"So Many Evil Things": Anti-Cult Terrorism via the Internet

by Massimo Introvigne.
A paper presented at the annual conference of the Association for Sociology of Religion (ASR), Chicago, 5 August 1999. Preliminary version. © Massimo Introvigne 1999. Do not cite or reproduce without the written consent of the author.


Following the mass suicide of Heaven’s Gate in March 1997, many commentaries reported on the movement’s active propaganda via the Internet, and expressed the fear that naive Internet passers-by might easily be recruited into suicidal cults through well-crafted Web sites. Recent scholarship suggests that, while not unheard of (Kellner 1996; O'Leary 1996), Internet conversions to new religious movements are rare, and do not contribute significantly to their growth (Dawson and Hennebry 1999; Mayer 1999). On the other hand, it has also been suggested that "the so-called ‘anti-cult’ groups [are] the main beneficiaries of the development of the Internet at this point" (Mayer 1999). This paper concentrates on the most aggressive Internet anti-cultists, and their attempts to systematically disrupt their targets through Internet activities. Firstly, I will review some well-known examples of social scientific theories on how cyberspace is constructed. Secondly, drawing from literature on information warfare and terrorism, I will explore Internet warfare and Internet terrorism as socially constructed concepts. Thirdly, I will comment on the background and development of an extreme anti-cult fringe, particularly in Europe, and its differences (as well as its relationships) with the mainline anti-cult community. Fourthly, some examples will be given of how this fringe is particularly (if not exclusively) active through the Internet, and its problems in obtaining offline results from its online activism. Finally, I will try to apply existing scholarship surrounding the Internet, and violence in general, to these activities and their effects on both new religious movements and those who stand in opposition to them.


1. Cyberspace as a social construction

The very notion of cyberspace is a somewhat obvious example of the social construction of a symbolic universe, as described by Berger and Luckmann (1966, 76-79), through a three-fold process of externalization, objectivation, and internalization. The term "cyberspace" comes from fiction, and was originally defined by cyberpunk novelist William Gibson (1984, 67) as "a consensual hallucination experienced together by billions of legitimate operators". In his novel Neuromancer, Gibson invented the notion of cyberspace as a computer-accessible location where all the existing information in the world was collected. Later, John P. Barlow described the real world of connected computers using the same term as Gibson used. Some claim, therefore, that cyberspace, as it exists today, should be called "Barlovian cyberspace" in order to distinguish it from the fictional "Gibsonian cyberspace" of cyberpunk literature (Jordan 1999, 20-21). Interestingly enough, two of the most well-known social scientific textbooks on cyberspace, the first strictly sociological and the second social-psychological, divide their discussion of cyberspace into three parallel parts. Jordan (1999), who is primarily interested in power and social politics in cyberspace, sees three layers of the virtual space: individual, social, and imaginary. Gackenbach (1998) also divided the textbook she edited on Psychology and the Internet into three parts devoted respectively to the intrapersonal (or personal), interpersonal, and transpersonal dimension of cyberspace. The three dimensions in the two textbooks (personal-individual, interpersonal-social, and transpersonal-imaginary) are obviously parallel. To a certain extent, they also parallel Berger and Luckmann’s social construction model. In the personal-individual stage, human actions, through a process of externalization, create cyberspace as a new form of social institution. When cyberspace appears, through objectivation, as a given "objective" reality, new forms of interpersonal-social relations develop. Subjective understanding of the objectified cyberspace, obtained through internalization, gives rise to transpersonal-imaginary experiences, a virtual imaginary in which both "visions of heaven" and "fears of hell" develop (Jordan 1999, 185).

A significant amount of literature now exists on all three stages of this process. For our purposes, it is particularly important to note that the main social and psychological problem in cyberspace has been discussed under the name of "information overload". Sociologists have explored the paradoxical notion of receiving too much information, more than even the most gifted individual is able to absorb. Shenk (1997, 15) states that information overload "threatens our ability to educate ourselves, and leaves us more vulnerable as consumers and less cohesive as a society". Kraut and Attewell (1997, 325), in their study of transnational corporations, noted that "communication is a resource-consuming process. (...) As a result, one would expect that as the volume of communication increases, so will the problems of feeling rushed and overloaded". Jordan (1999, 117) points to the problem of having "so much information that the ability to understand it is impaired: the important cannot be distinguished from the unimportant, and too large amounts of information simply cannot be absorbed". He (1999, 128) also mentions a related phenomenon, the "spiral of technopower", generated when information overload is confronted by introducing new technological tools for information management. If these tools are good enough, however, they in turn increase the amount of information available in cyberspace, and "simply return users, after varying lengths of time, to the first step because new forms of information overload emerge".

The whole concept of information overload is, in turn, politically negotiated and conditioned. Ultimately, the evaluation of the information overload is connected with the transpersonal-imaginary level of cyberspace, at which political evaluations are made about whether so much information is liberating or threatening. The political issue, here, is that the overload may threaten our normal ability to internalize an information hierarchy. When dealing with the printed media, we realize that The New York Times is not infallible, but is in any case more reliable than the Weekly World News. A similar information hierarchy is much more difficult to reconstruct in cyberspace, although it is slowly emerging in specialized areas such as financial information. Libertarians may celebrate the subversion of offline hierarchies as the greatest achievement of cyberspace, and some early scholarly studies agreed with them (see Rheingold 1993). It is true that any attempt to censor parts of cyberspace may sooner or later be bypassed. However, as Jordan (1999, 79) notes, claiming that subverting offline hierarchies automatically creates an anti-hierarchical, and truly democratic, communication may be an example of the logical fallacy known as technological determinism. The latter mistakenly implies that a certain technology necessarily determines a certain social outcome. "Such pure or strong forms of technological determinism are always weak because they define causes of society through non-social systems, technologies, that appear social as soon as they are themselves investigated" (Jordan 1999, 79). Jordan suggests that cyberpolitical issues are much more complicated, and that "offline hierarchies are subverted by cyberspace but are also reconstituted in cyberspace (...) The subversion of hierarchy does not mean that cyberspace is devoid of hierarchy. Rather, new and different hierarchies emerge" (ibid., 83). Arguing from a social psychological perspective, and studying newsgroups and other sub-Web online communities, Reid (1998, 33) concludes that "virtual communities are not the agora; they are not a place of open and free public discourse. It is a mistake to think that the Internet is an inherently democratic institution, or that it will necessarily lead to increased personal freedoms and increased understanding between people". The technology allows those who have the best equipment, or technical capabilities, to claim that their information is also inherently better, "creating social hierarchies that can be every bit as restrictive and oppressive as some in the corporeal world".


