I’d been a full-time journalist for nearly a year when my boss fired me over Google video chat. He leaned back in a chair and began to vape while explaining to me that it seemed like “I wanted something different.” He was right, but there’s something about a twenty-something vaping while he fires you that makes you irrationally angry.
Journalism is a tough gig right now. Writing is never an easy way to make a living, but boy, this is the worst timeline to make that career choice. In that previous job, I found myself in a dead-end loop of making pop-culture content with no value, challenge, or perspective. It’s hard to push through when you don’t know why anyone else would care. Then the election hit, and I promised myself the next non-freelance gig I took would be of value to the world. Something important. Something that made the world better.
My wife is also a journalist, so when I struggled to find new full-time employment, she started sending me gigs she found on random job sites and media groups. That’s when we came across a job opportunity that highlighted my skill set and also promised to let me directly take on one of the most important social issues in 2017. It seemed too good to be true, and that’s why we were almost immediately suspicious.
The job would be working at a new start-up site whose primary goal was destroying fake news. Journalists would take information from other outlets, evaluate it based on a proprietary set of standards, and give each article a score based on how honest it was. Like Snopes but more… journalistic? But it was exactly what I was looking for. Over the holidays, I’d watched my parents struggle to make heads or tails of the many news articles their friends shared on social media; 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. But they also weren’t sure if CNN was telling the truth anymore. You see why this issue became personal.
Speaking of second-guessing a web domain, the job I began applying for at this fake news destroying gig was linked to the site ethicalmedia.org, which did not pass my father’s dot com test. But the real name of the site living at ethicalmedia.org was even better. The site was called “The Knife of Aristotle.”
The Knife of Aristotle. It’s such an over-the-top choice that my wife and I became instantly obsessed. What was going on here, and who would give their company that name, if they wanted to be taken seriously? We had to know more.
I applied immediately.
The Knife, as it is more casually known, got back to me immediately. The gig paid between three and five thousand per month, and even though they were located on the East Coast, I’d be able to work remotely in LA. I expressed my excitement at being able to take on Fake News and asked a few general questions about their process and when the site would be launching. Then things took a turn, as I got a stranger answer than I expected.
From an email dated February 28:
“We use a proprietary methodology to carry out our writing and analysis process. Our writers are required to have working knowledge of our rating system and standards. In order to learn this, they attend five weeks of advanced training in communication, logic and ethics. The first week of the training is focused on personal development and ethics. Our analysts get to deeply explore their belief systems and gain an understanding of the human mechanisms of perception that influence our communication and culture. We are offering to fully sponsor this education for our top applicants, however this period is not paid [sic]. Please apply only if you are able to attend this training.”
The deadline for my continued application, which included an in-depth questionnaire about my experiences with ethics in journalism, was a few days later. I would then be expected to pay my way to fly to New York to attend five weeks of training, for which I would not be compensated, with the promise of a job at the other end of the training—with no contract or further details.
I had some questions.
From an email dated March 1:
“The training takes place in Albany, NY. We do not cover the cost accommodations, although we can find inexpensive places to stay in the area. The scholarship takes care of the training itself, but not travel or lodging.”
I immediately began to picture the Hulu’s The Path starring Aaron Paul, wherein a cult congregates in the woods of New York state and indoctrinates locals with their visions of Truth. I thought I might be overreacting, so I asked again why a professional journalist would be required to take five weeks of training in the basics of communication and ethics.
From an email dated March 3rd:
“Our process is unconventional and different than what most people have experienced. The pay depends on how many areas of our company you certify in and how much you work.”
This email was the first not to be signed off by The Knife Team, but rather by Jens Erik Gould, who I would discover was the editor-in-chief.
My further questions would not be answered until I turned in the questionnaire and agreed to come to five weeks of training. Maybe in the woods. Maybe with a cult. Maybe for a job.
My wife and I had been married for a month. I asked if she would let me go to the woods for five weeks. She said, “I’ll be staying at a hotel nearby, in case this all goes exactly how we know it’s going to go.”
That’s when digging into what was going on with The Knife of Aristotle evolved from a joking curiosity into a dangerous fascination.
