THE OBSESSIONS ISSUE
The week of September 20, 2015
Issue38-ScientologyTrolling_2500px

How the Church of Scientology fought the Internet—and why it lost

By Jesse Hicks

The Church of Scientology would like you to know that, as of this writing, its official Facebook page has 329,903 likes. We’ll return to that number later, but it might be a heartening one for the church, which has recently grappled with less-friendly numbers, such as the 5.5 million people who watched Alex Gibney’s scathing documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, which premiered on HBO in March. (The film, which portrayed declining membership and abusive practices at the highest levels of the church, recently won three Emmy awards, including for best documentary, and Gibney’s spoken of a sequel.) Or the more than 1 million YouTube viewers who’ve seen the Saturday Night Live sketch belowless a parody than a cover version of a Scientology recruitment video, touting “Neurotology.”

In response to Going Clear, its most prominent public-relations challenge in years, Scientology went on the offensive. It took out full-page ads in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, comparing the documentary to the disgraced Rolling Stone report about an alleged rape at the University of Virginia. It launched a website featuring multimedia attacks on its critics, just as it had two years previously for the release of the book on which Gibney based his film. It emailed film reviewers, chiding them for not getting a comment from the church: “As a result, your article reflects the film which is filled with bald faced lies.”

It created the @freedomethics account to insistently tweet links to a Scientology-produced video denouncing Going Clear. A Facebook page for “Alex Gibney: Propagandist” appeared, and the owner apparently purchased sponsored posts for it. Other social media accounts—such as @MartyRathbunWho and @WhoIsMikeRinder, aimed at two former high-ranking church members—were even more confrontational, though it’s unclear how many are actually run by the church. Scientology spokeswoman Karin Pouw said via email, “Some of the accounts in this area are managed by the Church’s digital team; some are created and managed by parishioners who feel strongly about the malicious lies” allegedly spread by critics. She did not respond to a request for clarification.

It’s obviously hard to measure the effect this media blitz had on anyone potentially undecided about Scientology. The Twitter accounts, still active today, rarely if ever engage with actual users; they simply broadcast links to videos that evoke political attack ads, slickly produced packages of ominousness. The full-page newspaper ads maybe found an audience in Scientology-friendly Los Angeles, but also generously enhanced HBO’s marketing budget.

And there was that Facebook page, with its steadily climbing likes and its near-total lack of human comments.

It didn’t seem like the message management of a deep-pocketed institution—which the Church of Scientology very surely is, with more than $1.2 billion in assets, according to leaked tax returns—in the year 2015. It seemed tone-deaf and reactionary, a blunt example of the “never defend, always attack” strategy attributed to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. At a time when even the most bumbling #brands can usually manage to cultivate a nonembarrassing social media presence, the church didn’t represent itself well. It came across as, well, a little intense.

Critics and former Scientologists suggest that’s because the church doesn’t really get the Internet. “Scientology is frozen in amber in the 1960s,” says Tony Ortega, a journalist and former Village Voice editor who’s reported on the church for two decades. When L. Ron Hubbard established the church, it was a strictly hierarchical, deeply secretive organization run by one man whose paranoia colored the entire proceedings. He imagined, consciously or not, its secrets could be kept, its hierarchy preserved, its paranoia channeled to productive ends. For decades, that worked; with stumbles and false starts along the way, Hubbard eventually became the wealthy prophet he wanted to be.

When Hubbard died in 1986, a man named David Miscavige stepped into the power vacuum; today, he’s the public face of Scientology, alongside celebrity members such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta. The organization remains secretive and hierarchical, but soon after Hubbard’s death, an open and radically nonhierarchical platform for communication—the Internet—became a part of everyday life for millions around the world. It’s not surprising, then, that Scientology would, virtually from the beginning, see the Internet as an enemy.

