Jen Senko’s experience with her father, Frank, hits close to home for many Americans today. Frank was a happy-go-lucky progressive Democrat when he came across a talk radio show hosted by Bob Grant. He started being more critical of Democrats and was somewhat combative about it. When he fully retired, he discovered Rush Limbaugh and listened to him for three hours daily. Then he started watching Fox News. At that point, his personality changed. He was always angry and couldn’t have discussions with his family anymore without them turning to politics.
Jen, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, decided to delve deep into this phenomenon. Her experience making the documentaries Road Map Warrior Women (2000) and The Vanishing City (2010) gave her the tools not only to discover that this is a familiar story in America but also to investigate and uncover the purposeful efforts of the conservative media machine to exert undue influence on hundreds of millions of Americans. Her documentary The Brainwashing of My Dad (2016), adapted into a critically acclaimed book, tracks right-wing media’s divisive and dangerous rise and how it divided Americans and gravely wounded our democracy. The film won the prestigious 2021 Webby People’s Voice Award in Public Service & Activism.
The brainwashing depicted in the documentary is not confined to isolated cults; it demonstrates how media outlets, political factions, and even social networks can gradually sway people’s opinions and beliefs. This process is known as “thought reform” or “coercive persuasion” and is a method commonly employed by cult groups to recruit and indoctrinate people into “true believers.”
Conservative Media Undue Influence
In this week’s episode of The Influence Continuum podcast, I spoke with Jen about her father and the process of undue influence he experienced. Jen describes Frank’s personality change, and I found many similarities to the personality change I experienced in the Moon cult. It was as if Frank had adopted a cult personality as I did. There are also a lot of similarities between Jen’s documentary and my book, The Cult of Trump.
Jen, through her documentary, pointed out how effective the media’s use of propaganda can be. Jen’s father wasn’t stupid or uneducated. He had an engineering degree, but the daily barrage of information from Bob Grant, Rush Limbaugh, and Fox News that was designed to cause anger entrapped him. As I’ve described in the BITE Model of Authoritarian Control, controlling a person’s emotions is an effective first step toward controlling their thoughts and behaviors.
The right-wing media also tries to control the information of its consumers by claiming that all other media is biased and dishonest. This approach causes more anger. The T in BITE stands for thought, and the hosts we’ve been talking about are masters at presenting information in such a confident manner that the consumers of it trust it and adopt the same thinking. I saw all these characteristics of the BITE model in Senko’s documentary.
Social Isolation and Echo Chambers
The Brainwashing of My Dad offers valuable insights into the red flags indicative of mind control. These include changes in behavior and personality, the rejection of previously held beliefs, and the adoption of rigid ideologies without critical examination. Another significant aspect explored in the film is the impact of social isolation and the creation of echo chambers. Once a person becomes thoroughly indoctrinated, they may sever ties with friends, family, and even reality. The documentary highlights how the father’s increasing immersion in conservative media led to the deterioration of his relationships and his inability to engage in rational discussions. This isolation creates a feedback loop, reinforcing distorted beliefs and preventing the individual from considering alternative perspectives. Understanding these signs can help loved ones identify when someone is being manipulated and take steps to initiate meaningful dialogue, and support them in questioning their beliefs.
Exposed From the Inside
I want everyone to watch this documentary and read her book because she interviews people involved in right-wing media. They explain that this coercive control is deliberate. It is not just a happy story of someone radicalized and freed but a description of intentional psychological warfare that Jen revealed through due diligence and research. She mentioned the John Birch Society, and we talked about the Lewis Powell memo, which was a blueprint for corporate domination of American Democracy. These things sound like a conspiracy theory, but it is an actual not-so-secret conspiracy.
Disconnection Leads to Recovery
Jen Senko described how the eventual malfunctioning of his radio began a softening of Frank’s personality. It came when he unplugged from right-wing media. Again, the similarity to my van crash when I was in a hospital away from the Moon cult gave me some time (and sleep) to begin a return to my identity. In my case, this led to a call to my sister and a subsequent deprogramming.
The Brainwashing of My Dad is a powerful reminder of the dangers posed by manipulative media and the potential for individuals to become trapped in a cycle of mind control. We must be vigilant and aware of groups’ tactics to influence our beliefs. By fostering critical thinking, promoting open dialogue, and supporting those affected, we can counteract the effects of brainwashing and empower individuals to reclaim their freedom of thought. Let this film be a wake-up call, inspiring us to question the narratives presented to us and to protect ourselves and our loved ones from falling prey to undue influence. To invite people to reality-test for themselves, in my TEDx talk “How to Tell If You’re Brainwashed,” I explain the four steps for how to answer the question for yourself.
Links from The Brainwashing of My Dad