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Response to VICE hit-piece on Belzebuub

Brad Casey’s hit-piece is a stereotypical, sensationalized attack on alternative spirituality and author Belzebuub. This article sets the record straight by explaining the facts Casey conveniently overlooked and omitted from his article.

In a slapdash piece of clickbait reporting, former VICE intern Brad Casey attended a free meditation-based course in a public library, bought a book, and then wrote a lazy hit-piece trying to present this everyday turn-of-events as infiltrating a ‘cult’, and frame the author Belzebuub as a ‘cult leader’. This article analyses his claims and reveals the facts that were hidden or misrepresented to support his false narrative. It also examines the complete uncritical surrender of supposed “independent” journalists to the narratives spun by anti-cult lobby groups. This collusion reinforces negative stereotypes against alternative spirituality, and shows the conformist agenda of so-called “alternative” media. This is an example of hit-piece journalism of the worst kind.

Cult coverage sells, especially in our fear-based media landscape. The current media bias towards presenting alternative spiritual groups in a deranged, psychotic, or shameful way stems directly from the lucrative nature of publishing such content. Of course, not all alternative groups are harmful, in fact most are peaceful, law-abiding and enriching to the community. Yet once the “cult” stigma is applied to a group, the adverse effects of that label become extremely difficult to overcome. The end result of sustained negative media representation of alternative groups, and the omission of coverage of benign or helpful groups, is a loss in diversity of spiritual options and a narrowing of spiritual choice. Even more harmful is the phenomenon created by “crazy cult” coverage, whereby discrimination against alternative groups suddenly becomes socially acceptable, and even encouraged as a valid form of satire.

Making Money out of Mocking Others

While satire is often used by publications to present themselves as anti-establishment, counterculture or “edgy” this is often at the expense of others and has a very real human cost.

While satire provides a valuable form of commentary in the realm of politics and human behavior, there is a dark side to this type of humor. Satire taken to the extreme can serve as a license for unethical journalists to publish anything they desire while simultaneously skirting accountability for doing so. This satirical ‘shield’ can be employed by publications that rely heavily on parody to present themselves as anti-establishment and counterculture. Publications of this type that deal exclusively in the ‘hip’,  ‘sarcastic’, and ‘zany’ are surprisingly one of the latest channels responsible for smothering spiritual choice.

Plenty of alternative media outlets rely on advertising revenue generated from viewership (or readership) to function, just like traditional media outlets. Video views and article “shares” equate to larger audiences and increased ad earnings. If stories about “crazy cults” sell, then it makes sense from a business perspective to deliver a continuous stream of “wacky cult” stories to audiences. Fringe groups or “cults” also provide an easy target for satirical publications looking for the butt of their next report. A major reason for this is the firmly established narrative that currently exists in society, propagated by the “anti-cult” movement, regarding alternative spiritual groups, how they’re structured, what people do in them, and the supposed harmful effect that they have on the rest of “normal” society.

Cult coverage by counterculture media (which portrays itself as explicitly irreverent to mainstream societal values), differs from mainstream media coverage in its tone and approach. Articles in this variety of alternative publication can be crafted with a flippant, no-holds-barred attitude, and embellished with expletives, innuendo, and drug references for excitement. By delivering content in this manner, counterculture media often appeals to younger crowds, under the facade of being a trendy publication covering borderline scandalous news topics that regular news outlets dare not touch.

The driving need for consistent publication of shocking and “entertaining” stories in the 24-7 media cycle causes misrepresentation and distortion of facts which falsely portray groups and individuals as harmful.

For publications producing this type of content, however, the requirement to consistently churn out “edgy” stories comes with limitations. This is especially true in their treatment of alternative groups. Consider for a moment whether the driving need for new exposés could actually be enough to cause the distorted reporting of facts; i.e. if a reporter came across an alternative group that wasn’t harmful, but could easily be framed as a “cult” for a derisory story, might they be tempted to write about it in this way? Well, unfortunately this happens more than you would expect. In this article, one such instance is explored, where a group of spiritual practitioners in Canada running free classes in public libraries was accused of being a cult, and an author, Mark Pritchard who writes with the pen name Belzebuub, whose book was available there, was branded a cult leader.

