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Affinity fraud is the abuse of the trust of others with the trust stemming from sharing membership in an identifiable group, be it a socio-economic, religious, or ethnic group. The term is used in a legal setting, but it was popularized by economist Paul Krugman to explain persistent groupthink among intellectual and financial castes.
The result of affinity fraud can be a loss of trust as well as money — a fate usually reserved for the praying flock — or a reinforcement of false beliefs in the teeth of contradicting evidence — mainly found among people with power and wealth.
Unsuspecting members of a religious organisation are targets of fraudsters, since modern religions put emphasis on the claim that identifying oneself as a believer installs positive values like honesty and goodwill into the minds of the believer, and furthermore, many religions discourage followers exercising critical thinking in general, to prevent them questioning the religion itself. A fraudster can prey on the assumption shared by the believers that all who identify as such would not stoop so low as to cause any sort of harm to a fellow believer. This problem is especially notable among Mormons, due to the in-group mentality of the church; Utah is a major hive of affinity fraud for this reason, to the point where multi-level marketing (MLM) scams have been nicknamed "Mormons Losing Money". As it turns out, not only is fraud in the name of God a big business, but as seen with the Catholic sex abuse scandal, this trust can be exploited for even more sinister ends.
Sadly, even the skeptical community, one of the last places you'd expect affinity fraud to fly, is not immune from it, as the case of Al Seckel demonstrates. Seckel was the head of the Southern California Skeptics and a 'scientific and technical consultant' for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, contributing to the Skeptical Inquirer magazine as a physicist despite having no degree in physics. Seckel scammed people by dealing in rare books and papers, then either taking the money without providing the books that had been paid for or vice versa. His marks included scientists, other book dealers, a doctoral candidate, and a Silicon Valley consultant, all of them members of the skeptical community who trusted Seckel on account of his position within the community, and when he was called out for his actions, he frequently responded with lawsuits.
African American and Hispanic people are a distressingly common target for affinity fraud. One type, the claim that the US government has earmarked billions of dollars in reparations for slavery for African Americans and that all they have to do is send their name, address, date of birth, phone number, and Social Security number to this totally reputable source, is seen so often that it has its own separate page on Wikipedia linked from their page on affinity fraud. Since they're also highly religious demographics that mostly operate their own churches, they're also susceptible to the religion-based scams detailed above.
Bernie Madoff also used affinity fraud to build his pyramid scheme, ingraining himself in the Jewish communities of New York and South Florida and making himself a trusted figure among many well-heeled, "country club" Jews. By the time his scam was exposed, these people had trusted him with tens of billions of dollars.
In a truly cynical example of people appropriating feminism in order to sell stuff, MLM schemes often employ messages of female empowerment in order to recruit women into their glorified pyramid schemes. Typically, this takes the form of promising women that this "revolutionary business opportunity!" will allow them to become financially independent business owners, often through a message varnished with contemporary "girl power" mottos, when in truth they get locked into a cycle of debt. Stay-at-home mothers and military wives are especially popular targets for this due to the fact that they often lack steady employment, instead receiving an allowance from their husbands.
On an even more distressing level, the NXIVM cult used similar messaging to recruit women. Allison Mack, the former Smallville actress who ran NXIVM's notorious "sorority" (i.e. cult leader Keith Raniere's harem of sex slaves), overtly targeted a number of feminist writers and celebrities, including actress Emma Watson and musician Kelly Clarkson, for recruitment, telling them that the organization was about "empowering women from the inside out". Fortunately, none of them took the bait. Mack also invoked the imagery of Wonder Woman to one aspiring actress she recruited.
The manosphere is also a breeding ground for similar hucksters. Pick-up artistry is a vast field catering to the fantasies and anxieties of a particular type of man who puts his masculinity front and center as a core component of his identity, its preachers exploiting that fact in order to hawk their goods to those who feel that they won't be "real men" if they don't get laid. The consequences can be disastrous, as men who get involved in pick-up artistry in search of self-confidence often wind up even worse off than before once the techniques they learn fail to produce results, all while the "gurus" pocket their money — and then cynically exploit the tragedies left in their wake in order to sucker in more men. In 2009, after George Sodini shot up a gym outside Pittsburgh, killing three women and then himself, out of a mixture of misogyny and sexual frustration, one pick-up artist used it to tell men that he can teach them "game" and help them avoid the fate of "involuntary celibacy" that drove Sodini over the edge, despite Sodini's writings indicating that disillusionment with the false promises of pick-up artistry played a major role in his descent into becoming a mass shooter in the first place.
