They took their marching orders directly from videos posted on the Internet by the entity known only as “Anonymous” and did exactly what “he” asked. On Sunday, February 10, young people around the world protested against the Church of Scientology and proved once again the power of the Web— to share information, inspire action and stir up controversy. An estimated 10,000 protesters—most of whom, it seems, were high school and college-age males—carried out well-organized, carefully choreographed simultaneous demonstrations at more than 250 Scientology properties in 14 countries.
Each “raid,” as it’s dubbed in Internet parlance, was part of a global effort to put the highly secretive church on notice, not for its religious practices, the protesters made clear, but for financial squeezes on members, attacks on psychiatry and other forms of mainstream mental health treatment, and heavy-handed ways with the media, critics and those who want to leave or have left the church.
This two-minute video by “Anonymous” ignited the Internet-based criticism of Scientology three weeks ago. “Over the years, we have been watching you,” said an electronically enhanced man’s voice over images of clouds. “Your campaigns of misinformation; 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 trust you, who call you leader, has been made clear to us. Anonymous has therefore decided that your organization should be destroyed. For the good of your followers, for the good of mankind….”
Organized completely through the Internet, Anonymous has no set hierarchy and yet it has a leader who so far no one has identified. The “Anon” movement has drawn thousands of bright, young computer users away from their online games, IMs and Facebook addictions and mobilized them into a large but loosely bound army of resourceful cyber-activists who are bold enough to challenge a powerful, tightly controlled and famously litigious organization.
That first Anonymous message, which has been viewed more than 2 million times on YouTube, appeared to be a response to a public misstep by the very private church. In January an in-house promotional video for the church was leaked to the Internet. On it, Tom Cruise, Scientology’s marquee member, giddily spews streams of Scientologisms about “KSW” (Keep Scientology Working) and “SP’s” (suppressive persons, enemies of the church). “We are the authorities on getting people off drugs, we are the authorities on the mind, we can rehabilitate criminals,” Cruise says in the video, backed up by a loop of the Mission: Impossible theme. “We can bring peace and unite cultures.”
The church tried to claim copyright infringement to get the Cruise video pulled from YouTube, Gawker.com and other sites. But Gawker’s Nick Denton—boss at the daily online blast of media and showbiz
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gossip--refused to back down and kept the video posted, claiming “fair use.” The Gawker page featuring the Cruise video and Denton’s nose-thumbing reply to the church’s legal threat drew more than 2.3 million views, according to The New York Times—a new record for the site.
Conveniently timed with the release of Andrew Morton’s unauthorized biography of Cruise, more Scientology clips began leaking onto the Web. The three-hour “2007 OT Summit” ceremony emceed by church leader David Miscavige at Scientology’s headquarters in Clearwater, Florida, appeared on YouTube in 10-minute segments. (Most of it is a mind-numbing sales-pitch by Miscavige telling all existing church members to repurchase every one of Hubbard’s more than 50 books, which have been re-edited and republished in “more accurate” new editions.)
Two more videos popped up from Anonymous, giving vague descriptions of who is behind the messages. “We have no leaders, no single entity directing us,” the voice said in the third installment. “Only the collective outrage of individuals, guiding our hand in the current efforts to bring awareness. We want you to be aware of the very real dangers of Scientology.”
Through YouTube, Internet Relay Chats and sites such as 4Chan.org, word spread quickly about Anonymous’ dramatic trilogy on YouTube and about the Feb. 10 protest. The very term “Anonymous” began to be used to define anyone willing to publicly criticize Scientology.
With a sort of “I am Spartacus” momentum, video replies and message boards buzzed with support for Anonymous and spread a list of rules for the Feb. 10 event: No profanity, no violence, nothing illegal. Protesters were encouraged to dress in black and wear Guy Fawkes masks (inspired by the film V for Vendetta). Disguises were urged both as protection against surveillance by the church and as a statement of unity.
The date of the mass civil action commemorated the birthday of Lisa McPherson, who joined Scientology in Dallas, Texas. She tried unsuccessfully to leave the church and ended up dead under mysterious circumstances in a church-owned hotel and under the care of church handlers near their headquarters in Clearwater. (This eerie video details the McPherson case.)
Starting at precisely 11 a.m. local time last Sunday, protesters took their places outside Scientology centers around the world, waving signs that said “Religion is free” and “Scientology kills.” They passed out fliers, chanted slogans and spoke politely to media covering the event.