Tory Christman says she was one of the key figures in Scientology’s opening moves against the Internet. In 1969, she was 22 and looking for an applied philosophy—a set of tools with which to order and improve her life. She found Scientology, and soon she’d signed the standard billion-year contract. She rose through the ranks as a loyal member until she says she was tapped to help fight the church’s first online threat, a newsgroup called alt.religion.scientology (ARS).

“Tory Christman has been making this false accusation for 15 years while providing no proof to support her claims.”

The early days of the Internet were much different from today; one of the main means of group communication was through Usenet newsgroups, collections of distributed message boards. ARS was one of these; created in 1991, it soon became a place for critics to share their views on the church. It wasn’t exactly a hotbed of intrigue, but on Christmas Eve 1994, someone anonymously posted Scientology documents, including the “Xenu story”—the creation myth later made famous by South Park.

Scientology lawyers reacted quickly, trying to remove what they argued was copyrighted material and asking for the newsgroup to be shut down. Raids and lawsuits followed; as Wired recounted at the time, the legal wrangling only drew more attention. (No one had yet coined the term “Streisand effect,” but here was a perfect example.)

While that overt war raged in courtrooms, Christman says she was asked to undertake a more covert role in neutralizing ARS. By then, she’d begun to work for the Office of Special Affairs (OSA), the church’s secretive security and intelligence team. She says another Scientologist began providing her with cashier’s checks, sending her to different states to open Internet accounts under fake names. The first time she succeeded, she says, her auditor gave her a big smile and said, “You’ve changed the course of the Internet—the history of the Internet—by opening that account.”

Soon after, torrents of spam began hitting the newsgroup, overwhelming genuine posts and forcing some dial-up users to download thousands of junk messages over painfully slow connections. Forgeries appeared, designed to look like posts from active members; other messages were simply gibberish, or, in a droll turn, baking recipes. ARS users suspected Scientology’s hand behind the floods, which seemed to arrive whenever some big event was about to affect the church. Christman says she later discovered that her auditor was behind the project, and that she once saw a line of computers dedicated to disrupting the newsgroup. (Scientology spokeswoman Karin Pouw responds: “Tory Christman has been making this false accusation for 15 years while providing no proof to support her claims.” Christman’s account appears on her Web page.) 

Christman describes proto-trollish behavior by the church’s agents. In addition to the spamming, she says, Scientologists would conduct elaborate, staged conversations among the fake accounts as a distraction from other messages. He and others tried to turn critics against one another, a “divide-and-conquer” strategy. The final tactic, “slime,” as Christman calls it, was simply to fill the newsgroup with so much junk that no one would want to read it.

She began emailing Andreas Heldal-Lund, a Norwegian who’d founded Operation Clambake, an anti-Scientology website that became an information clearinghouse for critics. Disturbed by her role in the OSA scheme, she says, she soon resolved to quit the church for good. So, early in the morning of July 19, 2000, she posted to the newsgroup, saying she’d officially left. She credited Heldal-Lund and told others to “listen to Andreas. He is right, and he has helped me the most.” He responded, “There are many more Tory’s out there and they could all use some clever and caring SP’s [“suppressive persons,” Scientology’s term for its critics] to find a safe harbor.”

After 30 years, Tory Christman was out of the Church of Scientology, thanks in part to a man she’d never met, who lived on another continent and ran a website. Looking back on the tactics used to clog alt.religion.scientology, Christman says, “I think they really thought—and I think they think to this day—that they can somehow shut down the Internet.” Heldal-Lund echoes the sentiment via email, saying that the church has lost. “The Internet took most of the power away from [the church],” he says, “and I predict they will never get that back. And I am satisfied by the fact that Hubbard nowhere saw it coming.”

That Hubbard never saw it coming explains a lot, according to Tony Ortega, the journalist who’s long reported on the church. “Scientology is cutting-edge technology for 1950. All of the most important policies were laid down by the 1960s,” he says. With minimal changes, it’s carried on as Hubbard decreed. “If it isn’t written, it isn’t true” is another church dictum, handed down from Hubbard himself. For Scientologists, that gives all of his writing the force of revealed truth. But it also leaves little relevant guidance for navigating the 21st century. “That’s why it’s so difficult for them to react to something like the Internet,” Ortega says.

