Scientology: The Anonymous Protestors

Source: Times (UK)
Date: June 20, 2008

The Church of Scientology, notoriously ruthless at crushing its critics, may have met its match. The Times joins a demo by 'Anonymous' - the vanguard of a new internet-fuelled radicalism.

Tom Whipple

There were signs, if you knew where to look, that the launch of Operation Sea Arrrgh was imminent. In a hundred corners of the internet plots were being plotted; in fancydress shops sales of Guy Fawkes masks were rising and in thousands of dank teenage bedrooms young men and women were making plans to converge on sites around the world, dressed as pirates.

Their target was the Church of Scientology - and this was an altogether new way of protesting. It was all so different from how it used to be. For more than a decade, a small group had gathered opposite the Church's London offices to stage lonely demonstrations. Some were former Scientologists, some just angered by an organisation that they claimed split up families, extorted money and employed its followers as slave labour. Leafleting passers-by, explaining themselves to the police and countering - they claimed - the harassment of the Scientologists, they were happy if a dozen turned out.

Then, earlier this year, something odd happened. Simultaneously and apparently without warning, in London, Toronto, Sydney, New York and other cities worldwide, young men and women began protesting en masse. They wore strange clothes, spoke their own dialect, distributed cake and operated under the name of Anonymous. They returned the next month - and the month after.

Who were these people? To the police, watching last Saturday's London protest, they are a quirky bunch of middle-class kids. "These are the nicest protesters I have ever had the privilege of policing," one said. "They even bring lunch." Sure enough, behind the barricades, there is a large table of crisps and soft drinks. Demonstrators offer biscuits to passers-by. One of their placards reads: "We have cake, they have lies." The police description is broadly accurate - most Anonymous members are indeed middle-class teenagers. They see themselves as guardians of free speech, fighting a malign organisation that bases its ideology on stories about aliens. They cover their faces because they are scared of reprisals. But also because anonymity is, well, what they do.

Why, though, has a bunch of young people, connected only by the internet, decided to target a US religion started 50 years ago by a science-fiction writer? Why not the Iraq War, nuclear weapons or climate change? One answer is that they believe they can achieve something with Scientology. The most realistic of Anonymous's aims is to revoke the group's tax status - it is exempt from some VAT payments and receives rebates on other taxes. But the point is moot. You might as well ask why their most popular song is Never Gonna Give You Up, a 1987 hit by Rick Astley, or why they laugh at pictures of cats. And why are most of their masks a depiction of Guy Fawkes from the film V for Vendetta? Internet memes are not always logical.

It all began as a running gag. The default name for new members on message boards is often "anonymous", and someone suggested that maybe anonymous could be a real person. People began acting as one and the idea went viral. "We are the hive mind, the anger that leaked from the computer screen," explains a long-haired twentysomething with an eye patch, standing in the June sunlight last week. "The cult failed to understand how things arise out of a mass consciousness, and now they have kicked the hornets' nest. What you are seeing here is the emergence of a new kind of democracy." The internet is the one element that has dictated the nature of Anonymous, allowing informal membership, and a leaderless organisation structure barely recognisable from the protest movements of old. "The common assumption today is that young people are apolitical, disengaged, hedonistic and only interested in partying," says Bart Cammaerts, a lecturer in media and communications at the London School of Economics. "This is wrong. The internet is not a guarantee of success, but it has allowed people to inform, recruit, mobilise and organise."

Anonymous's initial activities were silly - playing tricks or hijacking forums. Some were borderline legal. They would bring down websites by bombarding them with data ("distributed denial of service"). "Frankly, it wasn't very noble. But it was fun," explained one Anonymous, who called himself Halfdark. They have a word to describe such activities - lulz (see panel). Early this year, a video was posted online of Tom Cruise discussing Scientology. Unintentionally funny in its sincerity, it spread across the internet. Scientology called in the lawyers, and began forcing sites to remove it. Anonymous had a target.

"They had started screwing with the internet," said Marc Abian, named afterthe Scientologists' belief in an evil race of aliens called the Marcabians. "Initially we harassed them for lulz, but then we realised that they ruin lives. What we do is fun, but with a real cause."

Last Saturday targeted Scientology's elite Sea Org - a pseudo-paramilitary group that used to own a ship. Hence the pirate costumes and the name - Operation Sea Arrrgh (as in "Arrrgh, me hearties"). "We get asked: 'Why can't people believe what they want?'" said a young woman, holding a plastic cutlass. "The answer is, we are not targeting the beliefs, but the Church. Why does it take people's money? Why does it split people from their families? It is a dangerous cult." As she spoke, a chant began. Pointing alternately to Scientology's UK headquarters in Blackfriars, London, and the next-door Church of Saint Andrew by the Wardrobe, the crowd cheered: "This is a cult, this is a church. This is a cult, this is a church." A few tourists laughed, the policemen shuffled. It was, oddly...cultish.

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