Oct 25, 2020

How conspiracies like QAnon are slowly creeping into some Canadian churches

John van Sloten, left, is lead pastor at Marda Loop Church in Calgary. He says local church leaders should carefully watch for the advent of conspiracy theories, like QAnon, into Canada.
Pastors say conspiracies need to be taken seriously — especially when congregations cannot gather

Joel Dryden
CBC News
October 25, 2020

Pastor John van Sloten of Marda Loop Church in Calgary had been thinking about, in his view, the theology behind wearing a mask.

His basic premise was that if Jesus, who was God, took on a human body to mask his Godness for the sake of others, then Christians too should cover up their faces with a mask amid the pandemic.

So, he penned a column for a local newspaper and made it the subject of one of his sermons.

"I thought it was a pretty convincing theological argument," van Sloten says. "But people just went nuts with it."

Soon, the Facebook page for Marda Loop Church was flooded with angry commenters. One told van Sloten that he couldn't possibly be a pastor with such beliefs. Another said he should be ashamed for "posting such nonsense."

One commenter even posted a meme of Jesus displaying his middle finger to the reader.

"I thought that was creative," van Sloten said. "A lot of it was repeating of the conspiracy theories that the whole masking thing is made up, that you're drinking the Kool-Aid like the rest of liberal society."

Comments flooded the Facebook page for Marda Loop Church in Calgary after Pastor John van Sloten wrote a column and preached a sermon on the theology behind wearing a mask. (Facebook)

Van Sloten said he's received criticism, hate mail and even protests outside his church over the years, and has mostly ignored those instances that seemed like trolling.

But he said he's also read about the advent of the baseless conspiracy theory QAnon in American churches — and feels that churches in Canada should be carefully tracking its possible journey north.

"The Christian church has always been exposed to heresies and incorrect thinking historically from the get-go," van Sloten said. "Heresies come and heresies go, and this is the heresy du jour. And I think we outta treat it like that."
An American conspiracy comes north

The QAnon conspiracy theory originated in 2017 on the imageboard 4chan after a user identified as "Q" claimed they had insider information on the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Through a series of anonymous posts, Q propagated the conspiracy that Trump was battling against a child-trafficking ring that included "deep state" government officials, prominent Democrats and members of Hollywood.

Followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory include members from both secular and religious groups, and aren't made up specifically of those people who participate in the Christian faith.

And though QAnon may have begun as a distinctly American conspiracy, its tentacles have since been attached to governments and notable individuals around the world.

"Prime Minister [Justin Trudeau] has been mentioned in Q drops since the start of QAnon," said Marc-André Argentino, a PhD candidate at Concordia University who studies QAnon. "We have some significant influencers [based in Canada].

"Amazing Polly [a QAnon influencer based in Ontario] was at the root of the Wayfair conspiracy theory. It's not like Canada is just taking the American aspect, but they're adapting it to its own context."

Typical QAnon conspiracies connected to Canada involve the belief that Trudeau is one of the "deep state elites" who need to be removed from office to "awaken and liberate" the country.

Growth among QAnon adherents within secular and religious communities is steady, and underpinned by different motivations, Argentino said.

But he said he expected there could be an easy path for the religious community to understand apocalyptic language in the political context, making it potentially easier for members to accept QAnon.

"[Religions and conspiracy theories] have this function where they permit the development of symbolic resources that enable people to define and address the problem of evil," he said. "So whether you want to know why something is happening, whether you're blessed or cursed — God or the devil — it's the same thing with QAnon.

"This conspiracy theory is providing a mainstream narrative for things like a pandemic, or war, or child trafficking … It's just a natural pathway for a lot of evangelicals in the U.S., especially considering how evangelicalism is closely linked to American politics."
'How could you believe this?'

When the pandemic started, Jessica DiSabatino, lead pastor at Calgary's Journey Church, felt confident in keeping to one of her church's "high values" — that not all members shared the same views, and that was OK.

But as lockdown dragged on and the church lost its face-to-face contact, she noticed some things that worried her.

On social media, DiSabatino watched as the debunked Plandemic video was retweeted and watched hundreds of times by people in her congregation.

Inevitably, DiSabatino began hearing of QAnon from people around her, and began to read more about it.

"There is like a religious fervour about it," she said. "The more I read about it, it seems like a replacement religion, where everything has a reason.

"And I think people want to feel like they're on the inner workings of something, particularly when we don't have a lot of power."

Seeing posts emerge on social media about QAnon from her congregation, DiSabatino soon felt herself struck by a new feeling — was this going to cause fractures within her church community? Was all the work she had done being undone by this conspiracy?

DiSabatino could even feel herself getting angry. As friends in her life began voicing their openness to QAnon, she thought to herself — "How could you believe this? What is wrong with you?"

"These are some of my friends who I love. And what I've had to say to them, in the end, is this cannot define our friendship," she said.
Looking for 'the big story'

DiSabatino soon realized her own anger toward what she viewed as someone's irrational beliefs would drive a further wedge between them — and didn't begin to uncover what might be motivating those beliefs.

"I don't think I can say nothing," she said. "But I also think it's a very personal thing — so I'm not going to get up and preach a message about why I think QAnon is crazy.

"Partly, because I think different people come to conspiracy theories for different reasons. I think sometimes you've got hurt that is unimaginable in your life."

People of faith are [looking] for a big story that explains why things are the way they are.- John van Sloten, pastor of Marda Loop Church in Calgary

Van Sloten said conspiracy theories and church can often fill the same void, because they're trading on the same faith and desire for an authoritative voice — something exacerbated in a time rife with turmoil and anxiety.

"People of faith are also looking for a big story that explains why things are the way they are," he said. "So again, these desires — these good desires, in all of us, I believe, as a theologian — they're ultimately meant to be directed to a grand narrator who can be trusted, who is authoritative.

"They're being co-opted by conspiracy theories, by people who want control by making cognitive shortcuts and just getting an answer because they've got to get an answer soon."
Conspiracists functioning almost as prophets

Colin Toffelmire, associate professor of Old Testament at Ambrose University College in Calgary, says there has been a historical vulnerability to conspiracy thinking in some versions of evangelicalism or fundamentalist Christianity.

"I think that's related to the history of how some Christians in North America have thought about history and science, especially," Toffelmire said.

"For example, there's this long-standing objection in evangelical subculture to really well-accepted scientific theories, like the theory of evolution by natural selection."

Those objections — centred in versions of Christianity that believe that everything in the Bible is exactly historically and scientifically accurate — could make certain individuals suspicious of mainstream ideas in science and history, Toffelmire said.

"Some of that is kind of hard-baked into some versions of North American evangelical subculture," he said. "And so that is, I think, almost like an entry point. That suspicion of authority becomes an entry point for very strange conspiracy theories, like the QAnon conspiracy theory."

Joel Thiessen, professor of sociology at Ambrose, said though churches should be aware of the rise of QAnon, he wasn't sure that it was yet a prominent concern in Canada.

