the following post is [about] anonymous

The following blog post was prepared by a CMS graduate student who, appropriately enough, wishes to remain anonymous. S/He has been watching with some interest the emergence of the Anonymous movement, a grassroots effort to protest against the Church of Scientology organization, which has adopted a range of references and models from popular culture to further its goals. It offers a rich reference point for those of us in better understanding the ways that participatory culture can offer a spring board for civic engagement. It seems like an appropriate followup to the interview I ran earlier this week with Witness’s Sam Gregory in that it represents another example of how video sharing might contribute to civic discourse. The author closes the post with a call for academic discussion of the implications of this phenomenon. S/he and I offer this post as a resource for further study.

On March 15, 2008, over 9000* people worldwide took to the streets to protest practices of the Church of Scientology organization. Without any clear leadership, masked individuals descended upon local organizations with signs and flyers. They stood outside, chanting phrases like “tax the cult” and “why is Lisa Dead?” They gave speeches, recruited new members, and granted press interviews. Then, they sang and danced to Rick Astley’s epic 1987 hit, “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

Hi, We’re from the Internet

The protesters call themselves “Anonymous” and their movement originated on several loosely affiliated web sites. The long-standing site Something Awful had built a community through its forums and a popular image manipulation competition called Photoshop Phriday. Other sites spun off of or grew up in parallel with Something Awful, including the always-offensive image posting site 4chan.org. The most popular “board” on 4chan was “/b/“, which featured doctored photos, inside jokes, and porn. Through 2007, the community was pulling online pranks like taking down web sites and defacing Myspace pages. Their culture grew out of the pursuit of these sophomoric “lulz” and spawned several internet memes. Perhaps most well known is the LOLCats. Their language became filled with sarcastically self-referential bastardizations of English.

The community began coordinating “raids” against various sites, online games, and people that they deemed idiotic (or, in their words, had broken “teh Rules of teh Internetz”). They successfully shut down a white supremacist’s page, lashed out at a site that copied one of their images, and flooded virtual games that they considered inane. They coordinated these efforts through several sites, but most prominently through a collaboratively maintained wiki. Plans would form as a result of many proposals, one of which would gain a critical mass of support. There were no leaders. At some point, the group decided to start calling itself “Anonymous,” inspired by the largely anonymous web-posting tools they used. On July 26, 2007, KTTV Fox of Los Angeles did a news report on the group, calling them “hackers on steroids” and “domestic terrorists.” The Fox report was quickly spread, parodied, and made fun of. It also formed the foundation for the group’s ironic self-identity, and cemented the “Anonymous” moniker for months to come.

Throughout, Anonymous maintained a rough edge. Their “raids” often seemed more like cyberstalking or bullying. Their image boards continued to feature mostly porn, gore, and insults. Their conversations were peppered with what sounded like hate speech — constant references to “fags” or “niggers”. To be sure, it was a community made up largely of young white males acting somewhat immaturely. On the other hand, there have emerged more subtle undercurrents in their behavior. To some extent this language is used ironically and critically. Anons are equal opportunity offenders, and they seem to value free speech far more than they feel true hatred. They also use this harsh language when referring to each other just as much as when discussing the targets of their attacks. In a way, the phrases have been removed from their contextualized meanings in standard English discourse and reappropriated as part of the memetic language of the group.

On January 15, 2008, the online gossip site Gawker posted an internal Church of Scientology video featuring Tom Cruise riffing on the wonders of Scientology. The church had already successfully used legal tactics to remove the video from other sites, but Gawker claimed, “it’s newsworthy; and we will not be removing it.” Lawyers for the church claimed copyright infringement, and Gawker claimed fair use. At some point, some members of Anonymous became incensed at what they saw as an attempt to silence free speech and violation of internet principles. Debate ensued, and one member stated:

“Gentlemen, this is what I have been waiting for. Habbo, Fox, The G4 Newfag Flood crisis. Those were all training scenarios. This is what we have been waiting for. This is a battle for justice. Every time /b/ has gone to war, it has been for our own causes. Now, gentlemen, we are going to fight for something that is right. I say damn those of us who advise against this fight. I say damn those of us who say this is foolish. /b/ROTHERS, THE TIME HAS COME FOR US TO RISE AS NOT ONLY HEROES OF THE INTERNETS, BUT AS ITS GUARDIANS.”