In intellectual and media circles, affinity fraud is often perpetrated by opinion makers, scholars, and ideologues in order to enforce the conformity of political and economic views. Here, the common characteristics like wealth and status are not explicitly mentioned, but are understood as related. An overwhelming chunk of the Washington D.C. punditry and financial elite subscribe to hard money views on monetary policy and to reducing social spending. The effects these views have, when enacted, are measured and will convince the average person to abandon these views as they have a generally detrimental effect on societies. But among financial elites, these effects are not regarded as proof because a greater emphasis is put on what is important to the elite first.
In practice, most Beltway pundits, journalists, and advocates are rich and dabble in the stocks and investment world. Since hard money and high interest rates do well for some of these investment schemes and thus well for the rich, elites push for tight money policies. The financial interests are so aligned that even when the reality of fiscal and monetary contraction paints a grim picture for the general population, these policies are still championed by those in power.
Right-wing mail order fraud
The way right-wing affinity fraud works is:
- Older and more reactionary conservatives will pay ANY amount of money to take a stance in a culture war.
- They will cough up repeatedly.
- The more futile the better. Failure means more money next time you ask.
- The mailing lists of suckers themselves are valuable merchandise in right-wing circles because of #2.
The left-wing version doesn't happen nearly as often, because left-wingers typically have less money and a higher prevalence of the Nirvana fallacy, causing them to argue amongst themselves too much. For once, the stereotype of leftists being too beset by internecine squabbling to do anything works to their benefit.
Fandoms and geek culture
In the modern age, where fandoms can inspire as much devotion as religious groups, political parties, or cultural identity, there have naturally been hucksters who ingrain themselves into fan communities in order to exploit the love that people may have for a fictional world, especially teenagers with little experience dealing with people trying to take their money. For instance, Andrew Blake, known by various pseudonyms over the years, gained notoriety among fans of The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Supernatural, and numerous other properties for things like staging fraudulent fan conventions, faking suicide and terminal illness, and claiming to be in contact with spirits from alternate realities, including characters from various franchises. The notorious DashCon, a 2014 convention in Illinois for the mostly geek users of Tumblr and the fandoms that had coalesced on the site, also faced accusations that its organizers intended to take the money and run, thanks the slipshod nature of the entire affair and the accusations from various media guests claiming that they got shafted.
It has been noted that the propaganda of the anti-vaccination movement often has the greatest immediate impact when it spreads within a tight-knit ethnic or religious group. Most major outbreaks of measles in the 2010s in the United States have been concentrated among such groups, including among Amish in Ohio, Somalis in Minnesota, Russians and Ukrainians in Washington state, and Orthodox Jews in New York. In each case, the problem came back to prominent, trusted figures within that in-group being sold on anti-vaccine propaganda and then supplying it to their friends and family, meaning that, when a member of the community traveled abroad to a country where measles was more prevalent, contracted it, and brought it home, it spread rapidly within a small group of people in close contact with each other whose low vaccination rates left them badly exposed to infection.
Given the cultural sway held by actors, musicians, athletes, and other celebrities in the modern Western world, they have long been targets for hucksters of all stripes, not just people trying to get their money but also those trying to get an in-road to their fans' wallets as well. L. Ron Hubbard laid down the blueprint for this in the 20th century, recognizing that attaching the Church of Scientology to Hollywood and targeting actors and musicians for recruitment would not only give him and his movement access to the bank accounts of wealthy Hollywood A-listers, a massive boon for a religious group notorious for fleecing its followers, it would also give Scientology a presence in American culture far in excess of their meager numbers. Other hucksters, ranging from New Age gurus to the pastors of the "Hollywood megachurch" Zoe, have followed in Hubbard's footsteps.
Occasionally, the celebrities themselves get in on it too. The Academy Award-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow became an infamous alt-med/wellness huckster in the 2010s through her website Goop, Jenny McCarthy used her name recognition as an actress and model to become a leading proponent of anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, and Oprah Winfrey used her platform as America's most popular talk show host to push everything from The Secret to Mehmet Oz onto a fanbase that hinged upon her every word.
On a more benign level, this is why celebrity endorsements are a thing. If you hire a famous figure as a spokesperson for your product, then that person's fanbase is going to perk up its ears and give your product a second look that they might not have otherwise.
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- Fanlore Wiki: Thanfiction
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