'Anonymous' Anti-Scientologists Subject of U.C. Academic Paper

Fawkes mask01.jpg
At the Pacific Sociological Association conference in Oakland today, a gaggle of academics from the U.C. Irvine will be presenting their research on the Anonymous protesters of the Church of Scientology, the movement we covered in a 2008 cover story. The paper is titled "Project Chanology, Scientology & Memes: Shifting Notions of Movement Frames & Protest Strategy in the Age of Internet Culture." A pretty lofty title for a bunch of self-professed computer nerds wearing funny masks. We caught up with one of the co-authors, sociology graduate student B. Remy Cross, to get a preview.

Why would an academic want to study internet geeks in Guy Fawkes masks?

"This was interesting to us from an academic perspective because social movement scholars say you need some important things to make a movement successful: resources, a physical location, people you can depend on, money. This was a movement that didn't seem to have any of these things.

Many online movements try to take it from online to offline and usually they fail. That's what we were expecting. [On the way to the first international Anonymous protest day in February 2008 in Las Vegas] we were joking it would be a success if there were 15 people. We get there and drive past the church and there's hundreds of people there."

What was that first protest like? 

"A lot of people had never been to a protest before, and shutting down Scientology wasn't the primary reason for being there. It was to have fun and create some havoc, and take 4chan [Anonymous' message board] into the offline world. There was a lot of signs using memes, and a lot of rick-rolling, and people were generally having fun."

Anonymous protesters in london.jpg
James Harrison
Anonymous protesters in London

A fun protest? Aren't demonstrators supposed to be angry?

"I think, a lot of the time, mainstream media tends to ignore protests that use elements of fun or frivolity, but there's a long tradition, especially on the left, of protests that do this. It's a good way to get people involved. No one wants to stand in the sun with a placard for four hours and chant the same damn slogan.This isn't their parents' protest. It's not about and singing songs; it's about playing the Rick Roll. And if people don't understand that, it's not their problem to explain this to the people of Scientology."

But if Scientology has no idea what the hell they're doing, is the protest effective?

"It depends on what you mean by effective. [Anonymous] really wanted to hurt the church, in that way they've been successful. The church doesn't say much but from what they've been doing, they find this highly irritating. The initial protesters [who called in hundreds of pizza orders to the orgs and overloaded the church's Web server and fax machines] wanted to just be annoying, that satisfaction of having trolled somebody in real life. The church got trolled hard."

So it's the hip internet kids versus the square Scientologists?

"It's a pre-Internet organization going up against a post-internet organization and failing badly because of not understanding how online info spreads. Everything [the church] did to try to smear Anonymous was thrown back at them to make them look stupid.

Fawkes mask02.jpg

If Anonymous was to have politics, it would be a libertarian strain of 'Everything should be free, open, no secrets, no restrictions, no one telling us what to do.' The church is the other extreme: 'We control everything, you come to us because you want to be told what to do, and we're going to keep you safe and secure and protected, and in exchange you're going to pay us for this service.' ... Now you can't stop the spread of info the way you used to."

How has the movement changed?

"As the focus of the protest shifted and hooked up with these [more mainstream Scientology protesters], the people in it for the fun peeled off. It's now a smaller but more concentrated movement with a more intense sense of focus. By and large it's kind of gone into a -- I don't want to say more predictable -- but now they're trying to be more of a conventional movement."

So will Anonymous' protest of Scientology die out? 

"You just have to look at 4chan; there's an attention span issue here, too. Nothing sticks around for too, too long. It's possible they'll come back in the future. But for now, its been boiled down to the more hardcore people who found something in this that appealed to them or were already interested in this."

Photo of protesters   |   James Harrison


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