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10/27/99- Updated 05:57 PM ET

A new breed of cyber-cults

By Karen Thomas, USA TODAY

With today's explosion of information technology, it's hard to keep up to date with every trend. For us inveterate worrywarts, that means that our "worry list"--our collection of concerns and bugaboos--is in constant danger of falling behind the times.

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Well, now there's something new to add to the list. Next time you're staring sleeplessly at the ceiling, turning over car payments, the cost of your childrens' educations, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and America's plummeting standardized test scores over in your minds, think of this: the Internet allows instantaneous communication between anyone. Great for you and your friends, no doubt--and also great for all the wackos out there.

We may all know this to be true, but it doesn't hit you viscerally until you find a page like Lewgosset Musk's Homepage. This fellow is calling for disciples in what he calls his "internet army." And worse, he seems actually to have collected some followers--who are willing to follow him once more into who knows what virtual breach.

Lewgosset Musk's intentions are obscure--perhaps purposely--and while his ultimate goal cannot be known, the threat he represents is very real. Mr. Musk, and others like him, can reach out to the lonely, the pathetic, and the disenfanchised with ease--all Musk had to do was put up a webpage which may be viewed by dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people. It beats rabble-rousing the old-fashioned way--while Lewgosset Musk can only be in one place at once, his webpage can be on thousands of computer screens.

What is the attraction offered by such "virtual Napoleons?" Well, it's hard for a well-adjusted person like myself to know for sure--but human beings are joiners by nature. Give them an exclusive tribe to beling to and they'll jump at the chance. Someone in need of validation might contact Lewgosset Musk without making any commitment to join his "Army." An inspiring e-mail or two from the leader might turn an uncertain visitor into a rabid disciple. And still, Musk need not reveal his goals.

Now no one thinks that Lewgosset Musk is any real threat to our nation's security or even to anyone but himself. But the threat he represents cannot be ignored. If information can be transmitted freely, instantaneously, and anonymously, anyone can set themselves up as a "virtual dictator."

It's sad that a man like Musk can make any headway. But the fact is, there are people out there who are looking for a cause, any cause. While books are reviewed for content before they are published, and radio and television lose sponsors if they stray too far from sanity, the internet, alone of the mass media tools, is totally unregulated and in the hands of the people. A democratizing force? Yes. Is it a mixed blessing? Yes. Because along with the increase in information available and the chance afforded many to express themselves, there is the chance for the sick and the weird to attract their own kind. And that is how cults are formed.

What if Lee Harvey Oswald had had a website? Or John Wilkes Booth? Who knows how many presidential assassins the nation might be swamped with.

Here's hoping the next president, be he George Bush, Jr., Bill Bradley, Al Gore, or even Donald Trump, doesn't come to tragedy at the hands of a Lewgosset Musk.

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Copyright 1999 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.