We are Anonymous.
We are Legion.
We do not forgive.
We do not forget.
You may have seen these people in business attire and Guy Fawkes masks, numbering in the thousands across the world in public protests. You may have heard them described as a controversial group rallying against the Church of Scientology. That would be the truth, but not all of it — not even very close, actually. The truth is something more complex, and it might be wiser to call Anonymous a "phenomenon" rather than an organization.
What is Anonymous?
Nothing. Something. No real agenda. If it helps, think of Anonymous as Shakespearan fools: ridiculous, smarter than they seem, and often present in the scene to serve a higher purpose.
Anonymous is a leaderless, worldwide group of concerned citizens opposed to illegal actions perpetrated by the Church of Scientology under the guise of religious belief. If you share Anonymous' concerns, you are already Anonymous.1
The above quote is from the website Why We Protest
, which houses a variety of easy-to-digest information on the Anonymous battle
against the Church of Scientology. This is a good starting place for understanding Anonymous and the implications of its existence, but it is also problematic and not entirely accurate, as it seemingly conflicts with an underlying truth of Anonymous — that it has no unifying purpose, leaders, agenda, or mouthpiece. Read on, and you'll understand.
The people of Anonymous have been given a dizzying number of conflicting labels, ranging from "cyber vigilantes" and "internet heroes" to "domestic terrorists" and "an Internet hate machine"2. The truth of the matter is somewhat more difficult to grasp: Anonymous is a meme, a haphazard label that by its very nature is impossible to pin down. It's as viral as anything ever has been, and this makes tracing the movement's roots difficult. Consider also that most sources on the group tend to focus on one aspect of it to the exclusion of others; this makes things less confusing, but sacrifices some legitimacy.
Let us suppose, then, that it all begins with 4chan, which is generally accepted as true. To the uninitiated, 4chan and its counterparts (7chan, 2chan, 420chan, and others) are imageboards based on Futaba Channel, an enormously popular Japanese forum. 4chan's infamous /b/ is in some sense the Wild West of the internet, with only a few vague rules to keep the site's legality intact, where one is likely to stumble across bizarre porn, thousands of in-jokes, and language almost impenetrable to those unfamiliar with the site's bizarre culture. 4chan has spawned several internet memes, most notably the lolcats, the "over 9,000" video, and the Chocolate Rain video. They also pioneered the rickroll phenomenon, which has carried over as a sort of anthem to many of Anonymous's anti-Scientology activities. Members have no unique identifiers on the website, and everyone is referred to officially as "Anonymous". And within all this is a certain ferocity, sometimes manifested in utter cruelty (as they say, "none of us is as cruel as all of us") or uncontrollable immaturity, sometimes manifested in a righteous commitment to protecting free speech and the unhindered flow of information.
As an exercise to the reader, ask yourself: What are the effects of total anonymity and massive numbers on a given community?
January 14th, 2008. A clip entitled "Tom Cruise Scientology Video" appeared on YouTube. Hot on the heels of increasingly eccentric Tom Cruise behavior, the video became notorious in a heartbeat. In one portion, Cruise described the feeling of driving past a car accident as a Scientologist and knowing that you are the only one who can really help. His speech sporadically contained bold statements about the importance of the Church of Scientology: "We are the authorities on the mind...We are the way to happiness."
The video was meant to serve as an internal piece of church information and was never supposed to see the light of day. In the early hours of the morning, the video was leaked to Marc Ebner, a journalist who often covered Scientology-related stories.3 He uploaded it to YouTube, and its popularity skyrocketed. Then, only four days later, the video was gone. YouTube removed it, citing a copyright claim by the Church of Scientology.
The Tom Cruise discussion thread on 4chan exploded. Unsurprisingly, the disappearance of the YouTube video was seen as censorship, and the thread became a dumping ground for information regarding the Church of Scientology, its legal activities, and its long history of using legal means to silence critics. 4chan declared war. One user wrote: "Start small, Anon. The Web site, first. Maybe raid the forums, etc. We are thousands strong, they can't sue all of us."
The initial volleys were typical of 4chan raids: websites were taken offline, Scientology messageboards were flooded, and unordered pizzas were delivered to Scientology Centers worldwide. Church faxes were overwhelmed with all-black faxes, quickly draining ink cartridges. These were annoyances hurled by a fringe internet group, but the scale was impressive, all things considered.
Then, on January 21st, Anonymous came into its own with the release of a video entitled "Message to Scientology", which was viewed over 800,000 times in its first four days of existence. Apart from the now-infamous sentences that kick off this writeup, it also contains this statement of purpose:
Over the years, we have been watching you. 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 — for the laughs — we shall expel you from the Internet and systematically dismantle the Church of Scientology in its present form. We acknowledge you as a serious opponent, and we are prepared for a long, long campaign. You will not prevail forever against the angry masses of the body politic. Your methods, hypocrisy, and the artlessness of your organization have sounded its death knell.4
One might argue that this was the turning point. Here, Anonymous stopped being a name for 4chan users to call each other by and grew into something larger than itself.