But a healthy bank account can go a long way toward mitigating technological ignorance. Like a stodgy Fortune 500 company hiring a teen to manage its Snapchat account, Scientology can and does hire smart, savvy people to push its brand, whether that’s with a big old-media push like the Super Bowl commercials it’s run over the past three years or an ill-fated venture into sponsored content with The Atlantic. The ads, Ortega notes, are not amateurish—they’re slickly produced even if, as he puts it, “they might be a little odd.”

“Scientology is cutting-edge technology for 1950. All of the most important policies were laid down by the 1960s.”

“I also want to emphasize how much Scientology is about information control,” Ortega says, “And the Internet is the exact opposite of that.” Information control means keeping the church’s secrets, but it also means controlling the stories told by critics. His recent book, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely, tells how in the early 1970s the church intimidated and harassed Paulette Cooper, one of the first journalists to write critically about it. That, he says, was an entirely different time: With limited media outlets to target, Scientology could reasonably expect to control its reputation. Critics could be marginalized or drowned out.

He points to Operation Snow White, a large-scale infiltration of government agencies by Scientology. Eleven high-ranking church members pled guilty or were convicted, including Mary Sue Hubbard, wife and second-in-command to L. Ron Hubbard. In a pre-Internet era, Ortega says, that story could disappear: It was simply forgotten, letting the church “get past it.” That’s much harder today, when the Internet never forgets.

And those ads that seem so odd to outsiders, he says, are less about appealing to potential members and more about appeasing current Scientologists. “It’s important to keep in mind that everything is aimed at other Scientologists,” he says. So too with the Twitter accounts denouncing critics, the Facebook page calling Alex Gibney a propagandist, the anti-Going Clear website: They’re all part of the fight. As ham-handed as they appear, they’re primarily a form of theater—a way for Miscavige to show that he’s attacking, as Hubbard would’ve wanted.

Mark Ebner, another journalist who’s often written about the church, offers an even blunter assessment. “We (journos, apostates and critics alike) saw the Internet undoing of Scientology coming around ’96,” he emails. The Internet amplified the reach of critics and brought them together; it helped potential defectors find critical information otherwise suppressed by the church. (Tory Christman remembers the software sent to members in 1998: described as a Web page builder, it also covertly blocked users from viewing anti-Scientology websites.) “The Internet pulled back the curtain to find Hubbard bare, and caught the Office of Special Affairs with their pants down,” Ebner writes. “Years later, Anonymous came to Cyber Town and strafed Scientology while they weren’t looking.”

After the battle over ARS in the 1990s, Andreas Heldal-Lund’s Operation Clambake website became an essential resource and gathering ground for anti-Scientologists. Then came the Anonymous protests, which began in early 2008 in response to Scientology’s attempts to have a recruitment video starring Tom Cruise removed from the Internet. Those protests spilled out into the real world and helped garner more negative publicity. The war turned even Craigslist into a battleground, and anti-Scientology organizing continues today on Anonymous sites.

Meanwhile, an accumulation of negative news stories about Scientology is just a Google search away. Tony Ortega recently marked 20 years of reporting on the church, first for the Village Voice, and now on his blog. Prominent former members Marty Rathbun and Mike Rinder maintain blogs. Tory Christman has her website and YouTube channel. Marc Headley wrote a book about his time in the church, as did Jenna Miscavige Hill, niece of Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige. The Tampa Bay Times has reported extensively on the church and its Clearwater, Florida, spiritual headquarters; the Los Angeles Times ran a six-part story in 1990 and recently broke news that David Miscavige had hired private detectives to spy on his father.

Perhaps more crucially, popular culture has caught up with where ARS was in the early 1990s.