The site itself promises a new way of viewing the world, but also keeps all coverage behind a paywall that requires an initial start-up fee and monthly billing. When I ran an analysis, for instance, I was told that articles from the AP, Reuters, and the New York Times—judged by the metrics of “logic,” “spin,” and “slant”—rated anywhere from 28 to 36 percent on the “total article value” score. Which, I have to assume, is not good—but the score made very little sense, and further explanation wasn’t forthcoming.
It also seemed pretty right-leaning, at best. I’m sure the AP scores higher than that on any scale you might apply, and I have no idea how you divide spin from slant. And how does the abstract concept of logic get a score related to the reporting of news? There’s a lot to take apart here.
There’s also a marketing video filled with weird platitudes about truth, featuring no specific information about what The Knife actually does. It is, of course, the only video on their YouTube account.
I signed up for a free account trial to get a glimpse at what kind of work I would be doing. What I found behind the paywall was an RSS feed of every story coming in, from NPR to The Times of India. There were no write-ups covering these stories, simply a button next to each that would allow me to “Request Analysis” from The Knife team. Of course, I couldn’t do this without upgrading to a paid account. Of course.
At this point, it just seemed like a media watchdog site that didn’t seem to know what or how it was watching the media, and may not have the employees required to do anything they promised. But there was still the prospect of employment, and if this upstart site had the ability to one day fulfill its anti-fake news agenda, maybe this was still worth it to pursue?
So I dug into The Knife of Aristotle’s staff page, looking to find a few writers who had completed the training and hit them up on social media to ask about the experience, since the editor seemed unwilling to explain directly to me.
The staff page lists 21 analysts working for the company, under the editor and two other leaders. I began Googling employees from the middle of the list and, almost predictably, there were no results for any of these people. Some had LinkedIn or Twitter accounts that had only opened in the last few months and were heavily promoting The Knife of Aristotle. Some had a single hit, related to a college paper or some such thing, but no one had the social media presence of an actual human person in 2017.
With that in mind, I began rereading the self-written bios, and realized how incredibly non-specific these summaries ran—never mentioning specific schools or places of employment, but rather listing countries of employment, or off-handedly mentioning childhood class privilege. Here are a few of my favorite examples. If they do belong to actual people, I have to meet them:
José Carlos is a passionate about language. He believes language is the essence of life, the way the universe relates. He studied Communications in Mexico, and has certified in copy-editing, Spanish as a foreign language and Mexican Sign Language. The Knife reunites some of his most important values: journalism, media, communication, language, writing and education. He has worked as a reporter and copy editor for Mexican magazines. Also as editor in chief for publications including children’s books, coffee table books, and government reports. He loves teaching writing (in Spanish) and journalism at the university. Poetry, literature, art and design are some of his hobbies. José Carlos believes The Knife is a beautiful and honorable mission for all of those interested in how media is creating the History right now. He never could have imagined how The Knife has changed the way he not only sees and analyzes news, but also the way he talks, thinks and acts in life.
Nor do you want to miss Sylvie:
Sylvie Lloyd is an English woman with a sense of adventure, a passion for sport and a deep love of chocolate. Born into a family with success in business, the arts and athletics, Sylvie had the privilege of being influenced and inspired by great leaders. From a young age she was encouraged to pursue her dreams—starting out as an equestrian, then a runner, and later moving into the corporate realm. Sylvie’s love of words and desire for truth drew her to The Knife. She sees it as a rare opportunity to work with amazing people on a project that will move the world.
On one of the last bios, they clearly just gave up trying:
Isabel is a person who likes to understand and enjoy everything as much as possible.
I needed to know: what was in the woods?
Further research via their Facebook account revealed this multi-week training program was free to future employees, but that non-employees could pay to take the training, if they wanted to improve their ability to “perceive the world.” Several reviews claimed that this training removed fear and generally improved every element of life for participants. There were even scholarship opportunities, valued (by them) at a price point of $7K.
This was starting to look real weird.
There was obviously some kind of trap here, but no one I talked to could figure out when the twist was supposed to come. Were you presented with a bill after the last day of training? Would there be some kind of donation system you were heavily pressured into? Was the employment situation far less rewarding, but still the kind of thing you’d agree to after wasting five weeks in Albany?
So we followed the money. And the people. And turns out: yup, it’s a cult.
I’m not going to go to those woods.