Scientology had thrown down the gauntlet, and Anonymous awoke. In a YouTube video addressed to the church, Anonymous explained that, “for the good of your followers, for the good of mankind, and for our own enjoyment, we shall expel you from the Internet and systematically dismantle the Church of Scientology in its present form.” Anonymous promptly took down Scientology’s web sites, endlessly faxed them black sheets of paper, and called their public phone numbers with loops of… you guessed it… “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the LULZ

The initial objective of the campaign was a success. By all accounts, Anonymous was frustrating the Church of Scientology and generating amusement for Anonymous. The church replied publicly, counter-attacked Anonymous sites through legal (and, allegedly, technical) means, and was forced to move its servers to a more robust and costly provider. Soon, long-time Scientology critics began to take notice. Some of these critics had worked to expose the organization’s practices for decades, and the massive influx of energy was both exhilarating and frightening. One critic, Mark Bunker, replied via YouTube:

“I think it’s incredibly exciting to have an army of young, passionate people wanting to do something about Scientology’s fraud and abuse. However, I think you’re making some major mistakes that are going to hurt in the long run. They’re going to make you look bad, they’re going to get you in trouble… they’re going to get us in trouble, those of us who have been long-time critics of Scientology. Scientology is good at tar-and-feathering us with other people’s actions. It may seems like fun and games, but Scientology is serious, you have to be prepared… I’m mainly concerned because you shouldn’t be doing things that are illegal. You just shouldn’t. It’s not morally right, it’s not right when Scientology does it, and it’s not right when we do it… a better way to get at them would be to try to get rid of their tax-exempt status… now I know that doesn’t sound anywhere near as interesting as attacking their websites. It sounds dull, but that’s going to hurt them. Going out and protesting, that’s wonderful. I don’t know if this makes any sense to you, but please please please reform your movement the way we want Scientology to reform their movement.”

Bunker later commented that “I thought they’d lash out at me.” Instead, they celebrated him and named him “Wise Beard Man.” In his video, he sounds like an earnest and concerned parent. It’s hard to imagine such an uncouth and authority-hating group taking him seriously. But, they did. They began to educate themselves about Scientology’s various alleged abuses, including the 1995 death of Lisa McPherson who was under the care of the church at the time she died. When someone posted a YouTube video claiming to speak for families that had been torn apart by Scientology, one Anonymous replied:

“Fucking rise up, sons and daughters of the Internet. Rise the fuck up and stay up. Let ‘em know we’ll take the fight to them, and that we’ll help every single person that wants to leave the cult. We have lawyers and social workers and therapists in our ranks, and we can, and will, give aid to those who want out. We are Anonymous. For the lulz, but moar than that now. For teh most epic win. Revoke Scientology’s tax-exempt status. Great Justice for Lisa McPherson.”

Nearly overnight, Anonymous shifted focus. The Anons began planning for a worldwide protest, they compiled research, started a lobbying campaign, and cranked out flyers and informational pamphlets. On February 10, they staged their first major protest with several thousand participating. Many Anonymous donned “guy fawkes” masks, made famous in the film “V for Vendetta”, as a symbol of their resistence to oppression and their commitment to anonymity. There is a long history of Scientology protesters allegedly being harrassed and otherwise attacked by the church. When anonymous translated its digital anonymity into real-world anonymity, Scientology faced something it had never before experienced.

Nevertheless, just before the second wave of protests on March 15, the CoS began agressively pursuing members of Anonymous that it had managed to identify. In some jurisdictions, local anti-mask laws had actually made it difficult for Anons to protest anonymously–a sharp contrast to their accustomed protections online. The church posted videos “outing” members and accusing them of hate crimes and terrorism (Anonymous responded by cloning the site and replacing the videos with Rick Astley). The CoS claimed to have filed criminal complaints at federal agencies, with these allegations. It tried to get an injunction against protestors in Clearwater, and failed. The worldwide protests grew, and Anonymous declared March 15 a success. The protests had been timed to coincide with the birthday of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Anonymous donned birthday hats, ate cake, and danced to a cheesy song with the lyrics, “When it’s time to party we will party hard.”

