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Metaverse cults are becoming a reality.
When thinking of cults, we usually think about charismatic cult leaders, people living in isolated communities on remote farms, being subjected to manipulation, brainwashing and other forms of psychological (and physical) abuse.
Not something any of us is ever likely to personally see or experience but safely through our television screens.
But the invention of the Metaverse, with a little help from online polarization, has changed the way we interact with cults and has unwittingly turned us from passive viewers, to active members.
What is a Cult?
A cult can be broadly defined as a group or organization that exhibits certain characteristics, tactics, and dynamics that differentiate it from mainstream society. While the term “cult” can be subjective and sometimes carries negative connotations, ‘’old-school’’ cults typically followed the same formula:
- Charismatic Leader
- Manipulation and Control
- Deceptive Recruitment
- Group Identity and Belief System
- Exploitation and Financial Control
- Isolation and Control of Information
- Thought Reform and Indoctrination
- Emotional Manipulation and Exploitation
- Gradual Escalation of Commitment
The history of cults is filled with diverse groups known for their distinctive beliefs and practices. The ancient cult of Isis in Egypt was renowned for its worship of the goddess Isis, emphasizing fertility, magic, and the afterlife. The cult of Mithras, originating in Persia and later spreading throughout the Roman Empire, centered around the worship of the god Mithras and its secretive initiation rituals. The Assassins, a medieval Nizari Ismaili sect, gained notoriety for their clandestine activities and the perceived use of political assassinations. The Thuggee cult, active in India for centuries, operated as a secret society of criminals who worshipped the goddess Kali and carried out ritualistic murders. The Peoples Temple, led by Jim Jones, gained international attention for the tragic mass murder-suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978. Jim Jones, a charismatic leader, attracted followers to his cult with promises of social justice and equality, but ultimately exercised extreme control over his members, leading to the horrific event in Jonestown where over 900 people died. The Branch Davidians, led by David Koresh, gained international attention during the siege in Waco, Texas, in 1993, which resulted in a deadly standoff between the cult and law enforcement. The Solar Temple, founded by Luc Jouret and Joseph Di Mambro, became infamous for its beliefs in a coming apocalypse and the orchestrated mass suicides and murders that occurred in Switzerland, France, and Canada in the 1990s. These historical cults exemplify the diversity of beliefs, practices, and the impact they have had on societies throughout different time periods.
The advent of the “social internet” marked a significant shift in online communication and connectivity, allowing individuals from around the world to interact, share information, and form virtual communities. Platforms like Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook revolutionized the way people connected and communicated, introducing the concept of social networking. This newfound interconnectedness, however, also paved the way for an unintended consequence—an explosion in cult-like movements. The social internet provided cults with unprecedented access to a vast audience, making it easier for them to target and recruit vulnerable individuals searching for meaning, belonging, or answers. With the ability to create online communities, manipulate information, and employ persuasive tactics, these cults found fertile ground in the digital realm. The role of algorithms, specifically, played a crucial role in the growth of cult-like movements. Social media platforms employ algorithms that personalize content based on users’ preferences and behaviors, creating echo chambers that reinforce existing beliefs. These algorithms contribute to confirmation bias, limiting exposure to diverse perspectives and making individuals more susceptible to manipulation by cult-like groups. By selectively presenting content aligned with their ideologies, cults can further isolate individuals, curating narratives that strengthen loyalty and discourage critical thinking. The algorithmic amplification of extremist views and the rapid spread of information within online communities have played a significant role in the growth and influence of cult-like movements in the digital age.