2. Malicious Use of the Information Overload and Internet Terrorism

While in the early 1990s, social science pessimism about the information overload regarded it as an entirely spontaneous phenomenon, in the second half of the decade a new scholarly literature emerged, suggesting that the overload may be manipulated for the purpose of damaging specific organizations, governments or groups (Denning and Denning 1998, Denning 1999). Internet terrorism became an increasingly well-researched issue, but the term itself was variously defined. Terrorism, in itself, is a socially constructed notion that is continuously renegotiated at the political level. It is almost a truism that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. Terrorism is generally defined as the symbolic use of actual violence, for political reasons, against non-military targets. By symbolic use, scholars of terrorism suggest that terrorism is successful when its message reaches a large public, much larger than the circle of those actually harmed by it (Thornton 1964, Wilkinson 1975). Violence, in turn, is a controversial concept. In the area of religion-related terrorism, particularly, the impact of verbal violence has been regarded as tantamount to terrorism. Verbal violence is defined by Sprinzak (1999, 316) as "the use of extreme language against an individual or a group that either implies a direct threat that physical force will be used against them, or is seen as an indirect call for others to use it. Verbal violence is often a substitute for real violence, for it helps excited leaders to vent their frustration in less than a violent manner. The problem of verbal violence is that it may incite followers who are incapable of distinguishing between real and verbal violence to engage in actual violence". In turn, terrorism against transnational corporations has often been studied in the shape of "information terrorism". This is usually defined as the systematic spreading of information aimed at damaging or destroying the business of a corporation. Corporations have used various strategies in order to persuade law enforcement agencies and lawmakers that information terrorism is not necessarily more "clean" than other forms of terrorism, and as such deserves no added indulgence. While it is true that information terrorism does not normally involve the loss of human life, it may inflict damage far greater than other non-lethal terrorist activities. An ecoterrorist group targeting a transnational corporation, for instance, may cause comparatively little damage by blowing up one or more warehouses. Additionally, after the first terrorist acts, security will inevitably be increased, as also the risk for the terrorists themselves. Successfully spreading "information" that a key product of the same corporation causes cancer, or other lethal diseases, is much more effective. In fact, in 1998, ecoterrorists targeting a transnational food corporation in Europe simply shipped to an Italian news agency a poisoned and potentially lethal Christmas cake manufactured by that corporation, claiming that many more had actually been poisoned and were on the shelves of unsuspecting stores. When caught, their defence was that they had, in fact, poisoned only the single cake sent to the news agency, without endangering anybody’s health since it was clearly marked as "poisoned" with plenty of warning labels. The incident prompted a number of corporations in Italy to request that the law be amended to deal with this new information terrorism.

Another interesting feature of the 1998 Christmas cake incident, was that any attempt by the printed media not to carry the news would have been ineffective, since the letter claiming that a number of cakes had been poisoned was widely circulated via the Internet. This was a case both of information terrorism and of terrorism via the Internet. The latter category, however, needs to be elaborated. "Internet terrorism", as used in the relevant literature, seems to cover different and not necessarily related activities. Firstly, a large part of the literature discusses cyberterrorism, i.e. the manipulation of an information system through the alteration, or theft, of data. Authors agree that the most dangerous form of cyberterrorism is that which attack vital infrastructures, such as hacking an air traffic control system, thereby causing planes to actually collide or crash on the ground. Whether this is actually possible is debated among many counter-terrorism specialists, with some contending that cyberterrorism risks are often overestimated in popular literature and by politicians (Pollitt 1997). There is little doubt, however, that cyberterrorism is a daily event on a scale somewhat lesser than that of attacking infrastructures: computer systems are damaged, viruses are spread, and Web sites are hacked. Other authors include in their concept of "Internet terrorism" the simple propaganda distributed on the Web by groups they regard as terrorist. Destouche (1999) provides a large list, from Islamic fundamentalists to followers of the late Rabbi Meher Kahane. Destouche's book, otherwise informative, is so conditioned by the anti-cult climate currently prevailing in France, that it includes in its survey of Internet terrorism what he calls "degenerate sects", all qualified as "subversive". Accordingly, the very fact that such degenerate and subversive groups have a Web site is an "Internet risk", and should thus form part of any terrorism survey. Together with Aum Shinri-kyo, Destouche (1999, 38-143; 238-239) lists the Church of Scientology, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Transcendental Meditation, Soka Gakkai, the Raelians, New Acropolis and the Church of Satan. This list easily shows that everything depends on an offline evaluation of which group is "subversive" or "terrorist", followed by a quick check as to whether or not the group happens to have a Web site.

A third category of Internet terrorism is information terrorism via the Internet. Here, Internet is the privileged source used to spread information politically aimed at damaging or destroying a particular organization. Legal literature discusses cases in which the target is a corporation ("Legal Wars on the Web: A Checklist" 1999). Categorizing these activities as "terrorist" seems to be more appropriate when they are perpetrated in furtherance of a political (as opposed to a merely economical) aim. Internet, in this sense, may be particularly attractive for information terrorism as a way of circumventing possible censorship by the mainline media, and of making legal counter-attacks more difficult. This has been particularly true of "single issue terrorism" in fields such as animal rights, environmentalism, and abortion (Smith 1998). In these fields, a preferred strategy, whereby Internet has played a key role, has been the publication of "hit lists" of both individuals and corporations allegedly associated with extraordinary evil. Perhaps the most famous legal case, evidencing the problems in defining the boundaries between verbal and non-verbal violence, concerns the anti-abortion Web sites publishing of the so called Nuremberg Files. This list includes names and other personal information concerning a number of doctors performing abortions, and qualifies them as "baby butchers". Notwithstanding the inflammatory language, the main site publishing the Nuremberg Files argued that it did not promote actual (as opposed to verbal) violence, and that the information was available, anyway, to a determined searcher through other public sources. In fact, the name implied the call for a future Nuremberg trial established by a government outlawing abortion as homicide. These arguments did not satisfy an U.S. federal court in Portland, however, when three doctors on the list had actually been killed. Planned Parenthood and a group of doctors sued, claiming that this was a matter of "domestic terrorism", and on February 2, 1999 were awarded a record $ 107 million in damages (Verhovek 1999). The original provider immediately removed the site from the Web. It was mirrored, however, by other providers, encouraged by a ruling of the Portland judge that he had no jurisdiction over new defendants not included in his original case (Green 1999). Eventually, most U.S. providers were scared by the threat of legal liability, and by the amount of damages awarded in the Portland decision. However, on February 22, 1999, Internet libertarian activist Karin Spaink of Amsterdam, Holland, published a manifesto claiming that "while I strongly hold that every woman should have an abortion if she needs one", "there is a distinct difference between words and deeds". As a libertarian, Spaink explained, she "decided to put up a mirror of the Nuremberg Files" (Spaink 1999), and the Files are to date still available through her controversial provider www.xs4all.nl, at the address http://www.xs4all.nl/~oracle/nuremberg/aborts.html. Spaink’s organization, as we shall see, also plays a role in the anti-cult Internet wars.

Information wars on the Internet are no longer entirely in private hands. Several national intelligence services have become quite active both in preventing cyberterrorism and in monitoring foreign activities against key national corporations (Guisnel 1997). In France, according to Destouche (1999, 215-216), a number of intelligence agencies watch both the Web and the newsgroups. (In fact, one intelligence agency seems to be "mostly interested in newsgroups"). There is little doubt that similar activities are also being carried out by intelligence agencies also outside of France.