But taking an example from the United States, he said it appears that more conservative Christian groups tend to gravitate toward conspiracy, potentially because they may feel they are becoming marginalized in secular society.

"[They feel] they are losing positions of power that conservative religious groups have historically had, particularly in the U.S., to a lesser extent in Canada," Thiessen said.

"There's an emerging sense among some conservative groups that they have lost power in governments, in education, in media and so forth."

Thiessen said that those in conservative religious groups who gravitate toward conspiracy still represents a small minority of churchgoers.

But those who end up believing the conspiracy, Thiessen said, may typically be drawn to it for much of the same reasons others in society are.

"You have potentially charismatic or polarizing figures, who almost function like prophets within these sub-narratives within society," Thiessen said. "I think because of physically distanced communities and congregations not gathering together as frequently, people are perhaps not even watching their own online religious services. That means they aren't being socialized.

"It actually makes this a rife time for such groups to actually capitalize on those opportunities. No doubt we're seeing those things unfold before our very eyes."


Oct 24, 2020

How The Epoch Times Created a Giant Influence Machine

Since 2016, the Falun Gong-backed newspaper has used aggressive Facebook tactics and right-wing misinformation to create an anti-China, pro-Trump media empire.

Kevin Roose
NY Times 
October 24, 2020

For years, The Epoch Times was a small, low-budget newspaper with an anti-China slant that was handed out free on New York street corners. But in 2016 and 2017, the paper made two changes that transformed it into one of the country’s most powerful digital publishers.

The changes also paved the way for the publication, which is affiliated with the secretive and relatively obscure Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong, to become a leading purveyor of right-wing misinformation.

First, it embraced President Trump, treating him as an ally in Falun Gong’s scorched-earth fight against China’s ruling Communist Party, which banned the group two decades ago and has persecuted its members ever since. Its relatively staid coverage of U.S. politics became more partisan, with more articles explicitly supporting Mr. Trump and criticizing his opponents.

Around the same time, The Epoch Times bet big on another powerful American institution: Facebook. The publication and its affiliates employed a novel strategy that involved creating dozens of Facebook pages, filling them with feel-good videos and viral clickbait, and using them to sell subscriptions and drive traffic back to its partisan news coverage.

In an April 2017 email to the staff obtained by The New York Times, the paper’s leadership envisioned that the Facebook strategy could help turn The Epoch Times into “the world’s largest and most authoritative media.” It could also introduce millions of people to the teachings of Falun Gong, fulfilling the group’s mission of “saving sentient beings.”

Today, The Epoch Times and its affiliates are a force in right-wing media, with tens of millions of social media followers spread across dozens of pages and an online audience that rivals those of The Daily Caller and Breitbart News, and with a similar willingness to feed the online fever swamps of the far right.

It also has growing influence in Mr. Trump’s inner circle. The president and his family have shared articles from the paper on social media, and Trump administration officials have sat for interviews with its reporters. In August, a reporter from The Epoch Times asked a question at a White House press briefing.

It is a remarkable success story for Falun Gong, which has long struggled to establish its bona fides against Beijing’s efforts to demonize it as an “evil cult,” partly because its strident accounts of persecution in China can sometimes be difficult to substantiate or veer into exaggeration. In 2006, an Epoch Times reporter disrupted a White House visit by the Chinese president by shouting, “Evil people will die early.”

Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former chief strategist and a former chairman of Breitbart, said in an interview in July that The Epoch Times’s fast growth had impressed him.

“They’ll be the top conservative news site in two years,” said Mr. Bannon, who was arrested on fraud charges in August. “They punch way above their weight, they have the readers, and they’re going to be a force to be reckoned with.”

But the organization and its affiliates have grown, in part, by relying on sketchy social media tactics, pushing dangerous conspiracy theories and downplaying their connection to Falun Gong, an investigation by The Times has found. The investigation included interviews with more than a dozen former Epoch Times employees, as well as internal documents and tax filings. Many of these people spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation, or still had family in Falun Gong.

Embracing Mr. Trump and Facebook has made The Epoch Times a partisan powerhouse. But it has also created a global-scale misinformation machine that has repeatedly pushed fringe narratives into the mainstream.

The publication has been one of the most prominent promoters of “Spygate,” a baseless conspiracy theory involving claims that Obama administration officials illegally spied on Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign. Publications and shows linked to The Epoch Times have promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory and spread distorted claims about voter fraud and the Black Lives Matter movement. More recently, they have promoted the unfounded theory that the coronavirus — which the publication calls the “CCP Virus,” in an attempt to link it to the Chinese Communist Party — was created as a bioweapon in a Chinese military lab.

The Epoch Times says it is independent and nonpartisan, and it rejects the suggestion that it is officially affiliated with Falun Gong.

Like Falun Gong itself, the newspaper — which publishes in dozens of countries — is decentralized and operates as a cluster of regional chapters, each organized as a separate nonprofit. It is also extraordinarily secretive. Editors at The Epoch Times turned down multiple requests for interviews, and a reporter’s unannounced visit to the outlet’s Manhattan headquarters this year was met with a threat from a lawyer.

Representatives for Li Hongzhi, the leader of Falun Gong, did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did other residents of Dragon Springs, the compound in upstate New York that serves as Falun Gong’s spiritual headquarters.

Many employees and Falun Gong practitioners contacted by The Times said they were instructed not to divulge details of the outlet’s inner workings. They said they had been told that speaking negatively about The Epoch Times would be tantamount to disobeying Mr. Li, who is known by his disciples as “Master.”

The Epoch Times provided only partial answers to a long list of questions sent to its media office, and declined to answer questions about its finances and editorial strategy. In an email, which was not signed, the outlet accused The Times of “defaming and diminishing a competitor” and displaying “a subtle form of religious intimidation if not bigotry” by linking the publication to Falun Gong.

“The Epoch Times will not be intimidated and will not be silenced,” the outlet added, “and based on the number of falsehoods and inaccuracies included in the New York Times questions we will consider all legal options in response.”
Clarifying the Truth

Falun Gong, which Mr. Li introduced in China in 1992, revolves around a series of five meditation exercises and a process of moral self-improvement that is meant to lead to spiritual enlightenment. Today, the group is known for the demonstrations it holds around the world to “clarify the truth” about the Chinese Communist Party, which it accuses of torturing Falun Gong practitioners and harvesting the organs of those executed. (Tens of thousands across China were sent to labor camps in the early years of the crackdown, and the group’s presence there is now much diminished.)

More recently, Falun Gong has come under scrutiny for what some former practitioners have characterized as an extreme belief system that forbids interracial marriage, condemns homosexuality and discourages the use of modern medicine, all allegations the group denies.

When The Epoch Times got its start in 2000, the goal was to counter Chinese propaganda and cover Falun Gong’s persecution by the Chinese government. It began as a Chinese-language newspaper run out of the Georgia basement of John Tang, a graduate student and Falun Gong practitioner.

