Scientology vs. the Internet, part XVII

Globe and Mail, Canada/January 18, 2008

By now, anyone who is even remotely interested in Tom Cruise (arguably a fairly large group) and specifically his interest in Scientology has probably seen the video clip of the popular Hollywood actor talking about his beliefs -- how the religion developed by failed science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard is the answer to most (if not all) of the world's problems, how Scientologists are "experts on the human mind" and so on. If you haven't seen the video yet, you can watch a version of it here -- at least until the church has it removed (as they have most of the YouTube versions). If that link doesn't work, you can try this one, or this one, or this one.

One of the fascinating things about the video is that Cruise is so earnest and talks so passionately, with his piercing gaze and chiseled features, as though he was playing a role -- but he's not. When he says that he believes he's the only one who really needs to stop at a car accident, because he's the only one who can really help, he's not acting. He's completely serious. More than one person has compared Cruise in the video to the character he played in the movie Magnolia, a twisted and yet extremely charismatic motivational speaker.

But almost as interesting is watching the church try to remove the video from the Internet. It's another small skirmish in a war that Scientology has been waging for almost 15 years, since the early days of newsgroups such as alt.religion.scientology, which posted internal church documents in 1994. Lawsuits have been filed, mailing lists have been shut down, homes of discussion group participants have been raided and their computers seized -- an all-out war.

When it comes to the Cruise video, it's easy enough to get YouTube to take the clip down, because the company is already extra-sensitive to claims of copyright infringement (Scientology says the video is copyrighted content meant for internal church use) as a result of being sued for $1-billion by Viacom, and so it essentially pulls videos down as soon as it gets a letter from someone who looks like a lawyer. Other websites aren't so easily cowed, however.

Gawker Media, a blog network run by former Financial Times journalist Nick Denton, has sworn to keep the video up no matter what happens. Doing so seems to be a freedom of speech issue in part, but Gawker is also likely motivated by the millions of eyeballs the video has brought to the site: at last count, the post with the video clip embedded in it had gotten almost 1.5-million views (most Gawker posts get anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand views).

The bottom line is that Cruise and the church seem to be suffering from something known as "The Streisand Effect," a kind of Catch-22 in which, by trying to keep certain information from becoming public, you wind up making that information even more public. The name refers to an incident in which singer Barbra Streisand sued a photographer to have a photo of her house removed from a collection of photos of the California coast -- but the publicity about the lawsuit caused more people to search out and look at the photo than ever would have seen it otherwise.

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