SECTARIAN SABOTAGE ON WWW: Virtual Chaos

Two relatively recent sectarian battles in cyberspace have caught my attention, one because I was affected more or less directly, another because it continues to hit the news. They both involve institutions of faith, and they both involve anarchistic rebellion.

In the first instance, the one in which I was affected, the fight was over a multi-sectarian Buddhist forum which had literally tens of thousands of members. On some days there would be thousands online, spread out between different Zen schools, Modern or Classical Theravada, the various tantric Tibetan schools, Indo Madhyamika, Philosophy, Coffee Lounge etc. You get the point. It was diverse. There were specific forums, chat rooms, beginners forums – it was a huge structure which supposedly gave shelter to Buddhists of any ilk who needed to learn or share, or simply talk about their situation. It was a great way for the far flung to stay in touch.

One would have thought that this huge site, which had wonderful libraries, resources, knowledgeable people, and a peaceful core philosophy handed down by the Buddha would have been a place where we could have all discussed issues in a relatively calm style. Interestingly, it was exactly in the inter-sectarian exchanges that the core philosophy often seemed to go out the window. Logically thinking, one would expect the inter-sectarian exchanges between fellow Buddhists to be a place where common ground would be established. Not so.

It often puzzled me when I saw this, and I do still harbor pet theories of about converts from Abramic religions, but after a while a more convincing and consistent pattern began to show up. Due to it’s anonymous nature (mostly pseudonyms were used) some took great liberties to either flaunt whatever little knowledge they possessed or, worse yet, become quite virulent in their posts. It was a very mixed bag – beginners talking to scholars, renegades challenging established authorities. As it was moderated with strict basic guidelines, some of the more “off the wall” posts would duly “disappear”. Often the moderators, as figures of authority, would come under attack despite the fact they acted in line with guidelines which members ostensibly accepted upon joining.

Positions became more entrenched, and soon the escalation was such that, weirdly reminiscent of the school playground, whenever the specter of
the moderators (or the mods themselves) appeared tensions rose. Entire groups splintered off to form their own forums. And then the seemingly inevitable happened. Somebody carried out a major hack, basically pulling down the entire forum The admins have been struggling for weeks since to try and get the forum back up (somewhat thoughtfully, the hackers have left the various resources on the site accessible).

Though for sure there is plenty of room here for detailed analysis, the broad strokes on this canvas are interesting enough. Unlike the case of open social media like facebook where the range of topics are extremely broad or very personal, and where for the most part identities are fairly open and thus putting a bit of a curb on abuse, in this instance anonymity was the basic order of the day. In theory, this was mostly to protect and to free. In reality it often became a sniper’s hide. An assumption of good faith (pardon the pun) was the foundation of a system designed to allow maximum depth of expression, yet the freedom was not accompanied by a commensurate sense of responsibility or accountability.

Looking at social media in general, on facebook or twitter for example one can pick and choose friends or followers – whereas on the E-sangha forum one’s posts and threads were always public despite the anonymity. You might have noticed the past tense – perhaps I am too pessimistic.

The upshot of the hack is that many have lost contact with what was for them a valuable social resource. Possibly a sense of outrage at the perceived posturing of the moderators motivated the hack, while in the mods’ camp I am sure they feel they acted according to clearly stated guidelines. In any case, there was wanton and unnecessary destruction of a shared facility.

Behind all this something pathetic lurks – and irks me. It is inevitable that if one pursues a way of life in ever deeper ways, one seeks deeper conviction. Instinctively, most people then need to experience some sort of proof. Inherent to that is the danger that, if lacking in guidance, we then conjure up all kinds of theories to fill in the yawning void that we find ourselves looking down into when we are at the top of the arc of our leap of faith. On the other hand we might feel the rush of what we assume to be spiritual/mental enlightenment, which is perhaps just an emotional outpouring that actually obscures our common sense. Whatever the case, the proof of whether it is enlightenment or delusion does lie in the pudding, not in a false sense of superiority. It’s a fine line between exclusivity and alienation.

Which brings us to the second case, about which I will be briefer, where the battle has become truly public and epic. In this case, at war are two nutty extremes of the social spectrum: the unapologetic anarchist, anonymous troll-like hackers of the internet vs the uber-organized, celebrity studded wealthy Church of Scientology. If you would like to know more, go for it here.

Here the issue is not a movement imploding on itself (at least not yet), but one where the perceived arrogance and secrecy of what seems a fairly wacky and self absorbed bunch has invited an attack from the “anti-organized” in society. Again it is mainly motivated by a sense of outrage at (perceived) arrogance and claims of superiority. What is interesting is the organic, against-their-grain trend for the trolls to somehow to form a loose coalition smacking of organization. Having watched the infamous Tom Cruise video clip, I do have to admit some sympathy for the under-empowered, anonymous trolls. It’s almost like a resistance movement. However, no matter my personal sentiment, Scientology too has a right to exist as long as it doesn’t harm or break the law. We are not talking about Nazi occupied France.

A bloodless arena, the world wide web can nonetheless be a vicious place. The Scientologists have brought all their considerable influence down on the trolls. It has become something of a saga, mainly because of the inability
of the Scientologists to simply shrug it off. As one writer put it – don’t feed the trolls.

What can we learn from these two epic cyber clashes? Surprisingly, nothing much new. Though most of it is happening in the virtual world of digital data,
it is the same old same old. From a somewhat simplistic standpoint, the basic elements are classic. Pride and arrogance, abuse of power and lack of tolerance, attachment and hatred, authoritarianism and lack of responsibility. These are all personal. The systemic aspect of any institution will always struggle with the personal, and vice-versa.

In the case of of the loosely federated “Anonymous” or “Chanology”, despite themselves anarchists banded together to get more impact. It is difficult for us humans to suddenly stop being social. In reality everything we experience, have, and enjoy comes about through the agency of others. On the other hand the manipulation of collective power in the name of some superior ideal is most illustrative of the inability to accept responsibility at the deepest level – compassion and awareness.

Institutions provide powerful tools for us to progress, but they need to be founded in absolute personal clarity. In the end the onus is on each of us as individuals to get with it and accept that the more powerful the tools we have, the more humble and tolerant we need to be.

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