It’s worth considering whether professional reporting ethics can withstand pressing editorial deadlines that demand shocking, entertaining stories.

The Toxic Alliance of the Media with the Anti-Cult Movement

Ask your average person to tell you what they know about cults, and they’ll likely mention some combination of strange beliefs, a charismatic leader, chanting, brainwashing, crime (such as coercion of funds from unsuspecting participants), sexual deviance, and isolation of group members. The reason that these stereotypes exist today is because of the cultural narrative that has been methodically broadcast with increasing frequency since the catalyst tragedy at Jonestown in 1978. Dutifully spread by newspapers, magazines, current events shows, movies, and more recently through the internet, the overarching message conveyed is that alternative spiritual groups are a problem — something to shun and treat with suspicion and fear. But where did this message come from?

A relief associated with the “Cult of Mithras”. Mithraism was a mystery religion practiced in Rome between the 1st and 4th century. It is only recently that the word “cult” has taken on pejorative connotations. Photo by Lalupa, by [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The anti-cult movement, comprised of parties who are opposed to new religious movements (NRMs), has a lot to do with it. The basic mechanism of the anti-cult movement involves branding alternative spiritual groups as deviant and dangerous to the rest of moral society. Atrocity stories from apostates and “expert” opinions from career deprogrammers have been provided to the mainstream media for decades by members of the anti-cult movement in an effort to thwart the growth of alternative spiritual groups, essentially delegitimizing their right to exist. The anti-cult movement has been so effective in spreading its message that it has even managed to bastardize the word “cult,” which only two hundred years ago meant “to worship,” but today is synonymous with deviance, extreme isolation, and crime.

The patchwork network of parties forming the anti-cult movement has grown to include parents unhappy with their adult children’s spiritual choices; entrepreneurs who “help” people leave new religious movements for hefty fees; and religious dogmatists, atheists, and anyone else whose worldview is threatened by alternative spiritual values, or who stands to gain financially or politically from the suppression of NRMs. This is especially problematic due to an inherent clashing of values, with alternative spiritual practitioners sometimes choosing lifestyles that differ from the rest of society.

The criteria posited by the anti-cult movement to define a “cult” are so vague, general, and sweeping that even sports fans could be included. Public domain photo found here.

Critics of the anti-cult movement point towards a history of dubious practices such as deprogramming, recent scientific research debunking the notion of brainwashing, abductions and assaults committed and sanctioned by anti-cult organizations against participants of NRMs,  and extremely broad cult labelling criteria which can be repurposed to fit nearly any organized group of people. Dedicated sport fan clubs, participants of fundamentalist religions, or even the members of the anti-cult movement themselves could be labelled as potential cults depending on the interpretation of the criteria.

One would expect to see traditional media outlets, controlled by powerful corporations interested in maintaining the most profitable form of “status quo,” to be the main backers of this type of rhetoric — which they are — but another disturbing trend has emerged. Some publications present the image of being alternative and counterculture, while at the same time publishing articles reinforcing mainstream stereotypes. One such stereotype is the bashing of alternative spiritual groups as “deranged cults,” a message which when sustained and repeated through many publications has the effect of eroding spiritual choice and alternative groups altogether.

A Study Publication: Article in Vice Magazine

To see this mechanism in action, let’s take a look at one sample article from the ‘edgy’ publication Vice, which prides itself on newsworthy items that are provocative and off-beat. Alongside a colorful array of stories examining the latest in topics like drug culture and homosexuality, a main standby for their readership is their coverage of fringe “cults.” Under this umbrella can be found articles, documentary videos, and editorial cartoons addressing every conceivable type of alternative group (both spiritual and secular), and treated mostly with ridicule. The more fringe and non-conformist the beliefs or actions of a given group, the more desirable a target for Vice.

Interestingly, although VICE markets itself as alternative and counterculture (in order to appeal to a younger audience) it’s a multi-billion-dollar company partly owned by Disney and 21st Century Fox. It also has James Murdoch, son of Fox mogul Rupert Murdoch, sitting on its Board of Directors. So despite appearing “edgy”, VICE is just another in a long line of publications controlled by mainstream companies and promotes the same anti-alternative spirituality agenda as other major media outlets. Image made available by Crunchbase.

