The Internet as a god and propaganda tool for cults
From San Francisco Bureau Chief Greg Lefevre
SAN FRANCISCO (CNN) -- Internet writer Erik Davis says the Internet by its nature seems infinite and ethereal, almost a deity in itself.
"In many ways we're sort of creating a 'deus ex machina,' a great machine that is penetrating and connecting in with more and more of our lives. In that sense there's something like a terrestrial god about it," he said.
But he and other experts fear that this infinite and ethereal place has become the new location of choice for cult recruiters. Its god-like appearance is deceptive, and can be dangerous, especially in the hands of often-naive Web users.
That's exactly why psychology professor Margaret Singer says surfers should be on guard against cult recruiters on the Web. "They've been tricked and deceived and they're too trusting," she said.
Writer Davis also warns of the dangers facing so called "Techno-Pagans," those who ascribe too much power to what they find on the Internet. "It's -- in a certain sense -- the ultimate technology," he said. "At the same time it resurrects sort of an older feeling about liberation from the body, about moving into a kind of virtual fantasy land."
Bright users, cheap medium
Experts tell CNN Interactive the Internet is economical for cults. Internet e-mail is cheap, and it keeps cult members hooked, wherever they are, with messages of support and propaganda. And computer cults may not have to rent land or buildings.
The Internet becomes their virtual commune.
People who spend a lot of time on computers may be more at risk, suggests Davis, who writes articles on techno-cults for Wired Magazine.
"Working around computers more and more, and identifying more and more of your life with what's happening on the other side of the screen, has a very a very disassociative effect. One can lose touch with maybe the immediate physical reality, or the social, larger culture outside of you," he said.
"You can imagine very well people who already have a cult-like bond, using the Internet and their relationship to computers to even further pull themselves away from what the rest of us consider the real world."
Singer, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley says cult joiners often have little or no "street smarts." "College-age and young working types spend hours in front of their computers and the only friendships they have are other people on the computer. And they're open to being too trusting and thinking what they read is true."
Web encourages 'niche cultures'
Steve Silberman, who monitors hundreds of religious and cult web sites at Hotwired in San Francisco, says the Web encourages the development of "niche cultures."
"You can use search engines to find other people who are interested in the same thing that you are. You can find phrases on Web pages that are associated with your interests and then use the mailing addresses on those pages to get in touch with the people behind them."
Davis says the power of the Net is seductive. "They can very easily create a fantasy world, or fantasy story about who they are, what their purpose is on Earth, and what the purpose is, of computers."
New techniques, same results
Silberman says many cults look for computer savvy devotees, because they can build a cottage industry around the cult and allow it to become self-sufficient. For example, the Rancho Santa Fe group earned income by designing Web pages for other companies.
"They can make a lot of money, they can give a lot of it to whatever group they are in and they don't have to live by the rules of standard society," he said.
Singer agreed. "What the cults want to recruit are average, normal, bright people and especially, in recent years, people with technical skills, like computer skills. And often, they haven't become street smart. And they're too gullible."
The techniques may be new but the results are often the same. Cult members lose their freedom, often their money.
And sometimes, their lives.
Correspondent Don Knapp contributed to this report.