By 2004, The Epoch Times had expanded into English. One of the paper’s early hires was Genevieve Belmaker, then a 27-year-old Falun Gong practitioner with little journalism experience. Ms. Belmaker, now 43, described the early Epoch Times as a cross between a scrappy media start-up and a zealous church bulletin, with a staff composed mostly of unpaid volunteers drawn from the local Falun Gong chapters.
Editors’ Picks

“The mission-driven part of it was, let’s have a media outlet that not only tells the truth about Falun Gong but about everything,” Ms. Belmaker said.

Mr. Li, Falun Gong’s founder, also saw it that way. In speeches, he referred to The Epoch Times and other Falun Gong-linked outlets — including the New Tang Dynasty TV station, or NTD — as “our media,” and said they could help publicize Falun Gong’s story and values around the world.

Two former employees recalled that the paper’s top editors had traveled to Dragon Springs to meet with Mr. Li. One employee who attended a meeting said Mr. Li had weighed in on editorial and strategic decisions, acting as a kind of shadow publisher. The Epoch Times denied these accounts, saying in a statement, “There has been no such meeting.”

The line between The Epoch Times and Falun Gong is blurry at times. Two former Epoch Times reporters said they had been asked to write flattering profiles of foreign performers being recruited into Shen Yun, the heavily advertised dance performance series that Falun Gong backs, because it would strengthen those performers’ visa applications. Another former Epoch Times reporter recalled being assigned to write critical articles about politicians including John Liu, a Taiwanese-American former New York City councilman whom the group viewed as soft on China and hostile to Falun Gong.

These articles helped Falun Gong advance its goals, but they lured few subscribers.

Matthew K. Tullar, a former sales director for The Epoch Times’s Orange County edition in New York, wrote on his LinkedIn page that  his team initially “printed 800 papers each week, had no subscribers, and utilized a ‘throw it in their driveway for free’ marketing strategy.” Mr. Tullar did not respond to requests for comment.

Ms. Belmaker, who left the paper in 2017, described it as a bare-bones operation that was always searching for new moneymaking ventures.

“It was very short-term thinking,” she said. “We weren’t looking more than three weeks down the road.”

A Trump Pivot

By 2014, The Epoch Times was edging closer to Mr. Li’s vision of a respectable news outlet. Subscriptions were growing, the paper’s reporting was winning journalism awards, and its finances were stabilizing.

“There was all this optimism that things were going to level up,” Ms. Belmaker said.

But at a staff meeting in 2015, leadership announced that the publication was in trouble again, Ms. Belmaker recalled. Facebook had changed its algorithm for determining which articles appeared in users’ newsfeeds, and The Epoch Times’s traffic and ad revenue were suffering.

In response, the publication assigned reporters to churn out as many as five posts a day in a search for viral hits, often lowbrow fare with titles like “Grizzly Bear Does Belly Flop Into a Swimming Pool.”

“It was a competition for traffic,” Ms. Belmaker said.

As the 2016 election neared, reporters noticed that the paper’s political coverage took on a more partisan tone.

Steve Klett, who covered the 2016 campaign for the paper, said his editors had encouraged favorable coverage about Mr. Trump after he won the Republican nomination.

“They seemed to have this almost messianic way of viewing Trump as the anti-Communist leader who would bring about the end of the Chinese Communist Party,” Mr. Klett said.

After Mr. Trump’s victory, The Epoch Times hired Brendan Steinhauser, a well-connected Tea Party strategist, to help make inroads with conservatives. Mr. Steinhauser said the organization’s goal, beyond raising its profile in Washington, had been to make Falun Gong’s persecution a Trump administration priority.

“They wanted more people in Washington to be aware of how the Chinese Communist Party operates, and what it has done to spiritual and ethnic minorities,” Mr. Steinhauser said.
All In on Facebook

Behind the scenes, The Epoch Times was also developing a secret weapon: a Facebook growth strategy that would ultimately help take its message to millions.

According to emails reviewed by The Times, the Facebook plan was developed by Trung Vu, the former head of The Epoch Times’s Vietnamese edition, known as Dai Ky Nguyen, or DKN.

In Vietnam, Mr. Trung’s strategy involved filling a network of Facebook pages with viral videos and pro-Trump propaganda, some of it lifted word for word from other sites, and using automated software, or bots, to generate fake likes and shares, a former DKN employee said. Employees used fake accounts to run the pages, a practice that violated Facebook’s rules but that Mr. Trung said was necessary to protect employees from Chinese surveillance, the former employee said.

Mr. Trung did not respond to requests for comment.

According to the 2017 email sent to Epoch Times workers in America, the Vietnamese experiment was a “remarkable success” that made DKN one of the largest publishers in Vietnam.

The outlet, the email claimed, was “having a profound impact on saving sentient beings in that country.”

The Vietnamese team was asked to help Epoch Media Group — the umbrella organization for Falun Gong’s biggest U.S. media properties — set up its own Facebook empire, according to that email. That year, dozens of new Facebook pages appeared, all linked to The Epoch Times and its affiliates. Some were explicitly partisan, others positioned themselves as sources of real and unbiased news, and a few, like a humor page called “Funniest Family Moments,” were disconnected from news entirely.

Perhaps the most audacious experiment was a new right-wing politics site called America Daily.

Today, the site, which has more than a million Facebook followers, peddles far-right misinformation. It has posted anti-vaccine screeds, an article falsely claiming that Bill Gates and other elites are “directing” the Covid-19 pandemic and allegations about a “Jewish mob” that controls the world.

Emails obtained by The Times show that John Nania, a longtime Epoch Times editor, was involved in starting America Daily, along with executives from Sound of Hope, a Falun Gong-affiliated radio network. Records on Facebook show that the page is operated by the Sound of Hope Network, and a pinned post on its Facebook page contains a promotional video for Falun Gong.

In a statement, The Epoch Times said it had “no business relationship” with America Daily.

Many of the Facebook pages operated by The Epoch Times and its affiliates followed a similar trajectory. They began by posting viral videos and uplifting news articles aggregated from other sites. They grew quickly, sometimes adding hundreds of thousands of followers a week. Then, they were used to steer people to buy Epoch Times subscriptions and promote more partisan content.

Several of the pages gained significant followings “seemingly overnight,” said Renee DiResta, a disinformation researcher with the Stanford Internet Observatory. Many posts were shared thousands of times but received almost no comments — a ratio, Ms. DiResta said, that is typical of pages that have been boosted by “click farms,” firms that generate fake traffic by paying people to click on certain links over and over again.

The Epoch Times denies using click farms or other illicit tactics to expand its pages. “The Epoch Times’s social media strategies were different from DKN, and used Facebook’s own promotional tools to gain an increased organic following,” the outlet said, adding that The Epoch Times cut ties with Mr. Trung in 2018.

But last year, The Epoch Times was barred from advertising on Facebook — where it had spent more than $1.5 million over seven months — after the social network announced that the outlet’s pages had evaded its transparency requirements by disguising its ad purchases.

