My new favorite pastime is following the latest exploits of Anonymous, a group of loosely affiliated internet people that, when not posting terabytes and terabytes of LOLCats, decide to pick e-fights with the Church of Scientology. While I am by no means a regular, I associate with enough online communities (Insert Credit, Select Button, Shoryuken.com, The Fighting 44s) to be familiar with the kinds of people found in places like SomethingAwful, Fark, 4chan image boards, and YTMND. I know full well the power of bored, technologically literate young people. And after researching for Another Rape in Cyberspace (Cerise Magazine), I made a mental note to pay occasional attention to 4chan. Well, it’s back, and this time, it’s rather fascinating. I’ve been following the news coverage, Anon’s Project Chanology Wiki, and lurking in a few of the IRC channels. While it’s too close to tell exactly what will come – if anything – from all of this, a few points have caught my attention.
I imagine plenty of you out there have seen “internet activism” in some form or another. Sometimes it’s people using PetitionOnline, or maybe it’s a Facebook group centered around advocating a particular cause. Freerice.com is a pretty good example of some more advanced activism – it uses advertising revenue, and a game, to fund rice donations through the United Nations. At its darker side, however, internet activism can come to include actions that are considered within the domain of “hacking” – things like Distributed Denial of Service attacks, where a lot of computers send waves of meaningless garbage traffic at a set of servers, keeping them too busy to do things they’re supposed to do, like show web pages. Generally speaking, Facebook groups don’t seem to do much more than spread awareness, and DDoS attacks are incredibly inconvenient but also most likely illegal and probably not the kind of methods that nonviolent activists would condone. Anonymous has no problem with this and any other kind of computer-based subterfuge – not surprising considering their background – but at the same time, it seems like things are being kept in line when it comes to real-world violence. The Project Chanology Wiki had all kinds of instructions for vandalism ranging from annoying (prank calls that are segued into the song from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air ) to downright destructive (something about flushing rubber gloves down the toilet that wreak havoc on the building’s sewage system) and even dangerous (cutting wires underneath cars parked in the lot). However, it doesn’t seem that anyone has actually tried to do anything like this, and most of the “IRL Raid” discussions seem to be centered around peaceful protest and information. Anonymous is careful to avoid being seen as religious persecutors (they protest that Scientology charges for religious information, not the beliefs themselves), makes efforts to avoid going after the rank-and-file Scientologists, and in general seems to be very reluctant to take any significant illegal action. Not bad for a group of “disorganized, bored teenagers”.
This might be just what it takes to take on the Church of Scientology, which seems to use lawsuits and money and intense individual pressure to suppress their critics. While this works to get things like sensitive Tom Cruise videos off of YouTube, or reach tax-exempt status in the US (by suing the IRS, apparently), it’s unclear exactly who they’ll have to target to get at Anonymous. If Anonymous really is regularly shutting down phone lines, sending infinite black faxes, and attacking any IP address they can get their hands on, I imagine they’ll be able to do so with impunity for as long as they want with little cost to themselves, as long as (and this is key) none of Anonymous compromises themselves in any real-world interactions with the Church of Scientology, and thereby incurs the wrath of their legal army. However, aside from being a pain in the ass, it’s unclear exactly how much long-term effect they’d be able to have. While the Internet is indeed serious business, it’s not serious enough by itself.
In concert with other activists, though, things get interesting again. It’s unclear exactly what (if anything) is organizing Anonymous, and their insistence on “information violence” make it hard for the CoS’s other vocal critics to support them. This video, from an independent Scientology critic, offers a few suggestions for Anonymous, the most interesting of which is to look at attacking the institution of the Church of Scientology itself (things like tax-exempt status) through legal means. This kind of action, and attention from other individuals and organizations, is significant because it means that Anonymous is, however informally, part of a team – a game-piece rather than a full, self-contained movement. It is organizing, it is acting, it is building coalitions and trying to form alliances. And whether it succeeds or fails at its goals (if it has any tangible, short-or-long-term goals?), it guarantees to be an interesting case study of Internet Activism.