Anonymous and Group Dynamics
It's easy enough for unfavorable news reports to compare Anonymous tactics to those of terrorists. That's how it all goes down: in cells, disorganized, but borrowing tactics and objectives from like-minded individuals. People communicate through messageboards, through IRC, in quiet real-world coffee shops, or any other way that gets the job done without revealing identifying information.
Let's return to 4chan momentarily. "Rules 1 and 2" of 4chan (and remember, 4chan does not actually have rules) are that you do not talk about 4chan. These are people comfortable in their anonymity. One might argue that they have been freed through it. Yet, on the other hand, this means that the denizens of 4chan are a collective whether they like it or not; someone trolls a message board, launches a Denial of Service Attack, or anything else and gets linked to 4chan, and 4chan on the whole is given credit. When you're speaking of a community made up of a thousand nameless and faceless individuals, how could one avoid referring to the conglomerate?
Of course, Anonymous has inherited this trait. This means that on certain occasions, Anonymous works against itself under the name Anonymous. Anonymous condemns itself. The right hand of Anonymous posts public messages and calls to action to the left.5 It's social chaos, and yet patterns emerge. Chris Landers puts it succinctly:
Anonymous is the first internet-based superconsciousness. Anonymous is a group, in the sense that a flock of birds is a group. How do you know they're a group? Because they're traveling in the same direction. At any given moment, more birds could join, leave, peel off in another direction entirely.6
Other groups fed into the motley group of internet users attacking the Church of Scientology. By and large, their numbers initially came from other internet messageboard powerhouses: ytmnd
, Something Awful
, etc. Now, however, consistent press coverage and the high visibility of Anonymous actions have drawn in people in the thousands — and not all of them are doing the same things. Individuals and groups working under the Anonymous banner may perpetrate any number of unrelated stunts or carry out various tasks, which results in both a sense of invincibility and a lack of accountability. The majority of those who would think of themselves as a part of Anonymous are more than likely involved in protesting the Church of Scientology, but certainly not all of them. Take, for instance, the griefing of Habbo Hotel
users, a popular pastime among Something Awful
", which had no purpose save irritating others "for the lulz".7
In a more serious vein, a smaller group of individuals aided law enforcement in capturing internet pedophiles, taking credit as Anonymous. Two more high-profile incidents occurred in fall of 2008:
The first was the cracking of Sarah Palin's Yahoo! e-mail account by University of Tennessee student David Kernell. Conflicting reports surrounded the initial circumstances of the break-in, but now a few facts have been established: David Kernell (whose handle is "Rubico") correctly guessed the security question8 to change Palin's password to "popcorn", then posted his methods and the inbox's contents to 4chan. In essence, a college student acted on his own to sneak a peek at a citizen's e-mail account, but a quick Google search will turn up scores of news articles featuring phrases like "Hackers from Anonymous Take Palin's Yahoo Account", a fact that does not do wonders for the reputation of Anons. Interestingly enough, it was another Anon who re-secured the account and attempted to inform Palin of the break-in.
The second was the trolling of Oprah Winfrey's messageboards and Oprah's subsequent warning to her viewers. For amusement purposes, people flooded the messageboards with stories and questions with a blatant pedophile slant.9 Oprah took the trollbait, warning viewers about Anonymous as a group of pedophiles, which "does not forgive and does not forget" (a reference to the infamous "Message to Scientology" video) and which has "over 9,000 penises" raping children all over the United States.10
Who knows who, specifically, is responsible for these pranks, but the fact of the matter is that Anonymous at large is given the credit, and that means the thousands of people who adopt the name for various purposes, not just those interested in ruining Oprah's day.
Anonymous as Pranksters
As we've seen, those under the umbrella of Anonymous have a well-developed (if eccentric) sense of humor. This is not entirely out of line with the protest activities that they are most well known for. Why We Protest says: "Serious business does not preclude a sense of humor. When we remain in good spirits, our sense of perspective helps keep us safe."11 This sums it up well.
"Project Chanology" is the official name for the large-scale series of protests against the Church of Scientology. The first took place on February 2nd, 2008 and consisted of only a few hundred people, but the following week (February 10th), protestors turned out in over 93 cities.12 Since then, protests have continued every few months, with Anonymous protestors repeatedly telling news crews that the campaign will go on for as long as it takes.
The aforementioned website Why We Protest may be considered the epicenter for the Anonymous campaign against scientology. There the goals are laid out quite clearly:
While our immediate goal for the corrupt Church of Scientology is to have their (illegal) tax exempt status rescinded, our ultimate goal is to ensure that they are unable to continue their history of fear tactics, disconnection, and other illegal behavior.
The real-world protests typically have a predetermined theme. April's "Operation Reconnect" protests aimed to raise public awareness about the Church of Scientology's Disconnection policy, for instance. May's protests were entitled "Battletoad Earth: Operation Fairgame Stop", geared towards informing the public of Fair Game practices condoned by Scientology.