This year, Facebook took down more than 500 pages and accounts linked to Truth Media, a network of anti-China pages that had been using fake accounts to amplify their messages. The Epoch Times denied any involvement, but Facebook’s investigators said Truth Media “showed some links to on-platform activity by Epoch Media Group and NTD.”

“We’ve taken enforcement actions against Epoch Media and related groups several times,” said a Facebook spokeswoman, who added that the social network would punish the outlet if it violated more rules in the future.

Since being barred from advertising on Facebook, The Epoch Times has moved much of its operation to YouTube, where it has spent more than $1.8 million on ads since May 2018, according to Google’s public database of political advertising.

Where the paper’s money comes from is something of a mystery. Former employees said they had been told that The Epoch Times was financed by a combination of subscriptions, ads and donations from wealthy Falun Gong practitioners. In 2018, the most recent year for which the organization’s tax returns are publicly available, The Epoch Times Association received several sizable donations, but none big enough to pay for a multimillion-dollar ad blitz.

Mr. Bannon is among those who have noticed The Epoch Times’s deep pockets. Last year, he produced a documentary about China with NTD. When he talked with the outlet about other projects, he said, money never seemed to be an issue.

“I’d give them a number,” Mr. Bannon said. “And they’d come back and say, ‘We’re good for that number.’”

‘The Moral Objective Is Gone’

The Epoch Times’s pro-Trump turn has upset some former employees, like Ms. Belmaker.

Ms. Belmaker, now a freelance writer and editor, still believes in many of Falun Gong’s teachings, she said. But she has grown disenchanted with The Epoch Times, which she sees as running contrary to Falun Gong’s core principles of truth, compassion and tolerance.

“The moral objective is gone,” she said. “They’re on the wrong side of history, and I don’t think they care.”

Recently, The Epoch Times has shifted its focus to the coronavirus. It pounced on China’s missteps in the early days of the pandemic, and its reporters wrote about misreported virus statistics and Chinese influence in the World Health Organization.

Some of these articles were true. But others pushed exaggerated or false claims, like the unproven theory that the virus was engineered in a lab as part of a Chinese biological warfare strategy.

Some of the claims were repeated in a documentary that both NTD and The Epoch Times posted on YouTube, where it has been viewed more than five million times. The documentary features the discredited virologist Judy Mikovits, who also starred in the viral “Plandemic” video, which Facebook, YouTube and other social platforms pulled this year for spreading false claims.

The Epoch Times said, “In our documentary we offered a range of evidence and viewpoints without drawing any conclusions.”

Ms. Belmaker, who still keeps a photo of Master Li on a shelf in her house, said she recoiled whenever an ad for The Epoch Times popped up on YouTube promoting some new partisan talking point.

One recent video, “Digging Beneath Narratives,” is a two-minute infomercial about China’s mishandling of the coronavirus. The ad’s host says The Epoch Times has an “underground network of sources” in China providing information about the government’s response to the virus.

It’s a plausible claim, but the video’s host makes no mention of The Epoch Times’s ties to Falun Gong, or its two-decade-long campaign against Chinese communism, saying only that the paper is “giving you an accurate picture of what’s happening in this world.”

“We tell it like it is,” he says.

Ben Smith contributed reporting. Jack Begg contributed research.


Oct 23, 2020

CultNEWS101 Articles: 10/22/2020

NXIVM, Heaven's Gate, QAnon 
"Allison said she had a special program she thought could help me," India Oxenberg tells PEOPLE

"Mack told India the secret group was called DOS (for the Latin phrase Dominus Obsequious Sororium, roughly translated to "Master Over Slave.") And within the sinister "sisterhood," Mack would eventually become India's master, the one who demanded "ultimate obedience."

Now 29, India is sharing her harrowing story for the first time in the powerful STARZ four part docuseries Seduced: Inside The Nxivm Cult, which begins airing October 18, at 9 pm EST/PST.

"I knew too much about what happened," says India, "and I had a moral obligation to make sure it didn't happen to anyone else."

When Mack told her about DOS, she said she needed "something to make sure I wouldn't share what she was about to disclose," India recalls. 'That's how I ended up providing her with collateral. In reality, it was like I handed over the keys to lock myself in prison.'"

"Have you given thanks for your BS detector lately? Has it served you well during this dire age of disinformation? Lately I find myself grateful for whatever is left of mine, honed by a lifetime of being told I have an attitude problem, give off "negative energy" or ask too many questions.

Which leads me, with authentic enthusiasm, to applaud filmmakers Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer for their thoroughly absorbing HBO documentary series, "The Vow," an elliptical and haunting journey into the dark heart of a self-help group known as NXIVM (pronounced "nexium"), that was exposed in 2017 as both a cult and a pyramid scheme.

Some of the women drawn into NXIVM's elite circles have described coerced sex, vigilance over their diets and daily routines, blackmailing schemes and secret branding ceremonies at which the initials of NXIVM's founder and self-anointed guru (a remarkably influential little creep named Keith Raniere) were seared on their private areas. Former acolytes talk about how Raniere and NXIVM tried to sue them into oblivion after they left the group, among other intimidation tactics. Still others talk about a broader realization: They'd joined a cult and didn't know it until they were too far in."
"Heaven's Gate hit just about every bullet point on the cult checklist.

Followers believed that Earth would be "recycled" by the year 2027, and that their salvation was an alien spacecraft travelling closely behind the Hale-Bopp comet, which would transport them to an extraterrestrial "Kingdom of Heaven". Naturally, they had a self-appointed messiah: the former music teacher Marshall Applewhite, who co-founded Heaven's Gate in 1975 with a fellow Texan, a nurse named Bonnie Nettles.

In 1997, the year the Hale-Bopp came closest to Earth, 39 Heaven's Gate members died by suicide in a San Diego mansion that doubled as the cult's headquarters. The suicides are believed to have taken place over the course of three days, with each member discovered wearing identical black outfits, box-fresh Nike Decades and arm bands reading, "Heaven's Gate Away Team". In the months that followed, at least three former members also died by suicide.

Despite this tragic end, there are still people out there interested in joining Heaven's Gate. Luckily for them, the cult's original website is still online – and among all the impassioned literature about the group's beliefs, there's something else prospective members will be happy to find: an email address.

I wondered who, in 2020, would be maintaining the email address for a cult whose members are all famously dead. So I emailed it to find out, asking how many members – if any – are left.

"None," came the reply. "The Group came to an end in 1997. There are no members or anything to join."

So who was I speaking to? "We joined at the beginning, in 1975, and have been with them for 45 years. There are us two here in Arizona and a couple more around the country.''

It turns out these four Americans were instructed to tend to the website in the mid-1990s and have been doing so ever since, replying to emails and taking care of daily legal and archiving issues in the downtime from their regular jobs."

YouTube said it would be enforcing the updated policy immediately and plans to "ramp up in the weeks to come."

"YouTube said Thursday that it would no longer allow content that targets individuals and groups with conspiracy theories, specifically QAnon and its antecedent, "pizzagate."

"Today, we are taking another step in our efforts to curb hate and harassment by removing more conspiracy theory content used to justify real-world violence," the company announced on its blog.

