In January of 2008, Scientology was going through a very difficult time. Their reputation was in shambles after decades of fraud and abuse. The leadership had no idea how to counter the flood of former members and vocal critics speaking out against the organization on the internet. And the greatest PR man for L. Ron Hubbard’s religious-themed corporation, Tom Cruise, was in the middle of a career meltdown.
Cruise had long kept his love of Scientology in check but when he divorced Nicole Kidman, he let his freak-flag fly; jumping on Oprah’s couch, chastising Matt Lauer for being “glib,” and ripping into Brooke Shields for taking anti-depressants. He fired his high-powered publicist and put his Scientologist sister in her place and it was all LRH, all the time.
Cruise’s antics made the press feel safe to finally do stories about him and tangentally his religion. And when South Park did their classic episode on his meltdown,”Trapped in the Closet,” they revealed enormous truth about Scientology to a huge audience of young viewers, innoculating them to the cult’s recruitment. But perhaps more importantly, the South Park episode ended with a dare. Matt Stone and Trey Parker dared Scientology to sue them — and Scientology didn’t.
With that, the press decided to grow a pair of balls and tackle Scientology with renewed fervor. They had been cowed for decades by Scientology’s litigious nature. Time magazine had been in court with Scientology for ten years for their cover story, “The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power.” Few wanted to take them on. But now thanks to Cruise and South Park, it was safe again.
In this framework, author Andrew Morton announced he would be doing a biography of Cruise which would focus a lot of attention on his involvement in Scientology and his relationship with Scientology’s diminutive leader, David Miscavige. It was released to great fanfare in January of 2008 and just as the book hit the shelves, a videotape was leaked to the internet of Tom Cruise receiving an award at a Scientology event.
No sooner was the tape put up, it was taken down. Scientology demanded the removal of their copyrighted material from YouTube. But a vast army of internet users didn’t like the heavy-handed tactics of Scientology. An amorphous group of internet users calling themselves Anonymous declared war on Scientology and released a very scary videotape.
I saw this video and some of the tactics that were being used and felt I needed to say something to Anonymous. I decided to turn on my camera and talk directly to Anonymous, not knowing how they would react.
To my utter surprise, they understood my message. They quickly adopted me as a kind of Obi Wan Kenobi, dubbing me Wise Beard Man. I offered some further suggestions for peaceful protests; rules that Jeff Jacobsen had been advocating for years. When the media wanted to talk to someone from the group, they asked me to speak about them so they could remain anonymous. But it was very clear that they didn’t need my help. They very quickly got up to speed and set out to chart their own course, taking on Scientology in their own loopy but determined way. They mixed fun with facts and threw in some cake.
A few weeks into their efforts, they launched their first global picket and around ten thousand people turned out in cities across the world to peacefully protest Scientology. They built websites and spread fliers and gave speeches and scared the hell out of Scientology’s leaders who had no idea how to bully or intimidate a huge, amorphous, leaderless group of people with no names, all wearing the same Guy Fawkes mask. People had been protesting Scientology since Scientology was formed but never on this scale. And Anonymous added costumes and themes and brought street theater to their events.
As the months wore on, the numbers dwindled but that was to be expected. Some were in it just for the lulz. But others came to see that there was a real reason to take action and help those being abused by Scientology and they continue to protest every month, they continue to flood the net with terrific videos and build websites and help the cause.
The people involved in the Scientology campaign are part of Project Chanology. I admit I am not an expert on Anonymous but I’ve met hundreds of them at pickets across the globe and talked to thousands in e-mail, on YouTube and elsewhere on the net. They come from all walks of life and while many are young, net-savy students, Anonymous spans all age groups.
Jeff Jacobsen has written an essay on Anonymous called “We Are Legion” and I urge you to read it.
And if you are Anonymous, I send you my thanks.