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Ethical dilemmas vs cult coverage (media relations)

After creating the "Taiwan UFO cult suicide watch!" website on the Internet, we received this letter from some people who have been involved professionally in monitoring and commenting on cults and cult coverage in the media. I had asked them in an email if it was adding fuel to the fire to set up such a web site as this one, since some people have said that too much media coverage can set off a cult and make it do irrational and perhaps destructive things. In the case of the Chen Tao UFO cult in Garland, Texas, how should the media be reacting? Covering their every move? Igonoring the loonies? Is there a middle road to take. My friends on the Internet told me this, and if any reporters or editors are reading this, I think it is good advice. Read on: "Thanks for the followups. We would tend to think at this point that the media silence you've been encountering may be, at least in part, from media people who don't want to pour fuel on any snap-crackling cult fires. In our 'death spiral' model of these cataclysms, the media often plays a pivotal role, altho apparently not so much in last year's Heaven's Gate suicide as in Jonestown, Waco and others. Other media folks just may be indifferent, in denial or just not wanting to tangle with another 'loony' cult story. We, too, see large ethical dilemmas in how best to cover brewing cult conflict stories. We tend to side with your implication that it's better to inform people, to try to prevent the blowup from happening and, at least, to perhaps get some individuals free of the group before hell breaks loose, if it does. We try always to walk the right line, seldom finding that press blackouts do any good in the long run against a cult in the early stages of a death spiral. One those dynamics kick in, the media is only one factor among many that wiill influence the situation (concerned families, law enforcement, et al.). And if everyone stays silent, the cult storm often builds and spills out onto the wider society. It seems to us you've been walking a very good line yourself in your explicit statements to journalists interested in this story. We'll keep pushing with our contacts here and keep you informed. You do too." Interesting food for thought. Webposted January 13, 1998 by Terry Walker in Taiwan, host of this site. For contact info, emailto:

Web Crusader Creates Site to Monitor UFO Cult

"Terry Walker, Web Crusader, Trying to Prevent UFO Cult From Offing Itself," ran the headline above a story written by Walker himself to try to explain what he is doing and why. The article is unpublished and appears here only as background information for people interested in how Walker's web crusade got started. Datelined Taipei, where Walker is living (, the story goes something like this: ____ The amazing thing about Web crusader Terry Walker is that he is not even in the USA, even as he uses the Internet to stir up media interest in an obscure UFO cult from Taiwan that has settled in Garland, Texas to await the appearance of "God" on March 31. Walker, a 38-year-old American, who teaches English in Taiwan to earn his keep, as many expats do, says he got involved in the Web crusading adventure after reading a poorly thought-out editorial in the local China Post on December 25. The newspaper basically said that the cult's prophecies and predictions "might come true, it's too early to tell," says Walker, adding that this lame response to a potentially dangerous cult got him so angry that he decided to write a letter by email to the newspaper. When it refused to publish his letter or even respond to his email, he got even more mad, he says, and that's when the inspiration for his "Taiwan UFO cult suicide watch!" homepage kicked in. "I said to myself, 'If a major newspaper in Taiwan is putting out silliness and stupidity in an editorial like that, and then not even responding to my protests, then I will write a letter to the world!.'" Walker says from his perch in an Internet cafe in Taipei where he does all his Net work. "So I got a free homepage from an Internet page, got a free email account with Hotmail (now owned by Microsoft) and began posting my page." Walker began with updates of the Chen Tao cult's activities in the USA, sent in to him by strangers who read his posts on various Net bulletin boards. "I have people in Texas, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York watching the newspapers there for me, and when they see an article they email me with the online information and then I link up to that site," he says. "People I have never met, people I don't even know; but they also find this cult business very scary and dangerous and they've become involved too." In addition, Walker also spends a lot of his time sending email "alerts" to various newspapers and TV networks in the USA, including the New York Times, Newsweek, Time, MSNBC and the Dallas Morning News. Most of his emails never get replies, so he doesn't know how effective his email campaign is, but he says he won't stop. "Something must be getting through," he says. "Even if I don t hear back from people, maybe they are using my website and the info I am sending them for use in their newsrooms. I hope so." Since Walker started his "information campaign" in late December, he has been stepping up to a computer at various free computer "corners" in department stores in Taipei, where he does his work. It costs him nothing to use the computers since they are part of free promotions by Internet providers and computer firms in Taiwan. So with free email, free web pages and free computer use, Walker has not spent a dime (or a Taiwan dollar) on his web crusade. He says he has no sponsor and is not connected to any group or organization. "This is a totally private venture, one man trying to send a message out to anyone who will listen, anywhere in America or Taiwan, where the story is playing out," he says. "I know very little about computers and don't even know how to program. My homepage is is do-it-yourself follow-the-buttons free homepage; all I have to do is type in the information. I never did anything like this before. Why am I doing it? Because after I read that editorial in the China Post, I realized that this story might disappear off the radar screen if people didn't try to wake people up. Because I am in Taiwan, the story resonates with me here at a certain level, and I felt that maybe US editors and reporters were not taking this cult seriously, just as they ignored Heaven's Gate until it was too late. I decided to use the Internet as a tool to alert the media back in the States, to monitor the situation with daily and weekly updates and gather as much background information about the cult as I could. And it's working: I've got 4 pages up now on the Web, with links to many other sites that are also following the cult's journey across America, and I've gotten some good responses from a few reporters and editors that have kept me going. I'm not doing this money or for notoriety. I'm trying to keep a low profile in all this. I just hope to serve as a useful resource as the FBI and other government authorities in the USA and Taiwan go about their investigative work. If some newspaper reporters and online Internet journalists can use the info on my site, great! It's been a very interesting experience; how one lone individual can use the Internet across time and space to monitor a potential tragedy in the making and help send media alerts to newspapers and magazines. Of course, they don't need me; they have their own resources and reporters and files. But if some of my emails and posts and web pages help bring this cult to a halt, help stop them from committing suicide on March 31, as some say they plan to do, then my time was and is well spent. I have the time and the Internet gives me access to the world. It's quite an amazing thing, how this little computer can interact proactively with other people on the Net. Hopefully, this will all have a happy ending." Walker, who works 7 days a week on his crusade, says he is available for online interviews with media organizations who wish to report on his activities and his reasons for maintaining such a site. He also apologizes for the many typos and mis-spellings on his web pages. "I'm a purely 'hunt and peck' kind of typist and I do everything standing up at these free computer displays in department stores, so there's is no time for fancy graphics and spell-checking," he says. "I'm just trying to save lives." ____ no copyright; permission to use quotes granted: TW.