The new rules, an expansion of YouTube's existing hate and harassment policies, will prohibit content that "threatens or harrasses someone by suggesting they are complicit in one of these harmful conspiracies, such as QAnon or Pizzagate," the post read.

YouTube said it would be enforcing the updated policy immediately and plans to "ramp up in the weeks to come."

YouTube's move to rid the platform of QAnon content follows similar recent changes by other social media platforms. In July, Twitter removed QAnon accounts and restricted QAnon content. Last week, Facebook said it would remove groups, pages and Instagram accounts that identified with QAnon."

News, Education, Intervention, Recovery



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COVID-19 outbreak at faith-healing school alarms conservative Northern California town

OCTOBER 13, 2020

They come to Redding from all over the world for instruction in faith healing and raising the dead. They often approach strangers in local parking lots, businesses and hospitals offering prayers.

Now, state and church officials are asking the student body of more than 1,600 people at the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry in Shasta County to lock down at their homes and apartments after 137 students and staff members tested positive for COVID-19. The cases represent 10 percent of Shasta County’s total infections so far.

Bethel Church and local health officials say the Redding megachurch is taking steps to limit the outbreak from spreading. But health officials worry the dozens of new cases could set off a wave of infections in this conservative community where a group of activists has angrily pushed back against COVID-19 restrictions and the local health officer has received threats for enforcing state mask mandates and business closures.

In a statement on its website last week, Bethel Church said it had asked students to arrive early before classes started in early September to quarantine for 14 days, and students were required to have a negative COVID-19 test result prior to attending school.

But that didn’t stop an outbreak from spreading.

“It’s hard to say if they arrived with it, or if they acquired it here or some combination of that, and much of that transmission is in shared housing, so it’s probably a combination,” Shasta County’s health officer, Dr. Karen Ramstrom, said during a media briefing last week.

The school has since shifted to a temporary distance learning model, and the church has asked students to stay home.

Since they live off-campus, Ramstrom said it has caused some concern that the students might spread the infection when visiting local restaurants and other businesses, she told the Shasta County Board of Supervisors last week.

“So, it’s possible spread could occur,” she said.

Since the school year is only getting started, Bethel students haven’t yet embarked on their weekly proselytizing and volunteering sessions in the community called “City Service,” Bethel Church spokesman Aaron Tesauro told The Sacramento Bee in an email Monday.

He said that when City Service starts, students are “asked to wear face coverings when coming into contact with everyone in the city” and stay six feet from them at all times.

“If they do enter any establishments (i.e houses, stores, businesses, local organizations) students will honor the establishments’ requests and needs to the highest standard,” Tesauro said.

County health department spokeswoman Kerri Schuette said concerns about Bethel students approaching community members “certainly falls into the precautions that our staff have shared with them.”

“When you’re in your 20s, but you’re sick but not feeling terrible, you may still feel inclined to go to work and go hang out with friends or whatever the situation may be,” Schuette said, “and it’s really important that does not happen when you have COVID, so we continue to reinforce that with them.”

Bethel is one of the north state’s largest institutions. Each year, more than 2,000 students enroll at the Redding church’s School of Supernatural Ministry. The school is at 70 percent capacity this year due to the pandemic. The church itself has around 9,100 other members.

Shasta County has around 180,000 residents. As of last week, at least 1,343 people have tested positive for COVID-19; 24 people have died.

Bethel faithful are well known in Redding, Shasta County’s seat, for approaching strangers and offering to touch them and to pray away their ailments including at local healthcare centers — a practice that is now at odds with public health officials’ campaign to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Early this spring, the church dialed back its faith-healing efforts and canceled services as the virus started to sweep through the country and state officials began ordering lockdowns and bans on large gatherings.

Schuette said the church is now allowed to hold large outdoor gatherings on a local ball field, so long as family groups stay at least six feet apart.

This summer, an activist affiliated with Bethel organized a “Let Us Worship” gathering where several hundred people sang in tightly packed groups below the Sundial Bridge, one of Shasta County’s most popular tourist attractions. Few people were wearing masks.

Bethel Church said the event was solely organized by Sean Feucht, a Christian musician and recent congressional candidate who went on to hold a series of similar gatherings around the state.

Feucht is a member of the church who once produced music under Bethel Church’s record label.

Though some church members attended, Bethel’s Tesauro said the church had nothing to do with the event, which Feucht paid for and organized on his own.

Bethel is controversial even among evangelicals. During religious functions at Bethel, church members reportedly speak in tongues and members claim gold dust and angel feathers appear out of the air.

Late last year, hundreds of church members gathered in an attempt to resurrect a 2-year-old named Olive Heiligenthal, hours after the toddler had stopped breathing and died on Dec. 14. Church members gathered to sing, “Come alive/ Come alive/ Come alive, dry bones/ Awake, arise/ Inhale the light.” Thousands of people posted on Instagram with the hashtag #WakeUpOlive.

In October 2008, a Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry student moved to Washington and started a “dead-raising team” that worked with members of the local fire department to pray over bodies found on emergency calls, according to the Redding Record Searchlight.

The church produces a popular preaching subscription streaming service called Bethel.TV, and it sells products including apparel and books. Bethel is perhaps best known internationally for its Christian music. Justin Bieber is a fan. The Bethel track “No Longer Slaves” was one of the top three songs on his iPod playlist, according to a 2017 Buzzfeed News article.

Ryan Sabalow covers environment, general news and enterprise and investigative stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. Before joining The Bee in 2015, he was a reporter at The Auburn Journal, The Redding Record Searchlight and The Indianapolis Star.



Astrology: #9
Joseph Szimhart
Cults in the Occulture
October 10, 2020


Astrology by most accounts is the queen of the occult arts of divination that include Tarot, Kabbalah, and reading tea leaves. I first seriously explored astrology in the late 1970s, getting my first professional reading of my horoscope from Alan Oken at his Voice of the Turtle gift shop in Santa Fe NM. I needed to know my rising sign, moon and sun signs to apply for entry into the Keeper of the Flame fraternity of a large Theosophy-based sect run then by Elizabeth Prophet. Astrologers seek precise information about birth time and place to better “read” your star chart or horoscope. After I defected from Prophet’s cult in 1980, I learned how to cast a horoscope using an ephemeris, then got a good idea how to do a reading from professionAl astrologers I knew.

One old astrologer told me she only had to glance at a person’s chart to do a reading. “It is all intuitive,” she said. After two years of research I found that astrology is horrible as a predictive tool and totally unreliable reference as to a person’s character. 

Astrologers who know how to read a chart with its thousands of relational aspects can easily get most customers to agree with a reading. It comes down to an influence game. Astrology can effect national decisions. I point to how in 1948 the New Indian government had to consult an astrologer for the auspicious moment when to sign their declarations of independence from Great Britain. After Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981, his wife Nancy consulted a celebrity astrology to names dates and times when the president could safely travel, thus causing havoc and unnecessary delays among White House staff decisions. Time Magazine had a cover feature in 1988 about “Astrology in the White House.” I mention that fundamentalist Christians have published books against astrology saying it is deceptive and is a tool of the devil. Skeptics have proven that astrology has no basis in reality, though it remains a popular psychological and cultural means for self reflection among young adults with a resurgence of interest since 2014. I warn that astrology can be easily overvalued and cause harm in relationships as well as decision- making.

