Taking It to the Streets: Anonymous vs. Scientology

This Saturday, thousands of young Internet users will take to the streets dressed as buccaneers—and it has nothing to do with Talk Like a Pirate Day. The online protest group Anonymous has organized a day of international demonstrations against the Church of Scientology (its fifth in as many months) and for this one, they’re dressing as pirates. Operation Sea Arrrgh takes its name from the Sea Organization or Sea Org, Scientology’s nautically-themed ruling elite. Anonymous, a group of actual and would-be hackers who frequently wear Guy Fawkes masks inspired by the comic book and film V For Vendetta, makes no secret of its final goal: the complete dismantling of the Church of Scientology in its present form.

It’s difficult to trace the history of the amorphous, leaderless Anonymous, but users of message boards like 4chan, birthplace of the lolcat, have long used the term as a collective name. A Fox11 news report in July 2007 announced the existence of a sinister group of domestic terrorists and “hackers on steroids” called Anonymous. 4chan’s users turned mockery of the news report’s tone-deaf sensationalism into a meme. Within hours, they began to turn themselves into an ironic caricature of the sinister hacker mafia Fox11 described. The birth of Anonymous as a group is a chicken-egg scenario, but there’s no doubt that Fox11’s report was a vital step in its creation.

It took Scientology to turn them into a movement. In January, the Church of Scientology’s attempt to suppress a leaked video of Tom Cruise discussing the religion galvanized Anonymous and gave them a cause. In “Message to Scientology,” a YouTube clip posted on January 21, a computer voice reads a declaration of war, declaring that the Church of Scientology “should be destroyed” and announcing the group’s intention to “expel [Scientology] from the Internet.” The result has been “Project Chanology,” a series of monthly protests at Scientology centers in dozens of cities. Each of these events has been attended by as many as 8,000 demonstrators worldwide, and Sea Arrrgh may be the biggest yet.

Anonymous has not issued any kind of statement of purpose, or manifesto. And as the group has no leaders, anyone can claim to speak on its behalf, regardless of their level of involvement. But Anonymous’ mosaic of Web sites and YouTube clips tend to present the group as a guardian of free speech standing off against a litigious juggernaut that thrives on prior restraint. The group’s first free-speech martyr is a 15-year-old London boy known as “Epic Nose Guy” to whom police issued a summons for displaying a sign declaring the group “a dangerous cult” at a protest on May 10. (The charges were later dropped.)

The real picture is more complex, however. There’s no doubt that the Church of Scientology has used litigation and intimidation to silence its critics. (A 1996 decision from the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit stated that the Religious Technology Center, which owns and licenses Scientology’s trademarks and copyrights, has a “documented history of vexatious behavior.”) But opposing Scientology on the grounds that their acts are censorial doesn’t make Anonymous a group of First Amendment purists. Prior to any of its public protests, members of the group conducted distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks on Scientologist Web sites. The weekend before the release of the “Message to Scientology,” these attacks briefly shut down Scientology.org. In addition to DDoS attacks, Anonymous has plagued Scientology centers with prank calls and “black faxes,” in which an all-black sheet of paper is sent through fax machine and taped end-to-end to form an infinite loop. (According to a Church of Scientology video, many of the prank calls were threatening in nature.) And in late January, a Google bombing campaign made Scientology’s main Web site the top result for the search term “dangerous cult.” In conjunction with this, leaked Scientology materials have been increasingly available online—most recently Revolt in the Stars, a 1975 novella/screenplay by L. Ron Hubbard containing Scientology’s rumored creation story about nuclear weapons, volcanoes, and the galactic warlord Xenu. Revolt has been available online for some time, but the current version, hosted on Wikileaks and Gawker-owned science fiction blog io9, has broader exposure. Anonymous hopes to cut into Scientology’s income by making these materials available for free (which otherwise Church members must spend significant time and money to obtain), while shutting down official channels like Scientology.org.

The anti-Scientology movement has been around for decades (at least since the publication of Paulette Cooper’s The Scandal of Scientology in 1971), but the early Anonymous demonstrations had little if any connection to existing groups. On January 22, Andreas Heldal-Lund, founder of anti-Scientology Web site Operation Clambake, issued a press release criticizing Anonymous’ techniques, particularly its DDoS attacks:

Attacking Scientology like that will just make them play the religious persecution card. They will use it to defend their own counter actions when they try to shatter criticism and crush critics without mercy… People should be able to have easy access to both sides and make up their own opinions. Freedom of speech means we need to allow all to speak—including those we strongly disagree with. I am of the opinion that the Church of Scientology is a criminal organization and a cult which is designed by its delusional founder to abuse people. I am still committed to fight for their right to speak their opinion.