In one Vice article the publication employed the assistance of then-intern Brad Casey, a self-labeled “gypsy zen degenerate” who, when not tackling alternative spiritual groups, kept busy publishing material like interviews with people about what crime they would commit if they could get away with it, and on giving his girlfriend drugs and how funny her drug-induced behavior was.

Although Casey holds no apparent formal qualifications or university degree (which may explain his lack of understanding regarding reporting ethics and fact checking of sources), the most important qualification to write for Vice apparently, is eccentricity. Anything goes on Vice, literally, and so armed with a zest for crazy stunts and a “couldn’t-care-less” attitude, this one-time intern penned a story that was just bizarre enough to strike the balance between shocking and believable.

The Journalist Is the Story

So what exactly does the article in question cover, and how does it fit into the anti-cult mechanism? The reporter describes his experience attending a free public course on astral projection which was held by an alternative non-profit organization, Mystic Seekers Toronto. He attends the class held in a public library one hour a week over eight weeks, purchases a book by author Mark Pritchard (who writes with the pen name Belzebuub) for a suggested donation of $5, on which the course was based, tries out some exercises for astral projection, and ultimately fails to astral project. Not the most exceptional of stories… but with gross exaggeration and a penchant for bias rather than objectivity, the reporter manages to transform the otherwise common event of attending a class in a public library with up to 100 other people a week into an “entertaining”, albeit false, narrative of infiltrating a “cult.”

Casey discards the dry facts of what actually happened at the course (that he attended as part of the normal group of people seen in the picture above) and instead reports on his own emotions, inner dialogue, and imaginings as the main content of the story.

The way he does this is by discarding the dry facts of what actually happened at the course and instead reporting on his own emotions, inner dialogue, and imaginings as the main content of the story…the reporter literally is the story in this case. He works to portray himself as a relatable, carefree guy willing to try out something a little bit different so that his audience can experience the adventure vicariously, reading all about it from the safety of their smartphones.

This approach differs from traditional journalism, which aims to provide an objective account of an event in which the facts are balanced and dissenting viewpoints are provided to give the fullest picture of the story. By focusing on his own biased perceptions and illustrating events with ample sarcasm, the reporter positions himself safely behind a wall of satire. Doing this allows him to escape accountability for the disingenuous material he writes, the people he misrepresents, and ultimately the consequences of engaging in deceit. Because his entire article is framed as one big joke, demeaning others becomes “fun,” with the added benefit of boosting his own role in the story to that of a kind of “hero,” not responsible for any real harm because, after all, he’s just writing about outwitting a “wacky cult.”

The reporter portrays the spiritual gathering he attends as deviant by gradually introducing selected cult stereotypes into his story which have been popularized by the anti-cult movement. As the reporter recounts his perceptions of the course, he frames the narrative through the lens of stigma, transforming mundane events into something dark and strange.

The reporter chose to portray his experience by relying on hearsay, gossip and rants from anonymous internet trolls, rather than portraying the actual facts. It’s not the first time this reporter has sensationalized a story at the expense of others.

With this approach, the reporter obtains generous leeway in terms of needing to actually report the truth of events. Instead of checking facts and sources, the reporter, as we will see, relies heavily on hearsay, gossip, and rants from anonymous internet trolls, and presents situations wildly out of context, so as to string together a distorted, yet much-more-exciting-than-real-life narrative of voluntarily attending a free course in a library.

It should be noted that this particular reporter has a previous history of dishonesty that has been well documented by ‘A Voice for Men’, another alternative group. On their site, contributor Dean Esmay calls Casey out for ambush journalism, and flip flopping sides of an issue depending on who he is talking to.

In the instance of the course in the library, rather than introducing himself to the course instructors at the beginning to let them know he was writing a story, he instead chose to use duplicity and withhold his true purpose for attending. We’ll further examine these tactics below and see how they are emboldened by the anti-cult mechanism.

Dishonesty: More Exciting (and Convenient) Than Reality

Casey claimed to have stumbled across the course he attended out of a curiosity in mysticism and the new age, but given his association with VICE and history of condemning alternative groups, is that really the case?