The 1990s Cult 'Heaven's Gate' Has Four Remaining Followers - We Spoke to Them

The 1990s Cult 'Heaven's Gate' Has Four Remaining Followers - We Spoke to Them
When I contacted the email address of a cult whose members all died by suicide in 1997, I wasn't expecting an answer.

Marta Abromaityte
October 15, 2020

Heaven’s Gate hit just about every bullet point on the cult checklist.

Followers believed that Earth would be “recycled” by the year 2027, and that their salvation was an alien spacecraft travelling closely behind the Hale-Bopp comet, which would transport them to an extraterrestrial “Kingdom of Heaven”. Naturally, they had a self-appointed messiah: the former music teacher Marshall Applewhite, who co-founded Heaven’s Gate in 1975 with a fellow Texan, a nurse named Bonnie Nettles.

In 1997, the year the Hale-Bopp came closest to Earth, 39 Heaven’s Gate members died by suicide in a San Diego mansion that doubled as the cult’s headquarters. The suicides are believed to have taken place over the course of three days, with each member discovered wearing identical black outfits, box-fresh Nike Decades and arm bands reading, “Heaven’s Gate Away Team”. In the months that followed, at least three former members also died by suicide.

Despite this tragic end, there are still people out there interested in joining Heaven’s Gate. Luckily for them, the cult’s original website is still online – and among all the impassioned literature about the group’s beliefs, there’s something else prospective members will be happy to find: an email address.

I wondered who, in 2020, would be maintaining the email address for a cult whose members are all famously dead. So I emailed it to find out, asking how many members – if any – are left.

“None,” came the reply. “The Group came to an end in 1997. There are no members or anything to join.”

So who was I speaking to? “We joined at the beginning, in 1975, and have been with them for 45 years. There are us two here in Arizona and a couple more around the country.’’

It turns out these four Americans were instructed to tend to the website in the mid-1990s and have been doing so ever since, replying to emails and taking care of daily legal and archiving issues in the downtime from their regular jobs.

They also all still believe in the group’s ideology, and seem keen to promote it, sending me a link to a Vimeo page containing the series Beyond Human – hours upon hours of wide-eyed leader Applewhite and other Heaven’s Gate members discussing their beliefs. The last few videos are just Applewhite warning people to save themselves from a soon-to-be-recycled planet.

According to the four remaining followers, people across the globe email asking to join the cult every day. “We have told four today alone that they can’t join, because the group ended in 1997,” they explained in an email. “We average about five or so a day that want to join.’’

The Heaven’s Gate subreddit, composed of over 600 members, has also fielded questions from people looking to join the group. One Redditor I spoke to said that the appeal of Heaven’s Gate, even post-1997, is “that there are many young people out there, myself included, who are looking for their place in the world, a place to fit in.’’

While the group might have been welcoming – so long as you were 18 or over and didn’t mind abandoning your entire family and all your earthly possessions – the belief system would likely have been difficult for most to get on board with.

Aside from the supposed comet-based apocalypse event, Heaven’s Gate members believed that evil aliens called Luciferians had corrupted all existing religions on Earth and were conspiring to stunt human development. The two leaders also preached that their bodies were, in essence, possessed by the spirits of extraterrestrials.

Another Redditor told me they thought the dead members were the “lucky ones” because their belief in these principles was so strong. “When you break down their beliefs, it really is just the Bible plus Star Trek. It doesn’t seem any crazier than every other religion,” they said, adding that most cults seem to exist on a timeline from a seemingly noble starting point to the inevitable end game: the leader getting to have sex with everyone. But, said the redditor, “This one was different.’’

Benjamin E. Zeller, author of Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion, agrees Heaven’s Gate was different – and that it’s enduringly enticing. He believes this is because the followers were unusually gentle people, which makes it difficult to hate or dismiss them.

“When they leave video messages and you get to hear them, it really humanises them – and also this is not a group that was violent toward outsiders,” he says, comparing them to many other new religions which feel violent or threatening. “There is nothing quite like Heaven’s Gate anymore; they were a unique phenomenon in some ways.”

It is, of course, important to remember that this phenomenon ended with the deaths of dozens of people. “I’m sure people didn’t join thinking they were going to commit suicide,” says Professor Alexandra Stein, a lecturer on cults and extremist groups. “I think they didn’t commit suicide – I think they were murdered, in that they were manipulated to do that, and that is murder.”

Sadly, I couldn’t put any of this to the cult’s remaining followers – they weren’t exactly forthcoming with their information to start with, and their responses quickly became more vague and touchy. Predictably, before long, the website keepers stopped replying to my emails altogether.

If I’ve come to understand anything from my brief foray into the Heaven’s Gate universe, it’s that the internet is unparalleled when it comes to keeping deranged belief systems going. Cults like Heaven’s Gate can be preserved for future generations, it seems, just as long as there’s someone willing to maintain the grave.



Facebook, YouTube moves against QAnon are only a first step in the battle against dangerous conspiracy theories

Romanian supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theories shout slogans against the government’s measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 infections, like wearing a face mask, during a rally in Bucharest in August. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Marc-André Argentino
The Conversation
October 15, 2020

Marc-André Argentino is a PhD candidate Individualized Program, 2020-2021 Public Scholar, Concordia University

Disclosure statement

Marc-André Argentino receives funding from Concordia University. Marc-André Argentino is affiliated with the Global Network on Extremism & Technology, Institute for Strategic Dialogue, and le Centre d'expertise et de formation sur les intégrismes religieux, les idéologies politiques et la radicalisation

Universitié Concordia provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation CA-FR.

Concordia University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation CA.

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Recent decisions by Facebook and YouTube to crack down on the far-right conspiracy theory movement known as QAnon will disrupt the ability of dangerous online communities to spread their radical messages, but it won’t stop them completely.

The announcement by Facebook on Oct. 6 to take down any “accounts representing QAnon, even if they contain no violent content,” followed earlier decisions by the social media platform to down-rank QAnon content in Facebook searches. YouTube followed on Oct. 15 with new rules about conspiracy videos, but it stopped short of a complete ban.

This month marks the third anniversary of the movement that started when someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories on the internet forum 4chan. Q warned of a deep state satanic ring of global elites involved in pedophilia and sex trafficking, and asserted that U.S. President Donald Trump was working on a secret plan to take them all down.

QAnon now a global phenomenon

Until this year, most people had never heard of QAnon. But over the course of 2020, the fringe movement has gained widespread traction domestically in the United States and internationally — including a number of Republican politicians who openly campaigned as Q supporters.

I have been researching QAnon for more than two years and its recent evolution has shocked even me.

