Sunday, August 12, 2018

Social media's unknown cult connection


Probably the most damning accusation levelled against social media in general and Facebook in particular is its ability to change behaviour. This was evidenced graphically by the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal where the voting behaviour of millions was influenced by Facebook postings, but has also been identified by other rigorous studies. Anyone who has used Facebook will be aware of its potential for behaviour change through addictive use and pathological seeking of 'likes' and 'friends'. This article explores for the first time the connection between an alleged cult and Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg

An ability to change behaviour is the principal characteristic of a cult. Graphic evidence of this was provided by the notorious Indian spiritual teacher Osho who took the name Bhagwan meaning 'god'. Nicknamed 'the sex guru' because of his provocatively liberal views, Osho gave the core perennial truths of the great wisdom tradition an addictive user-friendly interface. At the peak of his popularity his ashram in Pune hosted 30,000 disciples a year and reached millions more worldwide through a sophisticated media oraganisation. In 1981 increasing opposition from within India forced him to relocate his commune to Oregon in the United States where he paraded his collection of 96 Rolls Royces. Following a series of scandals there including attempted murder by bio-terror attack, Osho was arrested aboard a rented Learjet at a North Carolina airstrip while trying to flee the country. The spiritual teacher pleaded guilty to charges and was given a 10-year suspended sentence, five years' probation and a $400,000 fine, and agreed to leave the United States.

The Pune commune was juvenated by his return to India. Since Osho's death in ambiguous circumstances in 1990 his books have been published 60 languages, his English and Hindi YouTube channels have more than half a million subscribers, and a Google search for 'Osho' returns more than 27 million results. But repeated accusations of exploiting behaviour change have continued to sully the spiritual leader's reputation: a recent Guardian article about Osho was headlined 'The free-love cult that terrorised America' and a HuffPost report forensically documented how a Princeton parent enlisted the aid of a cult psychologist when two of her children fell under Osho's spell.

My two overgrown paths now converge. It is not widely known but back in 2010 before Facebook had 2.2 billion users, the social media network's co-founder Mark Zuckerberg visited the former Osho commune in Pune. This is now known as the Osho Meditation Resort. HIV/Aids entry tests are mandatory and the photo shows the opulent meditation hall, also called the Osho Samadhi. Zuckerberg was on a private visit to India and spent a week in Pune. A resort spokesperson explained at the time: "The millions of hits on Osho on the internet and numerous references on Facebook seemed to have evoked Zuckerberg’s curiosity, and he visited the commune a few days ago".

There is undoubtedly an oversupply of Facebook-related conspiracy theories. But the former Osho commune does not rank alongside the Taj Mahal as one of India's great tourist attractions. Moreover social media's cult connection persists eight years on: Indian investigative journalist Abhay Vaidya's recently published and not universally well-received book Who Killed Osho does not mention Mark Zuckerberg's visit. However it does report that:

The name 'OSHO'. his meditation techniques and therapies stand protected by trademark in Europe. Facebook and YouTube have been known to summarily delete accounts and archives of Osho Centres and remove pictures of Osho from individual accounts on receiving complaints of copyright infringement from the Osho International Federation.
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