Ebner points to the 2005 episode of South Park that ridiculed Scientology as a turning point (noting that he consulted on it), which reached probably the largest audience at that point in time. More recently, Going Clear not only reached a large audience, but also, thanks in part to the church’s attacks, got people talking about Scientology—just not in the way the church had hoped.

“She made a Xenu joke, and people laughed, but the key thing is that she didn’t bother explaining who Xenu was. There was no need.”

Dave Touretzky, a research professor in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University and longtime Scientology critic, says the Internet still offers “a much-too-convenient source of truth that members turn to when they have doubts about their church. But most of the people who can think for themselves have already googled their way to freedom. And the general public has been thoroughly inoculated.” He recalls seeing Kathy Griffin do a standup bit. “She made a Xenu joke,” he says, “and people laughed, but the key thing is that she didn’t bother explaining who Xenu was. There was no need.”

The church is embattled, Touretzky says. The negative news is out there, and it’s easy to find.

This is what’s currently destroying Scientology,” he says. “Happy members wouldn’t go looking on the Internet. But none of the members are really happy these days. Some are more miserable than others, and some are more scared. None of them have anything to celebrate, and there are no prospects of things improving.”

Still, there are those 329,903 Facebook likes—the number has probably gone up by the time you read this. On its timeline, the Church of Scientology Facebook celebrates regularly. On Sept. 18, it was for National Founding Day Zimbabwe: “On this day in 1967,” the post reads, “the Church of Scientology Bulawayo was established in Zimbabwe, which was known as Rhodesia at the time.” Right now, 152 people have liked it; 11 have shared it.

Another post celebrates the 2004 opening of a Scientology church in Madrid, marking “a new era for religious freedom in Spain, with dignitaries from law, religion and human rights proclaiming Scientology as the hope for their country.” There, too: 207 likes, 12 shares.

Scientology Church Hosts Forum to Honor Sacramento Humanitarians” reads a link posted on Sept. 17. It has 271 likes, six shares.

The posts are regular and predictably anodyne. There’s little of the vitriol present in the attack ads aimed at Alex Gibney and others. It’s all “good news”—events at churches around the world and the opening of new facilities for Narconon (the controversial drug rehab organization which is based on L. Ron Hubbard’s theories of addiction currently faces several lawsuits). There are links to a video series called “Meet a Scientologist” that introduce Ted the Pentecostal minister, Jule the sculptor, Albert the network marketer, and more. Most of these posts have hundreds of likes—not surprising for a page with more than a quarter-million fans.

In early May, less than two months after the HBO premiere of Going Clear, former Scientologist and current critic Mike Rinder noted the page’s remarkable increase in fans. As the graph below shows, between September 2014 and May 2015, Scientology’s primary Facebook page went from well under 100,000 fans to nearly 300,000. In April alone, the page added more than 50,000 fans. As many Internet marketers would tell you, that’s an impressive showing. 

septmay

Analytics graph provided by Quintly

Where were all these new fans coming from? A graph calculated by social analytics firm Quintly showed that nearly 60 percent of the page’s fans were from Indonesia; of the 50,000 fans added in April, 43,000 were from that country.

Scientology's Facebook fans sorted by country

Analytics graph provided by Quintly
 

Scientology had suddenly become very popular in Indonesia—much more so than nearly anywhere else. Mexico, in second place, had only a third as many fans. The United States, coming in third, provided less than 10 percent of Scientology’s fans.

Via email, Scientology spokeswoman Karin Pouw explained the increase.“There is no surprise in the increase of ‘Likes’ coming from Indonesia,” she wrote, “after all, our humanitarian aid in the region can be counted in the thousands. 600 Scientology Volunteer Ministers from 28 nations responded to the 2004 tsunami in the Indonesian region bringing help to 300,000 people.” She did not explain why the church’s laudable humanitarian work resulted in a sudden spike in Facebook fans nearly 11 years later.