3. Anti-Cult Terrorism

The development of the so-called anti-cult movement has been documented in scholarly literature on new religious movements since the early 1980s (see Shupe and Bromley 1980; Shupe, Bromley and Oliver 1984; Shupe and Bromley 1985; Beckford 1985). More recently, these studies have been both updated (see Melton 1999) and re-examined in a cross-cultural perspective (Shupe and Bromley 1994, Usarski 1999, Chryssides 1999). While the demise of the largest American anti-cult organization, the Cult Awareness Network, finally occurred because of its involvement in a violent and illegal activity, i.e. forcible deprogramming, mainline anti-cult groups in the United States have maintained throughout their history an interest in researching and arguing their position, and not only in political or direct action. Anti-cult movements in Europe have been less research-oriented and more pro-active from their very beginning. Following the Order of the Solar Temple suicides and homicides in 1994-1997, in particular, some European anti-cult movements experienced an unprecedented degree of public support. Parliamentary reports generated immediately after the Solar Temple incidents, inter alia in France (Assemblée Nationale 1996) and Belgium (Chambre des Représentants de Belgique 1997), simply mirrored the approach of the anti-cult organizations, explicitly distancing themselves from the work of mainline scholars. While, beginning in 1998, a "second generation" of European parliamentary and administrative reports, somewhat more moderate (Introvigne and Richardson 1999), followed, countries such as France maintained their earlier attitudes, and ultimately came under heavy criticism from the U.S. State Department and a number of international bodies. In 1998, France established a governmental Mission to Fight Cults and published a second report in 1999 (Assemblée Nationale 1999), devoted to cult finances. Both the Belgian and the French reports included lengthy lists of groups investigated as possible cults, and the French report of 1999 even included the names of several individuals. The "second generation" (or Type II) reports, while maintaining some elements of the anti-cult perspective, agreed with international scholars that France and other countries had probably gone too far. The Swedish report ("In Good Faith" 1998) lamented that "in France the state has on the whole made common cause with the anti-cult movement", ignoring the fact that "the great majority of members of the new religious movements derive positive experience from their membership". The 1998 report issued by the Swiss Canton of Ticino (Dipartimento delle Istituzioni 1998, 17 and 39) claimed that, while co-operating with anti-cult movements may occasionally be appropriate, governments "should avoid becoming accomplices in the work of spreading generalized prejudices", or even in promoting an "anti-cult terrorism". While in this Swiss document the expression "anti-cult terrorism" was used metaphorically, acts of terrorism in the strictest sense of the word were indeed perpetrated in France in 1996 and later. Premises of both the Unification Church and New Acropolis (a movement headquartered in Argentina) were bombed in Paris. Nobody has suggested that the largest anti-cult organizations were actually involved in the bombings. On the other hand, as noted by Usarski (1999) with reference to Germany, the publication of inflammatory documents by both private organizations sponsored by government, and by the government itself, proclaiming that literally hundreds of cults are pure evil, and that the country is at war with them, is dangerous. It may inadvertently create a background favourable to extreme (and occasionally violent) manifestations of discrimination and hate.

This danger is not purely theoretical in Europe, where the anti-cult fight has been picked up by fringe movements whose language (and, occasionally, deeds) already had a violent edge to them. At least four such movements can be identified in this context. Firstly, an extreme form of anti-Catholic and anti-religious language expressed in a fringe of the secular humanist movement in French-speaking Europe (David 1997). Secondly, a left-wing anti-globalization discourse sees cults, as well as transnational corporations (and McDonald's franchises too perhaps), as agents of an evil plan to destroy Europe’s socialist identity in the name of the American free-market economy [1]. Thirdly, the same anti-globalization discourse is proposed, at the other end of the political spectrum, by right-wing groups as well. What we may call a European Identity Movement attacks, with similar arguments, U.S.-led globalization plans, whilst regarding the European identity as intrinsically spiritual and religious (rather than intrinsically socialist). Fourthly, some Islamic fundamentalist groups have also welcomed a violent anti-cult discourse, both as a tactical manoeuvre to avoid inclusion in the anti-cult public repression, and because cults may target Moslems for proselytization. Although very different from each other, these groups occasionally cross-fertilize. An exemplary case is the Italian magazine Orion, published since 1984 as "an anti-globalist monthly (...) against the planetary homologation of the New World Order" (see its Web site at http://space.tin.it/lettura/vileonar/orion.html). It publishes both right-wing and left-wing anti-globalization tirades, promotes a "national communism" as well as authors connected with Nazism and anti-Semitism (such as Holocaust negationist Robert Faurisson) [2]. Orion has, in fact, been quite active in the anti-cult fight, seeing cults as one of the most dangerous agents of U.S.-led globalization projects. [3]


4. Internet Terrorism and Cult Wars

Although wars between new religious movements and their opponents have found a battleground on the Internet since at least the Web’s early beginnings, very few groups have actually been accused of cyberterrorism. Aum Shinri-kyo was accused by a Christian Web site in Japan of preparing a cyberattack against national infrastructures, but no evidence of this has emerged. Cult wars are much more related to information terrorism via the Internet. Here, again, it should be stressed that information terrorism is a politically constructed category and what for one is verbal terrorism is for another free speech. Authoritative scholars of information terrorism via the Internet, such as Denning (1999, 101-129), include "perception management" in their studies, in the form of "offensive operations [which] reach the minds of a population by injecting content into the population’s information space". She lists systematic "lies and distortions", fabrications, hoaxes, social engineering, "denouncement" ("messages that discredit, defame, demonize, or dehumanize an opponent"), and -- strictly related to the latter -- "conspiracy theories". Denning also includes harassment through hate mail or "spamming", and even systematic copyright infringement (90-94). The latter, she argues, may in fact become part of a terrorist "offensive information warfare" when aimed at destroying an organization or corporation through the destruction of copyright as one of its most valuable assets. The whole notion of "copyright terrorism" is a good example of how language in this field is politically negotiated. The Church of Scientology (which has obtained quite a few court orders against Internet opponents on the basis of copyright infringement) and its critics have liberally traded accusations of "copyright terrorism". For the Church of Scientology, this is systematic copyright infringement, while for its opponents the real "terrorism" lies in its use of the copyright law for the purpose of silencing its critics (Holeton 1998, 353).

Apart from copyright issues, other kinds of information terrorism and offensive information warfare listed by Denning are well represented in the cult wars on the Internet. Unlike in the United States, the largest anti-cult organizations in Europe have but a limited presence on the Internet. They probably see no reason for diverting resources from other successful strategies. On the other hand, fringe groups and (particularly) single individuals in the anti-cult camp operate large Web sites. What differentiates anti-cult information terrorism and offensive information warfare via the Internet from less extreme forms of anti-cult activity in cyberspace, is the presence of one or more of the criteria outlined by Denning: "messages that (...) demonize, or dehumanize an opponent", "conspiracy theories", and the systematic "publication of false statements". A fourth element is the publication of "hit lists" of individuals (other than the founders and leaders of the targeted movements), thus inviting -- if not extreme measures, as in the tragic case of the Nuremberg Files -- at least discrimination, and boycotts of "cult-related" businesses. Although a few dozen similar anti-cult enterprises exist on the Web, I will examine just a few specific examples before discussing counter-terrorism retaliatory measures used by some new religions movements, and the special case of the Usenet.

Three elements are present, in different degrees, in extremist anti-cult Web sites. Firstly, attempts at dehumanizing or demonizing the target (normally a single new religious movement, although other groups are also mentioned, and links to other "specialized" anti-cult sites are offered). Secondly, extreme conspiracy theories. Thirdly, attempts at immunizing the anti-cult movement from its principal problem, which has been defined as its "almost unanimous lack of support from academics" (Chryssides 1999, 263), or "lack of any convincing scientific evidence" for its theories (Usarski 1999, 238). Academics and other scholarly researchers are thus systematically discredited through ad hominem attacks as "cult apologists", or "hired guns" for "cults". One of the three elements is normally prevalent, and gives to each individual Web site its distinctive flavour.

