Eleven NGOs and academic research centers specialized in human rights and religious liberty, two of them with special consultative status at the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) wrote on October 28, 2020 to Disney CEO Bob Chapek, protesting an episode on A&E’s History Channel, part of its program “America’s Book of Secrets,” entitled “Cults, Hate Groups, and Secret Societies.” Disney is the co-owner of the A&E Networks, which in turn owns the History Channel.
The episode, now being aired in different countries, supports weird conspiracy theories, suggesting that Freemasons may operate a secret base hidden under Denver International Airport, where babies may be killed; that the Illuminati try to dictate how many children each family may have and conspire with the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett; and that “cults” are proliferating like never before and are guilty of all conceivable wrongdoings.
One special target of the episode is the Church of Scientology, which is attacked by lumping it together with the Ku Klux Klan, the American Nazis, and religious movements that committed mass homicides and suicides. While Scientology is discussed, images not related to this religion are shown.
The show promotes conspiracy theories and anti-cult stereotypes and is not, the eleven NGOs said, inoffensive. When hate speech is promoted against minority groups, be they the Freemasons or the Scientologist, violence is never far off.
The eleven NGOs called on Disney and the A&E Network to avoid spreading fake news, conspiracy theories, and hate speech, which, they argued, in times of world pandemic are more dangerous than ever.
Why Is A&E’s History Channel Spreading Conspiracy Theories and Attacking Religious Liberty? An Open Letter to Bob Chapek
Dear Mr. Chapek:
We write to you as you are the CEO of The Walt Disney Company, co-owner of the A&E Networks, which in turn owns the History Channel.
We live in challenging times. The COVID-19 pandemic has been compounded by what is dubbed an “infodemic,” in which weird conspiracy theories are irresponsibly spread. In a few short months, this infodemic has escalated from a curiosity to a major cause of concern to governments, international organizations, and human rights advocates. Just like the pandemic, the infodemic can kill; when certain minorities are targeted through lies and hate speech, the prospect or reality of violence is never far off.
As organizations specializing in the defense of religious freedom, we are concerned with an episode on A&E’s History Channel, part of its program “America’s Book of Secrets,” entitled “Cults, Hate Groups, and Secret Societies.” The episode aired originally on August 18, 2020 and is now being broadcast in several countries.
The episode is a typical compilation of conspiracy theories, some so clearly preposterous they would not normally be granted any attention.
For example, it is argued that under Denver International Airport there may be “an underground military base that’s supposed to be a launching point for the New World Order.” Those who intend to launch a sinister New World Order from the secret base hidden under the airport are identified with the Freemasons. Their program is announced, the episode says, in murals at the same airport allegedly depicting “war, corpses of babies, people fleeing underground, a plague, death, Nazism, dictatorship, the coming of a New World Order.” “You have a mural,” the episode says, “that shows this soldier in a gas mask with a scimitar stabbing a dove and this endless chain of dying women and babies going out from under it. It’s just horrific.”
Anti-Masonism has long been a plague in America and beyond, and has led to harassment and discrimination of law-abiding citizens whose only sin is being members of Freemasonry—a brotherhood that espouses ideas with which some may disagree but which is certainly not illegal, and which has undeniably and powerfully contributed to charitable and benevolent activities. It is even more alarming when the myth of the Illuminati as a secret group controlling the world is propagated in what purports to be a serious documentary format—with names named and shamed as connected with a vast Illuminati conspiracy aimed, inter alia, at “telling other people whether they should or should not have children.” The Koch brothers, Jeff Bezos, Henry Kissinger, Warren Buffett, and the unavoidable Bill Gates are all connected in the episode with these Masonic-Illuminati conspiracies.
This would only be one among many paranoid conspiracy theories if not framed in the broader category of “cults, hate groups and secret societies,” lumping together Freemasonry, the Illuminati, the Ku Klux Klan, the American Nazi Party, the Osho Rajneesh movement, the Branch Davidians, Heaven’s Gate, Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple, and the Church of Scientology.
It is a well-known hate speech technique to lump together disrelated groups that have no connection, then claim they are all similar, and all bad. It is unfortunate that what purports to be factual, legitimate content on the History Channel only presents superficial platitudes on Waco, Jonestown, Rajneeshpuram, or Heaven’s Gate—all subjects on which serious scholarly literature exists, including in-depth investigations of the reasons behind the events depicted. Instead, only the “anti-cult” version is presented, and we hear from former deprogrammers like Rick Ross, who have embarrassing criminal records and who make claims about all “cults,” state that a cult is “a group of people attached to a disturbed personality,” and that “these people are, by nature, unstable.” We also hear from anti-cult scholar Janja Lalich that “today, there are more cults than ever before,” without any evidence offered for this general assertion.
To create a false impression of objectivity, we hear two brief balanced comments on the Scientology religion from a leading scholar of new religious movements, Professor J. Gordon Melton, but these are overwhelmed by a flood of anti-Scientology commentary by individuals like Tony Ortega whose main activity is attacking the Scientology religion.
The visual construction of the episode can only be characterized as fake news; Scientology courses are discussed while images are displayed that do not depict the activities of this Church; lectures by other groups are depicted while discussing Scientology lectures; and drawings showing the human brain are put on screen to explain the reactive mind and the state of clear, which, in Scientology, have no connection whatsoever with the brain.
This biased misrepresentation is offensive to Scientologists. The episode’s hate speech against the Scientology religion is mostly built by innuendo, presenting Scientology in the same context as the Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, mass suicides, or folk tales about the Illuminati and the Freemasons killing babies under the Denver airport.
Is this merely laughable? History, including recent events, prove that hate speech harms. Scientologists themselves have been physically attacked by unstable individuals whom irresponsible TV programs like this one had convinced that the Scientology religion was an intolerable form of evil. In 2019, a Taiwanese Scientologist, Yeh Chih-Jen (1994–2019), was stabbed to death in Sydney, Australia, by a teenager who had been persuaded his mother was in danger because she was participating in Scientology activities there.
The History Channel cannot hide behind “free speech” arguments. Hate speech and fake news are not free speech. Denouncing Scientologists, Freemasons, or prominent businesspersons as evil enemies of humanity may lead some who watch these shows to take the law into their own hands, and to try to violently stop what they have been made to believe are malevolent individuals and groups.
Particularly in these times, bizarre conspiracy theories casting religious minorities and entire categories of people as public enemies are extremely dangerous. We call on Disney to immediately stop this bigotry, cease broadcasting this show, remove it from the History Channel website, and repudiate such wild conspiracy theories and disinformation. It is time to put an end to the promotion of inflammatory hate speech that will only generate further violence.
CAP-LC – Coordination des Associations et des Particuliers pour la Liberté de Conscience*
CESNUR – Center for Studies on New Religions
EIFRF – European Inter-Religious Forum for Religious Freedom
Fedinsieme [Faiths Together]
FOB – European Federation for Freedom of Belief
FOREF – Forum for Religious Freedom Europe
Fundación para la Mejora de la Vida la Cultura y la Sociedad*
HRWF – Human Rights Without Frontiers
LIREC – Center for Studies on Freedom of Belief, Religion and Conscience
ORLIR – International Observatory of Religious Liberty of Refugees
*UN ECOSOC Special Consultative Status