Did NXIVM try to improve their branding through propaganda?
NXIVM had a lot of tricks up its sleeve to recruit and hold onto members. From recruiting members from Hollywood and the wealthy elite to implementing teachings that clamp down on disloyalty, NXIVM had their marketing down inside & outside their organization.
As shown in HBO’s The Vow, NXIVM was an umbrella for many projects. While the more nefarious, like the sex cult DOS, was embedded in there, more benign-seeming groups dedicated to education & outreach also existed, including branding . . . as in marketing, not the kind DOS did.
NXIVM had a lot of ambitious projects underway that The Vow detailed. Here are two of the strangest ones.
An animated NXIVM film
Mark Vicente, a documentarian who joined NXIVM, always wanted to make his own feature films. He looked to his idol, George Lucas of Star Wars fame, for inspiration when he approached Keith Raniere about making an NXIVM movie.
Vicente had some background in animation, but most of his work was with documentaries. However, when he & Raniere began working on a possible NXIVM feature film, Vicente was stoked.
The cartoon series would be called Carbon Crimes. It would follow a senator’s assistant who “struggles with lying” (and looks like Mark Vicente) until he meets a professor. Said professor is an obvious stand-in for Keith Raniere, named Erik Einhardt. The professor would teach the protagonist about NXIVM’s teachings, essentially turning the film into a giant NXIVM outreach propaganda piece.
Fantasy as control
Just after Vicente started working with Keith Raniere on storyboards, he found out about DOS. The episodes in The Vow that detail the animated film show Vicente & Raniere’s conversations moving away from the project and towards allegations that a sex cult is growing in NXIVM.
According to a guest essay on The Frank Report by Heidi Hutchinson, Keith Raniere would use fiction to control his members. He would characterize Barbara Bouchey as Dagny Taggart, the female protagonist from Atlas Shrugged (Raniere characterized himself as John Galt), before she fled NXIVM. Hutchinson writes that Raniere told her sister, Gina, that she was a reincarnated Buddhist god.
However, the fantasy couldn’t last long. As scrutiny around NXIVM grew, they had to reach out and brand themselves in facts.
Around 2017, as local sources like The Times Union and The Frank Report started reporting on NXIVM’s cult activities (but before The New York Times reported the branding), NXIVM put together their own news media outlet. Their stated mission was to combat “fake news.” Really, it was part of their plan to combat increasing bad press about NXIVM.
The Knife, or The Knife of Aristotle, or Knife Media, would be a paid subscription where analysts from NXIVM would tell you how “biased” your news source was. Brock Wilbur, a former employee of The Knife described it as “like Snopes, but more journalistic.”
Wilbur said The Knife seemed like a godsend to him, especially as media bias hit close to home. “My mom fell for a story about Trump destroying ISIS on his first day in office. My dad repeatedly asked my mother what the name of the sites were that she was getting this information from, insisting that if it didn’t end in dot com, it probably wasn’t real,” he described.
A bad cover for a propaganda machine
Kenny Herzog, who wrote about his experience interviewing for The Knife in Entrepreneur, found out quickly that The Knife was a front for NXIVM. After asking some “tough questions” during an interview, he was turned down with a message from his would-be trainer:
“It appears that you believe what the internet reports on us is true. If that is the case, and you are not willing to question what the media reports in general, then yes, it’s best that you not pursue this opportunity. We seek people who are able to sort through dishonorable information and distinguish that from ethical reporting,” the correspondent said.
The response was in line with information we got from the latest episode of The Vow. Keith Raniere wanted people who would come into NXIVM with “an open mind,” people who didn’t believe the news stories, but looked for answers.