Today marks the tenth anniversary of Anonymous’ epic protests at Scientology locations worldwide. While headcount is hard to estimate precisely, the number of people who turned out, many in Guy Fawkes masks, was at the very least a significant fraction of cult membership globally, and may have actually exceeded the total membership of the cult, which we now estimate at around 22,000 globally. Numerous sources have covered the reasons for and the history of Anonymous’ protests far better than we could.
More importantly, the scale of Anonymous’ protests put the cult into a defensive posture from which it has never recovered. The idea that a large group could show up on Scientology’s doorstep without the cult’s OSA goon squad anticipating it and preventing it undoubtedly shook leader David Miscavige to the core. And the cult’s playbook for dealing with protestors was forever shattered.
In this post, we look at why Anonymous was such a landmark in the evolution of opposition to the cult, and we put it in the context of the evolution of cult opposition over the last 50 years. We connect the dots and take a stab at predicting the nature of cult opposition that may come next, particularly if existing opponents change strategic focus to make these next generations of opposition happen.
Generation One: The Lonely Author (1950-1990 and beyond)
From Scientology’s inception in the early 1950s until at least the late 1980s, critics were almost exclusively single individuals writing about the cult. These may have been freelance writers, academics, or a small number of motivated former members. All those who “impinged” on the cult were harassed with the classic “fair game” campaigns, often very sophisticated operations.
In the most celebrated case, the cult spent 16 years trying to destroy Paulette Cooper, the author of the 1971 expose, “The Scandal of Scientology.” She was framed for planning a terrorist bombing, sued repeatedly, and was surrounded in her personal life by Scientology operatives trying to gaslight her into committing suicide. Her story is well documented in Tony Ortega’s book, “The Unbreakable Miss Lovely.” Other authors including Jon Atack, Russell Miller, and many many others found themselves on the wrong side of the Guardian’s Office and its successor goon squad, the Office of Special Affairs and suffered mightily.
It is important to understand that the media technology of the time made it harder for the public to form a negative opinion about Scientology because stories were relatively few and far between. For most of America, there wasn’t enough repetition of the message that Scientology is dangerous for it to stick for a long period of time. A news article or a TV report like the 1985 expose on the cult on the “60 Minutes” news show, would eventually be forgotten. Scientology actively worked to purge negative press from the collective memory; many ex’s of the era report being ordered to go to the library and steal copies of Paulette Cooper’s book and other anti-Scientology material.
Scientology’s playbook was designed by Hubbard in an era where individuals could be harassed because few people correctly understood the depths of the forces that were arrayed against them by the cult’s goon squads. And those who were employed by large organizations such as a university could be intimidated by the threat of job loss.
For most of that time, the world of critics was in an equilibrium, where the cult was largely able to counter individual efforts, regardless of how heroic they were. For the next wave of criticism, then, it was necessary for some outside force to come in and upset the balance of power. The immense courage and heroism that some early critics displayed in sticking to their guns despite the cult’s actions is not diminished by this assessment that they were unable to change the rules of the game. Rather, it is a salute to their dedication that they paid the price because of their commitment to the ultimate result, even though it was not at that point clear that they would succeed in bringing about the end of Scientology.
Of course, lonely warriors continue to make significant contributions to the field even today, and some continue to be harassed by the cult. But they were about to be joined by later waves of activists who would be motivated by their stories of knowledge about Scientology.
Generation 2: alt.religion.scientology (1991-late 1990s)
The emergence of the USENET discussion group alt.religion.scientology in 1991 was the first of several revolutions that changed the landscape for Scientology activism forever. USENET was popular from the 1980s into the middle or late 1990s. It was an early text-based bulletin board system that propagated over the nascent Internet, and was used to communicate publicly about various topics of interest.
In the 1980s, the entire USENET community was somewhere around 100,000 to 200,000 users globally. Before the World Wide Web came along, in the 1990s, that figure may have expanded to several million users. Only a small fraction of those users were involved in a.r.s. I’ve seen some estimates that suggest that a.r.s. had perhaps 20,000 occasional readers and several hundred dedicated members, small by today’s standards but larger than any organized cult opposition that went before.
The USENET activists were often anonymous, though many posted their real names and were subjected to cult harassment. Scientology also tried to extinguish the group as a whole, making several ineffective ham-handed attempts to delete the group from USENET, which failed.