Mayer (1999) has studied the impact of the Web assault against Sûkyô Mahikari, a Japanese new religious movement, by Australian ex-member Garry A. Greenwood. Now self-published by the author (Greenwood 1997), his book All the Emperor’s Men has been available via the Web since 1995 (see now http://www.geocities.com/Tokyo/Shrine/5712/copy.htm).While Greenwood starts with facts well-known among scholars of Sûkyô Mahikari (although perhaps not among its members), such as the founder’s association in his early life with other Japanese new religious movements, the text -- and the Web site -- quickly degenerate. The founder of Mahikari, Kotama Okada (1901-1974), is first dehumanized by associating him with a number of war crimes committed by the Japanese Army, in which he was an officer, during World War II. Although Okada was undoubtedly a fervent nationalist, allegations of atrocities are unsubstantiated (see Introvigne 1999). Secondly, the movement is dehumanized by associating it with Nazism and anti-Semitism. Again, as in other Japanese movements, an anti-Semitic element was present in Mahikari’s early texts, but is elevated to a completely different order of magnitude in Greenwood’s allegations. Mahikari, he writes, is "promoting the same notorious ideals as those enforced by Adolf Hitler" (Greenwood 1997, 76). Finally, Mahikari is further dehumanized through an association with Aum Shinri-kyo. Greenwood repeats the common Japanese anti-cult theme that the sins of Aum Shinri-kyo are the sins of new religious movements in general, but with a distinct conspiratorial emphasis. This conspiracy, Greenwood states, is called "The Black Hand", and the fingers are Aum Shinri-kyo, Sûkyô Mahikari, the Unification Church, Agonshu, and Soka Gakkai. "Now that one of the hand's fingers (Aum Shinri kyo) has been severed, the remaining four must now strive even harder until it can regrow, or be replaced with something different, presumably under a different disguise" (Greenwood 1997, 91). Ultimately, within the framework of a "yellow danger" rhetoric, Japan itself becomes demonized as the "author" of a national conspiracy aimed at enforcing a "global theocracy" under the Japanese emperor, through cults no matter how criminal, international terrorism, and violence. Anti-cultism, therefore, ultimately becomes a form of racism. Greenwood’s Web page is an example of how some actual (and actually objectionable) features of new religious movements, or the careers of their leaders, are so distorted through gross exaggeration, that the rhetoric of controversy mutates into character assassination, demonization, and racism.

A similar Web site aimed at demonizing a single target, Opus Dei, is www.mond.at/opus.dei, managed in Vienna, Austria by Franz Schaefer, who also owns his own Internet service provider, mond.at. The similarity with Greenwood's anti-Mahikari site is worth noting. Firstly, although continuously claiming to offer a balanced perspective, Schaefer in fact uses inflammatory language ("A friend of mine, he starts, got sucked into this cult"), and repeats in an almost obsessive way the word "evil" ("evil ideology", "evil character of the founder", "so many evil things", etc.). Brainwashed "victims" can be brought "back to real life" only by causing them to leave Opus Dei. Secondly, Schaefer demonizes Opus Dei by associating it with fascism and nazism. The founder of Opus Dei "is the perfect fascist", Opus Dei spreads "the evil of the Fascistic ideology", and "Hitler would have loved" their books. Opus Dei's conservative theology may be controversial in several quarters, but Schaefer's denouncement goes far beyond political and theological criticism, and ends up describing Opus Dei as the embodiment of an extraordinary evil.

The Church of Scientology is the subject of the largest number of such assaults. Again, it is almost a truism that Scientology is surrounded by controversy, and has been particularly unpopular among Web libertarians since its use of vigorous legal strategies against copyright infringement and defamation. On the other hand, the demonization of Scientology in some Web sites goes far beyond normal controversy. The most typical, and one of the largest, Web pages demonizing Scientology is the Tilman Hausherr home page in Berlin, Germany (http://www.snafu.de/~tilman). Although it includes links to pages against a variety of other "cults", from Jehovah’s Witnesses to Opus Dei, most of this large-scale Web site is devoted purely to disparaging Scientology. Among hundreds of pages, one can hardly find any reconstruction of Scientology’s beliefs, or a philosophical, or theological, criticism of its worldview. Hausherr offers instead a lengthy list of anti-Scientology articles already published in a wide range of newspapers and magazines, decisions unfavourable to Scientology in courts of law, personal recollections by apostate ex-members, and governmental reports against Scientology. The first welcome in his Web page is a quote from an early parliamentary report in Australia that "Scientology is evil; its techniques evil; its practice a serious danger to the community, medically, morally and socially; and its adherents are sadly deluded and often mentally ill". Hausherr’s page is, to some extent, redeemed by a sense of humour normally lacking among the extreme fringes of anti-cultism. However, as Hexham and Poewe (1999, 212-213, 219) have noted, although "attacks on respectable German politicians by members of Scientology" calling them "Nazis" were both "tasteless" and "counterproductive", it is indeed true that "some members of the German anti-cult movement threaten the noble cause of preserving democracy" they claim to serve. "Although phrased somewhat differently, the rhetoric used by the German anti-cult movement to discredit Scientology mirrors the rhetoric used by National Socialists to attack Jews". It is difficult to be amused when reading Hausherr’s Web page laundry lists of individual Scientologists and of "companies and organizations owned or managed by people listed as Scientologists". Some are well-known Scientologists such as Kristie Alley or John Travolta. Most, however, are private individuals unknown to the general public. Companies "owned or managed by people listed as Scientologists" (an ambiguous concept) range from law firms to architects, computer businesses, and to Elvis Presley Enterprises (Priscilla Presley is a Scientologist). Finally, there is a list of "miscellaneous support for Scientology", including both academics and other scholarly "cult apologists" (Hausherr maintains an encyclopedia of cult apologists in the form of a FAQ, and posts it regularly to Usenet groups), as well as others accused of being "soft" on Scientology. The latter include the CNN (accused of having "a long record of supporting Scientology"), the IRS (because of the 1993 settlement), the Los Angeles Police Department, and even a lawyer who actually fought against Scientology but settled in terms Hausherr did not approve of. It is unlikely that CNN or Elvis Presley Enterprises will really suffer from being listed in Hausherr’s Web page. A doctor, dentist, or architect in a small town, or a small business, on the other hand, may be easily discriminated against. If "Scientology is evil", nobody should associate with an "evil" business. And who would want a Scientologist as a doctor or architect if Scientologists are "often mentally ill"? Although no actual violence is advocated, the list, a main feature of Hausherr’s site, becomes in fact a "hit list".

There are other Web sites devoted to attacking Scientology in Europe, most of them subsequent national versions in the local languages of Hausherr’s enterprise, although also including domestic articles and court decisions. The trend is very much the same, from Roger Gonnet (a former Scientologist) in France (www.antisectes.net) to the pseudonymous "Harry" and "Martini" in Italy (http://xenu.com-it.net/). In order to find a different kind of anti-cult terrorism via the Internet, we should consider Web sites that are primarily conspirationist. A large site, frequently quoted in European controversies, is the American-based Watch Unto Prayer (http://watch.pair.com/pray.html). This is an Evangelical fundamentalist site, although non-Christian anti-cultists such as Miguel Martinez have co-operated with it and expressed support. Watch Unto Prayer disagrees with other Christian fundamentalists, who simply identify the core of all modern conspiracies with the Roman Catholic Church, and the Pope of Rome with either the Antichrist or the Antichrist’s closest ally. Not so, claims Watch Unto Prayer. A closer reading of Revelation would reveal that, at the end of time, a pseudo-Antichrist will be the first to appear and its evil will be extreme but not final. It will, in fact, be the Roman Catholic Church, the "Mother of Harlots and Abominations of the Earth", which is by no means a Christian denomination but rather a renewed pagan "cult of Mithra". This cult is only the penultimate evil, even if "the masses have been led to believe that a Revived Roman Empire, controlled by the Roman Church, will be the final Antichrist system". This is a "deception" that will play in the hands of the real Antichrist. The latter is a "Revived British Empire" led by a character called "Michael". By vanquishing "the Pope and his Roman religious system" (the pseudo-Antichrist), "Michael" (the real Antichrist) will deceive many, including a number of Christians, and "will be crowned upon the throne of the [rebuilt] Temple of Jerusalem as ‘the Christ’". "Michael" will be "the first of many demons to manifest physically" but his spirit will be embodied in a prince of the Merovingian dynasty. Drawing on popular literature surrounding the Priory of Sion, the secrets hidden in the French village of Rennes-le-Château and the claims that Merovingians (or persons claiming today to descend from the Merovingians) are the authentic descendants of Jesus Christ’s union with Mary Magdalene, Watch Unto Prayer identifies the bloodline that will eventually produce the demonic "Michael" in the Stuart dynasty and the related (although spelled differently) Stewart clan in Scotland. Everybody called Stewart (including rock star Rod Stewart and Star Trek actor Patrick Stewart) is part of this conspiracy, aimed at ultimately promoting Prince Michael Stewart of Albany (a popular author of occult lore) as "the Michael" or the Antichrist. Both the Roman pseudo-Antichrist and the British real Antichrist need armies. These include Jews (the Web site is distinctly anti-Jewish), Freemasons, Rosicrucians, Theosophists, and cults such as Scientology. While most Jewish organizations (including the State of Israel) secretly co-operate with the Vatican, most cults are ultimately controlled by the Stuart/Stewart conspiracy, which also controls key institutions in the United States. This explains why Watch Unto Prayer provides links against Scientology and the "international cult apology network" (through which scholars co-operate with the Stewart-controlled institution of the American "Fourth Reich", such as the State Department or the Helsinki Commission). Watch Unto Prayer may appear so bizarre that no one could possibly take it seriously. Conspiracy theories, however, are part and parcel of Internet terrorism, and they dehumanize opponents as demonic figures (here, as agents of a conspiracy led by "Michael", who is in fact the embodiment of a literal demon). This is why Watch Unto Prayer has been able to enlist the co-operation and support of other extreme anti-cult Web operations [4], although the latter are normally not engaged in such wild conspiracy speculations.

