Scientology vs. angry web trolls

image-ScientologyAnonymous_LH_021108There have been many stories about the ongoing battle between Scientology and a loose-knit, Internet-based gang of anti-Scientology anarchists known as Anonymous. Now, Wired magazine contributing editor Julian Dibbell provides a fascinating look at what may be a new form of cyber-activism in "The Assclown Offensive: How to Enrage the Church of Scientology." If only he had provided some kind of moral framework for assessing Anonymous's disturbing and fascinating antics.

Most religion beat veterans have their own horror stories about covering Scientology. I know I do. The organization's public relations representatives have given brave new meanings to terms like "image control." But they haven't been able to control Anonymous, which started causing trouble after the organization removed pirated Tom Cruise videos and other closely guarded Scientology materials from the web. Here Dibbell describes one of the Anonymous's video manifestoes:

"Hello, leaders of Scientology. We are Anonymous," the clip began in a robotic, software-generated voice-over accompanied by stock footage of clouds rolling over desolate cityscapes. "Your campaigns of misinformation, your suppression of dissent, your litigious nature: All of these things have caught our eye," the voice explained. "For the good of your followers, for the good of mankind--and for our own enjoymen--we shall proceed to expel you from the Internet and systematically dismantle the Church of Scientology in its present form."

Some of the network's members had specific gripes against Scientology, but some simply wanted to raise hell by "trolling":

To troll is to post deliberately incendiary content to a discussion forum or other online community--say, kitten-torture fantasies on a message board for cat lovers--for no other reason than to stir up chaos and outrage.

Dibbell also reveals a new, digital era public relations commandment of: "Don't Feed the Trolls." By responding to the attacks with old-media tactics (working with law enforcement, doing negative publicity, or responding in any manner) Scientology not only further enraged and inspired its foes, it inadvertently gave them more of what they truly sought: attention.

If Martin Luther had adopted some of the anti-Scientologists' tactics, he wouldn't have needed to post his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg's church. He wouldn’t have needed to deal with theology or concepts of any kind. Instead, he could have covered himself in Vaseline and pubic hair and run amok in the Wittenberg sanctuary (an Internet-based group called Operation Slickpubes did that a New York City Scientology office).

Dibbell maintains an objective perspective throughout his lengthy story. And that's part of what's so chilling about it. His article recounts various troll tactics, which one activist described as "motherf**ckery." I just wish he'd found room for a word or two of judgment. Regardless of what you think of Scientology, the nasty tactics of Anonymous and other online activists are chilling and worrisome for people of any faith--or no faith.

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