Although the reporter writes as if he has stumbled into this astral travel course happenstance, as a mere byproduct of his curiosity about the mystical and new age (as he puts it), this motivation is questionable. At the time he decided to attend the course, he was already a published contributor for Vice, having written, among other things, a derisive exposé of another alternative group before directly emailing the group he had ridiculed to ask for assistance in writing a second article about them. This is clearly a person who enjoys controversy and is comfortable assuming the role of bully for the sake of a ‘good story’.  Given that his publisher, Vice, has a plain agenda to ridicule alternative groups (i.e. they have a regular section dedicated to “cult coverage”), what are the odds that the reporter attended the course in good faith, out of a genuine interest to learn?

Yet this is exactly how he sets up the article from the beginning, because it fits his purpose of crafting a bizarre story of the “mystical rabbit hole” he allegedly fell through. This introduction builds suspense much more effectively than stating outright that he attended the course hoping to find evidence of “cult activity” on which to report.

For example, in order to piece together his story that he ‘accidently’ wandered into a “cult” and ‘escaped’, while maintaining himself as a shrewd figure compared to the rest of the “lonely” participants with “problems”, the reporter has to repeatedly justify his continued voluntary attendance week after week.  He frequently states that he’s going to suspend his disbelief one more week, and “play along” for one more class so that he can see if this astral travel stuff really works. One gets the feeling he’s really only sticking around hoping something juicy will happen.

In all likelihood, the reporter actually needed to stay for the full course in order to try and obtain his story. The fact that he writes for Vice, which regularly publishes “cult”-related articles, makes one wonder if he might have even been paid to attend. The reporter, while implying on the one hand that he’s gotten himself into a strange, slightly scary experience, on the other hand dismisses his reason for not leaving said experience immediately because of his professed interest in astral travel.  This however does not really make sense when he repeatedly mocks the notion of astral travel throughout the article.

A depiction of astral projection from the age-old Taoist tradition. Many ancient cultures have understood, used or referenced this practice. Public domain image found here.

The reporter’s motivations are further revealed when he describes his own lack of success at astral projection. He implies that his failed attempts at the exercises are due to the notion of astral travel being fabricated, and that the course was contrived entirely for financial gain. Never mind that references to astral projection can be found in both ancient Western and Eastern texts, and the entire course was offered free of charge. What the reporter also fails to mention is that over the eight weeks the course ran, multiple participants shared success stories during the weekly feedback portion of the class.

He witnessed these positive outcomes that people shared, yet purposely withheld any mention of them in his narrative. Why? Because it simply did not fit the purpose of his article. Had the reporter ventured to say that some course attendees claimed success that would have shown some honesty and interest in genuinely reporting events. Yet the success of other course participants is blotted from the record because it does not fit his purpose.

If the journalist is willing to use dishonesty for the convenience of concocting a sensational story, how can anything else he presents be trusted?

The Cult Frame-Up

Some of the attendees at the astral travel course run by Mystic Seekers Toronto, out of a crowd of around 100 people on opening night.

This penchant for misrepresenting facts while glorifying his own opinions and feelings reveals the true motivation for the reporter’s sarcastic piece: to mock the group as a “cult” for the benefit of entertainment, and in doing so create a story out of a mundane event while simultaneously boosting his own status to that of a funny, risk-taking infiltrator.

He carries out his objective by drawing on the anti-cult narrative discussed earlier — by introducing “cult criteria” onto the group he is attending. Since the anti-cult movement has decades of emotionally-fueled propaganda about cults firmly lodged in the public subconscious, all that the journalist needs to do is plug into that narrative, i.e. that alternative spiritual groups are a dangerous problem to be feared, and voila, instant story.

Many people fall for this cult narrative, especially after hearing it repeatedly in news and other major publications, and as a result self-censor when presented with the option of exploring spiritual alternatives. There are plenty of individuals who need no convincing to stay away from a group that is labeled a potential cult, but in regular tabloid news style, they love to read far-fetched claims about what happens within them. The reporter’s own self-portrait as a zany, free-spirited fellow aims to reinforce his narrative that he is exactly the kind of guy willing to go out and attend a “suspicious” mystical group to get the inside scoop about what’s really going on. Once embedded within his target, the reporter indiscriminately superimposes layer after layer of stigma over what he experiences in order to insinuate the group he attends is deviant.