A third type of extreme anti-cult Web site is devoted primarily to assaulting "cult apologists", i.e. scholars who criticize the anti-cult movement. A primary, although extreme, example is Kelebek (www.kelebekler.com) operated out of Imola, Italy by Miguel Martinez (an ex-member of New Acropolis) and Banu Sarper. It is primarily devoted to ad hominem attacks against scholars associated with CESNUR, the Center for Studies on New Religions, whose managing director is the author of this chapter. While it would be both tasteless and inappropriate to elaborate on character assassination and conspiracy theories directly involving the undersigned and his closest associates, some general remarks about the rhetoric, legal strategy, and international connections of the site, are relevant for the purpose of this paper. The style and rhetoric of Kelebek appears to be an extreme version of what I have discussed elsewhere as a common fallacy in the controversies surrounding "cult apologists" (Introvigne 1998). Imre Lakatos, an influential philosopher of science, proposed the distinction between the external and internal histories of scientific theories. Internal history deals with how theories are proposed, accepted, or rejected within the community of scholars and how they contribute to the advancement of knowledge. External history deals with the private lives, motivations, and religious or other affiliations of scholars who propose theories (Lakatos 1971). External history of scientific theories, Lakatos claims, may be occasionally entertaining, but is largely irrelevant. While disclosing the source of funding for each research is generally regarded as ethically necessary in all fields of science, funding is by no means the only possible influence on a paper. Religious and political affiliations, sexual preferences, academic or publishing connections, and many other factors may also play a role, and it is extremely unlikely that even the most astute reviewer (or opponent) will acquire total knowledge of all these factors. This is the reason why scholarly criticism usually focuses on the internal history, and evaluates papers and books on the basis of their specific intrinsic value, rather than of carrying out extensive detective-like investigations of the authors. While the scholars it attacks have written literally thousands of published and easily accessible pages, a Web site such as Kelebek hardly contains any content discussion of such published works (as a bitter academic reviewer would). The focus is almost exclusively on sources of funding, political affiliations, or religious affiliations, of the scholars themselves. The aim is to discover "secret histories" and "hidden documents", rather than to discuss the intrinsic quality of scholarly works. Ultimately, and not surprisingly, scholars are dismissed as the "hired guns" of the cults, or as non-persons of dubious credentials [5] whose personal lives, when carefully scrutinized, reveal a pattern of association with religious or political "cults". Moving from the internal to the external history is a typical tool in offensive information warfare. If the scholars so attacked fail to answer, this is claimed as evidence that the allegations are true. On the other hand, if the targets do respond, they quickly find themselves discussing their own political opinions or places of worship on Sunday rather than new religious movements. It makes no difference whether the allegations are true or false. By the very act of replying, they have moved to the precise battlefield selected by the attacker. A similar win-win strategy is pursued by these Web sites in the legal field as well. If the target does not file a lawsuit, it is claimed that he or she falls under the logic of the "legal note" posted by Tilman Hausherr when dealing with particularly extreme allegations: "These are collections of allegations, about which I have not verified the accuracy, but it has never been challenged in court!". If the target sues, he or she is exposed, additionally, as an enemy of the freedom of the Net, the effect being to immediately mobilize Internet libertarian solidarity. Karin Spaink of the Dutch provider xs4all, for instance, is a folk hero in the anti-cult community, and is herself active in the fight against Scientology. The scholars it attacked ignored Kelebek for months, and this was ultimately offered as evidence that all its allegations were true ("otherwise, they would have sued us"). When lawyers for CESNUR wrote to the Italian provider and settled with it (with no money changing hands, the publisher simply agreeing to pull the offending site off the Web and write a letter of apology), Kelebek immediately tried to mobilize Internet libertarians and was mirrored outside of Italy, including by the ubiquitous xs4all. Kelebek's first new home (before Franz Schaefer's provider hosted it in Austria, enabling it again to use the domain name kelebekler.com) was, on the other hand, interesting. Kelebek was hosted (and mirrored for years) at www.ummah.net, later www.ummah.com, [ma il .net è ancora attivo] a London-based megasite associated with the fundamentalist Islamic Brotherhood Movement. Although ummah.net hosts a variety of Islamic organizations, most of them are strictly fundamentalist. Anti-cultism is welcome on the basis that "the agents of Shaytan (Satan) are many. Many efforts are put forth to mislead masses into darkness via Satanic philosophies, ideologies, and schisms brought forth to divide and keep humanity divided" (http://www.ummah.net/moa-on-line/conspiracies, download of August 1, 1999 – no longer active). Although ummah.net also hosts organizations that are not anti-Semitic, you could download at http://www.ummah.net/moa-on-line/conspiracies/zionism.html (download of August 1, 1999 – no longer active, although the text reappears intermittently at various locations on ummah.net and ummah.com) the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, with the caveat that they are "currently being forced upon Western society", concluding in red lettering: "Now, you determine who is the real terrorist!". Nobody, of course, should be regarded as guilty by association, and certainly not all groups whose pages appear on ummah.net are anti-Semitic. On the other hand, ummah.net's association with fundamentalist groups is quite well-known. While Kelebek is primarily devoted to assaulting "cult apologists", it also tries to explain its motivation through an anti-globalization, anti-American rhetoric, in addition to protesting against "the desert" where "McDonalds open, while minds shut tight". At the beginning of his anti-cult career (after having left New Acropolis), Martinez wrote for Orion, and Orion is frequently quoted by Kelebek. His partner, Banu Sarper, claims in a militant Islamic style, that the Catholic Church, "originally a movement, (...) became an ideology with expansion as its goal. (...) Peter’s followers, we could say, registered a firm. (...) an industry whose managers had power over life and death, heaven and hell. With an incredible weapon, the key to eternal life. The company has grown into a transnational (...) religious monopoly, right until the Crusades". "Then, quite unexpectedly, this certainty was cast into jeopardy. Another power had appeared on the scene. The Church cried out for help against this new power, Islam... an ideology which had nothing in common with the advertising strategy of the Catholic Church". While during the Crusades "the commanders counted on the ignorance of their followers" and "the majority was unable either to read or to write", "now things are more difficult". "It would be much harder today for a NATO general to jump on horseback to drive the Muslims out from somewhere ... in the name of God". Accordingly, "today, the Church/company is forced to use a more softer strategy ... today it has to launch its crusades using other weapons, those of the media". In fact, "the Church tries to take advantage here too of ‘spiritual searching’ (...) as do so many companies". Sarper claims that the Catholic Church, in its centuries-old fight against Islam, now claims for itself the power of defining words such as "sect" and "cults". "The word ‘sect’ becomes a weapon. A weapon which can be employed against a little-loved religion, Islam" (downloaded from the address:http://www.kelebekler.com/satrancgb.htm on August 1, 2000; the article has since disappeared from the site). The aim of Kelebek, in this perspective, is to break the alleged Christian monopoly on the definition of "sects", "cults" and "new religious movements", by exposing both "cult apologists" and mainline cult critics as motivated by a hidden religious and political agenda.