What most people don’t realize is that QAnon in July and August was a different movement than what QAnon has become in October. I have never seen a movement evolve or radicalize as fast as QAnon — and it’s happening at a time when the socio-political environment globally is much different now than it was in the summer.

All of these factors came into play when Facebook decided to take action against “militarized social movements and QAnon.”

In the weeks leading up to the ban, I had seen a trend in more violent content on Facebook, especially with the circulation of memes and videos promoting “vehicle ramming attacks” with the slogan “all lives splatter” and other racist messages against Black people.

In explaining its ban, Facebook noted while it had “removed QAnon content that celebrates and supports violence, we’ve seen other QAnon content tied to different forms of real world harm, including recent claims that the (U.S.) West Coast wildfires were started by certain groups, which diverted attention of local officials from fighting the fires and protecting the public.”

Prior action was ineffective

Prior to the outright ban, Facebook’s earlier attempts to disrupt QAnon groups from organizing on Facebook and Instagram were not enough to stop its fake messages from spreading.

One way Q supporters adapted was through lighter forms of propaganda — something I call Pastel QAnon. As a way to circumvent the initial Facebook sanctions, women who believe in the QAnon conspiracies were using warm and colourful images to spread QAnon theories through health and wellness communities and by infiltrating legitimate charitable campaigns against child trafficking.

The latest move by Facebook will still allow Pastel QAnon to exist in adjacent lifestyle, health and fitness communities — a softening of the traditionally raw QAnon narratives, but an effective way to spread the conspiracies to new audiences.
Some QAnon pages have survived ban

Facebook will certainly be monitoring any attempts by the QAnon community to circumvent the ban. And while Facebook’s action reduced the number of QAnon accounts, it didn’t eliminate them completely — and realistically will not. My research shows the following:
  • QAnon public groups pre-ban 186; post-ban 18.
  • QAnon public pages pre-ban 253; post-ban 66.
  • Instagram accounts pre-ban 269; post-ban 111.
Facebook’s actions will do permanent damage to the presence of QAnon on the platform in the long run. Short and medium term, what we will see are pages and groups reforming and trying to game the Facebook algorithm to see if they can avoid detection.

However, with little presence on Facebook to quickly amplify new pages and groups and the changes to the search algorithm, this will not be as effective as it was in the past.

Where will QAnon followers turn if Facebook is no longer the most effective way to spread its theories? Already, QAnon has further fragmented into communities on Telegram, Parler, MeWe and Gab. These alternative social media platforms are not as effective for promoting content or merchandise, which will impact grifters who were profiting from QAnon, as well as limit the reach of proselytizers.

But the ban will push those already convinced by QAnon onto platforms where they will interact with more extreme content they may not have found on Facebook. This will radicalize some individuals more than they already are or will accelerate the process for others who may have already been on this path.
Like a religious movement

What we will likely see eventually is the balkanisation of the QAnon ideology. It will be important to start considering that QAnon is more than a conspiracy theory, but closer to a new religious movement. It will also be important to consider how QAnon has be able to absorb, co-opt or adapt itself to other ideologies.

Though Facebook has taken this important step, there will be much work ahead to make sure QAnon doesn’t reappear on the platform.

YouTube said its new rules for “managing harmful conspiracy theories” are intended to “curb hate and harassment by removing more conspiracy theory content used to justify real-world violence.”

In the initial wave of takedowns, YouTube shut down the channels of some of the QAnon influencers and proselytizers, in particular Canadian QAnon influencer Amazing Polly and Québec QAnon influencer Alexis Cossette-Trudel. Though this will cut off some of the big influencers, there is more QAnon content on YouTube that falls outside the platform’s new rules.

The new rules will not stop the role YouTube plays in radicalizing individuals into QAnon, nor will it curb those who will radicalize to violence until the platform bans all QAnon content.

Video is the most used medium to circulate QAnon content across digital ecosystems. As long as QAnon still has a home on YouTube, we will continue to see their content on all social media platforms. QAnon will ultimately require a multi-platform effort.

Technology and platforms provide a vector for extremist movements like QAnon. However, at its root, it’s a human issue and the current socio-political environment around the world is fertile for the continued existence and growth of QAnon.

The action by Facebook and YouTube is a step in the right direction, but this is not the end game. There is much work ahead for those working in this space.


CultNEWS101 Articles: 10/23/2020

"Scientology is a word that leaves a poor taste in some people's mouths. Opinions of the Church of Scientology are divided, with critics on one side and devoted members on the other. Some people refer to the religious movement as a cult.

Some high-profile members advocate for the organization. One celebrity that joined the church years ago was Chicago P.D. actor Jason Beghe. He came out years ago about being a member and why he left."

NXIVM cult founder Clare Bronfman has barely been in jail a week, and she's already asking a federal judge to let her out.

The Seagram's heiress, who's being held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, requested Thursday that she be released from custody while she appeals her 81-month sentence.

Her lawyers took issue with the stiff sentence of more than six years, since federal prosecutors only asked for five years.

"Her sentence of eighty-one months of imprisonment is disparate with the sentences received by other individuals who pleaded or were found guilty of similar non-violent crimes," wrote Bronfman's lawyer, Ronald Sullivan."

" ... Former NXIVM member Sarah Edmondson, who was coerced into being branded with leader Keith Raniere's initials, told Insider that executives of the group wouldn't allow licensed psychologists to come to the group's training.

Leaders also barred life coaches or consultants, except for certain cases if top officials interviewed them and deemed them acceptable.

High-ranking NXIVM members told lower-ranking ones that therapists were barred because Raniere's self-improvement methods were so helpful and original, psychologists would steal them and use them as their own.

However, Edmondson, whose mother is a therapist, now believes that this rule (and the explanation for it) was a cover-up used to protect Raniere."

" ... William Wasmus was a Grove City evangelical minister who conducted services on Public Access Television back in 1994.

"He referred to himself as God's prophet in the land of the last days," says former church member Dave Wexler. "His ministry was a miracle healing ministry."

Wexler later discovered Wasmus was using his ministry to connect with children who he molested and even raped."

News, Education, Intervention, Recovery



Intervention101.com to help families and friends understand and effectively respond to the complexity of a loved one's cult involvement.

CultRecovery101.com assists group members and their families make the sometimes difficult transition from coercion to renewed individual choice.

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Oct 22, 2020

The cult continues: what does another series on Nxivm add to the story?

Seduced, narrated by survivor India Oxenberg, offers four more hours on the shocking cult and additional insight to the just-finished rival show The Vow

Adrian Horton
The Guardian
October 21, 2020

Since a front-page New York Times exposé in October 2017 detailed a horrific secret society of coercive sex and human branding under the guise of female “empowerment”, the unraveling of Nxivm – an insular organization that recruited actors, heiresses and the former first family of Mexico – has blazed through an endless trail of sensational headlines.

