James Cook on how sinister sects are using the internet to propagate their messages and recruit new devotees.
The days of wearing hooded robes and waiting for initiates to slink furtively into your taffeta-draped S&M temple are, sad to say, long gone. As any cult’s social media manager (bear with us) will tell you, the easiest way to find new members for your crackpot cargo cult is to use websites like Facebook to spread your messages – however bonkers they might be.
The Cult Information Centre defines as a cult as an organisation which among other things uses psychological coercion to recruit, indoctrinate and retain its members.
So who fits the bill? Well, I know they don’t like being referred to as a cult, but the Church of Scientology certainly uses Facebook to share “resources” to both its existing members and people who haven’t encountered the “church” before.
Videos such as “The Way to Happiness Video: Precept #8, Do not murder“ are classic Scientology doctrines thinly veiled as mainstream self-help guff. Why? Well, many cults are shying away from being open about their beliefs, preferring instead to produce generic instructional videos and motivational quote posters to lure in followers.
What happens when an ultra-communist cult invades a fledgling social media site populated almost wholly by argumentative atheists?
Here’s one you might not have heard of. Desteni claims to be an organisation “researching the essence of humanity”. The group’s most loyal members live on a farm in a remote area of South Africa, and it was this core group that took to Quora a few months ago to promote their “Equal Money System”.
The original founder of Desteni died in mysterious circumstances this year after posting a YouTube video in which he professes the cult’s aim, to “eradicate humanity”. So, nice people.
Andrew Gutsch, one of Quora’s “Top Writers”, told The Kernel what it was like to witness the invasion of Desteni followers on the site: “Initially I didn’t see Desteni as a cult. I didn’t even see them as a group. They were fanatical and their arguments ranged from contradiction to ad hominem attacks.
“They made no sense. They were working as a cabal and effectively gaming the system by infiltrating low-profile topics. They flew under moderation’s radar for quite some time, bringing down the quality of the site.”
Michigan State University undergraduate student Shan Kothari was one of the first Quora users to identify the tactics that Desteni were using on the network, which were not always obvious to casual users. “One of the ways I noticed them was that they up-voted each others’ answers, which then quickly rose to the top of some questions. They also down-voted the answers of others at times. This is what bothered me most.”
Quora users welcomed Desteni to the site. Top Writer Joe Geronimo Martinez enjoyed interacting with them: “I did do a lot of research on them. I saw it as a fairness issue. Several of them sent me credits which I returned. I felt there was a rush to judgement on them.
“I watched some of their YouTube videos and visited their website to look into the Equal Money System. I found them largely to be weird rather than harmful. They often quoted me as a defender. I do a lot of things that aren’t mainstream, like Tarot and mysticism, so I am aware of how easy it is to be targeted with no evidence.
“Their understanding of economics was limited. They were certainly united in their approach, more than a lot of groups. I visit a lot of cult websites. Some are scary and violent, the Desteni didn’t sound that bad.”
The Kernel talked to a Quora moderator who gave an insight into how social media websites and their users are dealing with the wave of cult arrivals across the internet. ”It’s clear that Desteni has been shunned from other online communities, and their response to this was to create one of their own, based around the blogs of their members.
“That probably created a feedback loop that prevented them from bringing in new recruits, so they decided to go out into smaller social networks (as opposed to Facebook or Google+) where they could exist for a longer time without being mobbed by people.
“Desteni didn’t go out of their way to engage with members of Quora, instead, Quora members noticed them and dragged them into an aggressive back and forth (the shunning stage). This is when moderation got more active, but largely it was to protect Desteni from harassment.
“Users attacked Desteni’s beliefs publicly, Destini responded with mostly incoherent group-speak, and they ended up fighting a war of attrition with down-votes against each other.”
The attempts of cults to use social media to spread their word hasn’t gone unnoticed. Rockstar Games, the blockbuster games developer, is using a fake cult’s profile on Twitter as viral marketing for Grand Theft Auto V. The Epsilon Program posts satirical tweets from Grand Theft Auto’s “cult of KIFFLOM”. As cults try to indoctrinate members and spread their message, the developers at Rockstar are poking fun at their efforts.
Listen we are NOT a cult
— Epsilon Program (@EpsilonismToday) September 5, 2013
The unparalleled speed and scale of the internet is breathing new life into tired, apocalyptic 1960s ideologies by introducing cult leaders to fertile new audiences – especially in less well-educated parts of the world. Hand in hand with misinformation about Aids in Africa and 9/11 conspiracy theories, cult activity on the internet is skyrocketing.
And because these subtle invitations are so often dressed up as meaningless platitudes, there’s no way to know at first glance whether the post or tweet you’re seeing is from a bored housewife in Wisconsin or a sinister sex offender in a barbed wire-enclosed compound in South Africa.
So the next time you hear someone say that the internet’s full of crazy rubbish, just remember: they’re right.