Charles Manson wasn’t a criminal mastermind. That fucker was an influencer.


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 simply started a YouTube channel.

The popular myth is that Charles Manson was a 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 the details of the case are much less cinematic.

Manson was a nobody when he convened his infamous family of inbred-looking hippie 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. Still, it’s doubtful whether Manson ever intended for his followers to commit the brutal murders for which he has become famous.


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.

Charles Manson didn’t participate in the killing of Sharon Tate and her friends, Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski, and Steven Parent; he wasn’t even there. On the night of August 10, 1969, he was present at the LaBianca murders, but he did not participate. He only tied up Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in the couple’s living room. Some reports suggest that his “influence” had simply gone too far, and his followers had decided to kill on their own; Manson’s limited involvement in the LaBianca murders was an attempt to rewrite himself as the leader of the Tate murders after the fact.

What is certain is that the image of Manson as a murderous mastermind is a lie that he invented for himself. The legend that Manson instigated a group of love-hungry hippies to kill nine people is inaccurate at best and mendacious at worst. Manson created a personal narrative that got away from him, and innocent people paid the price.


In today’s social media-addicted world, the cult of personality has never been stronger. Many people with little to no talent, skillset, social capital, or experience attempt to establish their brands, weaving stories and lies to sell themselves and their ideas. People use social media and influencer status to flog everything, from hand lotion to bodily fluids.

These factors create an environment where everyone tries 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.

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, and as a society, we bought into it.

Just as Manson was not the skilled hypnotist he claimed to be and did not have any magical powers, the power of influencers is also largely a myth. The stories created by influencers are often lies based on their self-perception. People idolize influencers, but in reality, they usually have little to no skill set or talent that makes them especially valuable; in most cases, they simply present themselves well and create an image of success.


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 master manipulator or a maverick; 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 he used that following to spread his lies to the public, encouraging and promoting him.

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.

We must learn to recognize the detrimental effect of all this noise. Our responsibility is to learn how to identify the valueless, vapid, and insidious influencers who give nothing, create nothing, and exist purely to further their image.



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Joan Westenberg

Joan Westenberg


Chaotic good. Award winning creative director & writer, ft. in Wired, Inc, SF Chronicle, TNW. Founder