We can observe this through several specific examples in his article. The reporter starts by casually classifying the entire group of attendees (numbering over one hundred at the beginning) as unwell, based on the comments of three individuals on the first day of the class. When these three members of the public, who had only just turned up for the first time to the course, made references to “healing” the reporter distorts the feedback to represent the entire gathering. He implies the group is full of sick people, looking for mystical and physical healing. Thus, three newcomers’ initial comments represent everyone, and the entire group is characterized as feeble and unwell…exactly the type of folks which are portrayed as being easy prey for cults. What he fails to mention is that the majority of the people who came to the class were just interested in learning to astral project, and made comments throughout the rest of the course to this effect.

An example of Casey’s bizarre reporting is his condemnation of teaching meditation, which he describes as “perverse”. Meditation is a centuries-old practice to train and focus the mind, and is widely accepted in both a spiritual and secular context to be beneficial to one’s well-being.

Emphasizing a few select comments from a group of over 100 people also allows the reporter to infer that the organizers of the group are predatory and exploitative of vulnerable people. The reporter describes the course as “perverse” for teaching a meditation practice for astral projection when, in his view, “everyone” in attendance was searching for solutions to their “very real problems”. The integrity and motivations of the organizers are judged based on the comments of a few people from the public who arrived for the first time to the event, while the majority of people who attended simply out of an interest in astral projection were not mentioned at all.

The reporter further uses sarcasm and suggestive language to frame course attendees as gullible and weak-minded. When discussing an exercise involving astral projection to the pyramids and the possibility of meeting others also there, he suggests that no-one else attending the course thought to question who the other people were that they would meet. In fact, it had already been discussed in the course that there were people attending similar classes in other locations who would be participating in this practice. By presenting himself as the only one capable of discernment and critical thinking, the reporter casually implies that no-one else actually had the brain capacity to ask questions, i.e. everyone else is a “blind believer” in what he deems to be spiritual mumbo jumbo, while he alone is a level-headed skeptic.

This idea of the reporter being the only one to “question” is also used to frame the group as “secretive” and as withholding information. The reporter asking this question to an instructor after a class is presented as an exercise in investigative journalism, and her response is portrayed as vague and shifty. What was nothing more than a short exchange at the conclusion of the 8 week course is taken as proof that the group has something to hide – and the reporter takes it upon himself to uncover it.

Besides branding the attendees as vulnerable people who are unable to think critically, the journalist further hints that the group is a cult by utilizing another major concept of anti-cult criteria — brainwashing. This is such a widely recognized cult stereotype that it appears to be an almost mandatory inclusion in order to craft a convincing narrative. He finds just the thing in the course to mock with implications of brainwashing by appealing to a Western worldview and sensibility of what’s “normal.” Mantras.

Widespread Spiritual Exercises Labelled as Obscene

Mantras (like the mantra Om pictured here) also became a target for the reporter, despite having been practised successfully for thousands of years.

Yes, mantras — the pronouncing of vowels and words aloud or internally in order to quiet the mind and focus the attention. As exotic as they may seem to Westerners who aren’t familiar with them, mantras have been used successfully for thousands of years in Eastern cultures to quieten the mind and access heightened spiritual perceptions. Far from being a relic of the past, mantras are an integral part of many vibrant spiritual traditions today, such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Yet when the reporter encounters mantras during the astral course, he uses it as a convenient way to introduce labels such as “groupthink” and imply impaired judgement among participants who pronounce them.

Knowing that a large portion of Vice readers might be unfamiliar or even uncomfortable with mantras, this becomes an easy aspect of the course to ridicule. The journalist, when recounting the two weekly course sessions which focused on a variety of mantras for astral projection, suggests that although it feels great to participate in mantras (which he labels “groupthink”), there’s actually something wrong with using them. Sarcasm is used to convey the message that mantras are actually for lonely, feeble-minded losers. Unfortunately, with this line of humor the reporter also includes millions of people in non-Western cultures throughout the world who still use this effective spiritual technique today.