After the March protests, CoS sent nastygrams to some de-masked Anons via at least two law firms, which in themselves constituted no legal action. In a couple of limited cases, CoS actually took demonstrable legal action. It accused LA-based Sean Carasov of making death threats, and the LAPD dismissed the charges. It also filed a complaint of Trespass and Criminal Harrassment against Boston-based “Gregg” who knocked on the door of the local CoS and attempted to give them fliers. Gregg has yet to be heard in court, but Anonymous feels confident that the legal merit is weak and that the actions were filed solely as an attempt to intimidate.

By all measures, the intimidation isn’t working. The next protests occur on April 12th, and are focused on bringing attention to the families that have been “disconnected” by the CoS. Anonymous plans monthly protests for the forseeable future.

An Academic Opportunity

Anonymous presents an array of opportunities for interesting scholorship. It is a cultural community, a political movement, a legal battleground, and more. It straddles between internet and “real world” existence. We need to study Anonymous… and to study hard.

Academics from cultural studies, media theory, and anthropology might seek to better understand what holds this unique community together. How have they appropriated anime and internet culture into the core of their identity and used it to unify their movement? How do neighbor communities like cosplay and video gaming cross pollinate with Anonymous? How does Anonymous connect with the earlier Internet vs. Scientology effort? What do we make of their obscure and offensive language?

Legal academics also have a great deal to consider when it comes to Anonymous. How do our laws regarding online vs. real-world anonymity differ? For example, should a Kentucky bill banning anonymous online posting pass or should a New York statute banning anonymous protesting in real life be overturned? Is the CoS using official-looking lawyer letters to intimidate and chill free speech? What can be done to defend Anons who claim that they are the target of fair-gaming through the legal system? What about the larger questions of Scientology’s tax-exempt status and their controversial 1993 settlement with the IRS?

Political scientists studying movements and agenda-setting might want to consider how this group organizes and affects political change. What has made Anonymous able to grow and adapt so dynamically? How can such a decentralized, leaderless collective maintain potency in the long term? What are the means that the group is using to lobby and advocate anonymously? How is the movement gaining newcomers while staying on message and not becoming fragmented?

Some academics have already begun to take notice, but their work is preliminary. PBS’s digital news project “Idea Lab” recently posted a thought-provoking article on the Anonymous transition from the Internet to the “real world.” Anonymous demonstrates the principles of digital learning as they translate their online skills into collective action. They leverage viral-like promotion strategies through efforts like youfoundthecard.com. They use language and tactics from the video game world. They have developed a decentralized news making and gathering service in support of their cause. What can academics learn from this?

Rise up, sons and daughters of the academy.

More About Anonymous

A Sample of Anonymous Media Coverage

Anonymous-related Sites

Comments

  1. AnonMomAnon says:

    hello, i am anonymous, but i only speak for myself.

    this article is the one i’ve been waiting to read.

    one little known fact about the anonymous movement is this: the orlando, florida anons had protests in front of the orlando org before the historic feb.10th worldwide protest. i was fortunate enough to attend one of their pre-raid raids. they were intelligent, polite, funny, and passionate about this cause.

    this was no joke. the war against scientology was and is real.

    i came home and told my husband that i felt like i was witnessing history. these young people had found out how to harness the internet to affect change.

    yes, you all need to study the phenomenon of anonymous. anonymous isn’t like anything that has ever existed.

    it’s not up to anonymous to change and do things the way they’ve always been done. it’s up for the world to learn how anonymous will do things from now on.

    “the way it’s always been done” just doesn’t work anymore.

    the great title for a new book by clay shirky sums up the feeling one gets when you become anonymous: “here comes everybody.”

