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Cult's Internet connection sparks fears of growing trend

March 29, 1997
Web posted at: 9:15 a.m. EST

From Correspondent Greg Lefevre

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SAN FRANCISCO (CNN) -- The news of the deaths of 39 Heaven's Gate members has sparked waves of chat on the Internet.

Many are mourning the loss of life while others are fearful the Internet itself, with it anonymity and a lack of community, is helping to draw people to cults.

Others, however, are shouting to anyone who will listen, that this story is not about the Internet at all.

"Reporters keep calling me and asking if the Internet is to blame for this," says Karen Coyle, western regional director for Computer Users for Social Responsibility. "Of course the Internet isn't to blame for it -- any more than the comet is to blame."

Coyle believes fear of the unknown is magnifying distrust of cyberspace among computer illiterates. Many people are afraid that computers, like cults, could somehow control them. Mix the two together, and you've got a potent combination.

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"Less than half of our households have a computer. Only a third of those log on. So most people see this as being mysterious technology," Coyle says.

And just because Heaven's Gate published its bizarre rants online doesn't mean anyone actually read it.

"There's between 30 to 40 million Web pages out there. They could have done just as well to go out to the San Diego bluffs and throw a message in a bottle," Coyle says.

Blaming the messenger

Online veterans say blaming the 'Net misses the point.

"It's a question of the people using it, not the technology itself," says Russ Mitchell, managing editor of Wired magazine. "Any technology can be used for good or ill for propaganda purposes or for edification purposes."

In reality, chat runs from the serious to the silly.

"A lot of these are just pranksters," HotWired chat host Jennifer Eno says of her chat room. icon (116K/11 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Some examples:

"Is this the place where I can release myself from my container?" writes one participant.

"Hello to all aliens," writes another.

But even in the humor, there runs an undercurrent of loss and loneliness.

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"It's an interesting thing to watch people go through thought processes and try to figure out what's going on," said Sabrina Modell of the Whole Earth Network.

"People are commenting that we are a society of strangers, that we live more and more in urban areas, that we don't have a sense of family and community," said D. Allen of the Whole Earth Networks.

Warranted or not, the connection between the Internet and cults has frightened some parents beyond reason, said Pam Dixon, author of "Take Charge Computing for Teens and Parents."

The author, whose home is only a few miles from the house where the cult members died Wednesday, said she's been mobbed at the gym by parents who are worried about their children.

"I'm hearing a lot of comments from terrified parents that this is a computer cult. But actually it's not a computer cult. This is a cult who happened to have a Web site."

 
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