"Son of Heaven's Gate" (Netly News)

"Son of Heaven's Gate," runs the headline above an online story by Noah Robischon on the Netly News Network dated January 7, 1998. Here it is: ______ Ever since the Heaven's Gate suicides, The Netly News has been tracking all sorts of freakish cults, most of which don't even have web sites, let alone anything especially interesting to say. Then along came Chen Tao, a Taiwanese group in Garland, Texas. Observers fear that members of the Chen Tao ("True Way") will off themselves on March 31 at 10 am. That's when, the followers believe, God will appear in the body of their leader, a fortysomething sociology professor named Hon-Ming Chen. Terry Walker, an American living in Taiwan, is using the Net to head off what he fears will be another mass suicide. The Net, says Walker in an e-mail, "can be used to help prevent an accident before it happens on March 31, rather than wait and then gloat and laugh at it all." Although Walker's Taiwan UFO Cult Suicide Watch! web site makes another mass suicide seem like a foregone conclusion, the group's commitment to self-immolation remains unclear. While very similar to the Heaven's Gate group -- trading black Nikes for all-white uniforms -- members of Chen Tao said in a press conference that they had no intention of pulling the plug. Chi-Chia Chen, a spokesman for the Taipei economic and cultural office in Houston who visited the group last week, said he didn't "see any sign that they intend to committ mass suicide" and that "after March 31 if they don't see a flying disc appear they will just go back to Taiwan and continue normal life." Then again, Heaven's Gate members showed few outward signs of their intended departure, in part because they didn't believe they were dying so much as moving to a "level above human." And despite the claims made by the church's leader, Taiwanese officials have been reporting that the 150-odd members are being encouraged to kill themselves in anticipation of a visit from a flying saucer that will transport them to the heavens. Sounds a bit silly, but "don't be so fast to just call these people stupid or weak or kooks," says Steve Hassan, author of "Combating Cult Mind Control." Anytime a cult leader sets deadlines it's to be taken very seriously: "Some very powerful social psychological mechanisms are being put to the fore here." A leading theory explaining the magnetism of cults is known as cognitive dissonance. Originally developed by Leon Festinger in a renowned study of the inner workings of a 1950s UFO cult, the theory posits that people naturally seek consistency within their thoughts, feelings and actions. When an inconsistency or dissonance occurs, especially between thought and action, the tendency is for people to change their thoughts to accommodate their new behavior. In the case of Chen Tao, also known as the God's Salvation Church, group members traveled to Alaska, Colorado and Las Vegas performing rituals meant to "change the spiritual environment," according to Chi-Chia. Repeat rituals enough and participants will begin to believe they are working. It certainly seems to be having that effect on Chen's followers, who apparently believe his claims that he fathered Christ and that two of the 40 children in group are reincarnations of the Buddha and Jesus. During the press conference on December 23, Chen attempted to prove his claims by exhibiting photographs of airplane vapor trails, one of which formed a cross and another the numbers "007." Chen has also told reporters that failing God's arrival via flying saucer he will offer himself up in penance and submit to death by stoning or crucifixion. Although Chen's claims seem batty, he is not a tyrannical leader. Cult members are apparently allowed to come and go at will and are in communication with their families. Chen's teachings are a mix of Buddhism, Christianity and millennarianism, and include the predictions that God will make a televised appearance on channel 18 six days prior to being incarnated and that the world faces nuclear cataclysm in 1999. Apocalyptic cultism "proliferates around the millennium, and we've been seeing this gravitational pull of the millennial date since the end of the '80s," notes Dr. Richard Landes of the Center for Millennial studies. "The millennial idea is that human beings are, if not perfectable, capable of a whole lot better than we are now doing. At some point in the near future a radical change of lifestyle is in the making." For the 150 members of Chen Tao, a radical lifestyle change has already occurred. Most of the group is in the U.S. with work-exempt visas and is surviving on money left over from selling their homes in Taiwan, says Chi-Chia. But they're certainly not saving for the trip back, and followers are are rumored to have paid handsomely for their cult memberships. Add to that the expenses incurred in moving around the country -- after originally settling in San Dimas, Calif., the group relocated to Garland, Texas, because it sounded like "God Land" to their leader. Rather than establishing headquarters there, the group has simply taken up residence in 21 homes in the same neighborhood. Although Taiwanese and American authorities are investigating Chen Tao, so far there has been no proof that members are being monetarily defrauded by Chen, and thus no legal basis for busting up the cult. Los Angeles police did, however, return a 16-year-old follower to her mother last month shortly before the move to Texas, but the girl was evidently not coerced into joining the cult. This incident more than anything else put Chen Tao in the public spotlight, and some speculate that increased media pressure could spur the group to act irrationally. Then again, only a few of the group's members have any fluency in English. Perhaps they could take lessons from 38-year-old Walker, who is teaching English in Taiwan. His Internet crusade began after reading an editorial ridiculing the cult in the China Post. "Maybe it's a bit of the Drudge [Matt ,that is] in me," says Walker. "That editorial pissed me off so much that I decided to publicize the callousness of it and then realized that maybe I could do my little bit to help stave off a potential tragedy. So far, Time and Newsweek have not touched the story. Why? They are yellow orientals, so who cares? I hope not."