There were several significant legacies of the USENET a.r.s. era:
First, a.r.s. was the first use of social media to connect a sizable number of Scientology opponents. There was now a way for opponents around the world to gather together, share information and strategies, and potentially to plan activist events. The ability of a.r.s. to survive the numerous “rmgroup” attempts made by cult attorney Helena Kobrin showed that this new medium would survive attacks by the cult, and while individual voices may have been intimidated, the community as a whole could not be silenced.
Second, a.r.s. provided the first platform for the release of confidential cult documents, including both internal policies and, most importantly, the release of the OT levels. That document dump survived all attempts by the cult to use technological means to remove copies from the Internet. Thus, a.r.s. enabled anti-called information to be permanent. If you knew where to look, you could get the OT materials for free and in the convenience of your own home. They were not as readily available then as they are now with the advent of search engines to discover information posted to the web, but they were available persistently for those with the knowledge of where to look.
Third, a.r.s. provided the first proof that “leaderless resistance” organizations could have an impact on Scientology. There was no central cabal organizing a.r.s. members or messages and strategies for opposing the cult, just like the underlying USENET technology had no central engine that could shut it down to silence opponents.
All of these discoveries would be the foundation for future online activism, just as the information disseminated at great cost by the first generation of lonely warriors was the light of truth exposing the darkness of the cult and providing a platform for all subsequent activists to stand on.
Generation 3: Humor, Mockery and Contempt (2005-present)
2005 was a banner year for the cult, where several new stories forever demolished the image of Scientology as a deadly serious and sinister organization. While that is, of course, still very much the case, several events made it much easier to mock and deride this self-important and humorless group.
Tom Cruise has reputedly characterized himself as the third-biggest being in Scientology. We would agree. His actions in 2005 certainly confirmed that after Hubbard himself and current leader David Miscavige, Cruise has done more damage to Scientology than any other figure in its history.
The 2005 internal video leaked by Patty Moher and Mark Bunker set in motion virtually all subsequent criticism. Anonymous’ indignation at the violation of long-held Internet free speech principles by the cult in its attempts to suppress the video were the catalyst for the protest. Scientology’s attempts to get the video deleted turned into a classic case of the “Streisand effect,” where attempting to suppress something embarrassing from the Internet has a tendency to call more attention to it and do more damage than simply ignoring it.
Also that year, Cruise managed to embarrass himself and his religion further, with the bizarre couch jumping incident on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show as he attempted to demonstrate actual human emotion proclaiming his love for Katie Holmes. He then followed this up with the unhinged interview on the Today show, where he opined to host Matt Lauer about all things psychiatric.
Behind the scenes, Cruise also managed to tarnish his Hollywood reputation, pissing off Steven Spielberg during the filming of The War of the Worlds, by including his contract the requirement that Scientology be able to set up a recruiting tent at filming locations. The rumor was that Scientology was driving Cruise to attempt to recruit Spielberg into the cult. It seems rather laughable that the cult thought it had a shot at recruiting a guy who’s strong Jewish identity drove him to make the legendary film Schindler’s List.
Brilliantly, Matt Stone and Trey Parker saw the humor potential in Tom Cruise’s actions and Scientology in general, and penned the “Trapped in the Closet” episode of South Park which aired in November, 2005. The satirical look at Scientology’s doctrine exposed the craziness of the cult to an audience whose demographics were prime recruiting terrain. Literally millions of people saw Scientology as an object of scorn and derision. Being uncool is a far greater deterrent for college kids to keep them from signing up for the cult than a stern lecture from a parent on Scientology’s evils.
Because of Stone and Parker’s high profile in Hollywood, for the first time, it was extremely difficult for the cult to mount a significant retaliation operation from its normal playbook. Stone and Parker not only had the financial resources to expose and combat a dirty tricks campaign, but they also wielded the power of the pen, and could easily devote one or more episodes in the future to further lampooning Scientology if they were hassled.
For the first time, humor became an effective weapon in countering the cult, and it was wielded by people with a big enough platform to ensure that the humor weapon could not be stopped. This became another arrow in the quiver for future critics.