She said the church ran no ads targeting Indonesia, and that, more generally, “the page’s engagement and likes are driven through a combination of both organic posting and augmented with Facebook advertising at international level.” She did not answer how many Scientologists live in Indonesia; according to Scientology.org, there is no church in the country, the closest being in Taiwan and Australia. (Though maybe the 150,000 fans will ask for one.)

“We do not discriminate against anyone in the world LIKE-ing and engaging with our Facebook page.”

What’s going on here? Julian Gottke, digital public-relations manager at Quintly, said in an email, “Based on the growth rates in our fans by country table, you could assume that Scientology supports their social media strategy with farming fans in countries such as Indonesia (130k more fans than in the US), India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.” He’s referring to “click farms”—for-hire companies that use cheap labor and fake profiles to make social media pages look more popular than they are. Googling “buy Facebook likes” reveals how easy it can be.

Pouw denied buying likes. “To reiterate as explicitly and clearly as I can,” she wrote, “no 3rd party ‘social media farms’ are utilized and no one has ever been paid for ‘likes.’ Again, all of the Facebook fans of the Church of Scientology clicked by their own choosing. Further, like many major non-secular and secular organizations and brands on Facebook, we utilize both organic and Facebook provided advertising product methodologies to drive engagement. We do not discriminate against anyone in the world LIKE-ing and engaging with our Facebook page.” She also wrote that the church’s social media team “strictly follows all digital marketing best practices,” though none of its members would be available for comment.

“Given the Church’s expansion in the last 10 years, in which we grew faster than in the previous 50 years, much of our growth has been global,” she continued. This claim is difficult to confirm without hard, verifiable membership numbers from the church; Mike Rinder notes that the church’s membership claims have varied over the years. Tony Ortega broke down the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey conducted by Trinity College, which suggested there were 25,000 self-identifying Scientologists in America. Based on interviews with former members, he estimated that number was actually declining.

But Pouw encouraged comparing the Scientology Facebook page to those of other religious organizations, including specifically the Mormon Church, the Hillsong Church, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, writing that “you will find that a majority of their social media engagement also is from foreign countries, including Indonesia.” None of those pages are nearly as heavy with Indonesian fans.

Sachin Kamdar, CEO of web analytics firm Parsely, examined the Scientology page, and the linear increase made him suspect. “People tend to engage with Facebook pages and content organically, which results in more spikes and dips,” he wrote. “A consistently steady increase indicates that paid promotion is a more likely explanation for the rise in fans. This is also backed up by the location of the fans—which others have found to indicate an increase in paid promotion.”

He doesn’t mean that Scientology’s necessarily paying people to like its page, but rather that it’s paid for a lot of sponsored posts. (Remember that “Alex Gibney: Propagandist” sponsored post?) And those sponsored posts are ending up in more newsfeeds—including those of fake profiles designed to simply “like” almost everything. In other words, Scientology’s page might be receiving collateral likes from the click farms without directly paying them. 

“There’s nothing wrong with paid promotion, though I wonder if they’re getting any increase in actual engagement thanks to the campaigns,” Kamdar wrote. Reviewing a month of posts suggested not: While many had hundreds of likes and tens of shares, none had more than 10 comments. Most had none.

Facebook, for its part, doesn’t comment on the advertising practices of individual pages, though in the past year it’s cracked down on bogus likes. That’s in part due to complaints from businesses that’ve run ad campaigns only to find themselves overwhelmed with click-farmed likes, which actually decrease the value of their pages and advertising.

The church says it doesn’t pay for clicks, and the flood of Indonesian fans could be a fluke. Or maybe there really are 150,000 Scientology fans in Indonesia.

After its meteoric rise, the Scientology Facebook page seems to have settled down. There are regular posts, hundreds of single-click likes, and few comments. This week, it added over 1,000 new page likes. Though Indonesian users still account for almost half the total, the flood of new fans seems to have ebbed. Maybe the church has bigger things to worry about.

 

Illustration by J. Longo