Thursday, May 22, 2008

Project Chanology: Anonymous vs. Scientology

A case study in Internet freedoms and control

On January 21 2008, a video was posted to the Internet. This is hardly unusual. This particular video was, however, to trigger the emergence of a new facet of grass-roots social activism, and highlight some of the issues surrounding the Internet, specifically those involving censorship. The events successive to the posting of this video provide a fascinating case-study, and are presented and examined in some detail in this essay.

The Video

The content of the video in question was an interview with the famous actor Tom Cruise, talking about Scientology – a religion founded by the science fiction author L.Ron Hubbard, of which Cruise is a long-time and high-profile member. Cruise’s links with the Church of Scientology and his at-times bizarre-seeming behaviour have often been held to ridicule. His appearance on the daytime talk-show Oprah, where he leapt about on a couch, loudly (perhaps manically) proclaiming his love for his new girlfriend Katie Holmes (Oprah, 2005), for example, was made much of by comedians worldwide.[i]

Cruise’s behaviour in the Scientology interview was ripe for ridicule. At times barely articulate, and again somewhat manic, it proved great fodder for comedians[ii] and was, in fact, shown on television around the world. If the Church of Scientology had largely ignored it, it would probably have been, like the couch-jumping incident, the source of hilarity for about a week. In fact, for most people, it was. The Church, however, has a history of litigation when it comes to anything that can be seen as criticism or in any way damaging to the Church’s reputation.[iii] Consequently, the Church issued legal threats to those responsible for putting the video online (Sarno, 2008), claiming that the video was owned by the Church and hence the act of putting it online was infringing copyright. It was this act that resulted in a massive backlash against the Church, from the group known as Anonymous.


Defining the group known as Anonymous is rendered difficult because the nature of the group is largely ephemeral; and because over the course of events surrounding Operation Chanology the group, or perhaps phenomenon, has mutated. Some background, then, is necessary.

Anonymous (the phenomenon) sprang out of anonymous image-hosting sites, and other sites where it is not necessary to register as a user in order to participate. Contributions on such sites are generally attributed to “Anonymous” as a default. The real birthplace of Anonymous as an idea was the image-site 4chan, particularly the chaotic “random” forum known as /b/. /b/ is a very strange place for the uninitiated, potentially intimidating and almost certainly offensive.

In an article in the Baltimore City Paper (04/02/2008), journalist Chris Landers describes /b/:

/b/ has its own language, much of it complicated and intentionally absurd. Users calling themselves, each other, and pretty much everything else "fag" is one of the less offensive conventions. There are rules set down by the moderators--for /b/ it basically boils down to "no child pornography"--but even this is the subject of jokes. The real guiding principle of the board is that nothing is sacred or off limits, and /b/ will quickly offend anyone capable of being offended. Often, the true meaning of a message is contained in the picture that accompanies it. Lolcats, the inexplicably popular pictures of cats with cutely misspelled captions, started with the weekly 4chan tradition of Caturday. Users recommend hanging out for months before posting anything, or risk ridicule, although they usually put it less delicately than that ("LURK MOAR NEWFAG"). If you don't find anything remotely amusing about posting and reposting versions of the phrase "I think Halo is a pretty cool guy. Eh kills aleins and doesnt afraid of anything," then either /b/ isn't the place for you or you need to lurk moar. In the high school of the internet, /b/ is the kid with a collection of butterfly knives and a locker full of porn.[iv]

Out of this, then, sprang the idea of Anonymous as a sort of “internet-based superconsciousness” (Landers, 2008), a free-forming reflection of the mass-mindset of Internet denizens. In some ways, Anonymous can be seen as a sort of ‘fun-house mirror’ spawn of the early-90’s ‘hacker-cyberlibertarian’ ideology, as exemplified in J. P. Barlow’s A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace (1996), which in part states: “We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.” It is a fun-house reflection because Anonymous does, on occasion, go on the attack - as in the case of Project Chanology.

Anonymous has no structure, no hierarchy, and no agenda bar one: everything Anonymous does, Anonymous does for the “lulz” – a typically /b/astardised[v] reference to the abbreviation “LOL”. To understand how this sort of thing works, we need to look at memes.

Memes, Internet Memes, and Anonymous

The concept of memes was first formulated by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins[vi], and published in his book The Selfish Gene (1976). A meme is an idea or fragment of thought that propagates in a manner analogous to the biological – a play on ‘gene’. In Dawkins’ own words:

We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. 'Mimeme' comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like 'gene'. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to 'memory', or to the French word meme. It should be pronounced to rhyme with 'cream'. (p 171, e-book ver 1.0)

Memes, as an analogy to genes, not only replicate but also mutate. The Internet, which can be (and has been) seen as “a civilization of the Mind” (Barlow, 1996) is a ready environment for memes to flourish in, and even the meme of the meme has spread there.