And that weapon not only laid the foundation for the fourth generation but remains a potent weapon in its own right today. As I’ve argued in a recent blog post, the potential for mockery from late-night talk show hosts and any other comedian in search of low hanging fruit means that Scientology Media Productions is unlikely to begin actual broadcasts anytime soon, choking off a major pathway for Scientology to attempt to rehabilitate its “more toxic than Ebola-coated kiddie porn” image.
Generation 4: The Anonymous Tsunami (2008-2012)
Anonymous, a deliberately unorganized Internet collective with no central leadership or organization, had been using technological means to counter what it saw as abuses of power committed via the Internet. Its members felt that Scientology’s attempts to censor the bizarre Tom Cruise internal video were an inappropriate violation of Internet norms (as well as laws). As has been well documented on Tony Ortega’s blog and many other places, the Anonymous protesters were initially planning to use cyber-pranking to counter Scientology, but were persuaded by Mark Bunker and Tory Chrisman to mount its first-ever in person protests. We are commemorating those protests today.
The key thing about the Anonymous protests is that they brought “Internet scale” to the physical world. A dozen protesters outside a single Scientology location is one thing, but a well organized global protest at most Scientology locations driven by more people then were actually in the organization being protested, is a very different thing indeed. Anyone inside Scientology who understood the magnitude of the opposition had to have been significantly affected by this.
Importantly, Anonymous used humor, the legacy of the prior generation of critics, extremely effectively. Though their use of the Guy Fawkes masks could have been seen as threatening, they diffuse this by clever signs, offbeat humor and, of course lots of “caek.”
The cult, of course, was completely unable to cope with opposition on this scale. The sacred playbook laid down by Hubbard decades before anticipated only single critics who could be silenced with well-understood techniques of intimidation. The advantage of scale belonged to Scientology in those days, but Anonymous turned the tables.
The cult simply didn’t have the organization to manage campaigns against many thousands of individuals, most of whom it couldn’t even identify. Yes, Scientology did harass some individual Anons, but by and large, it was unable to have significant effects on the movement as a whole. Many protests occurred on a regular basis, weekly or monthly, for years, though virtually all have petered out by now.
Anonymous also showed that the Internet as a large-scale collaborative mechanism for activism could work quite well. A.r.s. established the Internet as a durable means to disseminate information, but it never turned into a way to coordinate large-scale opposition. Anonymous was able to stand on the shoulders of a.r.s. and generate opposition successfully. Future generations of critics have and will continue to be able to use their legacy to act against Scientology in a way that it simply cannot adapt to. Even if it were able to discard Hubbard’s antiquated playbook, it would still lack the organizational scale and competence to silence future waves of critics.
Generation 5: Sustained Critical Platforms (2008-present)
A key legacy of the Anonymous protests are critical discussion board sites such as Why We Protest, plus others such as OCMB that emerged at around the same time. Bloggers such as Mike Rinder and Marty Rathbun (until, of course, he became completely deranged two years ago) were able to follow in their wake and establish long-term critical sites that provided further places for former Scientologists and never-in’s to gather and discuss the cult.
The sites provide several key things to enable current generation protesters as well as future protesters. First, their information is permanent and is discoverable now and in the future via search engines. Because information doesn’t fade away in this Internet era, it is cumulative — more and more critical information builds up and all is instantly available to potential activists. Today, anyone seeking information about Scientology when they are considering joining will probably encounter critical information from these sites on the first page of a Google search. This successful and persistent presence is thus a continuing barrier to recruitment that will ultimately choke off the cult’s flow of income as older members eventually die or leave.
As a side effect, journalists looking to research Scientology will discover these sites and will have access to historical material in an easily accessible format, as well as access to potential interview subjects. Of course, Tony Ortega’s blog is already mined virtually continuously by other media. Thus, the follow-on effects of these individuals whose audience sword in the wake of the Anonymous protests, is significant and ongoing.
Generation 6: “Cult is Stupid” Mass Market Message Shifts to “Cult is Dangerous” (2015-present)
The “crazy cult” media avalanche had another go round in 2012, when Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes split. In the height of that press fervor, a Google search turned up literally tens of millions of webpages with news stories or links to them. Almost every story made reference to Tom Cruise’s membership in Scientology, and many delved into the cult’s odd beliefs and practices. Some even delved into the cult’s bad behavior.
