Cults increasingly gain followers on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube

The Republic, Arizona/May 9, 2018

By Alden Woods

Bentinho Massaro has become one of the internet's youngest and most prominent gurus. What are his teachings and why is he so popular? 

Below the breathless praise, the smiling black-and-white photos and the promises of a spiritual awakening, Bentinho Massaro’s website shows seekers how to join.

“It’s quite simple,” the guru’s website reads. “We suggest you become organically more familiar with Bentinho’s work and effortlessly let its magic rub off on you and change your life by liking Bentinho on Facebook, Subscribing to his YouTube channel, Following him on Instagram, and then proceed to for the real, structured, step-by-step study and implementation of this fun and transformational work.”

The offer includes links to each social media platform, inviting spiritual seekers to join more than 400,000 people who already follow Massaro online. Elsewhere, the site promotes Massaro’s SoundCloud, his online newsletter and Bentinho Massaro TV.

Massaro’s in-person retreats aren’t mentioned until further down the page.

It’s the new door-to-door: Massaro, 30, and a new generation of gurus have plastered themselves across the Internet, spreading their influence to an almost limitless audience as they straddle the thin line between teacher and cult leader.

The internet's outsized influence has made it easier than ever to attract vulnerable seekers like Brent Wilkins, who tore through Massaro's online library of blog posts and video seminars after seeing a single seminar in person. Wilkins, 34, then traded a stable life to follow Massaro across the country, stumbling down a path to enlightenment that ended only when he threw himself into Sedona's Oak Creek Canyon.

Like Wilkins, any spiritual seeker can hand-select their guru, clicking through an endless stream of glossy websites, high-definition lectures and social media feeds to find the exact set of answers they crave.

Once they settle on a guru — or a handful — YouTube and Facebook’s binge-friendly structures can make the indoctrination process faster than ever. New students don’t have to wait for the next seminar, or save for the next retreat. Instead, they can dive into hours of videos, join online message boards and start chasing enlightenment within moments of learning a guru’s name.

Many students never meet their gurus in person.

“There’s a new phenomenon, which is that a leader has a presence on the Web, a presence in social media, may Skype, do podcasts or YouTube to spread the word,” said Rick Alan Ross, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Cult Education Institute. “And then people come to wherever they’re at.”

How cults operate now

Historically, the leaders of cults and cultlike groups built their bases in small chunks. Their reach was limited: A guru could speak to only so many people at once. They started with retreats and seminars, or clandestine meetings out of the public eye. Often, as a guru grew more extreme in behavior and belief, they also grew more secretive.

Not anymore.

“What I’m learning is just how completely indoctrinated people can get from just watching YouTube and being on their computer at home,” said Steven Hassan, a former member of theUnification Church, better known as the “Moonies,” who became a leading expert on cults and mind control. “They don’t need to go to isolated locations and have a lot of the stuff that I experienced when I was in a cult 40 years ago.”

Social media is almost perfectly designed for an aspiring guru. Anybody can start teaching from their own bedroom, for free, on platforms hesitant to censor even their wildest claims. Facebook and Twitter will constantly update followers with their newest revelations. YouTube’s algorithm will nudge first-time viewers toward similar content.

There’s a 15-step guide to starting a cult on WikiHow, a crowd-sourced online instruction guide.

Step 1: Pick an obsession.

Step 10: Bring in other people, slowly.

Step 15: Find ways to grow your group.

Tip: Don’t do anything illegal.

Cults on YouTube, Twitter

YouTube and Twitter did not reply to questions about whether they tolerate cult-like figures on their platforms. A Facebook spokesperson emphasized the company's Community Standards, which bar hate speech and threats of harm from the platform.

But some of the spirituality world’s biggest young stars boast massive followings on social media.

Teal Swan, a self-described “spiritual catalyst” often compared to Massaro — and who has been publicly accused of leading a cult — has more than 450,000 YouTube subscribers.

The Facebook page of disgraced “Evolutionary Enlightenment” guru Andrew Cohen, who has been battered with a barrage of cult accusations, has more than 18,000 followers.

Eligio “Natureboy” Bishop, whose “Melanation” group believes only those with dark skin are pure and intelligent, broadcasts his YouTube videos to 61,000 subscribers. Though Bishop was recently deported from Costa Rica, where he had lured a handful of followers to live a back-to-nature philosophy in the jungle, his YouTube channel remains constantly updated.

Even long-established cults and cultlike groups, which long shunned public scrutiny, have thrown themselves into the frenzy: The Church of Scientology launched a YouTube channel in March, and followers "left behind" by Heaven's Gate, the suicide cult that attempted to join an alien spaceship in 1997, have been shown to respond to emails.

"They all use it," said Dr. Cathleen Mann, a psychologist who has testified in about 100 cult-related legal cases. "I can’t think of a group that doesn’t use it."

Questions and requests for comment sent to Swan, Cohen and Bishop were unreturned. Massaro has repeatedly denied starting a cult, saying in an interview, "I am absolutely dismissive of it, purely because it's not true." 

Massaro, who built a small base of followers in Sedona, said the label doesn’t offend him. But after Wilkins' death sparked a chorus of cult accusations, Massaro fled. He told only his closest friends where he went, and announced that the two retreats scheduled on his website would be his last.

Instead, he told followers, he would be focusing future efforts on a brand-new program, designed to help his most devoted students become "Civilization Upgraders." 

It will be entirely online.

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