A wide variety of accusations and criticisms coming from different political and ideological corners are being leveled at social media these days, but referring to them as giving rise to “cult-like” communities might be a first.
Netflix has posted a full new documentary on YouTube that deals with various well known and notorious real-world cults, gives survivors a chance to share their experiences and also provides commentary aimed at explaining what a cult is, how it functions, and what motivates its leaders and followers.
But those who make it to the last five or so minutes of the documentary might be in for a bit of a surprise: “Cults, Explained” refers to several large and small social media platforms and online message boards as creating and hosting “cult-like” communities, although, not by name.
Instead, the reference is illustrated by a graphic that shows the logos of some very diverse online places: 4chan, Reddit, Gab, Facebook, and Bodybuilding.com among others. Cults are known to grow around a charismatic leader, who keeps the whole operation together – something that the documentary acknowledges and explores.
However, its makers state that online places of gathering are also legitimately cult-like, even if they are, as the narrator explains, “without a need for a leader.” But the film doesn't at all delve any deeper into why or how this may be the case.
The documentary finds fault with the nature of these communities that are said to provide a place of understanding and kinship to those who are alienated from society or otherwise disaffected. This may be sometimes true, but does it warrant the “cult-like” label?
The film goes on to say that these communities are bad for people simply because “they provide a home, they provide someone to listen to them.”
The documentary seems to argue its case by explaining the process by which people may become members of such social media sites or forums, including a “soft sell” that then moves on to more extreme messages and communities. YouTube's “recommend” feature is also mentioned as one way that can lead to “a spiral of radicalization.”
The film then makes a connection between several cases of mass shootings around the world and the fact their perpetrators either announced or live-streamed their crimes online, and the assertion that “these forums lead to physical violence.”