News of a growing, sometimes militant, movement targeting Scientology has been brewing in tech publications for a number of weeks now, and mainstream press is finally stepping up to the plate to cover this rather significant situation. In a lenghy story Monday, The Los Angeles Times covers a couple of months worth of Internet and street protests against Scientology. Spurred on by the organization's reaction to the Tom Cruise Scientology video that spilled onto the Internet in January, a certain element of the Internet's users have organized in an effort to literally shut down Scientology. The movement has moved from the Web to real life protests in front of Scientology facilities around the world.
The story does a good job of outlining the abuses that the people attacking Scientology believe the officials within the organization have perpetrated. Also well explained is the combination of the two groups of people upset at Scientology: former Scientologists and Internet activists.
Threats have been made that cross the line of decency. Official Scientology statements claimed the movement's goals are "reminiscent of Al Qaeda spreading anti-American hatred and calling for U.S. destruction." The FBI is investigating a YouTube video that includes a threat to bomb a Scientology building in Southern California:
These were just the latest in a series of Scientology-related stories to burn across the Internet like grass fires in recent weeks, testing the church's well-established ability to tightly control its public image. The largest thorn in the church's side has been a group called Anonymous, a diffuse online coalition of skeptics, hackers and activists, many of them young and Web-savvy. The high-wattage movement has inspired former Scientologists to come forward and has repeatedly trained an Internet spotlight on any story or rumor that portrays Scientology in unflattering terms.
No corner of the Web, it appears, is safe for Scientology. Blogger and lawyer Scott Pilutik recently posted a story noting that Scientology was yanking down EBay auctions for used e-meters, the device the church uses for spiritual counseling. EBay allows brand owners -- Louis Vuitton or Rolex, say -- to remove items they believe infringe on their trademark or patent rights. Basically, fakes. But, Pilutik said, the used e-meters being taken down were genuine. Reselling them was no different than putting a for-sale sign on your old Chevy.
"What's actually going on here," he wrote, is that the church is "knowingly alleging intellectual property violations that clearly don't exist." Within a day Pilutik's blog had gotten over 45,000 visitors -- so much traffic that his site crashed completely.
Facing a steady stream of negative publicity and a growing number of critical voices, Scientology has found itself on the defensive.
That last sentence -- that Scientology has become defensive -- is the key to this story. If this were merely a group of hackers interested in causing an organization problems there would not be a story. But Scientology has become "defensive" and is therefore changing the nature of its behavior.
The story also makes a quality effort at explaining how the Internet has changed things for this rather secretive organization:
The result of all this attention has been that just about any story critical of Scientology -- even those that have been publicly accessible for years -- can gain immediate Web currency. On Digg.com, a popular "social news" aggregator that features popular stories from around the Web, dozens of Scientology stories have ascended to the site's most-viewed list in the last several weeks. A successful Digg story can drive tens of thousands of views to the originating site, as was the case with Pilutik's post about e-meters.
The LAT article makes a good effort at getting the views of both sides. Scientologists get their say and are allowed to call this group a bunch of terrorists, while the people who don't like Scientology so much are also given their say.
The missing voice of this piece is the neutral arbitrator. Someone needs to ask the question of whether this form of Internet-vigilantism is what's best for society and for religions in general. Should a religion or group on the unpopular end of an event be subject to treatment on the Internet (and in real life) that crosses the boundary of decency and law?
The other big question is who is next?