The Rise of New Religious Movements in the Digital Age: Analyzing the characteristics and social impact of new religious movements online
In the digital era and in an age of unlimited information, new religious movements expanded and now take advantage of the benefits of social media, internet traffic, and the white noise of the World Wide Web. In this chapter, I will highlight the fact that the digital world has represented a huge opportunity for religious entrepreneurs and, at the same time, potential threats for the more established denominations, and how this new possibility of expressing religion has overthrown pre-existing theories that relied heavily on the understanding of religion as something with a measure of stability and institutionalization. The notion of “software leader” will be explored in the chapter because individual influence, given enough capacity and engagement with the digital world, starts to have a large social impact and this has significantly undermined the role of the traditional religious leaders in many cases. And this is shown significantly in the social media for the “religion” category, unlike the “news” and “media” category. Another important thing that the chapter will look into is the characteristics of the new religious movements “offline” and how that has a social impact on society. It will use examples of “Falun Gong” in China and the Chinese government’s strategy to keep its legitimacy by branding the “Falun Gong” as a “xie jiao,” which means heretical teaching and often includes religious movements that are harmful to society. However, due to the digital age, the Chinese government’s effort has been made fun of because one can easily find parodies of state media on the web and spread these around, and thus achieved a much larger social impact than the Chinese government’s effort to counteract these movements. The creation of cyberspace means that it has taken the power to influence away from the state and given power to the individuals instead. A rather evident one would be the “hacktivist” group, “Anonymous,” which is very well known for cyber attacks and protests and has been once involved in live events to protest against Scientology. Cyberspace offers both cheap and instant communication via emails, chat rooms, message boards, and social network services and also offers powerful communication among geographically dispersed people by offering solutions of communication and the establishment of sinful collective desire, which indisputably led to a growth of collective movements. In addition, some new movements take advantage of this and try to avoid establishing any form of institutionalization. For example, “Jediism,” which is inspired by “Star Wars” and some of its features such as “lightsaber,” could be seen as a new religious movement in a general understanding. However, because it is established and communicated mostly by the internet, it does not follow the characteristics of institutionalized religion and hence rejects such classification. Again, this would show religion is no longer stable and the participation of religious beliefs of individuals in the digital age has been decoupled from traditional religious institutions. The chapter will end with a comparison to the “software leader” characteristics shown in social media and its associated influence in society and how that differs from the traditional religious leaders. This reflects the key question as to how the digital possibilities change the social and academic understandings of new religious movements.

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