The Vow, the HBO series on Nxivm and its vindictive leader, Keith Raniere, expanded the blunt accuracy of the headlines – sex cult, human branding, forced starvation, TV’s girl-next-door turned “slave” master Allison Mack – into nine hours of deeply unnerving context on the human capacity for denial and manipulation. Seduced: Inside the Nxivm Cult, a four-part Starz docuseries from Cecilia Peck and Inbal B Lessner which premiered on Sunday, instead uses the one-word distillation of Nxivm– cult – as an anchor, a clarifier rather than signal flare.

The series’ main narrator, India Oxenberg, is the daughter of Hollywood and literal royalty (her mother, Catherine Oxenberg, was a star on the 80s TV show Dynasty and a descendant of British royalty). Her visibility made her a prime target of legitimacy for Raniere, and likely that viewers already know the public version of her story.

By this point, the saga of Nxivm and its “master-slave” subset DOS (which stands for “Dominus Obsequious Sororium”) has seeped through several cultural formats: the podcast Uncover from CBC Radio, a Lifetime movie produced by Catherine Oxenberg, a memoir by former coach turned whistleblower Sarah Edmondson, numerous long-form articles, The Vow. Given all this and a recently announced second season to the hit HBO series, to cover Raniere’s 2019 trial, it seems fair to ask: what can Seduced add?

The answer is, perhaps surprisingly, more insight to the concurrent theme that joining a cult could happen to anyone. Despite its titillating title, Seduced is not simply a more salacious retelling of The Vow’s destabilizing first-person narratives of Nxivm’s insidious allure, gradual sanding of intuition and weaponization of self-doubt. The two are not so much diametrically opposed as curiously complementary; Seduced inverts India Oxenberg’s psychological imprisonment by DOS, Raniere and, in particular, Mack – the black hole driving the subjects of The Vow, including Catherine Oxenberg, into a public and legal campaign against the group – into the narrative backbone of abuses within a cult.

Whereas The Vow couples shocking details of the group’s abuses with extensive, smiling footage of life within Nxivm to humanize the magnetism of a destructive organization, Seduced takes a more clinical approach to why so many overrode all the red flags. Oxenberg’s disbelieving, shellshocked and at times withholding account of her seven years in Nxivm (only two years and 50-plus hours of therapy removed, it’s clear she’s still grappling with something truly unfathomable) is paired with assessments from not one but several cult experts. If you ever had any doubts the group was a cult, or that Raniere wasn’t in any way original, Seduced will quickly dispel them.

Seduced does, like The Vow, take a chronological approach to its subject’s involvement, dissolution and disillusionment with Nxivm, although it classifies each step according to studied practices of small coercive groups – Jonestown, the Branch Davidians, Children of God, etc – throughout history. Isolation, collateral, indoctrination of victim-blaming and blind faith in a single leader are presented both as Oxenberg’s watery memories and as clearly identifiable, established cult practices.

Although The Vow’s protagonists, married pairs Sarah Edmondson and Anthony “Nippy” Ames, and Mark Vicente and Bonnie Piesse, appear as characters in Seduced, and both series share Catherine Oxenberg as a main narrator, the Starz series also speaks to several women who occupied lower rungs in the organization, and can thus testify to the daily manipulation of leadership. The series also, in alignment with its unsparing clinical approach to classifying Nxivm as a cult, adds more gruesome and galling details to the already substantial river coursing through The Vow: how one 15-year-old girl, whose family moved to Albany from Mexico to deepen their involvement in Nxivm, was confined to a bedroom for two years. How a medical doctor performed experiments on women as part of the men’s “Society of Protectors”, photographing their facial expressions as they reacted to horrifying images of violence, including dismemberment. How the millionaire Bronfman sisters, heirs to the Seagram’s liquor fortune, paid the Dalai Lama $1m to grace Albany with his presence and sheen of legitimacy.

Oxenberg, now 29, also executive-produced the series, and appears intent on being known for being more than a headline about a sex cult; her interviews with therapists, lawyers and former members, however filtered by the presence of a camera, reveal a reconciliation very much ongoing. Onward, too, goes the appetite for understanding what the hell happened with Nxivm: Seduced concludes with eerie social media footage of Raniere loyalists, still believing, as they dance outside his prison cell; the final minute of The Vow teased potential interviews with Raniere and with co-leader Nancy Salzman, and a new trailer for the second season, to be released in 2021, suggests several new interviews with former Nxivm members.

Certainly for some viewers, the point that joining a cult could happen to you is enough. But Seduced ultimately argues for giving time to one woman’s story, already Google searchable, in her own words, as she reckons with a double-edged truth viewers, on some level, already understand: that one’s capacity for self-delusion, self-improvement, belonging and purpose can be unrecognizably, terrifyingly bottomless – and our fascination can be, too.


Oct 15, 2020

Review: 'Meeting the Beatles in India' captures a moment in music history

Review: 'Meeting the Beatles in India' captures a moment in music history
Los Angeles Times
October 14, 2020

You never know whom you’ll run into on the road to enlightenment. For a heartbroken, 20-something Canadian, his sojourn to India led him to the Fab Four.

The documentary “Meeting the Beatles in India” was released Friday on what would have been John Lennon’s 80th birthday. Available as a digital rental for $9.99 at Gathr At Home, the film is the handcrafted memoir of Paul Saltzman, who wound up taking that famous “class photo” of Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and others with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1968.

Mr. Saltzman was already on a spiritual quest in the country when he was wrecked by a Dear John letter. Hearing of transcendental meditation as a possible way to assuage his suffering, he made his way to the Maharishi’s ashram in Rishikesh, only to find it closed because of the presence of special guests. After waiting outside for eight days, he was finally admitted — and spent a week with the Beatles and their significant others, plus longtime roadie Mal Evans, Mike Love of the Beach Boys and Donovan Leitch.

For any Beatles fan, this is a fascinating, mysterious period in their history. They were still a band of brothers, looking for answers beyond the fame and fortune. They learned and meditated and wrote songs, most of the “White Album” and others. As the documentary isn’t sanctioned by Apple Corps, it suffers from not having access to their music or new interviews with the surviving Beatles, but Mr. Saltzman’s observations and insight from Beatle historian Mark Lewisohn and TM practitioner David Lynch, among others, offer a window into this heretofore opaque time.

There are specific nuggets that will excite Beatlemaniacs, such as background into the composition of songs such as “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “The Inner Light” and “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,” including an interview with the person who was the model for Bill himself. Fans will also get a charge out of candid photos of the lads in repose and stories of casual interactions with them.

Mr. Saltzman has directed and produced more than 300 programs for Canadian TV. He brought in previous collaborator Morgan Freeman to lend the voice of omnipotence to a few lines that could have used polishing. There are nagging narrative gaps and some jumping around. While that’s a bit jarring, one supposes it’s apropos for the film’s handmade feel. This isn’t an official document; it’s a fan’s eyewitness account.

Perhaps the biggest news for fans is a somewhat upsetting story about the group’s exit from the ashram that may offer a clue to the seeds of their breakup. In any case, “Meeting the Beatles in India” is a must-see for die-hard fans.