    $cientology is stalled and incapable of change. their inflexibility caused them to do what they do best: they made another enemy. channers argued back-and-forth on whether to ddos raid. while a few of them executed the attacks, the rest were looking into what $cientology really was. their research disgusted them and they said, “not in our world.”

    i am a proud older anon. it’s an honor for me to walk with them on protest days and to help them research. they have restored my faith in the future of this world.

    study them.

    i usually sign off on all my posts with this:

    THIS IS WHY

    WE ARE LEGION

    however, for this post i will sign off this way:

    WE ARE ANONYMOUS

    WE ARE LEGION

    EXPECT US

  2. Yes, yes, yes!

    Mr. Jenkins, my fellow fanthropologists and I have been waiting for the day you would comment on the Anonymous movement. Your student has done an admirable job introducing the reader to this phenomenon as well as announcing what I believe is the first call for attention directed at the academic community.

    I’m currently doing my thesis in cinema and new media studies, namely video game audience cultures. I agonise day and night that I can’t shift focus to writing about Anonymous and its implications as far ranging as Satoshi Kon’s Paprika and Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End to neoactivism as we know it. Regardless of where a person stands on the CoS controversy, this is a VERY exciting movement we’re now privy to.

    What interests me most are the ways by which internet memes are becoming real. For instance, the fact that there are over 9000 protesters, or that Sean Carasov’s cat, who was killed by suspected Scientologist agents, was named Mudkips, thereby proving to Anonymous that CoS doesnt liek mudkipz and hates cats, which are sacred creatures of /b/. While some of these real world-internet collisions are obviously more tragic than others, it definitely lends a heightened sense of surreality to the day to day.

    Though it must be acknowledged Anonymous is not the first of its kind, it definitely is growing to be high profile enough to potentially become a test case by which the efficacy of future neoactivist movements can be judged. If Anonymous enacts real change through its unorthodox tactics here, we may be entering into a new epoch of public discourse; if the tides turn, and Anonymous meets a negative wave from which it cannot recover, we may never know what we have lost.

    Personally, I am optimistic. And I long for the day that I can get out there to MIT and perhaps talk this further with you.

    As a final note, I leave you with one of Anonymous’s most recent mottos, one which I’ve taken quite a liking to:

    “United as one, divided by zero.”

    –Kris

  3. lololinternets says:

    i am a part of this whole movement as well.

    however, i am also interested in the “Anonymous” phenomenon from a more academic perspective; i’d even say that this post has inspired me to look deeper into this whole thing.

    is there any existing research into this sort of thing? i’m guessing not since it’s such a new phenomenon that hasn’t really occurred in the past. but any sort of direction would be great, if anyone could suggest where i ought to start my search (i’m still an undergrad student studying math and philosophy, and i’m trying to gobble up as much “foundational” stuff as possible)

  4. Marcabian Parallax Denigrate says:

    Very good post!

    Having adopted the “Anonymous” label, I agree that the Anonymous phenomenon is very interesting. In particular, I think there is ample opportunity for mixed online-offline ethnography. The legitimizing discourse that Anonymous has constructed in binary opposition to the Corporation of Scientology, as well as the existence (or lack of thereof) of a system of memes constituting an “Anonymous cultural ecology”, and the way these interact for the formation of a stable group identity have fascinated me since my first involvement with the group.

    Indeed, there is much to learned about Us – because everybody is, in some way, Anonymous.

    We are legion. We do not forgive – We do not forget. Expect us.

  5. anynymys says:

    I’ve been waiting for some weeks now to see when the academics would show up to this conversation. It’s a helluva story from many directions…and frankly, there are a bunch of folks out there who sure deserve every bit of help they can get. If JQ Public cannot agree on what DOES constitute a ‘valid’ religion, the anti-scientology story is all the evidence I need that there is much agreement about what DOES NOT constitute a ‘valid’ religion.

    Strong human justice values are alive and well on the internet. Rock on, boys & girls.

    I am Anonymous, I am neither young nor very computer savvy…we ALL can stand Anonymous.

  6. I was wondering when people would start talking about this phenomenon being history in the making. This truly is a fascinating event going on and the “news” markets are hardly touching it. Maybe with enough academics recognizing it, they’ll take more notice.

  7. Good work, as it is not easy to sort it out, even if (or despite the fact that) you are “inside”.

    My first impression is that one should not concentrate too much on the media – even if I understand that it is the main point of this program and possibly the most important aspect – and look at the broader picture.

    Here are some elements to consider:

    - Scientology is feared but not respected by many people and institutions; some argue that it is going down and thus negative feelings can be more easily and openly expressed than 5-10 years ago.