Learning to concentrate and focus the mind can develop a sense of peace and well-being, improve efficiency, and reduce anxiety and depression, but the reporter thinks this is a bad thing?

Another topic the journalist perverts is concentration/meditation exercises. In consistent form, he mocks the fact that people were encouraged to learn how to gain control of their thoughts with an exercise of concentration. Rather than explaining how concentration exercises help people gain control over what they are thinking about, the reporter flips this on its head and implies that learning to focus the mind is actually another form of brainwashing.

He also introduces the notion of isolation by exaggerating advice given by an instructor to make astral projection work. He twists the advice (that to be successful you have to persist; something that would apply equally to any new endeavor) into a fanatical claim of needing to completely ignore other people and important events in life in order to astral project.

The journalist also finds an easy target to mock when he finds a video of a Mystic Seekers Toronto ceremony observing the winter solstice in which some of the volunteer instructors and other students had previously participated. In the ceremony, people were wearing simple costumes, which can be found at most traditional folk and pagan celebrations of the solstice upon which the ceremony was based. And additionally, despite the fact that most people would have seen priests, yogis, rabbis, and monks all wear some type of special dress during a religious ceremony, when the reporter finds out that people who practice a non-mainstream form of religion wore this type of clothing during their own spiritual ceremony, he treats it as outrageous. He implies that even though normal clothing was worn during the library class by the presenters, robes were the garment of choice outside of the class, i.e. there is some weird “cult dress code” being hidden behind the scenes from course participants. This is a typical exaggeration that he fabricates for humor, sarcasm, and to make his “undercover operation” sound dramatic.

It’s common in many spiritual groups and cultures to wear ceremonial robed garments to celebrate special occasions. In this image from left to right is a ritual being performed at a temple in Thessaloniki, Greece by members of the revival group YSEE (Photo by YSEE [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons), a Druid Order ceremony celebrating the Spring Equinox in London, UK (Public domain image found here), and Mystic Seekers Toronto at a ceremony celebrating the Winter Solstice in Canada in 2011.

Fabrication of a Leader

Another anti-cult stereotype the journalist employs is hinting that although the teachers of the course are what he calls “nice people,” there is a shadowy, dubious leader behind it all, fooling the simple people on the ground and waiting in the wings to steal participant’s money. Enter the “cult leader”. The allusion to crime and suggestion of financial embezzlement, especially at the hands of a “cult leader”, is a universal claim used by the anti-cult movement, so including this element in his article is pivotal to making it work. The only problem is, the group had no leader, and so the journalist is forced to completely fabricate one for the sake of his story.

Mark Pritchard (Belzebuub) interviewed on Rogers TV in Canada in 2006 for his book on astral travel and dreams, which Casey chose to purchase.

The way the journalist introduces a leader to his narrative, despite the lack of proof, is by latching on to the author, Mark Pritchard who writes with the name Belzebuub. The only connection between Belzebuub and the independent organization that was running the course (Mystic Seekers Toronto) is that they had a book by Belzebuub available for purchase at their course. That’s it – an author’s book on astral travel was available as complementary reading to a course being run on astral travel in a library.  Keep in mind that the books were being offered at a “suggested donation” of $5 – a point that even the reporter mentions but glosses over. Nonetheless, the reporter seizes this as the opportunity that he needs to portray a “powerful leader” at the helm.

Making this fictitious leap gives the reporter the “extremist” element needed for his secretive cult narrative. He makes references throughout his article to “the leader,” implying that Belzebuub is in control of the organization and plunders funds. He even goes so far as to imply that Belzebuub is the reason for a bad dream that the reporter has, and strangely, that Belzebuub may even be preventing him from astral projecting.

Given that financial exploitation is central to the “cult” narrative, the reporter makes pained efforts to continually assert that Belzebuub must be getting rich off this organization’s activity. However, the reporter’s total reliance on the sale of Belzebuub’s books to justify his claims show the weakness of his argument. In fact, Belzebuub did not and never has received any money for his books or other works.

