Never going to give you up”, Its Saturday morning in London, and I’m surrounded by people wearing Guy Fawkes masks. “Never going to Let you down”, on the road across from where I’m standing, a huge advertising trailer depicting headless suited men and a web address (www.xenu.net) continually drives past. “Never going to run around, and desert you”, most oddly however all the masked people around me are handing out cake, happiness stickers and hugs, whilst singing along and dancing to Rick Astley…this is ‘Project Chanology’… this is not an average Saturday!
It all started earlier this year, when a video of Scientologist, and Hollywood-money-machine, Tom Cruise was leaked onto YouTube. In the video, Cruise addresses his fellow Scientologist’s on the privileges of being a member of the New Religious Movement, and how he dreams of a day when SP’s (Suppressive People – anyone that opposes the church) are “something we read about in the history books.” Now this is nothing new, over the last twelve months we have seen how bat-shit-crazy Mr Cruise can be, especially on the subject of his religious belief; but what was different in this case, was the way that the Church itself responded. Claiming the video was an infringement of copyrighted material; Scientology began legal proceedings against the Google-owned video site, as well as threatening other sites such as Gawker.com who were also showing the video. YouTube buckled under the church’s legal threats and removed the offending video, as did a slew of smaller independent sites that had also hosted the video. Meanwhile, trouble was brewing on the Internet. Days after the Scientology/Cruise video escapade, another kind of video appeared on YouTube entitled “Message to Scientology”, and with it the birth of the first grass roots Internet activist group. The video, with its Steven Hawkins-esque computer generated voice, and random spooky cityscapes, managed to both attract mainstream media attention, and amass a protest army of over 9000 people worldwide. The video stated that ‘(Anonymous) has decided that your organisation should be destroyed, for the good of your followers, for the good of mankind and for our own enjoyment. We shall proceed to expel you from the Internet and systematically dismantle the Church of Scientology in its present form”. Later in the video the creepy voice issues the groups mantra, “Knowledge is free. We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us”.
‘Anonymous’ have been alive and kicking online for a while now. In the old days you would find them terrorising online MMORPGs (Massively multiplayer online role-playing games) such as the horrible, reality-avoiding, Second Life, or the sickeningly cartoony Habbo Hotel. They even made a name for themselves via Fox News 11 in the US, who reported that they were an Internet Hate Machine and hackers on Steroids, much to the amusement of all involved. But it was Scientology’s Big Brother-esque behavior that really tipped the balance from online to real life action. The group decided to attack the religion in the only way they knew how, by hacking and defacing their websites. This seemed to work for a while, as well as amuse the participants, but overall it just seemed to blacken the ideal that Anonymous was trying to project. After a group discussion (Anonymous has no leader), they decided the only course of action was to take to the streets…and on February 10th 2008, under the guise of ‘Project Chanology’, that’s exactly what they did!
To protect their real-life identities from the now-infamous Scientology policy of harassing its detractors, over 300 masked people of all ages and gender gathered outside the new Church of Scientology building in Queen Victoria Street, London, as well as in 92 other key cities worldwide. They yelled their message, they handed out information to passersby, they offered free ‘delicious cake’ to Scientologists, they blasted Rick Astley from megaphones, and they had a lot of fun doing it. The Church responded by branding the protestors as ‘Cyber Terrorists’, and of conducting ‘Religious hate crimes’ and, unsurprisingly, decided to open a legal case against Anonymous. The only problem with this course of action is whom do you charge? Anonymous has no leader; they take particular care in protecting both their online, and real-life identity and there are thousands of them.
Considering the first protest a success, with a reported 6000-8000 global turnout, Anonymous launched its second attempt on March 13th, the birthday of Scientology’s creator L. Ron Hubbard. More cake, more flyering and more Rick Astley was blasted at the Scientologists and passersby, from a reported 9000 person global turnout. That brings us to today, from where I am standing, and from later online and mainstream media reports worldwide, Aprils attendance is even larger. Anonymous show no signs of quitting either, the next protest is scheduled worldwide for May 10th, and June’s is already in the pipeline.
But I still haven’t really answered my question, who the hell are Anonymous? Are they ‘Cyber Terrorists’, ‘Hackers on Steroids’ an ‘Internet Hate Machine’? Well, from the members I’ve spoken to, both unmasked and online, no. They are normal people, like you and me, they are office workers, they are lawyers, they are college and University students, Policemen and women, and thanks to the stayed-actions of early members and a non-criminal approach to Project Chanology, they are steadily growing in number. I’m left feeling not just informed by their message, but astounded by what they have achieved. 9000 people worldwide may be a very small percentage of the global population, but it’s incredibly large considering its roots. What’s truly impressive here, is the fact that it happened at all, the considerable organisational power of normal people with a cause, and the commitment to that cause. Even though it’s still a small-scale operation, it really highlights the power and potential of the Internet when used in this way. I think we may be witnessing the new people-power, just imagine what will happen if Anonymous turns it sights on, for example, a government…we’ll just have to wait and see.