and gardening doesn’t sound half bad when you’ve been rising and grinding for years on end.

Kriesten told In The Know that when you go to communes, you find people “who are there because bonds have been broken, so they’re there to form new bonds.”

“That’s not horrible, but it can become dangerous,” she said. Forming bonds with the wrong person — say, a cult leader — can do serious damage.

Dr. Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of the “How Can I Help?” podcast, told In The Know that cults prey upon people who have a “shaky sense of identity” and “wish to belong to something.”

“[A cult] can appeal to someone who views themselves as a free spirit who is in search of other free spirits who does not like being constrained to the social rules of society,” she explained, unknowingly describing a type of person that sounded a lot like what The Garden’s co-founder claimed they were trying to attract.

What happens when things go wrong?

In a popular critique of Commune TikTok, user @quiibunnie shared a scenario that revealed some of the possible dangers of joining a commune.

“If you personally fall extremely ill and you need medication … you need modern medicine that you are unable to find on your homestead … you would be forced to leave because they couldn’t support you anymore,” they said.

When you join a commune, you commit to a self-contained financial system that may be functional on its property, but not in the outside world. Not only could a medical emergency leave you separated from your commune, but you might not have a way to get to a hospital or pay for treatment.

Kriesten said that this type of isolation is how cults work.

“You leave behind protective mechanisms, like society and knowledge,” she said. “If there was a leader, they could try to use people to take whatever they want.”

What are the warning signs that a group can — or has — become a cult?

Before joining a group that requires commitment, it’s important to keep an eye out for red flags — both before joining and after.

“Nobody joins a cult,” Kriesten said. “You join an organization you think is gonna change the world because you like what they’re doing … it’s possible to get involved in a group that slowly changes over time. That’s the history of almost every cult.”

Keith Raniere’s NXIVM began as a multi-level marketing company that purportedly offered training courses for self-improvement. It drew in celebrities and heiresses and all sorts of high-society types before Raniere developed a secret society within the organization in which women were allegedly called slaves, branded with the leaders’ initials and subjected to corporal punishment.

Members of NXIVM thought they were bettering themselves when they joined the organization, only to find themselves subjected to increasingly manipulative and cruel practices over time. In a similar way, Jonestown’s devotees thought they were subscribing to “enlightened socialism” when they moved to Guynna to follow their leader, leaving all reservations behind them.

Ashley Ryan, who is a writer and producer as well as a creator on #WitchTok, told In The Know that it’s crucial to keep your critical thinking skills sharp when joining a group like this.

“Members should have the right to disagree with the leader, and a good leader will admit when they are wrong,” she said. “It is imperative to keep a critically sharp mind to ensure that one does not slip into a harmful or toxic environment.”

Ryan, who has experience with cults, said the group should be open about letting people leave if they choose to — whether it’s for medical reasons or not. She said there should be no social penalty for choosing to exit or step back from the group.

TikTok user @missamyoverby, who said in a video that she “deeply studies cults,” pointed out how concerning it was that The Garden freely gave out their address and invited all people to come join.

“Genuine communes have a list of requirements, and not everyone gets accepted,” she said. “Cults that are cosplaying as a commune let anybody in.”

The Garden allows people to stay for 10 days before needing “council approval” to stay any longer, and anyone who has been on the commune for more than two weeks can ask a new member to leave. A lot can happen in those 10 days, though.

If groups accept you when you’re under 18 without talking to your parents first, have extensive rules about food or clothes and won’t let you leave at any time, that’s a red flag, Commune TikTok member @egg_lena said in a video.

“Some cults have been communes, but not all communes are cults,” she continued.

Lastly, Kriesten said that cults tend to create “catastrophes,” like NXIVM’s core belief that people are deeply broken, then embed a black-and-white solution.

“You are the only one that can fix it and there are no shades of gray,” she said. “Solutions are often internal so you don’t have to rely on any external forces.”

This isolation and absolutism further cuts people off from the outside world — including friends and family who might be able to point out how cult-like a group has gotten.

What happens if a loved one shows interest in a potential cult?

Kriesten said that cults rely on relationships to be effective. These powerful relationships temporarily suspend critical thinking, because cult leaders attack the “pillars” our lives are built on until they are the only trusted source people have.

“Facts don’t matter when you’re getting your information from a trusted source,” she said.

She said that flat-out telling people they’re wrong threatens the relationship. Take things slow and be mindful of the manipulation tactics at play.

Ryan emphasized that “anyone can fall into a cult.”

“It doesn’t happen to ‘weak’ people; it can happen to anyone feeling vulnerable consciously or unconsciously [to] someone who is in a state of transition or questioning their beliefs,” she explained. “Cults offer you answers and provide a structure to help that person.”

You can help people out of cults by just offering to be there with them. Help them restore those so-called pillars in the outside world.

Remember, no one joins a cult, but people can certainly avoid them.

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