I have been closely following the exploits of Anonymous with no small amount of fascination. For those living in a cave on Venus, Anonymous is a hacktivist group that made headlines late last month by declaring war on the Church of Scientology and by launching several initiatives to that end - some legal, some not so legal.
At first I was delighted by the news. Finally, I thought, somebody is actually doing something about this blight. As my readers know, I'm no fan of Scientology. I've spoken out against their unscrupulousness for some time now. I have friends who have been persecuted by the cult and know of others who have been caught in their brain-washing web. I’ve also had my own run-ins with the group and their drones.
But the more I consider the actions of Anonymous, the more I am convinced that they're going about their campaign in the wrong way. Yes, there are advantages to a devil-may-care approach and its attendant publicity, but ultimately I think their strategy will fail. By stooping down to the level of the Scientologists and engaging in illegal activities, Anonymous puts itself at considerable risk. At the same time they undermine more legitimate efforts to see Scientology finally branded as the anti-social money-grubbing racket that it is.
The story so far
Anonymous first emerged this past January in response to Scientology’s rather laughable effort to ban a scandalous video of Tom Cruise enthusiastically praising the virtues of Scientology. Anonymous launched their campaign, called Project Chanology, by publicly launching a creepy-as-hell YouTube video titled, “Message to Scientology” on January 21, 2008. In the video Anonymous accused Scientology of promoting internet censorship while declaring their own goal of working to see Scientology expelled from the internet. Anonymous, which appears to be made up of a disparate collection of hackers and activists, state that they are "everyone and everywhere" and have "no leaders."
Following the release of the video, Anonymous launched a number of denial-of-service attacks, black faxes, prank calls, and other measures meant to disrupt Scientology’s operations.
Earlier this month, Anonymous shifted to legal methods, including an attempt to get the U.S. Internal Revenue Service to investigate the Church of Scientology's tax exempt status.
Anonymous also organized a number of world-wide protests. Participants were invited to put on a mask (to retain anonymity) and protest outside Scientology centers. Much to my amazement, the Toronto rally attracted nearly 50 masked protesters. Similar scenes were played out in over 90 locations around the world and involved over 7,000 protesters.
Pros and Cons
Without a doubt, Anonymous has done more in the past two months than any other group to make it socially acceptable to protest against Scientology. By disingenuously hiding behind the shield of religious freedom, and by relentlessly harassing its critics, Scientology has thus far successfully quashed any attempt at protest and action.
Anonymous is changing this. Thanks to their high-profile campaign – illegal or otherwise – they have raised awareness and made it possible for people to feel that they can organize and protest against the cult. And this may in fact turn out to be Anonymous’s greatest victory. The publicity spawned by their efforts may eventually instigate political action.
And it has been the utter lack of political action in North America that has forced a clandestine vigilante group to emerge in the first place. While European countries like Germany and France are working to ban Scientology on the grounds that they violate human rights and take advantage of the vulnerable, it is a vastly different story here in North America. Our misguided mandate to unquestioningly honor all forms of religious expression has created a loophole for Scientology enabling it to spread its memetic cancer. And virtually nobody does anything about it—and those few who do are ignored or declared to be intolerant.
Which is why Anonymous has emerged and why they feel they have had to take matters into their own hands. Unfortunately, they have decided to launch some questionable practices of their own, namely illegal tactics like denial-of-service attacks.
While there's a certain satisfaction in seeing Scientology on the receiving end, this is not a viable long-term strategy. It's clearly a form of harassment; the authorities have already been involved. A worst case scenario may see Anonymous’s members being charged with instigating hate crimes (should its members be uncovered, of course -- which brings to mind another issue: given the distributed and collaborative nature of the group, can there such a thing as distributed guilt?).
These approaches may also perpetuate a persecution complex among Scientologists and prompt them to defend their religious freedoms even further. As Scientology critic Andreas Heldal-Lund has said, "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."
Ultimately, Anonymous’s goal of wanting to have Scientology wiped off the internet will fail. As showcased by the Tom Cruise video, when an attempt is made to remove something from the internet, the opposite actually happens – what’s known as the Streisand Effect.
Moreover, illegal tactics will only take away from those genuine efforts that could actually work to see Scientology legislated into oblivion. If France and Germany can work to do it, so can the United States and Canada.
Finally, because Anonymous has proven effective at generating publicity and for its masterly methods at organizing dissent, they should concentrate their energy and skills in this area. By getting people out into the streets, and by broadcasting the sins of Scientology, political and legal action may soon follow.
This is a process that will require patience, persistence and action. As Trey Parker and Matt Stone have proclaimed, the "million-year war for Earth has only just begun.”