Anonymous vs. Scientology: A Case Study of Digital Media

Media Shift Idea Lab/February 15, 2008

So far I have avoided bringing up specific events and breaking stories here even when they might illustrate relevant uses of digital media. The reason for this is that I'm not really a reporter, but I've been watching something play out over the Internet and it is just too interesting to pass up. I'm talking about the recently declared and currently unfolding "War on Scientology" that is being led by an online group called "Anonymous." It is a really fascinating case study of how current technologies and information dissemination via digital media can snowball into something that actually results in real world action.

I'll supply background in case you find the story gripping, but this post is really about what digital media systems should facilitate in physical communities. A careful observer will also notice that the "war" involves many of the concepts being discussed on the IdeaLab. For instance: discrepancies between mainstream and independent news coverage, digitally coordinated action across the world, utilization of user driven systems, issues of credibility, and the relevance of specific physical location.

The Background

I'll try to summarize things as quickly as possible, but it's all rather complicated so bear with me! Also keep in mind that I heard about this the same way a lot of people did - Digg, YouTube, Google, and some scattered mainstream Media coverage - so there may be holes in the story.

Around January 16th 2008 some part of a back-alley online community titled Anonymous (aptly named because it is composed only of nameless members - they have no pseudonyms, aliases, or digital identities) decided that they were frustrated with the way The Church of Scientology has handled itself as an organization. They decided to try to do something about this frustration and pulled out the digital battle drums - which I assume involved a post on their community's site announcing the problems with Scientology and looking to see if anyone wanted to help do something about it.

On January 21st someone uploaded a video to YouTube which ominously listed Anonymous' complaints and announced an Internet led "war" on the Church of Scientology (note the 2 million + views). Because Anonymous is anonymous I can't even try to guess how many people were involved at this point, but apparently it was enough to cause a decent amount of online buzz.

The message was spread through various channels of the Internet - YouTube, Digg, online community forums, etc. They also got a blip or two on the mainstream media radar. The interesting part is that efforts weren't being organized by "leaders" - they were being organized completely via anonymous individuals using a public wiki, meaning anyone could change anything (much like you see on Wikipedia).

Over the next few weeks members of Anonymous began to harass Scientology and continued to make the occasional "press release". More importantly, though, vloggers, bloggers, and countless other individuals gave their two cents through response videos on YouTube, comments on Digg, and contributions to the blogosphere. Some supported the movement, some just felt it was going to be interesting to watch, and some condemned Anonymous as misguided "cyber-terrorists", unscrupulous, or simply boring; however it seemed their cause was resonating with people, generating attention, and even starting to be discussed outside of the Internet.

At this point a few more Internet-focused mainstream media folks took notice and mentioned it in various segments. Known critics of the Church of Scientology like Mark Bunker also chimed in and offered advice and criticisms of the anonymous efforts. After listening to the Internet response and gaining support, the anonymous digital harassment changed to legal, more traditional methods. Someone else uploaded a video to YouTube announcing plans for international protests on February 10th.

For me these "real life" protests, where 6000+ people protested in 70+ different cities around the world, are what pushed this whole debacle from "interesting to watch" to "what can we learn from this". This takes us to today, where another round of protests is being planned for March 15th.

One of Anonymous' forums has a compiled list of links to local and national news coverage. I would definitely recommend watching some of the news reports if you want to learn more.

Key Success Factors

That's the story as I've seen it, so the question to ask now is how did they do it? How did a fairly small group of completely anonymous individuals manage to generate several million views worth of buzz on the internet? And finally, how did they actually bridge the gap and apply that buzz into real, physical world protests? Thinking about it may help inspire thoughts about where digital media is now, where it can go, and what would improve it.

Although there were plenty of things that could have gone better, here are some components that I think had a lot to do with how Anonymous was able to bring their movement to where it is today:

  1. Community-driven issues. Anonymous was a previously established community (albeit a non-traditional one) and its members were able to identify this issue as one that they had a passion for. Compare a community issue to one that is loosely backed by otherwise unrelated individuals and you will see why this matters

  2. Effective targeted digital communication tools. User media sites allow for quick information dissemination to exactly the type of people that Anonymous wanted reach - active members of The Internet community. Those sites let others join in by participating in the conversation, passing the word along, or simply learning more on their own/taking some sort of personal action. Public wikis and forums also helped by supporting coordination and made it possible for anyone to propose and organize action.

  3. Tacit understanding of those tools and their potential. Anonymous was familiar with the existing digital media infrastructure (Digg, YouTube, community forums, etc.) and could use it effectively to get their message out.

  4. Attention and responsiveness to community feedback. Organizers and communicators adapted and listened to their audience; feedback shaped the movement. You can see a clear shift in Anonymous' direction in response to audience members' comments late January. Had Anonymous simply continued on as it began (i.e. through illegal harassment), it is unlikely that the group would have gained much/any worldwide support and I definitely wouldn't be writing this post right now.

  5. Availability of information (to enable critical analysis). There is a lot of content from all perspectives scattered around the internet, so curious parties could look into things on their own using the glories of Google. I'm sure some people may have joined in without checking other sources, but more cautious media consumers had the resources needed to develop personal opinions before getting involved.

Lessons and Observations

I remember Knight Foundation representatives specifically saying that digital communities don't need our help, which is why News Challenge applicants were required to focus on the physical. I think the Anonymous story illustrates how right they were, but why is it true? What is the functional difference between a physical community and digital communities such as the Diggers, the YouTubers, or Anonymous?

Both types of community have services that allow me to get an understanding of "the vibe". The main difference here is how effectively it is done (i.e. how powerful and usable are the information systems). I have talked about this a little bit in the past; in fact, a fair chunk of my posts to this blog have simply about making systems that serve physical community news more sophisticated and accurately targeted.

Assuming I can get "the vibe" from some sources, how accurate is it? Ideally the local newspaper has made an effort to ensure it reflects the physical community it serves. In a digital community though, the membership is able to collectively set its own agenda. In other words, the Internet makes it possible to let the community decide for itself what is important. Anonymous' message only became popular because some portion of the community agreed - it was bottom up instead of top down.

A final point is simply that physical communities aren't naturally connected to many-to-many communication technologies. G Patton Hughes has shown that it is possible to successfully apply forums to physical communities, but I'm not convinced that the decentralized creation of ad hoc p-community forums provides an efficient and universally appropriate solution. Digital communities, on the other hand, are directly connected to communication tools; in fact they were probably built around them.

That wraps up my initial observations about this story as it relates to us, although there is a lot more that can be learned from it if you dedicate the time and snoop around. It shows that digital media can be used to facilitate identification of issues, effective provision of information about those issues, coordinated responses, and vital conversations. Hopefully it also resulted in some ideas about where to go from here if we want to use digital technology to empower physical communities.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.