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
- Radar Magazine, April Issue: Cult Friction
- City Paper (Baltimore), 4/2/08: Serious Business: Anonymous Takes On Scientology (and Doesn't Afraid of Anything) [and yes, that's intentional]
- Christian Science Monitor, 3/17/08: Anonymous Activists Gaining Strength Online
- The Guardian (UK), 3/19/08: Taking The Rick