A Brief E-mail Message from Taiwan Govt Office (NYC)

As part of this website's outreach, we have been sending emails about the Chen Tao cult's activities and movements to the Taiwan Office of Trade in New York (Taiwan's de facto "embassy" in this Big China/Little China world we live in). One day in mid-January, we received this brief note from the New York office: " "Thank you for writing with your information. We all hope that there will be a "noneventful" ending to this phenomenon." The email came from "" and confirmed that our emails were getting tthrough. A few days earlier, Terry Walker had written: " At 05:33 AM 1/8/98 PST, you wrote: >Dear Sirs: >Here is a copy of the Internet article that was published by TIME >magazine today in New York. It is better to read the actual URL because >it has many useful LINKS that I think will be helpful to you in your >ongoing investigation. Good luck with all this. I hope it all ends >peacefully. I think the writer did a very good job summarizing where >things stand now. Of course, I realize you know much more than "we" do, >and that's OK. Good luck in bringing this to a quiet and peaceful and >happy ending. I am also hoping for a happy ending! (IF A HUMAN BEING IS >READING THIS AND NOT JUST A COMPUTER, CAN YOU PLEASE RESPOND BY EMAIL >AND LET ME KNOW YOU READ THIS? Thanks.) >Sincerely, >Terry Walker >TAIPEI Information Division Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York

"Working the Internet" (random thoughts)

This website has been "working the Internet" since late December 1997, posting messages on bulletin boards, emailing background info to newspapers and magazines in the USA and Taiwan, storing published newspaper accounts of Chen Tao activities and movements, and generally NETworking from our base in Taipei with links in the USA that have also been monitoring the UFO cult. It's been interesting, to say the least -- the ability of this little Internet machine to reach out across space and time, responding to an emergency in a world culture's soul. Emailing back and forth across the Pacific, to site correspondents in Dallas, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and points in between, we have been "working the Net" as people in the older days might have "worked the phones." A new communication tool, a new vocabulary, new possibilities. And to think it all started for me when I read a very stupid editorial in a local newspaper about the cult and got mad! Just goes to show how anger can be transformed into something positive, pushing people to new insights and new frontiers. Don't get mad, get email!