Revenge Of The Nerds: The War Between 4chan & Scientology
If you’re a real nerd, and not someone who just sits in Mount Street Bar and constantly refreshes the Salient website to get the latest gossip, then you will be familiar with the storm that is sweeping the internet. I’m talking about Project Chanology - the internet’s united vigilante attack on the Church of Scientology.
It’s slightly hard to explain exactly what it is, but your author will try his best. Why, you might ask? Well, it’s a brilliant piece of grass roots activism, transposed into the 21st-century communication driven world — with an urbanised post-modern twist. Also I think it’s fucking interesting; if you don’t, go read a film review or something.There are places on the internet where one should never go. These are the dark internet alleys with content of questionable legality, where one would not browse without the combined protection of Nod32 Antivirus, Norton and Zone alarm firewalls, a padlocked router, the shield of Achilles and the spear of destiny.
One such place is know as 4chan. Based on its earlier Japanese equivalent 2chan, its an image board full of pictures of weapons, gore and badly drawn cartoon pornography. A famed section of the site is the random channel, known bizarrely as /b. The allure of the board is that contributors post anonymously, allowing for extreme examples of absurdism. Over time prominent posters suggested that like-minded users band together to “raid” other websites — an act of frivolous and harmless internet terrorism. Calling themselves “Anonymous” they attacked popular sites such as Gaia-Online, and even enacted a racist raid on the popular game Habbo Hotel — citing as their main motivation the chance to exact “epic lulz” (layman’s translation: a bit of fun).
Anonymous kept their fun to the internet, being perceived as an annoying menace, comprised of immature fools and shut at home geeks. Their main public interaction was being dissed by internet cultural repository www.somethingawful.com. However, at the end of 2007 all of that was about to change. An in-house video from the Church of Scientology was leaked onto YouTube. It depicted Tom Cruise ranting to fellow members about the direction of Scientology, the inspiration behind his belief, and his vision for a scientologist utopia. Cruise’s fervour was palatable. The first memes described poor Mr Cruise as “bat shit crazy.”
That in itself is never a justification for religious persecution. However, the Church of Scientology has always struggled with its image as a group worthy of its religious title. Every RELI student knows that there is a difference between a religion and a cult. It is unclear if Scientology is the former or the latter. The American Government thinks the former - it granted the Church tax exempt status, allowing it to rack up a fortune of biblical proportions. The German Government was not so easily convinced, as an application to grant the CoS tax exemptions failed.
The Germans were wary of the Church’s strong focus on commercial payment for services rendered. Like a Tony Robbins mail order tape, followers were encouraged to buy, buy, buy.
Except, this time there was no money back guarantee.
If the Church of Scientology can be deemed a religion, it seems strange that the most active part of the CoS is not its PR department, but its legal team. Oddly named “The Office of Special Affairs,” it has been responsible for countless lawsuits and legal actions — against detractors, former members, and the media. This led to the creation of a media doctrine espoused by the Church named the “Fair Game” tactic. If anyone criticises the church and its actions, they are to be hounded relentlessly. Don’t just take my word for it: the Founder of Scientology (the science fiction writer) L. Ron Hubbard writes in The Scientologist, a Manual on the Dissemination of Material:
The purpose of the suit is to harass and discourage rather than win. The law can be used very easily to harass, and enough harassment on somebody who is simply on the thin edge anyway, well knowing that he is not authorized, will generally be sufficient to cause professional decease. If possible, of course, ruin him utterly.
The above quote hardly epitomises the more alluring facets of the Scientologist movement.
So what the fuck does this have to do with the internet? Surely the Church of Scientology doesn’t care about YouTube?Well evidently they do. At the end of 2007, Tom Cruise’s crazy rant got pulled from YouTube — due to a copyright claim by Church. This incensed the lurkers of 4chan and even the goons from www.somethingawful.com. There’s one thing you never do on the internet - and that’s get in between a g33k and freedom of expression. Prepare to be spammed with hidden www.2girl1cup.com links.
