Cult brainwashing: Charles Manson, Andrew Cater & Debian family fallacy

On Debian Day of 2021, another Debian Developer, Andrew Cater, wrote a blog comparing Debian to a family:

Debian 1.2 was my first Debian: my latest is, obviously, Debian Bullseye. Debian is like a family - often discordant, sometimes dysfunctional but always full of people that care and are cared for. I wish that some of my friends and colleagues no longer with us could be here to see just how well we're doing.

The idea that people care for each other is total nonsense. I've been doing voluntary projects with free software for just as long as Cater. The earliest record I could find in Debian is from 1998, bug #18511. Despite more than 20 years of voluntary work, Cater and others attacked my family and I ruthlessly at a time when I lost two family members. Upon seeing his words about "family", I couldn't help thinking about the similarities between the problems of Debian culture and the Manson Family, simply referred to as the Family, the infamous cult that used brainwashing to prep their followers for celebrity murders.

The remarkable thing is, the CIA spent huge sums of money to study brainwashing with LSD while Manson was able to go even further without any official support from public finances.

After fifty years, one of those followers convicted of murder, Leslie Van Houten, has finally won parole and left prison. News reports have looked at her case in the context of the cult. One of her quotes stands out. Van Houten describes how living in jail allowed her mind to break free of the groupthink:

That was the biggest struggle, that I could think independently (in jail). Because living at the ranch, we were taught never to think independently — it always had to be what others would think, or not to question anything, And when I realised that I could, it was like a whole new world was opened up (in jail).

We can quickly see how Debian "Family" behavior parallels this groupthink mentality of the Manson Family.

In the Debian Christmas Lynchings before the death of Lucy Wayland, we saw a lot of evidence about the sophisticated tactics used to coral volunteers into groupthink.

Here is a quote from Paul Tagliamonte, he describes groupthink as "maintain a constructive atmosphere":

We, as a group of individuals working on a project together with shared resources working to maintain a constructive atmosphere must never be conflated with a Government censoring speech.

Scott Kitterman went on to debunk Tagliamonte with the following comments:

If censorship isn't the right word (and at best, it's not ideal), what's the right word for the chilling effect on willingness to speak in public due to the risk of being ejected from an organization like Debian?

Perhaps if we can get past "it's not censorship" and say what it is, then we can make some progress.

Note that I'm not talking about refusing to republish (I know what that is). I'm talking about declining to speak based on concern about disproportionate reaction from our leadership/delegates for doing so

Miles Fidelman goes on to simply call it groupthink, just like any other cult, including the Manson Family. He describes the very challenge that Van Houten struggled with, "diversion from groupthink" was not permitted in Manson's Family ranch and it is not permitted in the Debian "Family".

IMHO, the issues are VERY similar - having to do with groupthink, diversion from groupthink, and really, really poor processes (and perhaps attitudes).
sheep, groupthink, debian, family

Recreating Charles Manson with Artificial Intelligence

Manson died in 2017 and this probably gave the parole board some confidence that Van Houten wouldn't fall under his spell a second time. It is a scary thought, but could an AI-generated deep-fake of Charles Manson be used to re-brainwash Van Houten and other former followers and/or indoctrinate new followers to his way of thinking?

Use of puppets

One of the things we see in the Debian Christmas Lynchings is that the former leader, Chris Lamb, was largely absent from the discussion. He used puppets, the Debian Anti-Harassment Team, renamed Debian Community Team, to humiliate people and spread gossip.

People raised concerns about Molly de Blanc having a role in the anti-harassment team gulag due to her relationships with other leadership figures. This intermingling of romances and enforcer status is very typical of cults.

Without such protections, it may appear that certain people are immune, being favoured or that they get access to restricted information about people they work alongside in another team. I'm not alleging this is the case with Molly but that is the perception that would arise in any situation like this.

Charles Manson didn't personally participate in the murders. He delegated to a team.

Mind control tactics: controlling the filters

Manson regularly treated his followers with LSD. Researchers speculate that LSD breaks down filters in the brain and makes it easier to absorb information that might be undesirable. Manson's use of LSD was coupled with the seclusion of a ranch, many decades before the rise of social media and mobile phones. Therefore, during their trips on LSD, the unfiltered information absorbed by their minds would all come from a single source, the cult leader, Manson.