The main features of offensive information warfare, or even plain information terrorism via the Internet, are present in this fringe of anti-cultism: "denouncement", in the sense of Denning (1999, 112); distortions; conspiracy theories; lists of individuals; and -- occasionally -- copyright infringement. It would be wrong, however, to conclude that extreme strategies in the Internet cult wars are used only by fringe anti-cultists. They are also pursued by new religious movements, or at least by individuals or entities promoting the interests of new religious movements. Not all groups act like Sûkyô Mahikari which, when challenged by Greenwood’s Web page, did basically nothing (and lost some members in different countries in consequence). Scientology reacts vigorously in the legal arena. There are, also, pro-Scientology Web sites mostly devoted to personal attacks against the most active online and offline opponents (such as http://www.parishioners.org). There have also been more technical cyberattacks, minor forms of cyberterrorism, used against Scientology critics. The most famous is, perhaps, the so-called "attack of the robotic poets" (Poulsen 1999). A "poetry machine" is able to send thousands of unsolicited messages to Usenet groups re-using headers of frequent contributors. Newsgroups are thus flooded by a deluge of riddles reminiscent of the cut-up experiments of the Beat generation poets (such as: "Why is another horseman either cytoplasm enchantingly?"). Although other newsgroups have also been targeted, the "most consistent target" (Poulsen 1999) is alt.religion.scientology, a newsgroup in which some Scientologists are also active, but which in fact is dominated by Scientology critics. Tilman Hausherr, a daily contributor to alt.religion.scientology, coined the word "sporgeries" (spam-forgeries), and is promoting software to kill the unwelcome messages. Hausherr also claims that anonymous friends of Scientology have perpetrated other cyberattacks against the hostile newsgroup, and does not exclude a class action (although Poulsen, 1999, comments that "inviting law enforcement to protect free speech brings to mind roosters and hen houses").

In discussing alt.religion.scientology, we have moved from the Web to the Usenet. This is a collection of discussion groups covering very different areas of interest, actually in existence since before the Web itself, and the object of considerable sociological interest ever since (see for example Rheingold 1993; Dery 1994; Jones 1994; Jones 1997; Holeton 1998; Smith and Kollock 1999). Other communities in cyberspace, such as synchronous chat lines, MUDs (multi user dungeons), and E-mail lists, have also been studied (Macduff 1994; Dibbell 1994; Kiesler 1997). The Usenet is particularly relevant for the cult wars. Robotic poets notwithstanding, alt.religion.scientology is one of the most well-known and successful groups on the Usenet. Smaller groups for anti-cultists are alt.support.ex-cult and (in France) fr.soc.sectes. The fight between the Church of Scientology and alt.religion.scientology is one of the best known Usenet sagas. If anything, Scientology has managed to scare Usenet posters into maintaining their anonymity as far as possible. Donath (1999, 52-53) quotes a participant in the apparently as much unrelated as possible newsgroup misc.fitness.weights, who also happens to be an opponent of Scientology. He has been so scared by all kind of wild rumours, that he categorically refuses to give his name. "There is more going on in this net than just misc.fitness.weights" -- he writes -- "I’m involved in the net war in alt.religion.scientology. Those cultists have so far raided four of their net critics on bogus copyright violation charges, and in one case they placed a large amount of LSD on the tooth-brush of a person who was raided (...). In my city they have been convicted of several crimes, including infiltrating the municipal, provincial, and federal police forces. So, I will not give out my name just to satisfy your curiosity. Deal with it". alt.religion.scientology may be considered, from a certain point of view, as a useful resource insofar as any item of news, rumour, claim, true or false, of, on, or about, Scientology from anywhere in the world, sooner or later surfaces in the newsgroup. On the other hand, it is far from being user-friendly for the outsider, since what may be classified as real information is submerged by endless tirades, occasional flame wars (the Usenet name for fighting with an increasingly loud tone), and simple four-letter word sequences. Although some Scientologists participate in the newsgroup, most participants are rabid opponents of Scientology. One "Bernie", who claims to be a moderate critic of Scientologists, manages an impressive Web site collecting examples of flames, insults, and racist remarks against Scientology that, in his opinion, have now far exceeded the measure of what is tolerable (http://www.bernie.cncfamily.com/ars.htm). In this sense, alt.religion.scientology may be interpreted by others as a collective example of information terrorism (and robotic poets, perhaps, as a measure of counter-terrorism). It is true that four-letter word sequels and insults, against both Scientologists and academic "cult apologists", are often posted in the newsgroup and occasionally, in case they don’t read alt.religion.scientology, are E-mailed to the individual targets, sometimes with an invitation to file a lawsuit. [6]

On the other hand, notwithstanding the concerns of "Bernie", or the Church of Scientology, and the folk hero status of the anti-cult cyberwarriors among the Internet libertarian community, they are mostly preaching to the converted. The overwhelming majority of messages in alt.religion.scientology are posted by fellow anti-cultists. The same is also true of fr.soc.sectes and alt.support.ex-cults. Extreme anti-cultists have, thus, tried to infiltrate other newsgroups with a larger scope, and dealing with religion in general, or the New Age, or the occult. In these newsgroups, however, they have rarely found people interested in sustaining a continued discussion. Posting in the newsgroups has, in consequence, become just a way of advertising Web sites (particularly those aimed at discrediting "cult apologists", who may be known as scholars in a larger field). This is part of what many see as Usenet decadence. An insider, quoted by Poulsen (1999), claims that "many Usenet groups that were once full of spirited discussion are now ghost towns", where "only solicitations" and advertising thrive. Anonymity, on the other hand, once regarded as an advantage of Usenet (Turkle 1995), is being made increasingly difficult by sophisticated services and software able to trace the origin of the postings. Smith (1999, 212) claims that "these services do create a dramatic change in the balance between self-exposure and self-disclosure". Anonymity, however, may survive technology as pseudonymity, since (as the "robotic poets" incident shows) it is now possible to replicate a header, and extremely difficult (particularly for the average user) to identify whether a message really comes from its alleged source. A "troll" (a message intended to deceive users as to its origin) may, in some groups, be "admired for its cleverness", while "undermining the trust of the community" in others (Donath 1999, 47). Technology is now so sophisticated, however, that Internet terrorism scholars such as Denning (1999, 241-246) have described the evolution of more or less inoffensive deceptions into full-scale "masquerades", aimed at a terrorist strategy of "identify theft". Optimistic evaluations of Usenet’s potential for creating real and useful communities are still proposed nonetheless (see Wellman and Gulia 1999). Some contributors to the collection edited by Dery in 1994 also argued that flame wars may have an occasionally therapeutic effect. Others, however, notice a certain decline in the quality and audience of "cultural" newsgroups, while those in which computer experts exchange technical information remain extremely successful.