Importantly, this round of stories and follow-up stories delving into more details of Tom Cruise’s private life showed the cult’s impotence in threatening the press. Editors turned the tables for the first time. Publications like “Vanity Fair”, upon receipt of a threat letter from Hollywood mega-lawyer Bert Fields, simply published the letter, sometimes with snarky commentary, rather than retracting the story. Advocating for the cult and exposing oneself to mockery in the press could be seen as a career-limiting move by some attorneys, a bit of collateral damage in a campaign that was utterly ineffective at stopping negative stories about Tom Cruise or about Scientology.
Once the press realized that Scientology’s litigation engine was shooting blanks, editors broadly realized that it was safe to begin to delve into the evils of Scientology, not just the bizarre behaviors.
The major watershed in bringing forth the evils of Scientology in mainstream press was Lawrence Wright’s epic New Yorker essay on director Paul Haggis and his defection from the cult. As a testament to the staying power of the current generation of anti-Scientology press, this article remains one of the 10 most frequently viewed articles in the magazine, seven years after publication. This article was turned into the wildly successful Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief book, which was adapted into an Emmy-winning documentary of the same name. Scientology’s “Posse of Lunatics” hate site crafted in response was a laughable reminder of how incapable Scientology was of dealing with this sort of opposition, particularly opponents with a large media platform.
The audience that Larry Wright was able to attract set the foundation for 2013 Scientology defector Leah Remini to write a best-selling book and then to sell that as a TV show exploring the evils of Scientology. The “Scientology-the Aftermath” show was the top-rated program on the A&E network. And again, Scientology’s response was pathetic. Not only did it turn out several hate sites that were far lamer than the puerile humor in the “Posse of Lunatics” site, but it put together an ineffectual petition on change.org demanding that the show be blocked. The anemic response to the petition showed just how small and apathetic the Scientology community was. In six months, less than 7000 Scientologists have signed that petition, despite concerted campaigns on social media to get members to be counted.
This generation of activists has shown that there is a mass-market not only for the silliness and bizarre behavior of Scientology and its members, but also for expose of subjects such as sexual abuse within the church that can be extremely painful to watch.
Generation 7 and Beyond (2018-???)
Anti-Scientology activism is now in its sixth generation. Activists in prior generations (with the possible exception of a.r.s., due to obsolescence of USENET) still remain and still make contributions to the movement. But the evolution, with each generation building on the previous one, creates a broader and more effective force to bring about the end of this blight on society.
So what will future generations of activists look like? And how can we help bring about the necessary evolution and growth of the anti-Scientology community? We think that connecting the dots in this case is a fairly straightforward process that yields to obvious moves.
The seventh generation appears to be one that leverages the broad mass-market message about the dangers of Scientology and the evils it perpetrates, to generate an even broader coalition of anti-Scientology activists. It is necessary for the anti-Scientology community to grow by an order of magnitude and more before we are in position to demand investigations of specific allegations of large-scale criminal wrongdoing such as potential acts of money laundering and financial irregularities, fraudulent use of the tax exemption, a renewed look at human trafficking and other illegal acts.
Leah’s show was a record-breaker for ratings on the A&E network, but the 2.8 million viewers represented approximately 1% of the US population. The ability of the current core of activists to reach out broadly to a substantially larger population and to get them to take action even if it is just a letter to a congressman or some other mild and easily accomplished acts, will be necessary to mount the political will to overcome the bureaucratic inertia that prevents the federal government and other agencies from investing the money necessary to investigate and then litigate against the cult.
The success of that seventh generation will determine the speed at which the eighth generation arrives. The eighth generation is simply the effective use of government to constrain Scientology’s abuses effectively and comprehensively.
Most activists that I have spoken with have no problem with Scientology’s beliefs. If Scientologists wish to believe that the road to personal well-being is to use a primitive electrical meter to find and locate thousands of invisible dead space cooties that are clinging to one’s skin, they’re free to do that. On the other hand, Scientologists should not be free to plunder their members financially in a coercive manner, to force families to disconnect from each other, and to conduct harassment operations against people engaged in lawful and ethical opposition to the group. Effective government regulation to punish Scientology’s past misdeeds and prevent future malice is the ultimate goal to which we have been moving as activists in Scientology’s inception. The speed by which we will reach that goal is determined by our ability to build that millions-strong broad coalition at the heart of the seventh generation of protests.