We see the obsessive control of filtering in Debian, FSFE and other groups today. There has been extensive censorship of the Debian mailing lists. Some other free software groups have moved to forum software like Discourse that allows even tighter censorship and manipulation of information.

Free software collaboration and social media in general encourage a 24x7, always connected lifestyle. This leads to sleep depravation and fatigue. That, in turn, makes it easier to implant information in the minds of volunteers. Sleep depravation can be thought of as LSD-lite.

To see what I mean about filters, try sending a message to the debian-project mailing list to query the facts around the Debian Day Volunteer Suicide.

Propensity to harm people

Comparison to the Manson Family could be quite defamatory if we didn't have evidence of the Debian "Family" harming people.

One of those cases that stands out is the 2006 DPL election. Enrico Zini asked the candidates:

Please write a list of 5 Debian Developers you would like to kick out of the project

Then there is that quote from Matthew Garrett:

But it's got to the point where social interaction with Debian-the-distribution makes me want to stab people, even though I've just spent a lovely weekend with Debian-the-people. Perhaps worse, I occasionally find mails I've sent that make me want to stab me.

Then there is Molly de Blanc. She is not a developer. She can't code. But she wants to ban developers like Dr Stallman attending community events. Banning implies some sort of violence:

Our communities have no space for people like Richard M. Stallman

Dr Stallman is from a Jewish background. Hitler wrote similar things about the Jews:

the total removal of all Jews from our midst

Charles Manson and Enrico Zini, awkward similarity.

Charles Manson, Enrico Zini

Responses to Zini's question are interesting. Cults have a culture of harming and humiliating people, including their own members.

Subject: Re: Alternative CoC enforcement strategy
Date: Wed, 26 Nov 2014 02:30:24 +0000
From: Nick Phillips <>
To: <>

On Tue, 2014-11-25 at 16:47 +0000, Ben Hutchings wrote:

> I can see cynical politicians doing that.  I don't see it happening in
> Debian lists; I believe that people who seem offended really are.

Yes, almost certainly. But too often by what they thought the person
meant, rather than by what they actually meant. Perhaps "Excuse me, but
could you possibly explain what you meant by that, as my initial reading
of it makes it seem quite offensive..." rather than "He's making death
threats!!!" would be more constructive. Sometimes the original poster
might even look at it and think "Oh. Yes. I guess that was a bit OTT,
perhaps I should apologise..."

Think maybe there's another side to this, de-escalation, allowing
everyone to save face, and coming to understand each other better -
rather than being right, winning, having your view be accepted as the
One True Perspective, and humiliating your opponent.

One of the Manson Family murder victims, Gary Hinman, had been tortured for two days as they bullied him to assimilate with the cult and hand over assets.

In Debian, cabal members humiliate us to demand assimilation, obedience and handing over intellectual property under a free license.

Communal living and cult-managed family life

Manson had his followers move into his ranch.

At DebConf, volunteers are forced to share rooms and prohibited from bringing their partners.

The movie Martha Marcy May Marlene gives an insight into cults and communal living. Like the Manson family, exploitation of women is a key theme of the movie.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Celebrity targets

One of the scariest similarities between Debian "Family" and Manson Family is the selection of notable targets. The Debian "Family" defamation machine has been turned on a range of high-profile victims.

I previously analyzed the manner in which Debian zealots either falsified or grossly exagerated claims against Dr Jacob Appelbaum. In response, the same zealots simply attacked me as well.

The Manson Family explicitly decided to attack celebrities like Sharon Tate

One of the most notorious Debian "Family" attacks was the "referendum" on Dr Richard Stallman. The vote had all the negativity of an expulsion but nobody is actually a "member" of Debian. Debian is a software that we created together. Joint authors have rights of authorship, this is not the same legal concept as membership. Joint authors can not "expel" each other. Therefore, such a vote is simply a gross act of defamation.

Sharon Tate, Richard Stallman, RMS

Uniforms: groupthink you can wear

When everybody starts to dress the same way, is that a symbol of a family or is it a clue that we are observing a cult?

Female Manson followers wore identical blue dresses and cardigans like nurses. Debian has gone for tartan kilts.

Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten Kurt Roeckx, Mark Brown, Steve McIntyre, Neil McGovern, Keith Packard, Anthony Towns, Luca Capello, Martin Ferrari, Bdale Garbee, Phil Hands, Jonathan Riddell, Alejandro Barcena