Participation in Usenet newsgroups by social scientists, whose aim is to collect and analyze data, has often been practised, and almost as often has raised a range of ethical issues concerning the protection of individual privacy (Clarke 1994). Surely, as Smith (1999, 211-212) argues, "researchers have a responsibility to consider the impact of their work": "the light cast by researchers can also act as a beacon for others, making the space all but useless for its participants. Online researchers have the potential of becoming social locusts, descending on online spaces and rendering them barren". King (1996) proposed ethical guidelines for social scientists researching the Usenet, arguing that covert participant observation and "deception" were admissible, as long as data were anonymized in the presentation with respect to both the identities of the participants and the location of the online space itself. With this literature, and the evolution of technology, in mind, I decided in preparing this chapter to carry out a limited covert participant observation of a number of Italian (and a couple of non-Italian) newsgroups in which extreme anti-cultists had posted repeated messages advertising their anti-cult and anti-"apologists" Web sites. These messages had normally gone unchallenged, except by newsgroup purists claiming that they were "off topic". A small group of students associated with CESNUR’s library in Turin, Italy, conducted a covert participant observation programme for more than three months extending from the original Italian to some non-Italian newsgroups as well (including, occasionally, alt.religion.scientology). They systematically answered the anti-cult postings, both arguing and impugning their motivations with arguments similar to those used by the "opponents" themselves. Identity experiments conducted in earlier studies of newsgroups were replicated, by asking both different people to post with the same user ID, and the same person to post under a number of different IDs. This led, ultimately, to passwords for the same user ID being distributed to persons outside the circle of those actually participating in the experiment. Some fierce flame wars were engaged in on both "sides". Interestingly enough, new users unknown and unrelated to the group conducting the experiments took "our" side. Others continued to complain (mostly rightly) that the discussions were "off topic" in newsgroups not directly related to new religious movements or "cults". When the experiment finally came to an end, one of the original participants posted a fancy message "signed" (but never written by) the undersigned implying that the whole business was in fact a covert participant observation, much to the annoyance of the anti-cultists. In fact, the participant observation was not entirely covert, in the sense that almost everybody in the anti-cult camp was immediately able to understand that a number of fancy IDs were, in fact, associated to some degree with CESNUR. Indeed, all messages emanating from the original group involved in the research were posted from two computers in CESNUR’s Turin library, using the same operating system, and were quite easy to identify by anybody vaguely familiar with headers, let alone the computer "wiz kids" who abound in the extreme anti-cult subculture. In fact, after a few weeks, anti-cultists associated with both alt.religion.scientology and Italian extreme anti-cult sites such as Allarme Scientology and Kelebek had concluded that the threads could be traced back to CESNUR. They began escalating the controversy from the Usenet to the Web, by posting lengthy articles in which they argued (putting in the same basket messages emanating from the original groups of researchers and from others) that scholars had finally lost their tempers and were behaving like not-so-nice Internet flamers themselves. The observation, on the other hand, was covert, to the extent that other users did not suspect that data were being collected and analyzed in the interests of a scholarly study.

Three conclusions may be drawn from this short experiment. Firstly, Usenet, in which the widely discussed -- and often exaggerated -- phenomenon of "Internet disinhibition" is more apparent (see Joinson 1998), magnifies the obsessive attempt by extreme anti-cultists to switch from the internal to the external history of scholarly theories. Among the several hundred messages we collected, only a limited number presented arguments directly related to the cult/anti-cult issue. Internal history arguments from "our" side normally generated external history answers (such as: "Most scholars do not believe the brainwashing hypothesis" -- "You/they are paid by Scientology"). When "Internet disinhibition" finally prevailed on both sides, arguments degenerated into typical flame wars. While useful for exchanging references and technical information, Usenet did not prove itself a very suitable medium for argumentation, at least in our field, neither towards extreme anti-cultists nor towards moderate third parties. Our findings replicated conclusions drawn by Mitra (1997) on newsgroups on the subject of Indian politics and religion, and by Zickmund (1997) on interaction with white supremacy "cyberhaters".

Secondly, the typical Internet myth of the "crucial document" appeared to be even more pervasive on the Usenet. Extreme anti-cultists are constantly looking for "smoking guns": a message, a letter, or a document that would conclusively prove their point and "expose" the opponent. When the "crucial document" is in turn analyzed or exposed as being less than vital, the search for a new "crucial document" begins. The concepts of both "document" and "information" are naively constructed as anything existing in print or electronical form, leaving serious difficulties with regards to reconstructing a hierarchy of sources. The "crucial document" could be a private memorandum, an article from a tabloid or extremist publication, or a court decision.

Thirdly, although both participants in our research and (we suspect) the "other side" included individuals using more than one identity, the exchanges confirmed comments made by Reid (1998, 37-40) on the crucial "lack of flexibility" in Internet identities, that prevents negotiation and escalates conflicts. "In the normal course of daily life" -- Reid argued -- "we often speak with imprecision. We assert certainty where we have only hunches, appeal to authority when what we truly have is a vague memory of an old magazine article, assert rank when we have only opinion. We rephrase and repudiate our own arguments, relying on force or character and the vagaries of our interlocutors' memories to allow us an attitude to redefine our position to suit the emerging argumentative terrain". In on-line dialogues, on the other hand, "frequent calls are made in flamewars for combatants to produce documentation and references, and very often the prior words of a combatant are quoted to the detriment of their author". As a result, "we cannot be flexible when easily referenced documentation of our words makes flexibility look like hypocrisy. The resultant illogicalities necessitated by this lack of flexibility compound the hostility of combatants as they are forced to eat their own words". Flexibility, therefore, is sought by multiplying identities, and leads to disintegration of the self and of communication itself. Or, in the words of Duval Smith (1999), "the computer interface, the anarchy of the Net structure, and the power asymmetry of most virtual communities, make the task of conflict management especially difficult". Ultimately, what we had was an escalation of conflict (that anti-cultists were no doubt attributing to "us"), and no way of progressing toward a solution.

More generally, statistics arising from our experiment also confirmed that, outside such specialized groups as alt.religion.scientology, only a limited number of users are really interested in participating in discussions of "cults" on the Usenet. In each newsgroup, in three months of discussion, we had less than a dozen "combatants" on the "other" side (and a few undecided outsiders). This number is probably even less when allowing for multiple identities of the same user. The anti-cult flame wars, therefore, looked more like a tempest in a teacup.


5. Some conclusions

Cult wars have found a new battleground on the Internet. Mainline anti-cult organizations are more active on the Internet in the United States than in Europe, where extreme anti-cultism and a lunatic fringe have a more dominant presence on the Internet. Cyberterrorism, in its technical sense, is almost completely absent in the Internet cult wars. Offensive information warfare, or information terrorism, as defined by its mainline scholars, on the other hand, includes what the most extreme anti-cultists do on the Web as well as on the Usenet. The most effective tool used by extreme anti-cultists has been, perhaps, the systematic copyright infringement perpetrated against the Church of Scientology. It has also elicited the most vigorous legal reactions. Outside of the copyright field, lists of private individuals identified as "cultists", "cult apologists", or "cult supporters", may have a discriminating effect and eventually cause violence (as evidenced by another case of single-issue Internet terrorism, i.e. abortion and the Nuremberg Files). "Victories" scored on the Internet, however, are largely symbolic. Only a very limited number of people interested in, or members of, new religious movements actually care about the Web, and probably even less about the Usenet. The claims made by Mayer (1999) that a certain number of persons have left new religious movements because of oppositional propaganda read on the Internet is interesting, but should be re-evaluated by follow-up quantitative studies. If fast-growing international movements such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses lose ten or twenty people per year because of the Internet, they are probably right in their decision not to divert too many energies to the Web but to expend their energies instead on regular proselytization activities. The damage inflicted by Greenwood on Sûkyô Mahikari may have been more extensive, but one wonders whether this is equally true outside of Europe and Australia (in Japan or even in Africa, a remarkably unwired continent), and whether Mahikari is perhaps the exception rather than the rule. Carrying online crusades offline is a notoriously difficult exercise.