Here’s the bizarre yarn wall of conspiracy that we had to tie together, and it’s more bizarre than you could ever imagine.
Among the leaders listed on the staff page of The Knife of Aristotle, you’ll notice an Executive Producer—a role rarely represented in journalistic publications. I thought the person looked familiar, and it’s because she’s sci-fi actress Nicki Clyne, known for her role as Cally Tyrol on Battlestar Galactica. Nicki, along with the other siterunners, represent young members of a group called NXIVM.
NXIVM. The Knife of Aristotle. These people are just terrible at names. That should be enough to link them, right?
NXIVM does not like being called a cult. They prefer “multi-level marketing company,” which should be a red flag. If you’d rather be known as a pyramid scheme, what worse activities are you covering for? In NXIVM’s case, there’s a lot of accusations to be distanced from. And a lot to unpack. So here we go.
In 1998, NXIVM was founded by Keith Raniere and Nancy Salzman, who are referred to within the program as “Vanguard” and “Prefect,” respectively. Based in Albany, the group operates a series of intensive seminars designed to facilitate personal development via a process called “Rational Inquiry.” Everything within the program takes on multiple names and often separate business ventures. All of these use word-salad names like “Executive Success Programs” that would look non-threatening and pleasant on a resume.
The group found disciples in a number of high level corporate folks, who began auditing with them for sometimes as much as $25K per session. In 2003, this caught the attention of Forbes who published a piece exposing the group for “cult-like” behavior and focusing on the predatory behavior of their founder, Keith Raniere. That same year, cult investigator Rick Ross published NXIVM’s private manual on his website, revealing extensive brainwashing techniques, and wound up getting sued by the “multi-level marketing company” for copyright infringement—claiming he obtained their private materials in “bad faith” from a former member who signed an NDA. For revealing the “Executive Success Program” (ESP, obviously), the court ruled in Ross’ favor, saying “No critic should need the author’s permission to make such criticisms.”
The important files are still viewable here.
If it doesn’t sound like a cult yet to you, maybe just look at their private log-in page.
There are innumerable articles on NXIVM and Raniere that are worth your time, including this 2010 piece in Vanity Fair that claims Raniere took advantage of several wealthy heiresses, among other alleged victims. What everyone seems to agree on is that NXIVM shares DNA with Scientology, but mostly appears to be a direct descendant of the ‘70s self-investment movement EST. Most in my age range know about EST from its appearance in recent seasons of FX’s The Americans. NXIVM goes a step further than either, with ex-members reporting harems, color-coded hierarchy dress codes, deep sexism, and other assorted basic bitch cult moves—especially litigation against journalists and anti-Raniere voices. There’s also a website devoted to tracking the group, which seems like it shouldn’t be alone in this. After all, Raniere has been on the cover of Forbes magazine. He’s not hiding from anything.
So NXIVM focuses on internal truth and a re-prioritized set of internal ethics, mostly ripped from the objectivist pages of Ayn Rand, which I think solves the mystery of “Why fake news?” There’s a calling to Americans of any political ideology to snuff out Internet rubbish, which exists as a detriment to all of us, and offering individuals a chance to have watchdog power over gigantic outlets seems tempting. And, personally speaking, plenty of journalists need the work. It’s a perfect pairing of time and intent and need.
Rebranding NXIVM as a news outlet makes sense, but also seemed overly specific. But checking in with the cult’s dedicated watchdog shows that they have diversified into a number of specific audiences. The Source is designed to involve actors with this program, Exo/Eso is built around yoga, JNESS is a support group for women, and Society of Protectors is an analogous group of men defending the honor of men. God, they’re just terrible at names. It feels like they were always in a rush to get a new company out the door.
And that’s the cracked code. A cult knows that it can’t keep being a cult under the same name anymore, so it is quickly becoming too many different organizations to track, all built around getting people to spend a month in Albany. And maybe it doesn’t take a full-on detective to know that you shouldn’t keep considering any job where your boss can’t answer your questions about the job.
It’s a fake news site that is, itself, fake. It’s staffed by people that we could not prove existed in the first place, doing work behind a paywall that requires real money.
There’s nothing left to satirize. But if you have an account there, please let me know if they think this news is fake too.
The Knife of Aristotle took down most of its staff pages shortly after this story was published.