If the reporter had done some basic fact-checking, he would have found that Belzebuub has always provided his work for free and has renounced payment and royalties from all his books and writings. The reporter would also have found that the books available for purchase at the course had actually been donated by a foundation Belzebuub was involved in to a non-profit organization that the volunteers running the course were part of, so they could sell them to raise funds for their projects. So apart from the fact that the books were being offered for purchase by donation at a price well below production cost, any proceeds from their sale did not even go to Belzebuub or benefit him in any way. In reality the opposite was true – Belzebuub gave away any profit or royalties from his work so that others could gain the financial reward instead. Omitting these details was crucial in constructing the reporter’s false “cult” narrative.

At $5 a book with only a handful of attendees buying one, any amount raised by the organization for their fundraising was minimal. Yet, the reporter makes a big deal out of it by alleging that donated books offered for less than the cost of a meal were funding Belzebuub’s supposed lavish lifestyle, and which apparently made Belzebuub not just an author but a “cult leader”.

The course was run free of charge and neither the volunteer instructors or Belzebuub received any money.

It is telling that the reporter fails to mention that he was not asked or required to part with any money at all during his attendance, nor did he witness any solicitation of funds. There was no obligation at all to spend a cent to participate in any of the activities. From the reporter’s own account, he attended a full 8 week course that was free of charge, and chose to purchase a book that was available (not mandatory) at a suggested donation of $5.

Had the volunteer instructors of the course or Belzebuub charged any money for their time and effort, the reporter could not have attended the course for free or obtained the book for a small donation. The costs associated with the course such as venue hire and advertising were all borne by volunteers and not passed on to others, and the same was true for the donated books. Nonetheless, the reporter asserts without any proof that the free, donation-based course and book are all a front for Belzebuub to make money.

Another telling aspect of the reporter’s motivations in attending the course is that his supposed discovery of a “cult” and it’s “leader” only happen at the conclusion of the last session of the course he had been attending weekly for the last 2 months, and after he had read the whole book by Belzebuub that he had purchased at the start. Could it be that having spent the last 2 months hoping to find something wacky or sinister to write about, that when faced with the end of the course and nothing strange to report, he had to create it?

The reporter’s “big discovery” was simply a URL printed on a piece of paper that anyone in attendance could take, and which referenced a public website with public forums.

In his determination to ‘expose a cult’ and provide a climactic ending for his article, the reporter uses both the idea of a leader he has concocted and an implication that he is able to wrangle some juicy, top-secret information out of one of the volunteers at the end of the course. His big “discovery” is a URL printed on a piece of paper (which had been prepared ahead of the class) and which was available for anyone in attendance to take. Yet the reporter states that he was able to “keep pressing” an instructor until he obtained the URL to this public website where he finds… public forums! Full of public posts.

Of course public forums aren’t the revelation of the century, but by framing this website URL as a real breakthrough, the reporter can then further misrepresent a selected forum reply he “discovers” at the website. The reply he chooses is a response to someone new to the forum asking where Belzebuub lives. The reporter fixates on a reply from a forum participant saying that where he lives is not public (as if it’s unusual for people to withhold publishing their home address on the internet). The reporter decides that since Belzebuub does not publish his home address on an internet forum for random people to see, he “commands” “secrecy”.

Reliance on Anonymous Testimony

Casey relies on gossip and lies from anonymous online trolls to contruct his story, and fails to fact-check any of it.

When the reporter visits Belzebuub’s website, he finds a blog post that discusses the actions of a few individuals that engaged in a campaign of harassment, trolling, and cyberbullying against Belzebuub and a number of his colleagues. Even though all the cult criteria the reporter superficially applied to the group has thus far provided crucial building blocks for his “entertaining” yarn, the crowning jewel comes in the reporter’s discovery of the conflict mentioned on the site. This conflict, in the form of unverified anonymous claims from apostates — people who had left their former spiritual beliefs and become vocally opposed to them  — is just what he needs in order elevate his ordinary public library class to the heights of a “shocking” cult exposé. Not letting a good conflict go to waste, the reporter states that he is able to discover not only this apostate testimony (which he uncritically accepts without question), but also one mentally unstable person’s rants to themselves about Belzebuub and Mystic Seekers Toronto. When the reporter comes across these accusations online, they fit into the story which he so badly needs to frame in a certain light to get it published on Vice, so he blindly embraces the gossip as fact despite the extreme, malicious, and unverified nature of the claims.