There are also a number of counter-effects for the anti-cult movement as a whole. Initially enthused by the unexpected support from extreme Internet anti-cultists, mainline anti-cult organizations (particularly in the U.S.) are now increasingly embarrassed by the extreme tactics, wild conspiracy theories, and association with political and religious extremism of the most extreme Internet anti-cult combatants. While European anti-cult organizations use information obtained from the Internet fringe quite liberally (and reciprocate by offering links from their Web sites, together with promotion in their printed newsletters), the U.S. anti-cult community is increasingly suspicious and wary of potential embarrassment. After all, association with the extreme Internet fringe may well become, in the next decade, what the association with deprogrammers was in the 1980s and early 1990s for larger anti-cult organizations. It is, of course, even more embarrassing when European governments include unchecked information picked up on the Web and the Usenet in their official documents. This practice caused at least two diplomatic incidents in 1999, when, for instance, the French Mission to Fight Cults exposed a member of the U.S. official fact-finding delegation investigating religious intolerance in France as an "activist of one of the most dangerous international transnational cults" (when she was, in fact, a member of a small Christian charismatic congregation). In the same year, again acting on information picked up on the Internet, the French delegation at an international diplomatic conference on religious pluralism organized in Vienna by the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE), wrongly accused three speakers, including one of the official rapporteurs on religious intolerance designated by the OSCE [7], of being Scientologists or representatives of the Church of Scientology.

Governments may carry a heavy responsibility in generating violence both against, and by, assaulted minorities. The extreme discourse of the most lunatic Internet anti-cult fringe may claim legitimisation by the similar rhetoric used in French and Belgian official documents. Violence, as Sprinzak (1999, 311-312 and 317) comments, "does not just originate from below, from individuals who do not respect the law. Governments and government agencies are responsible for the generation of large amounts of violence". "The deeper the sense of delegitimation" experienced by a minority "vis-à-vis the government or another political rival, the higher its readiness to use physical force against the perceived foe. Intense delegitimation has in fact a double effect on the likelihood of violence. Not only does it increase the chances of violence against the object of delegitimation, but that object, sensing the imminent threat, is likely to consider counterviolence". In other words, and even apart from such deviance amplification scenarios, political and religious "violence is not a product of inherently violent people but of social and political circumstances".

Diplomatic incidents confirm, on the other hand, that in order to take advantage of Internet as a resource, and thus avoid the trappings of Internet terrorism, a hierarchy of sources must be recreated. There is no reason why this should not happen, even in the limited field of religious information or new religious movements. While celebrations of the Internet as a new and more democratic approach to information were probably premature, dystopic perspectives of manipulated Internet hierarchies subverting offline hierarchies, destroying responsibility and accountability in the process, need not necessarily prevail. Students educated in the use of the Internet since primary school (Garner and Gillingham 1996), religious leaders, reporters, and perhaps in the long run even French government officials, will learn to distinguish between the Web equivalents of tabloids and The New York Times. Gackenbach and Ellerman (1998) invite us to avoid the easy comparison with television, and ""take a lesson from radio" instead. Before the 1920s, and in some countries up to World War II, radio was dominated by thousands of small, independent local stations. Almost everybody was able to air literally anything from radio stations, originally with little or no control, and widespread fears were expressed that people would believe anything coming from them (perhaps originating from foreign spies and other subversives). "The exponential growth of the Internet", Gackenbach and Ellerman (1998, 11) note, "has happened before", with radio. Although some secret services did use radio stations for pre-war propaganda, ultimately the worst doom scenarios were never realized. Slowly but surely, it was not only technological evolutions and governmental regulations that limited the number of stations and created more accountability (a development we may, or may not, see on the Internet in the near future), but the ordinary citizen was now able to reconstruct and internalize a new hierarchy of information sources, including radio. It is true that, after a few years, information hierarchy frames had to be reconstructed and re-internalized in order to include television, and today we face the Internet. Technologies, however, are also social, and technological determinism has been largely debunked as a positivistic fallacy. While vigilance against information terrorism via the Internet is in order, the best weapon against any form of information terrorism will ultimately be the integration of new sources into the already existing and internalized hierarchy of information sources. Education, social science, and courts of law (reconstructing new meanings to cater for concepts such as copyright or defamation as applied to cyberspace) will each have a major role to play in this eminently human enterprise.


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1. In Latin America, left-wing guerrillas have targeted Mormon chapels and missionaries as quintessential U.S. cultural agents.

2. Orion, like several similar publications, also cares little for copyright. It reproduced an interview with Swiss scholar Jean-François Mayer from a Belgian magazine without his knowledge or permission (Jean-François Mayer, personal communication, June 1999).

3. Another interesting Italian case concerns a small political organization known as Forza Nuova ("The New Force": http://www.forzanuova.org), that participated in the 1999 European Parliament elections in association with the controversial Southern League. The latter should not be confused with the larger Northern League, and is led by Giancarlo Cito, former mayor of Taranto and charged in June 1999 with racketeering and co-operation with organized crime. Forza Nuova calls for the promotion of a "European identity" with extreme anti-American and anti-Jewish undertones. Terrorism in Italy is attributed by Forza Nuova to the covert operations of U.S. and Israeli intelligence services. On May 15, 1999 Forza Nuova launched its electoral campaign in Milan with a conference on "Lodges, lobbies, and cults", calling for laws to ban cults, freemasonry, and "New Age anti-national forces". Although it was able to enlist some mainline anti-cultists (including an anthropology professor associated with both mainline and fringe anti-cult movements in Italy), they had to share the podium with anti-Jewish activists and Holocaust negationists such as Jürgen Graf, sentenced to 18 months imprisonment in Switzerland in 1998 for racial discrimination. In turn, Graf is promoted by www.radioislam.org, the Stockholm-based Web site of Moroccan Islamic fundamentalist Ahmed Rami, well-known for his rabid anti-semitism and occasionally mentioning "cults" and "brainwashing". Several anti-cultists whose articles are reproduced, or quoted, on the Kelebek Web site attended the Forza Nuova electoral meeting in Milan.

4. Miguel Martinez of kelebekler.com writes about Watch Unto Prayer: "I do not share their theology, but the editors of watch.pair.com have had the courage to challenge some of the most powerful and least lovely people in the world. Perhaps in certain cases they tilt against windmills, but this only shows they are like Don Quixote. Maybe the Priory of Sion does not exist, but they have had the guts to face all the 'New Right', to say the names of those who intend to launch new wars of religion around the world. I do not know the editors of watch.pair.com personally, but they are honest people, something that cannot be said of everybody" (www.kelebekler.com/cesnur/txt/mig2.htm).

5. Not that scholarly credentials are accepted as such. According to Tilman Hausherr, "sociologists of religion who study 'new religions' are mostly cult apologists. Logic is not one of their skills" (message posted on alt.religion.scientology on May 29, 1999).

6. Hate E-mail occasionally includes threats of physical violence. For example, Zenon Panoussis (a well-known anti-cult cyberwarrior on alt.religion.scientology) E-mailed to me (copy to a number of colleagues) on July 5, 1999 a message threatening, inter alia, that: "If you want to be the donkey, we'll be happy to use the cane on you".

7. The undersigned. Given the keen interest of French intelligence services in the Internet and the Usenet (Destouche 1999), and the fact that they currently regard the fight against cults as a top priority, one may wonder whether these services are simply picking up "information" from the Internet, or whether they are also actively contributing to its propagation.

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