Charles Manson was an influencer, not a criminal mastermind.

The popular myth is that Charles Manson was a mystical, all-powerful cultist who used his magnetism and cult of personality to manipulate people into doing his bidding. He claimed to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and convinced his followers in The Family to take part in his apocalyptic race war by killing Sharon Tate and her friends.

But Charles Manson wasn’t a criminal mastermind or a genius-level cult leader; to call him that would give him far too much credit. Instead, he was little more than an influencer. Born in another time, he might have started a YouTube channel.

Manson was a nobody when he convened his infamous family of killers. He was a failed musician. He had driven away his famous and creative friends. All he had left was an image of a lifestyle of hippy freedom and religious meaning tied into a well-crafted personal brand. That brand was built on paranoic and dark fantasies spread by Manson that tapped into the counter-cultural zeitgeist of mysticism and socio-political turmoil. 

The facts paint a persuasive picture of a man who tried to get attention by doing outrageous things and then playing the victim when people became upset. While trying to be the “voice of a generation” and a hippie messiah, Manson was a scammer who shilled sub-par conspiracy theories and proselytized for excessive drug use. He was a heroin addict and petty criminal. He habitually ingratiated himself to rich, famous people hoping they could get him a record deal or recognize him as a performance artist.

It’s doubtful whether Manson ever intended for his followers to commit the brutal murders for which he has become famous, or whether he was bullshitting. But for the victims of his vapid aggrandizement, that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Manson was obsessed with fame, attention and adulation. He fostered a cult-like environment where a manipulated group of followers, vulnerable, drug-addled, love-hungry hippies, killed nine people in pursuit of his approval. Manson created a personal narrative and brand that had a murderously dark streak, and innocent people paid the price.

Charles Manson used his charisma and warped ideas to convince a group of impressionable people that his insane vision of apocalyptic race war was real. He cast a wide net, collected his followers, and tied into the zeitgeist of the time. He used the tools of propaganda and self-promotion to make a name for himself.

Today’s cult of personality has never been stronger. Influencers with little to no talent, skillset, social capital, or experience establish powerful brands, weaving stories and lies to sell themselves and their ideas. 

These factors create an environment where everyone and anyone can make a convincing play to present themselves as the “voice” of a generation, a charismatic authority, an inspiration, or a thought leader. It’s hard not to see shades of Manson’s drive to achieve fame and glory through the adulation of his audience, in the antics of influencers.

Social media is the primary method of conveying information, and personal image is everything; we must be aware of the susceptibility to manipulation we face as individuals and as a society. Our need to be validated and inspired and the entrenched mythologies we subscribe to leave us open to manipulation by anyone with a story to tell and a desire to manipulate people.

Just as Manson was not the skilled hypnotist he claimed to be and did not have any magical powers, the stories and personas of influencers today are also largely mytholigcal. We idolize influencers, but in reality, they often have little to no skill set or talent that makes them especially valuable; in most cases, they simply present an image that evokes a mixture of envy and aspiration. 

The story of Charles Manson should be a cautionary tale for anyone who lets themselves get swept up in the cult of personality. Charles Manson was not a supernatural being or a powerful prophet; he was an influencer who realized that his best shot at success was positioning himself as the messiah of a generation. He used the force of his vision and the social networks of his time to build a following, and then used that following to the worst possible ends. 

The influencers of our time are no different. They are not visionaries or thought leaders; they are wannabe celebrities who thrive on the attention that fuels their sociopathic behavior. The new, improved Charles Mansons of the world will continue to manipulate and steal from us because we give them power.

Our responsibility is to learn how to identify the influencers who give nothing, create nothing, and exist purely to further their image.

@Westenberg logo
Subscribe to @Westenberg and never miss a post.