The battle lines had been drawn: Scientology was to suffer the revenge of the nerds. On 16 January Anonymous attacked. First the main Scientology websites were hit by Distributed Denial of Service attacks (nerd translation: so many requests for information from the website in such a short period that the site crashes, or becomes inoperable). They supplemented the website attacks with physical annoyances, such as continuously faxing Scientology offices black pages of paper, and ordering them large amounts of unwanted fast food. These attacks continued until 21 January, when Anonymous released a video on YouTube, announcing their manifesto with a scary computer voice and officially declaring e-war on the Church. The next day the Church was forced to switch their web hosting to ProLexic technologies, a company specialising in ultra-secure website hosting. Yet still the attacks continued.
Up to this point one could dismiss all of the above as just the crazed actions of a bored sub-culture. All they had done was raise awareness of an issue among the internet community and gain a few epic lulz along the way. Joe Bloggs didn’t know about it, and therefore didn’t care. The war could have ended; the hackers could have got bored and given up, leaving the Church of Scientology shaken but unscathed. Rightly or wrongly, Anonymous didn’t retreat. They took their fight from darkened basement LANs to the streets. A brave step: it’s not often Anonymous are brazen enough to make the transfer from hentai image boards to RL (translation: Real Life).
The results were dramatic. On 10th February protests were scheduled around the world in over seventy cities. The largest of these was London, where a rumoured one thousand people came out to protest. Garbed in masks to protect their physical identities and wielding placards, they picketed Scientology buildings with a vengeance.
Let’s put this into perspective. These protests were not directed at a government building or a construction site. They were not barricading an APEC conference. They were specifically targeting a local HQ of the Church of Scientology, which (in London at least) has a street presence slightly larger than a storefront. Imagine one thousand costumed, loud and obnoxious protesters outside the Cuba Street CD and DVD Store. That would be pretty fucking intimidating/sweet.
This extra step by Anonymous certainly had an impact. The London protests alone gained media mentions in both The Guardian and The Sun. The BBC World Service ran with a feature about the pickets, and local media from Cleveland to Dublin reported on their local raids. An active leaflet distribution campaign, both before and during the scheduled events helped spread Anonymous’ anti-Scientology message.
It’s far too early to tell if there has been any positive impact. At the time of writing the e-war was still in full swing. The more interesting question is whether such an attack is positive at all. On the one hand, the active admonishment of a group who have had obvious and documented harmful effects on people should be supported. Critics have likened the Church of Scientology’s Dianetics courses to the Catholic indulgences of the 16th Century. Aware of this, the Anonymous movement has made it explicitly clear that their ire lies not with the Church’s members, but with the money-making and litigious structure of the Church itself. But isn’t that poking your nose in where it might not belong? If the Church is providing a quality service to help those in need, regardless of how irrational it might sound to outsiders — it should be afforded some degree of respect, and its money making would be justified. If its operations are more in place to brainwash and extort, then a public awareness campaign is healthy. But a group of vocal vigilantes should not be judging the distinction. The depravity of the CoS may be evident to you or me, but it’s an observation one forms personally. If you let others form that opinion for you, then you are doing yourself an intellectual disservice.
That being said, if you wish to believe in a universe where every person is infested with Thetans — ghost-like remnants of the souls of humans who were exploded into oblivion when an intergalactic race of aliens led by the overlord Xenu dropped hydrogen bombs into active volcanoes — then feel free. I’d rather stick to Battlestar Galactica. It’s much more gripping.
There is something positive to come from this epic internet conflict. The ability of Anonymous to mobilize and co-ordinate signals the coming of age for internet activism. In a globalized world of shrinking democratic borders, grassroots activism has suffered. The enthusiasm of these armchair warriors is heartening. We can only expect more of this form of truly global political action in the future. In the grand scheme of things the methods of Anonymous in their opposition to Scientology may be dubious, controversial and draconian, but no-one can fault them for trying.