Keep in mind that this is more than one person hearing gossip and then passing it on to another…this is a reporter making a conscious decision to republish malicious lies that he has found online without fact checking his sources. In this case, the information he uncritically accepts comes from anonymous online trolls, some of whom had legal measures taken against them in order to make their unlawful behavior stop. Despite these facts, their false narratives fit the story he wanted to publish and were therefore too irresistible to pass up.

The reporter certainly fell into a “rabbit hole” as he states, but one that instead of leading him to discover a “cult” caught him up in a web of lies and unverified claims from internet trolls and bullies.

What we see happen in the end is that the reporter does indeed fall through a “rabbit hole” as he states in his article, but rather than one that leads to discovering a “cult,” it drops him straight into a web of lies and unverified claims from internet trolls and bullies. This web of lies and unverified claims was enough “proof” for the reporter to publicly state that a cult leader truly exists in the form of the author Belzebuub, when the only connection present was a book being studied in a free public library course. The reporter takes further liberties and implies that the paltry amount of voluntary funds donated at the course, which incidentally would not have even covered the cost to rent the library room and print advertising materials, was enough money to make his imagined leader wealthy.

Dehumanization of Alternative Spiritual Practitioners

Had this been a credible reporter, fact-checking his sources would have revealed that he was relying on anonymous internet trolls and concocted apostate testimony to clinch his narrative. But apparently to the reporter in this example, and the larger media company which published his derisive piece, if something is published on the internet, it must be true. Since his actual objective was to draw the reader through a contrived, sensational experience, no alternate point of view was sought from course participants or instructors, because it didn’t support his mocking tale. All positive outcomes that people had during the course (such as astral projecting, clearer dreams, and experiencing moments of inner quietude during meditation exercises) were absent from the final story, casualties of sensationalistic journalism.

What we see happening in this particular publication is symptomatic of a larger problem where alternative spirituality is suppressed and mocked in media outlets, especially when it is lucrative to do so. The reporter gets his flippant, sarcastic yarn published at a trendy media outlet, and the media company adds another wacky cult story to its lineup. In this manner, the stereotypes put in place by the anti-cult mechanism are conveniently used by a large corporation for its benefit and enrichment. Ironically in this case, the media outlet in question masquerades as counterculture, an agent speaking out against social conventions, and yet uses its power and resources to shun and mock that which is truly alternative.

Conclusion

Weaknesses in the media industry leave publications vulnerable to exploitation by those with agendas, like the anti-cult lobby. As a result, the increasing lack of fact-checking and the disposition of media outlets towards sensationalism is greatly affecting people’s freedom of choice in religion and spirituality.

In this era of fake news and clickbait stories, it’s getting harder for people to rely on media outlets to provide accurate and balanced reporting. Faced with falling revenues and the 24-hour news cycle, media agencies are competing with each other to churn out stories in quick succession that will draw in readers. As a result, long-standing principles of journalism like fact-checking and verification of sources are suffering and in many cases totally absent.

This weakness in the media industry leaves it vulnerable to exploitation by those with agendas, whether ideological, political, or commercial. Sensationalized, false, and distorted information can be fed to time-poor journalists with looming deadlines, who are inclined to publish anything that might appeal to readers. This in turn shapes people’s perceptions of what is good or bad, true or false, right or wrong, and creates a vicious self-reinforcing cycle as people begin to look for deviance where there is none.

One such player that has skillfully mastered the media in furthering its agenda is the anti-cult lobby. Having fed the media a steady diet of sensationalism through decades of claiming that alternative spirituality is unsavory, western society is now conditioned to fear and reject anything labelled a “cult”. At the same time, a kind of morbid curiosity towards anyone or anything saddled with this unfortunate label has been encouraged, and so the media thrives on these kind of stories. Consequently, a type of co-dependency between the media and the anti-cult movement has formed, which is ultimately destructive to social cohesion and individual liberty.  The example of VICE magazine discussed in this article illustrates these different agendas at work, and highlights the importance of correcting disinformation and lies perpetuated by the media.

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