    - Long-time critics (Old Guard, OG) played a key role that goes far beyond the pivotal intervention of WBM (and others). They taught us, often at a high price, the fundamentals about scientology’s tactics (bull-baiting, harassment, intimidation) and how to respond (each developed their own way*). Their bravery – facing scientology bare-faced and in small groups – is an example for many of us and I am impressed to see many Anonymous mentioning them when they have an opportunity to do so.

    - Andrew Morton’s unauthorized biography of Tom Cruise was also important as he was able, in important media, to address certain issues openly and in a rather intelligent way. Moreover, I remember reading (but I can find the source) that his publishing company was behind the Tom Cruise’s video leak, as to substantiate some of his claims.

    One of the interesting recent developments is the feeling of the “early” anonymous that they have been stolen of their own identity by people like myself who got involved only after WBM’s message. I understand and respect that feeling even though I hope that they will react in a way that will not hinder the present effort.

    My only critic of this text deals with the following sentence: “Anonymous demonstrates the principles of digital learning as they translate their online skills into collective action.” But it would be too long to develop it here…

    * In my case, I have been deeply influenced by (1)Mark Bunker’s videos that helped me putting flesh around the skeleton of knowledge I gathered over the years and (2)Tory “Magoo” Christman’s general attitude that mixed in a very special way seriousness and lightness.

  8. With respect to its Scientology activities, Anonymous began its work in January, 2008. In this short time, Anonymous has used the power of the internet against the ultra-wealthy fifty-eight year old Cult of Scientology. It is fair to say that Anonymous and its chief ally, the Old Guard, has staggered Scientology. The Old Guard is a term used to describe the various groups of anti-Scientology activists that have been active since the 1970′s. The two main websites of the Old Guard are xenu.net and alt.religion.scientology. Anonymous’ website is found at enturbulation.org.

    I mention the Old Guard at the outset to give academics further context in which to study the Anonymous phenomenon. Many of the Old Guard are former Scientology Sea Org executives or Sea Org members. The Sea Org is Scientology’s paramilitary organization that manages all of Scientology and its many front groups. Sea Org includes Scientology’s infamous Official of Special Affairs which goes by its acronym of OSA. OSA is taking the lead in attempting to destroy Anonymous by use of Scientology’s infamous “Fair Game” doctrine.

    *****

    Anonymous has staged two brilliant global protests against the Master Race group known as The Church of Scientology. Scientology’s OSA has shown itself to be fairly incapable of handling Anonymous. Therefore, Scientology is now waging a gazillion-dollar legal war against Anonymous. The Cult hired the legal powerhouse of Latham & Watkins to fight Anonymous:

    http://ocmb.xenu.net/ocmb/viewtopic.php?t=26594&postorder=asc

    Scientology is looking for criminal charges to be brought against individual “Anons” and has failed thus far, this despite Scientology having hired an army of Private Investigators to covertly stalk and identify individual Anons. Scientology’s attack on Anonymous has even resulted in accusations that the LAPD and other police agencies are pro-Scientology. As a member of the Old Guard, I see Anonymous flowing like water to the lowest and most secret levels and discovering surprising hidden connections between Scientology and its secret allies. Stay tuned on this part of the Scientology-Anonymous story because we may be in for some startling revelations about certain people who are “Secret Scientologists.” This subject is an entirely different discussion altogether.

    *****

    By its own declaration, Anonymous is a group devoted to taking on corrupt power structures such as Scientology:

    “Knowledge is free.

    We are Anonymous.

    We are Legion.

    We do not forgive.

    We do not forget.

    Expect us.”

    The Anonymous declaration is speaks to the epistemological underpinnings of the group, which I will not go into here.

    *****

    IMO, Anonymous is essentially a group of internet activists that has made an extremely effective jump to street protests. As a microcosm of the rising revolution against government-corporate fascism, Anonymous embodies the key elements that have been historically employed employed in the revolt of the powerless against powerful authority. This includes the paradox of a leaderless, strategically decentralized group in which anonymity and egalitarianism reign as core values.