One example of an Internet meme is the ‘smilie’, or ‘emoticon. The original ASCII smilie came into being on a computer science bulletin board at Carnegie Mellon University, on Sept. 19, 1982 ( This was before the Internet really existed. The smilie, however, caught on and indeed flourished, mutating many times and currently infesting discussion boards everywhere.[vii]

/b/, the image-board, has served as a sort of primordial ooze for memes. Some that have had their origins there are LOLcats (images of cats with intriguingly misspelled and ungrammatical captions) and “goatse” (one of the more grotesque images available on the Internet)[viii]. The latter image has allegedly been used on raids in various ways.

LOLcats, as meme, has spread and mutated, spawning many other versions of itself – LOLtheists being a prime example (where images are religious in nature, and the captions mocking or outright blasphemous in nature). Many other such Internet memes have done, and continue to do, the same.

Anonymous itself can be seen as just such a meme. First formulated in the chaos of /b/, under the selection pressure afforded by the nature of Project Chanology and the very real perceived likelihood that anyone identifiably involved would inevitably be targeted for punitive action by the Church, Anonymous mutated and spread, becoming in a very real sense the embodiment of the mass-conscience of the Internet.

Project Chanology

One of the core aspects of the Anonymous meme, one of the central tenets, and the one that truly links it to the cyberlibertarian ideology is that of freedom of information. In The Hacker Crackdown (1992) Bruce Sterling quoted a hacker manifesto by “The Mentor”: “Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity. My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like.” (p 86) This is reflective of the idea, long central to much of Internet culture, that “the Internet is inherently a medium of free expression and democracy” (Crawford, 2003).[ix]

When the Church of Scientology used legal threats in an attempt to have the video taken off the Internet, this came to the attention of Anonymous, and some anons[x] felt it was time that the Church got put in its place: The Internet is our playground, they felt, and you can’t have it.

Traditionally, when Anonymous goes on attack, which it does “for the lulz”, a raid is launched. Raid tactics include such things as prank phone calls, sending black looped faxes, ordering large amounts of food to be delivered to the target’s place of business or home, email spam attacks, and DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks designed to take down the target’s website, as well as actually breaking into the target’s computer systems and retrieving or modifying data. This was the approach initially taken. On Jan 21, Anonymous put a video, Message to Scientology[xi], on YouTube, announcing the following intentions: “For the good of your followers, for the good of mankind, and for our own enjoyment, we shall proceed to expel you from the Internet and systematically dismantle the Church of Scientology in its present form.” (cited by Landers, 2008). The initial Cruise video was also replicated endlessly, other videos were made and released, and the meme spread. Then came Anonymous’ encounter with Mark Bunker, now forever dubbed Wise Beard Man. Bunker, a long-time opponent of the Church of Scientology, urged Anonymous to avoid illegality in their efforts, and this was a turning point. “To the surprise of everyone concerned, Anonymous listened.” (Landers, 2008)[xii]

What had been largely just another raid took on a very different nature. It became a two-pronged attack: a public relations war, which to date has seen two waves of peaceful protests designed to raise public consciousness over what Anonymous sees as the Church’s human rights abuses and other corrupt behaviour, combined with a determined attack at the Church’s main source of revenue: the copyright to the teachings of Scientology.

It is interesting to focus on the latter for a moment. The Church of Scientology has a history of taking legal action against anyone who publishes or otherwise makes available to outsiders its teachings (see Landers re: alt.scientology.religion). According to Anonymous and other critics of the Church, the Church’s main source of income is forcing its members to pay to learn the teachings and advance through “Operating Thetan Levels”. In the spirit of the game, Anonymous has made publicly available as much ‘internal documentation’ from the Church as it could get. Which turns out to be quite a lot. Much of this information, at the time of writing, is available through Wikileaks.[xiii]

Contested Terrain

Crawford (p 175) suggests that in becoming mainstream, the Internet has become subject to control through censorship, citing repressive regimes in China and Burma along with defamation law in Western countries. Arnoldy, reporting in The Christian Science Monitor (2008), holds up the tactics used by Anonymous as giving “a new voice to dissidents living under authoritarian regimes in Burma (Myanmar) and China.” This is not to say that Anonymous, as a group involved in activism against the Church of Scientology, are responsible for helping such dissidents. On the contrary, I would argue that it is the essence of the meme Anonymous that does this.

Whilst the Internet currently is “contested terrain” (Castells, cited by Crawford, p 185), it needs to be understood that the Internet is constantly evolving, and may well be almost unrecognisable in even a few years as the same beast as it is today. To illustrate this, I will divert into some personal reminiscence.

