"..any spiritual seeker can hand-select their guru, clicking through an endless stream of glossy websites, high-definition lectures and social media feeds to find the exact set of answers they crave.
Once they settle on a guru — or a handful — YouTube and Facebook’s binge-friendly structures can make the indoctrination process faster than ever. New students don’t have to wait for the next seminar, or save for the next retreat. Instead, they can dive into hours of videos, join online message boards and start chasing enlightenment within moments of learning a guru’s name.
Stevens and his partner scrolled through a Facebook page with 300,000 followers and an Instagram account with 20,000 more. They read the motivational quotes and posts announcing events that drew hundreds of seekers, and right below them saw photos of Massaro’s lavish lifestyle: Luxury international resorts, fine cigars and a pair of girlfriends.
The detectives watched Massaro's endless feed of YouTube videos, both on his official channel and one that leaked clips of his ever-wilder claims. They watched as Massaro morphed from a 22-year-old with floppy hair and a thick Dutch accent into a self-described “wanderer,” an upper-density spirit who descended onto this lower-density planet to upgrade civilization.
Uma (Inder) tried to cut off members from outside influence:
“Use of Facebook was shamed and for certain members Uma prohibited it. Cult members were encouraged to spend time largely with each other. Outside connections were labeled by Uma as ‘leaks in the shared container’ of practice. Over time cult members became more and more isolated within the cult.”
While some members lived in Bali, others would travel to Bali several times a year to study with her. Some would go to Bali for several months out of the year or just a few weeks during a retreat. But members report it was easy for others to get sucked in regardless of how long they stayed. Uma then used an online forum to keep control over members.
The online Google message board forum is “what tied things together internationally.” This digital platform allowed Uma to have active cult members in the “US, UK, Canada, Scandanavia, Russia, Mexico, Japan and elsewhere.”
Participation in the online forum was required of members regardless of where they were. The online chats consisted of in-fighting, sharing compromising information, discussing consciousness, in-depth descriptions of sex and Uma’s controlling dictates. All of this was used to control and even blackmail devotees. As one describes, “Members often spend the entire day verbally abusing others, confessing, and in group processing.”
One former member reflects about the time in the forums and spent in discussion groups in Bali:
“The sheer amount of time we stayed involved in them created isolation from other people. The environment was deliberately creating extreme psychological pressure (“break down”), and there have been sporadic instances of physical violence as well, as well as explicit and implicit threats of violence.”
The message board was how Uma kept her controlling influence over members:
“The forum was a place for us to pour our deepest thoughts and feelings out, and to receive Uma’s ever-poetic reflection on where we are “in False ID,” so that we can liberate the true self. Ultimately, the goal was dying, while alive. Dying into God.”
Former Google designer and ethicist Tristan Harris
lays out the most common ways we're being manipulated on his blog. And as he explains, all of them use something called intermittent variable rewards.
The easiest way to understand this term is by imagining a slot machine. You pull the lever to win a prize, which is an intermittent action linked to a variable reward. Variable meaning you might win, or you might not. In the same way you refresh your Facebook updates to see if you've won. Or you swipe right on Tinder to see if you've won.
This is the most obvious way social feedback drives platform engagement, but others are harder to spot.
You know when you open Instagram or Twitter and it takes a few moments to load updates? That's no accident. Again, expectation is part of what makes intermittent variable rewards so addictive. This is because without that three-second delay, Instagram wouldn't feel variable. There's no sense of will I win? because you'd know instantly. So the delay isn't the app loading. It's the cogs spinning on the slot machine.