Case study: QAnon
Algorithms and echo chambers have played a significant role in the proliferation and spread of QAnon theories, exemplifying the potential dangers of the social internet. Social media platforms employ algorithms that personalize content based on users’ preferences and behaviors, creating echo chambers where individuals are exposed to information and viewpoints that reinforce their existing beliefs. QAnon, a conspiracy theory movement, found a fertile ground within these echo chambers. As algorithms prioritize engagement and amplify content that resonates with users, QAnon-related content was often algorithmically promoted to individuals already inclined to believe in conspiracies or distrust mainstream narratives. The most famous theory propagated by QAnon is the baseless claim that a secret cabal of pedophiles and Satan-worshipping elites is running a global child sex trafficking ring. This conspiracy theory gained traction as QAnon followers, referred to as “anons,” shared and discussed the alleged insider information and cryptic messages from the anonymous online figure known as “Q.” Within their echo chambers, QAnon followers reinforced one another’s beliefs, dismissing dissenting opinions and alternative perspectives. The algorithmic amplification of QAnon content within these echo chambers further solidified their beliefs, making it challenging for factual information to penetrate their information bubbles. The combination of algorithms, echo chambers, and the sensationalism of the conspiracy theory contributed to the rapid spread and acceptance of QAnon, highlighting the concerning influence of these digital dynamics in shaping collective beliefs and behaviors.
Tragically, the influence of QAnon reached a breaking point on January 6, 2021, when a mob of Trump supporters, including some influenced by QAnon, stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overturn the election results. This event, known as the Capitol riot, shocked the nation and underscored the dangers of radicalization fueled by conspiracy theories. It highlighted the urgent need to address the spread of disinformation and the potential for real-world violence incited by online movements like QAnon.
The recent warning by the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) about 100,000 people believing in a conspiracy theory centered around an “evil elite” underscores the concerning appeal of such narratives across diverse segments of society. This conspiracy theory, which suggests the existence of a secretive and malevolent group controlling world events, has gained significant traction in recent years. What makes this theory particularly striking is its ability to resonate with a wide range of individuals who might not typically find common ground. The theory’s appeal transcends traditional boundaries, attracting followers from different ideological, religious, and cultural backgrounds. This includes individuals from both the Muslim and extremist-right communities, who may have divergent views on various other issues. The ability of the “evil elite” conspiracy theory to bridge these gaps and unite people who would not normally mingle highlights the powerful allure of a narrative that offers a simple explanation for complex problems and fuels feelings of empowerment against a perceived oppressive force. It underscores the need for continued vigilance in countering the spread of such narratives and addressing the underlying factors that make them attractive to diverse segments of society.
What impact will Metaverse Cults have?
The emergence of the metaverse has the potential to create even more fertile grounds for the formation and proliferation of metaverse cults. The metaverse, with its advanced graphics, immersive visualization, and enhanced communication capabilities, can deepen the sense of virtual reality and community among its users. This heightened level of immersion can foster a sense of belonging and identity within online communities, making it easier for charismatic leaders to cultivate devoted followers.
The metaverse’s interactive and visually captivating nature can also enhance the persuasive power of cult leaders, as they can employ sophisticated techniques to manipulate emotions, reinforce beliefs, and exert control over individuals. The immersive nature of the metaverse blurs the lines between the virtual and real worlds, potentially making it more difficult for individuals to critically evaluate information or distinguish between genuine experiences and virtual simulations.
Furthermore, metaverse cults can facilitate rapid dissemination of information and ideologies, enabling cult-like movements to reach and recruit individuals on a global scale. The ease of communication and networking within the metaverse can accelerate the formation of echo chambers, where like-minded individuals reinforce one another’s beliefs and isolate themselves from dissenting opinions. This echo chamber effect, coupled with the metaverse’s ability to reinforce confirmation bias, can contribute to the entrenchment of cult-like ideologies and inhibit critical thinking.
As the metaverse continues to evolve and become more integrated into people’s lives, it will be crucial to recognize and address the potential risks and vulnerabilities it presents. Promoting digital literacy, critical thinking, and fostering diverse and inclusive online communities are important steps in mitigating the influence of metaverse cults. Additionally, platforms and regulators should implement safeguards to detect and prevent the spread of harmful ideologies, manipulation, and exploitation within virtual spaces.