    Anonymous is not anything new per se. It is rather a classic secret society operating via the internet. In the American Revolution, the same basic principles were used and paper pamphlets spread like wildfire from hidden presses. Secret Masonic Lodges were used as meeting places. In the case of Anonymous, the internet, TM’s, IM’s and other forms of instant electronic communication have brought the venerable revolutionary tradition of pamphleteering — a “viral” means of communication — into the 21st century.

    Anonymous has replicated the classic revolutionary structure, even to the point of having its own heroes, its own internal dissent and debate, and its own petty hypocrisies. All of this shows that Anonymous has an internal structure that is evolutionary, tense at times, and is yet coherently focused on achieving its goal of dismantling Scientology in its present form.

    That Anonymous has joined forces with the Old Guard in many areas shows that a true intergenerational protest movement operating in real time is not only possible, but is necessary. This work against Scientology takes an internet tribe of young and old sharing complex and diverse skill sets. Add to this the ever-increasing leaks from within Scientology and one can see that Scientology faces a collapse if it does not heed the calls for a radical reform of its incredible inhumanity and greed.

    In an internet age, Anonymous, the Old Guard, and internal Scientology leakers can obtain virtually real time surveillance and global reporting on anything Scientology says or does. Scientology knows this and faces an asymmetrical fight against a vast array of opponents that its money cannot conquer. The real problem with Scientology is that its reputation is irreparably shot to hell and Scientology did this to itself.

    Long live Anonymous!

    /////

  9. lololinternets said:

    “is there any existing research into this sort of thing?”

    Yessssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss.

    Theory: Hardt and Negri, Multitude; (…), Empire. Former moar easy than latter.

    Practice: Shirky, Here Comes Everything. As featured on Comedy Central, with thetan-infested Doritos and stuff.

  10. klinqueen says:

    Just a tech issue — you need to lose the “www” in front of the “youfoundthecard.com” link; otherwise, it takes you to a wikipedia page about the HTTP protocol.

    Anonymous in its own way, but not what you intended, I think.

    Great article, BTW; I will be passing it on to my anthropological theory class this week, as we are discussing the issues of “theory vs. practice”, and what kinds of tools anthropologists need for the world today. This should be of great interest to my fellow students!

    [Link fixed, thanks -- Ed.]

  11. Guy Falkes says:

    I loved your article. I grew up in a fairly academic environment myself. I consider myself an internet and computer expert, though my hacking skills are nill.

    I am very much a fan of Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert, and the like… and consider the social commentary in their works to be the best parts of the Science Fiction genre itself.

    I’ve known about the greed and psychological damage that Scientology introduces for years, my dad was rescued from the cult when his mom had a Federal Investigator talk to him about his case back in the 1970′s.

    I ran into Mark Bunker’s website in 2000, and was in shock. There’s no way that all of this stuff could be true. That doesn’t happen in the modern world. It can’t. And if it did, I didn’t want to risk my family to stand up against them.

    And then Anonymous arrived. My eyes were opened. Mark Bunker was telling the truth all along. And the “Church” of Scientology was yet again trying to supress free speech on the internet. My first outrage at them was when they forced an ISP to yank a kid’s account because he posted a fairly neutral book review of Dianetics.

    But now Legion had awoken.

    The opportunity to participate in this historic event, as well as a history socialogical collective was irresistable.

    And now, here we are. We’re scheduled for a strong presence on April 12th. We’re already discussing our plans for May. And to the people who are being hurt daily by the illegal and immoral practices of this “church”:

    Never gonna give you up

    Never gonna let you down

    Never gonna turn around

    And hurt you

    Never gonna make you cry

    Never gonna say goodbye

    Never gonna turn around

    Desert you

  12. Ron Newman says:

    Hi, Henry. I’d love to talk to you about all this some time soon. I find it fascinating, because it is repeating on a much larger scale some anti-Scientology activities I was involved in from 1995 forward.

    This is a website that I created at the time, to keep track of what was then a rapidly spreading Internet movement against Scientology. It generated simultaneous demonstrations at locations around the world, just as are happening again now. When we did this, we believed we were the first group of people to organize any kind of distributed street protest via the Internet.

    – Ron Newman, MIT ’79 (worked at the Media Lab in 1994)