The theme of sects, or organizations with sectarian aberrations, seems to have lost importance in the public debate in recent years. However, the 2016-2017 Miviludes report seems to bear witness above all to a risk that is still very present, but which is taking on new faces. From large multinational organizations to Internet networks, we have been witnessing for several years a change in the forms that the sectarian phenomenon can take.
Miviludes’ 2016-2017 report points to this problem. Indeed, if President Serge Blisko admits that there is a weakening of certain large organizations such as Scientology for example, he refutes a decrease in the sectarian phenomenon, explaining that the number of reports received by the Mission per year has not significantly decreased (Thomasset, 2018).
Indeed, if it is less visible today, the phenomenon has not lost its importance. On the other hand, there is a spread of sectarian risk. In contrast to large pyramidal movements, small groups are organized mainly on the Internet (Joffrin, 2018). According to Miviludes, “This situation is all the more worrying because the “immediate” information thus obtained thanks to the Net is received without the necessary hindsight and without the elements disseminated having been previously verified or updated. ” (Miviludes). Alternative theories are flourishing on the Web, particularly in the fields of personal development or medicine, potentially allowing their authors to exercise a significant influence over those who follow them.
Moreover, due to the absence of common legal rules and the international nature of the Internet, the action of public authorities and mobilized associations is increasingly difficult (Miviludes, L’utilisation massive d’Internet comme vecteur de propagation du message sectaire.). The operating methods of this type of micro group, apart from external events, accentuate these complications in terms of identifying sectarian risks.
Moreover, and as explained in the Miviludes report, “The Internet factor plays a very important role through social networks, blogs or discussion forums: – either in the trivialization of apocalyptic theses, which by their anxiogenic nature can encourage the subsequent emergence of phenomena of control over people; – or in the real constitution of mini-groups, which directly expose their members to abuses of a sectarian nature”. In addition, some isolated individuals may themselves take advantage of these tools to exercise control over fragile or vulnerable people, sometimes leading them to commit certain acts harmful to themselves and their entourage.
These dangers were dramatically illustrated in February 2011, when Miviludes had to deal with an individual of Quebec origin who called himself “Flot”. The person in question prompted several people to take action that would suggest that they intended to end their lives. Lured by the promise of a “final ascent”, some of them have made arrangements with a notary or funeral directors, for example (Miviludes, Interministerial Report on Vigilance and Combating Sectarian Abuse, 2010). While this has mainly impacted French citizens, there are other examples of the dangers that sectarian aberrant microgroups can represent in Europe.
Social networks such as Facebook, Twitter or Youtube are preferred by some individuals or groups to convince their victims. In addition, it is more difficult for their relatives to realize that there is a danger, as everything happens behind the screen. The example of the Spanish minor Patricia Aguilar is very edifying in this respect. The young woman had been the victim of a “spiritual leader” living in Peru. Steven Manrique, who called himself “The Prince”, attracted his victims to this type of network in order to exploit them. Patricia Aguilar had gone to Peru to join him. There, she became pregnant with the guru who presented himself as a messenger of God. She has also suffered from malnutrition, sexual abuse and violence. Fortunately, the girl was found with the whole group (Patricia Aguilar was not the only victim) one year after her disappearance in the Amazon jungle. Steven Manrique was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison (Edelstam, 2019).
However, and contrary to popular belief about sectarian aberrations, there was no major structure or well-defined plan in place to exert influence on the girl. As several observers have pointed out, Steven Manrique wrote on the Internet with many orthographic errors. And during his trial, he “demonstrated a superficial level of knowledge”, and “the source of everything he says is the Internet” (Fowks, 2018), thus seeming to point to an individual with sometimes limited abilities and therefore, not in conformity with the standards found among leaders of superstructures such as the Church of Scientology for example. We are therefore witnessing, as has been the case in many aspects of our societies, a democratization of the ability of individuals and micro-organizations to exercise control over others.
Social networks, because of their operation on algorithms that promote interaction between people with similar opinions, provide a privileged instrument for this type of practice. Like the processes for distributing “fake news”, the criterion for presenting information on Facebook or Twitter, for example, is not accuracy, but rather the interest that the user may have in the information, and therefore the probability that he/she will click on what is suggested.
However, there are various ways to prevent this type of risk. In Germany, for example, media exercises have been set up in schools to train students to be more vigilant. In these lessons, they must, for example, recognize whether a story is true or false, or create conspiracy theories themselves and learn how to disseminate them. According to Ms. Mirijam Wiedemann, representative of the programme set up by the German Ministry of Youth, this is a relatively effective training (Edelstam, 2019).
While the apprehension of individuals or micro-organisations presenting sectarian aberrations is complicated by the emergence of the Internet and the format of social networks, it is nevertheless possible to put in place measures to prevent these dangers, even among the youngest.
Edelstam, A. (2019, Mai 29). How cults recruit via Internet. Récupéré sur Centre Roger Ikor. Centre Contre les Manipulations Mentales.: https://www.ccmm.asso.fr/how-cults-recruit-via-internet/
Fowks, J. (2018). El detenido por la captación de Patricia Aguilar, un egocéntrico que bebe de Internet. EL País.
Joffrin, L. (2018). Les mouvements sectaires rapetissent. Libération.
Miviludes. (2010). Rapport interministérielle de vigilance et de lutte contre les dérives sectaires. La documentation française.
Miviludes. (s.d.). L’utilisation massive d’Internet comme vecteur de propagation du message sectaire. Récupéré sur Où la déceler ? International.: https://www.derives-sectes.gouv.fr/quest-ce-quune-d%C3%A9rive-sectaire/o%C3%B9-la-d%C3%A9celer/international
Thomasset, F. (2018). Les sectes, moins visibles mais bien présentes. La Croix.