When most of us think of the word “cult”, we think of Jonestown. We think of Scientology. We think of a group of dudes with neckbeards tiptoeing into the woods at night in matching cloaks to murder squirrels and talk about how cool it would be to sacrifice a female virgin if only they could get an actual woman to talk to them. Most of us don’t consider technology to be a tool for religious practice, but in this age, there is nothing your phone can’t do.
“Digital cults” are on the rise, and I know this sounds like classic baby boomer mumbo jumbo about how “Siri” means “Spying Is Really Interesting,” but the basis of these communities is really quite simple. YouTubers, Instagram influencers, Facebook page creators, 4Chan activists, and probably even some commenters on niche PornHub videos all have the power to create an online cultural movement. Some people are taking advantage of that power.
The definition of a cult can be somewhat hard to pin down. Many choose to title small unrecognized religions as cults, which feels dismissive. The most recognized features of an organized cult are three main components: An authoritative or charismatic leader, “brain-washing” activities which restructure your day-to-day critical thinking and encourage you to follow the ideals of the leader, and taking advantage of or mistreating followers through financial exploitation, violent abuse, or emotional manipulation.
Now that we have the ability to join a cult without leaving the comfort of our homes, it has never been easier to be pressured into seeking “enlightenment.” Introducing more advanced surveillance and data collection technology could be used to make the pressuring and monitoring of prospective cult members more effective.
If Facebook Marketplace can sneak its way through hidden permission clauses in the Terms and Conditions to listen to me talk at length about how rocking horses are awful, and then exclusively show me listings of rocking horses on my feed, then what would stop a narcissistic “self-help” leader from helping themselves to your private information?
ISIS may technically be the most successful digital cult in terms of attracting followers online. The Orlando shooting in 2016 at the LGBTQ+ club, Pulse, was committed by an American-born ISIS sympathizer who was recruited online. This was the second-most deadly mass shooting in the U.S. to date.
Bentinho Massaro is a very well-known Youtuber with 86.1K subscribers. Many of Massaro’s videos are about harmless basic things like manifesting your desires through meditation and positive thought, but he also has many convinced that he can control the weather with his mind and is capable of telekinesis.
There are many small digital cults on YouTube that can either feel like your mom’s best friend’s inspirational Pinterest account or a sermon on a religious channel in a motel with plastic wrap on the bed. However, the size and radical-ness of these groups can develop quickly, and it’s important that we pay close attention to what’s going on within them.