I first became aware of, and active on, the Internet in 1993 as a physics student at Curtin University. It was entirely possible at that time to see that the Internet may become something like what it is today, though at the time there was no “point-and-click” interface. The World Wide Web was in its infancy, and not readily available. There were no real commercial aspects to the Internet at the time, and I remember a fierce opposition to the idea of the Net becoming in anyway commercialised. In fact, when the World Wide Web interface first came to my attention, I removed myself on the basis that I didn’t want to witness the inevitable commercialisation that would follow. To me, and many of my fellows, the Internet was our playground, our territory.[xiv]

To understand this point of view, it is important to bear in mind what was so attractive about the Internet. It was arcane. Navigating around it, or even knowing what it was, required specialised knowledge. You had to know how computers worked and communicated, or at least know how to use these features, to be a ‘netizen’. Sterling notes (p 14) that, “[t]he ‘adventurous and inquisitive spirits’ of the teenage boys would be heard from in the world of telephony, again and again.” This is largely echoed by Turkle (cited by Green, p 177 - 178), where mastery and control (and thus, specialised knowledge) are presented as being particularly male in nature. The debate about genderisation of such things is beyond the scope of this essay, so I’ll not comment further on it.

I’ll become a little tangential here for a brief moment, regarding the ‘hacker’ mindset, and wax a little colloquial. These days, the word ‘hacker’ automatically is equated with ‘computer hacker’. It was never really meant to be such an exclusive term. To ‘hack’ was, in the early 1990’s, to manipulate complex systems in ways that they may not have initially been designed to be manipulated. Implicit in this was the need to understand such systems in a very deep and basic way. Hacking computer systems (which often involved illicit access) was just one form of hacking. Hacking a building (which again often involved illicit access) was another. An alternative version of hacking a computer was to modify it, either through software or even through hardware – it was the combination of both that prompted someone to dub the Commodore 64 “the most hackable computer ever invented”. This was stated in admiring tones, rather than disparaging. The C64 was considered great because it was so amenable to modification, and hence more readily applicable as a tool to any problem at hand.

To hack something, in that mindset, was to learn about it: the structure of the system and how its parts interacted; and then to manipulate it. This was always done for fun, not profit. In this sense, the Anonymous pre-occupation with “lulz” is the modern incarnation. The modern tendency to operate under ‘handles’ or internet nicknames sprang wholesale from those days, when your handle was your only identifier outside of what you said and did.

Back from that tangent: the Internet as we know it today is in form, and in many ways in function, largely unrecognisable when compared to what it was in 1993. In 15 years, it has changed drastically. If we are to extend Moore’s Law to this phenomenon, in five years it will likely have changed as much again.

Now, to get back on track, and to return to the main point. This case-study highlights a very real phenomenon that really can’t be dismissed when considering issues of communications technology and censorship/control. That phenomenon is embodied, in this case-study, in Anonymous, as movement and meme. As the ability to communicate on a massive scale becomes more widespread, so does the ability to do so freely. The human species can be said to have developed the Internet and what the Internet will become because it is by nature a species that hacks, and communicates, often simultaneously. Instant global communications have changed the playing field, but not the nature of the species. Ultimately, there will always be Anonymous, the vox populi, and it will eventually be heard. There will always be dissent, and those who find ways of communicating that dissent.


Arnoldy, B., Anonymous activists gaining strength online, in The Christian Science Monitor. 2008. p. 3.

Barlow, J.P. A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. 1996 [cited; Available from:

Crawford, K., ed. Remote Control: new media, new ethics. ed. C.L.E. Probyn. 2003, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. 258.

Green, L., Technoculture: from alphabet to cybersex. 2002: Allen & Unwin.

Landers, C., Serious Business, in Baltimore City Newspaper. 2008: Baltimore.

Oprah Winfrey The Oprah Winfrey Show 2005

Sarno, D., Scientology taking hits online, in LA Times. 2008: Los Angeles.

Sterling, B., The Hacker Crackdown. 1992: Penguin Books.

[i] This footage is still available on the Internet at the time of writing.

[ii] Particularly Internet comedians, though it seems now to have bled over into more wide-spread forms of media, being referenced in mainstream movies and television series.

[iii] The Church of Scientology’s litigious history is widely noted, and not attributable to any one, or indeed several, sources.

[iv] I highly recommend the referenced article as an introduction to the phenomenon of Anonymous and /b/. Landers’ account covers the emergence of Anonymous extremely well.

[v] On /b/, there is a tradition of replacing ‘b’ as the beginning of any given word with ‘/b/’. So one might read, “we do this /b/ecause we /b/loody well can” or “get ready to be /b/uggered with a /b/lunt instrument.” Hence /b/astardisation.

[vi] At the time of writing, Dawkins holds the position of “Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford”.

[vii] I’m not really against emoticons. But do there have to be so many?

[viii] “goatse” really is grotesque. It involves a man with an anal-stretching fetish. I don’t recommend that anyone search out this image.

[ix] An idea which Crawford refutes, mind.

[x] Members of Anonymous call themselves “anons”. It’s a useful and telling nomenclature.

[xi] The video Message to Scientology has been put up and taken down so many times that it is impossible to provide a stable, or even semi-stable, referencing location for it. Those interested will just have to find it for themselves.

[xii] Really, I do advise anyone unfamiliar with this to read Landers’ account. It’s a sterling piece of work.

[xiii] Wikileaks resource:

[xiv] Obviously, I came back. My absence lasted for about 3 years or so. Got much more physically fit in that time, by the way.

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