Mark Bunker, founder of the anti-Scientology Web site XenuTV issued a similarly-disapproving YouTube clip, stating “you shouldn’t be doing things that are illegal. You just shouldn’t.” But it’s not as if Anonymous didn’realize the irony in its attitude toward censorship at the time of the DDoS attacks; they simply didn’t care. Their stated intention of “expelling Scientology from the Internet” is inherently censorial. The “Message to Scientology” video states:

We are cognizant of the many who may decry our methods as parallel to those of the Church of Scientology, those who espouse the obvious truth that your organization will use the actions of Anonymous as an example of the persecution of which you have for so long warned your followers. This is acceptable to Anonymous. In fact, it is encouraged… Over time, as we begin to merge our pulse with that of your “Church,” the suppression of your followers will become increasingly difficult to maintain.

Moreover, Anonymous is happy to fit into the Church’s narrative of persecution. Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard dubbed the enemies of his organization “suppressive persons” or “SPs,” defined in Scientology’s Glossary of Terms as “a person who possesses a distinct set of characteristics and mental attitudes that cause him to suppress other people in his vicinity. This is the person whose behavior is calculated to be disastrous.” Calculated disaster: 4chan’s users couldn’t have described their ambitions in better terms. The “Message to Scientology” proudly proclaims: “We are your SPs.”

Nevertheless, Anonymous took the criticisms of the old guard to heart, particularly Mark Bunker’s suggestion that the group attempt to have the Church’s tax-exempt status in the United States revoked. (In the UK, where Chanology protests have drawn hundreds of protestors, Scientology is not officially recognized as a religion, but does have some tax protections.) Bunker received what might be considered the group’s highest honor when he became a meme—dubbed “Wise Beard Man,” he is now Anonymous’ father figure. Operation Clambake has show signs of support as well: the main page of the site now displays an image of a protester wearing the group’s signature V For Vendetta mask. Interaction with these longtime critics of Scientology has focused and directed the Anonymous’ anger, finalizing its transformation into a true movement.

Following Bunker’s suggestions, Anonymous has adapted a new means of preventing Church from casting itself as the victim of religious persecution: denying that Scientology is a religion at all. An intriguing YouTube clip from the May 10 protests shows a Scientologist film crew interviewing members of Anonymous. The clip’s creator alleges that these interviewers want sound bites of protesters calling Scientology a religion:

Sound bites of people saying Scientology is a religion is something useful to the cult. Getting that on camera will help them keep tax exempt status and define those who oppose them as ‘religious bigots’… They want to get critics to mention Anons and law breaking in the same breath and to say that Scientology is a ‘church’… This is part of a plan to position themselves in the public mind as being ‘victims’ of ‘religious bigots’ and ‘cyberterrorists’ that might come after Christians next.

The effort to redefine Scientology as a non-religious organization hinges on the use of the word “cult”—a problematic term, as explained in Catherine Wessinger’s recent Religion Dispatches article on the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints. Wessinger states that the word “cult” “can inhibit careful investigation of what is going on inside a religious group and its interactions with members of society; broadly speaking, it is assumed that people ‘know’ what goes on in a ‘cult.’” Anonymous is interested in making the truth about Scientology known to the public, but branding the organization as a “cult” may actually limit that effort. People “know” what goes on in a cult—but much of what goes on in Scientology may be far stranger, particularly given the Church’s international reach and corporate infrastructure. Referring to Scientology as “the cult” gives Anonymous a useful shorthand, but it conceals the sui generis nature of Scientology.

Religious groups frequently face internal criticism and former members, but Anonymous’ war on Scientology may be the first time an unaffiliated, secular organization has protested a whole religion. What is it about Scientology that has made it such an attractive target to Anonymous? Given that the core of the hacker ethos is the belief that “information wants to be free,” it’s no surprise that the group is so angered by Scientology’s pay-to-pray structure. The Church relies on tightly-guarded copyrights and trademarks, and that defense has made them an inviting target for Anonymous’ information pirates. Time will tell how successful the campaign against Scientology will be, but history has shown 15-year-old hackers to be every bit as adept at unrelenting harassment as Scientology’s lawyers are. As Anonymous strengthens its ties to the old guard of the anti-Scientology movement, it is creating a synthesis between the pranksterism and a more principled, informed style of protest. With each monthly demonstration, Anonymous becomes more and more a force to be reckoned with. Could this be the unstoppable force to Scientology’s immovable object?