More than 250 marched in both Sydney and Adelaide. Hundreds showed up at the Scientology Celebrity Centre in Los Angeles and at a branch in West Hollywood. Dozens braved subzero temperatures to protest in Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit and Toronto. More demonstrators gathered outside centers in Boston, New York, London and Edinburgh. A lone man held a sign at the church’s location in Tokyo.
More than 70 protesters lined a wall across from the pink brick Celebrity Centre in an upscale residential neighborhood in Dallas. Sweating in their masks and hoods in 80-degree sunshine, they ranged in age from 16 to early 30s and were, for the most part, well-spoken and thoughtful. To a one they said they were moved to research the beliefs and practices of Scientology by the three Anonymous videos on YouTube and by the footage of a wild-eyed Cruise espousing his loyalty to the church. The protesters said they had read about the McPherson case and had explored Web sites of church critics such as ex-Scientologist Tory Christman (aka “Magoo”), Emmy-winning journalist Mark Bunker (Xenutv.com) and Andreas Heldal-Lund, founder of Xenu.net, which has published online most of Scientology’s “secret” documents under the title “Operation Clambake.”
With police watching from squad cars parked in front of the Dallas center, along with one security guard (a self-confessed Methodist) hired by the church, nobody interacted directly with the few Scientologists who could be seen maintaining constant camera surveillance on the protesters from some bushes on church property.
The Dallas protest was organized by a 16-year-old high-schooler who identified himself as “ProBo.” He emphasized again that it’s the church’s greed that’s under fire, not its religious beliefs. Scientologists must pay to take the instructional courses and do the personal “auditing” required to learn its practices and doctrines. “We’d like to see a government investigation into how [Scientology] keeps its tax-exempt status,” said ProBo. (The church, founded in 1954 by sci-fi author L. Ron Hubbard, was granted tax-exempt status in 1993 after a long battle with the IRS. For 25 years the tax agency had maintained that Scientology was a business and not a religion.)
Asked for comment about the worldwide demonstrations, two Scientologists outside the Dallas Celeb Centre who wouldn’t identify themselves (but asked this writer for ID) referred all inquiries to a PR person in Austin. They handed out copies of a two-page press release (the same one given media at every other protest site) declaring that Anonymous is a group of “cyber-terrorists who hide their identities behind masks and computer anonymity” and are “perpetrating religious hate-crimes…for no reason other than religious bigotry.”
The kids at the Dallas protest last Sunday didn’t act much like terrorists. “I can only stay two more hours,” said one as he munched an Oreo cookie through his mask. “I have homework.”
Peacefully, cleverly, Anonymous at large has taken their message from the medium of the Web—and turned around to make the medium their message again. These young people seek and respond quickly to new material. Within two hours of posting to YouTube a four-minute video about the Dallas protest, it had garnered more than 700 views. Within 24 hours, that number doubled. By Monday evening, there were more than 700 new videos on YouTube with footage of Anon protests around the world.
There’s a good lesson in all this for those still struggling to capture the attention of a young generation known to have a hard time concentrating on anything for long. Part of that lesson may be to be a little mysterious, a little provocative and not to preach but to teach. Anonymous, in its first video, didn’t tell the whole story, but “he” gave clues to where the story could be found.
More than one tipping point is worth mentioning here. As a result of the Cruise video, the actor’s public image has been forever altered (and not for the better). As a result of the church’s response to the public airing of it, Scientology has put itself under the kind of scrutiny it has fought to avoid. Its carefully crafted image has been shown to wobble in a mass medium, the Internet, that it couldn’t control.
With broadcast media giving the Anon protests only the scantest coverage--and granted, it happened on a Sunday morning, when most local newsrooms are understaffed--the protesters did the reporting themselves, posting their images, stories and interviews all over the Web.
And finally, the appearance of Anonymous and “his” call to action tipped the perception of the “viral message” by creating an international protest movement that galvanized thousands of volunteers into showing up at the same place at the same time—and in costumes.
To borrow a term from LRH himself: That is an epic win.
(According to Anonymous—who is now regarded as anyone who wants to be part of it—the next global demonstration against the Church of Scientology will be March 15, two days after the birthday of L. Ron Hubbard.)
For more on this subject, check out Ed Martin's review of the South Park episode Trapped in the Closet and his column about the bizarre public behavior of Tom Cruise. Also read TVMaven's take on the infamous Tom Cruise Scientology video.