In public, protesters frequently hide their identities, typically with Guy Fawkes masks styled after the hero "V" from V for Vendetta, and the practice seems to be a useful one: certain Church of Scientology members regularly attempt to ascertain the identities of the protesters behind the masks, following protest leaders with signs revealing their personal identifying information.13
Anonymous in the Press
Anonymous has found itself the subject of news stories and columns nationwide, and unsurprisingly these sources frequently contradict one another in regards to what (and who) Anonymous is, its purpose, and its activities. Anonymous supporters frequently cite Chris Landers of Boston City Paper as a journalist who "gets it", and Maxim ran a (mostly) objective and accurate article on Anonymous in its August '08 issue. This is not always the case, though. KTTV Fox 11 (based in Los Angeles, California) aired a report so scathing and so muddled with disinformation that it holds a special place in the hearts of Anons worldwide. In this report, Anonymous was frequently referred to as a "domestic terrorist" group, and the supporting video clips heavily featured stock footage of an unrelated exploding van (footage that has since shown up in various mocking YouTube videos). The report also suggested that viewers might want to buy guard dogs to protect their families from Anonymous. Of course, this report was not taken so seriously at large, but it is indicative of a larger trend: Anonymous is confusing, and this causes problems with media interaction.
Charges Leveled Against Scientology
- Illegal Tax Exemption
The Church of Scientology is given tax exemption as a religious institution in the United States, though this wasn't always the case. This has saved the Church millions of dollars in taxes, but perhaps more importantly has become an invaluable public relations tool, as the federal government of the United States officially recognizes it as a legitimate religious institution. Traditionally, however, the Internal Revenue Service regarded it as a corporation. Anonymous asserts that the Church of Scientology's transition to tax exempt is one based in shady dealings and Scientologist pressure rather than the appropriate methods, and takes issue with recognizing the Church of Scientology as a religion rather than a cult — which is the distinction that the majority of the scholarly world assigns it. The New York Times and other sources suggest that Scientology's tax status is likely illegitimate.14
- The Fair Game policy.
This includes various levels of threats and harassment of journalists and ex-Scientologists. Operation Freakout (1976) was an example that gained national attention, when the Church of Scientology covertly planned to have journalist Paulette Cooper imprisoned or committed to a mental institution. In the same raid that uncovered Freakout, documents were seized detailing plans to frame Clearwater mayor Gabe Cazares in a hit-and-run car accident.15Under Scientology's Fair Game policy, any action taken against a perceived enemy to the Church of Scientology is approved, including "destroying them".
- The Disconnection policy.
In Scientology terminology, a Suppressive Person, or "SP", is anyone who does not support a Scientologist's beliefs. In "PSTNess and Disconnection" from the "HCO BULLETIN OF 10 SEPTEMBER 1983", SPs are described:
This is a person whose normal operating basis is one of making others smaller, less able, less powerful. He does not want anyone to get better, at all... Disconnection regularly results in the splitting of families and social circles.
...In truth, an SP is absolutely, completely terrified of anyone becoming more powerful.
In such an instance the PTS isn't going to get anywhere trying to "handle" the person. The answer is to sever the connection.
- Suppression of Information
Scientology has a long and colorful history of filing lawsuits against individuals and organizations releasing information about its beliefs and methods, as well as taking legal action against journalists who are openly critical of the Church.
- Alleged Responsibility for the Deaths of Scientologists
At multiple points in its history, Scientology has been accused of playing a large role in the deaths of its adherents. The most notable case is likely Lisa McPherson, though Josephus Havenith, Heribert Pfaff, and even Quentin Hubbard are often mentioned. In addition to this are the dozens of Scientologists whose deaths have been ruled suicides.
The Future of Anonymous
Anonymous has, in short, consistently chosen battlefields in which they have the upper hand. These people may not have the financial means to engage the Church of Scientology in the courts, nor are they likely to have any sort of political pull. Yet, on the internet and in protest settings, their numbers, their anonymity, and their savvy make them formidable — perhaps even unstoppable. They have the means and the will to become a very expensive problem for Scientology, a problem that shows no signs of going anywhere anytime soon. In all likelihood, the irresponsible antics of those also using the name Anonymous will continue, too. The idea of the word as an organization has grown beyond all individuals, and beyond the group itself.
- "Why We Protest"
- FOX 11 Investigates: "Anonymous"
- Mysterious Cruise Scientology Video: We Are 'the Authorities on the Mind'
- Message to Scientology
- Message to Anonymous
- Serious Business: Anonymous Takes on Scientology (and Doesn't Afraid of Anything)
Landers, Chris, Baltimore City Paper, April 2, 2008.
Online copy: http://www.citypaper.com/columns/story.asp?id=15543
- "For the lulz" is a term referring specifically to laughter derived at the expense of others.
- Gov. Palin's Alleged Hacker Indicted; Password Was 'Popcorn'
- I'm 35, she's 13. Help!
- Oprah: Over 9,000 Penises
- More About Anonymous
- Fair Game Policy is Alive in New York City
- Feb. 10th Protest Figures
- Scientology's Puzzling Journey from Tax Rebel to Tax Exempt
- "Scientology: An in-depth profile of a new force in Clearwater"
Charles L. Stafford; Bette Orsini (1980-01-09). St. Petersburg Times.