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Anonymous vs. scientology


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Posting this in full as from subscription d/base. Not sure if this edition of Skeptical Inquirer is on newstands yet.

Skeptical Inquirer. 32.3 (May-June 2008): 7(2).
Stollznow, Karen.
News and Comment Column

In the last few months, a series of anti-Scientology protests have taken place worldwide. In an unpredictable sequence of events, the Church of Scientology has acquired a nemesis: the global, Internet-based "individual collective" known as Anonymous. Scientology is adept at silencing its lone critics, but how will the group tackle a sizeable, ubiquitous, and faceless foe?

Founded by author L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology purports to be a religion, but many call it a cult. But who or what is Anonymous? With enigmatic slogans such as "We are everyone, we are no one" and "We are Anonymous, we are Legion," Anonymous can be loosely defined as a large, noncentralized, global Internet community, mainly composed of highly computer-literate twenty-somethings.

The feud began in mid-January 2008 when a Scientology promotional video featuring an erratic and fervent Tom Cruise appeared on the Web site YouTube. As the video spread across the Internet, Scientology's infamous legal representatives sought the removal of the video, ostensibly as a violation of copyright law. Anonymous interpreted this as censorship and reputedly retaliated with a distributed denial of service (DUOS) attack against scientology.org. (Basically, this overuses the resources of a Web site, in effect closing it down temporarily--although it has been argued that the site experienced a legitimate increase of traffic seeking the Cruise interview.)

This incident was the catalyst, but the battle is more long-standing. The suppressive activities of Scientology conflict with the Anonymous ethos of free knowledge sharing and freedom of speech, and the two parties have clashed online--and in the courtroom--since the early 1990s.

Anonymous created Project Chanology, an initiative with the ambitious objective of "bringing down the Church of Scientology." Anonymous issued an ominous computerized message on YouTube reproduced in part below:

Over the years, we have been watching you, your campaigns of
misinformation, your suppression of dissent, your litigious nature,
all of these things have caught our eye. With the leakage of your
latest propaganda video into mainstream circulation, the extent of
your malign influence over those who have come to trust you as
leaders has been made dear to us. Anonymous has therefore decided
that your organization should be destroyed. For the good of your
followers, for the good of mankind, and for our own enjoyment, we
shall proceed to expel you from the Internet and systematically
dismantle the Church of Scientology in its present form.​

The video became a "call to arms" for Anonymous members but sparked criticism from skeptics, including Mark Bunker of Xenutv.net and Andreas Heldal-Lund of Operation Clambake (xenu.net), both critical resources on Scientology. These seasoned activists were concerned that the group's methods could be misinterpreted and potentially detrimental to the cause. Heldal-Lund warned, "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. I believe we are better than this cult and, face to face using democratic tools, most free and thinking individuals will see through their charade." But Anonymous sees strength in numbers.

The "Internet War," fought on cyber fronts, soon became IRL (Internet slang for "in real life" or "not online"). February 10, 2008, became an Anonymous international day of protest. This date was significant as the birthday of Lisa McPherson, a Scientologist who died in 1995 while in the care of Church members. These "Scientology Raids," a successful marketing misnomer, were nonviolent protests that took place in almost one hundred cities worldwide, including London, Sydney, and New York. I attended the demonstration held outside the Church of Scientology in San Francisco to interview protesters for the online skeptical program The TANK Vodcast (tankvodcast.wordpress.com/).

This was an orderly, peaceful protest. After all, the San Francisco constabulary is accustomed to protests, and the public is sympathetic. Widely advertised online, this was not a covert operation, but many of the 200 attendees were. Anonymous by name and nature, the protestors wore costumes, suits, wigs, and masks to "protect their identities," fearing reprisal from the Church. Indeed, I witnessed Church members photographing the protest through windows and filming the event from the building rooftop. A few ex-Scientology members were in attendance too, including Lawrence Wollershein, founder of FACTnet.org, a resource for recovery from the abusive pracrices of religions and cults.

The protestors distributed informative flyers and carried posters with slogans such as "Scientology Hates Freedom of Speech"; "Truth is Not Hate Speech"; "Science Rules. Scientology Does Not"; "Bad Science Fiction Shouldn't Cost 360k"; "L Run Hubbard: Prophet or Profiteer?"; "Scientology: It's only a Church on Paper"; and a youthful photo of Lisa McPherson beside an autopsy shot with the caption "She took a Free Personality Test."

Anonymous protested a range of issues and encouraged people to think critically about Scientology. In general, the protestors questioned practices rather than beliefs. Their handouts questioned the tax exempt status of the Church, condemned abuses, secrecy, aggressive recruitment tactics, harassment of critics, litigiousness, and the irony of Hubbard as science fiction writer turned guru. Protecting freedom of speech was a major theme (playing devil's advocate, the DDoS attacks and the goal of "expulsion of Scientology from the Internet" contradict the free-speech message). The crowd chanted the motto "Knowledge is free, religion should be too" as Scientology was labeled a pyramid scheme that financially exploits its followers; protestors compared it unfavorably to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, belief systems that openly share their tenets.

The protestors perceive Scientology as a cult, not a religion. If Scientology hadn't been popularly reframed from religion to cult, the demonstrations might be regarded as hate crimes. Signs urging drivers to "Honk if you hate Scientology" could be construed as vilification. Indeed, Scientology did play the victimized card, branding Anonymous members as "religious bigots," "cyber terrorists," and "domestic terrorists."

Project Chanology continues with more planned protests, petitions, and activities. So far, the protests have generated negative publicity for Scientology. However, the most negative publicity still comes from within the Church itself.

Karen Stollznow has a PhD in linguistics from the University of New England, Australia. She is a lecturer, researcher, and investigator of the pseudoscientific and paranormal living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is associate editor of The Skeptic (Australia).