From: Warren Ellis
Or, perhaps, ex-Anonymous. This is an old contact of mine, who, for obvious reasons, would prefer to remain an anonymous Anonymous. I’m not making any claims that this person is speaking for Anonymous, and neither is the person. My respect for Anonymous is on record. This is one individual’s statement about their role in the Anonymous campaign against Scientology. I found it a fascinating and somewhat unsettling read. I hope you find it interesting too.
Colonel Gadaffi: my part in his downfall or how Anonymous pwned the media
Well, no, that’s incredibly misleading and although Anonymous did play a part in facilitating secure communication and Internet access for all of the rebel groups across the Arab Spring, I’m not going to even try to suggest I was involved in the Libyan uprising in any significant or meaningful way at all. It’s just that there’s a copy of Spike Milligan’s excellent war diaries ‘Adolf Hitler – my part in his downfall’ in the pile of books that are all that’s holding up the other piles of books next to it, next to me. Unlike me, Spike Milligan actually was drafted and sent around the world to fight and in my opinion, his diaries tell far more about the Second World War and how it affected the ordinary people involved than anything else written. His war diaries are both hilarious and tragic and as tales from the front line, they’re a vital piece of history.
Now, what I’m going to talk about isn’t really a tale from the front line, as there wasn’t one. Spike, in his foxhole, getting shelled, trying to stave off terror by finding a way to brew up some tea whilst drawing naked ladies on his copy of the standing orders would doubtless have been extremely envious at that way I could get involved from the comforts of home, or my workplace, or out on the streets of London or the idyllic countryside around East Grinstead, even if that bit did involve hiding up trees in the rain, trying not to laugh as serious looking security heavies beat the bushes below and didn’t think to look up. Despite the relative tameness of this tale in comparison to virtually any and all war stories, Spike Milligan’s books are an inspiration in terms of getting down some of the stories of events you (the generic, Royal ‘you’, that is) were involved in, so here’s the tale of how I played a part in changing the way Anonymous interacted with the media, and the ways in which it did make a difference to a couple of individuals, even if the international impact is much, much harder to assess.
First, well, not first, maybe, as we’re three paragraphs in already, but at this stage, I’d like to add a disclaimer. It’s to save time really. Although a few people who know me may be able to put two and two together and work out who I am from things included here, if you’re either involved in law enforcement or the Church of Scientology, I wouldn’t bother. I’m not involved in protests anymore and I’ve not done anything illegal. I’ve not been involved in hacking or DDOSing websites at any point. I don’t have any information on other people who have been involved in this that I’m going to mention. I don’t even know the real names of the people I was working with back in 2008/9, except for the few whose names are public anyway. Long before his penis got him into trouble and back when he was just some guy in Australia, I did exchange emails with Julian Assange on a couple of occasions to discuss potential future help with media issues affecting Wikileaks, but nothing came of it, and I had no involvement there at all. I keep half an eye on how things are going with Anonymous, Lulzsec and AntiSec, but was completely out of the scene before the latter two operations started.
Look, I wouldn’t be doing this if I though there was any risk to anyone else, so if you’re skimming this for actionable information, there’s not much point and let’s just save some time all round there, okay? I understand that the one of the main figures behind Lulzsec, ‘Sabu’ was compromised a while back and informed on the rest of the group. That’s pretty unfortunate, but even if the US authorities waterboarded me, (or the British equivalent, which would alternately be John Thaw threatening to chuck me out the window then Dennis Waterman bringing me cups of tea) I’d not actually be able to give out any useful information about anyone else, because I genuinely don’t have any. Lulzsec’s rampage, amusing though it was, was always going end like this really. They were effective, but they drew too much attention to the roles of individuals who could then be identified.
The Anonymous activities that I was a part of used a cell structure on pretty much an individual level. It’s sort of a shame, as there were a few folk I fought the good fight with that I’d like to enjoy a pint with now and chew over old times, but we did stay a/Anonymous back then, so I’ve genuinely no way of knowing who they were/are. This happened almost accidentally, due to a desire to stick to the ‘Anonymous’ model, which works in an interesting way online to subjugate egos and in its own way make interactions more peaceful rather than less so, but it did have the practical effect that no matter how much I wanted to, I couldn’t rat anyone out. Which is sort of a pity, as I’m sure someone somewhere, if not the FBI then maybe the CoS would still offer cash to do so and I’d really like some new shiny things.
So, after all of the above telling you what I didn’t do, how about what I did do and why I’m writing this now? Well, back around the middle of the last decade certain sections of the Internet, and not just 4Chan as the legend goes, but other forums on B3TA, Something Awful, various gaming forums and even bits of Livejournal all started to spontaneously generate a distinct brand of humour centered on captioning images and sharing them, pranking other Internet users by trolling or raiding other forums or online games and enjoying the freedom that a level of interaction with others combined with anonymity brought. Some of the pranking was cruel and hurtful. Some was actually dangerous and involved entrapping men (and it was always men, so far as I can tell) who wanted to meet with underage kids for sex after grooming them online. Identifying and then videoing or trolling these guys in public after arranging to meet them was probably the first ‘real world’ activist activity by Anonymous. The term ‘Anonymous’ did come from 4Chan, sure, but the people who self-selected to be Anonymous were from a wider area than that. Although, of course, mostly Ebaums World. Those guys did the really bad and illegal stuff. Yeah. Definitely. (That’s an old in-joke, by the way. Ebaums was hated because it stole jokes and material from the other sites and watermarked it as its own. So, everything that could be blamed on it, was.)
But you probably know all this and it’s well documented. It all still exists in the digital ether and can still be found. My point is that I was never a hardcore /b/tard, or part of the raids and pranking, but paid attention to it when it became epic and spilled over into the rest of the ‘net. At the time, and this will become more relevant in a little bit when I get to the part of this story I really want to tell, I was in a fairly well-paid job working for a media relations agency in Covent Garden, London. The cliché of Anonymous being made up of ‘basement-dwelling’ male geeks was a nonsense that was born out by the images that turned up when Anon stepped offline to hold protests against the Church of Scientology after veteran Scientology protester, Mark Bunker aka Wise Beard Man, made a video telling Anonymous to stop misbehaving and actually do something positive. The idea ‘what if we did all go out and troll the Scilons in real life and/or protest and campaign against what they do’ came after they tried to turn their litigious eye on the sharing and distribution of some funny videos of Tom Cruise spouting off about his superpowers. It couldn’t have been planned. Not by the psychiatric industry that the Scientologists claimed paid Anon to protest, or anyone else. I wasn’t sitting in a basement playing World of Warcraft. I was living with a partner and going to London media events and working with everyone from cabinet ministers to entrepreneurs who’d been on Dragon’s Den to famous authors to… well… a lot of people. One day I’d be in the Big Brother house, prior to a new series, arranging for my company’s clients’ kitchen equipment and furniture to go in there, the next I’d be trying to figure out how to get an ‘over-refreshed’ colleague out of the Oxo Tower and to A&E without the company directors who’d taken us there noticing we’d slipped away. I was well paid, but eventually left with little, as maintaining that sort of lifestyle in London is ruinous. It was glamorous and high profile and bullshit and I soon hated it and probably would have enjoyed playing Warcraft in a basement far more.
What really made the whole Anonymous thing real for a lot of people and what got them out on the streets wasn’t a like-minded horde of V for Vendetta mask wearing types all marching as one that they wanted to join, but the fact that due to international time zones, the first protest was held in Australia and there was a good turnout, and this protest almost immediately generated an iconic image that’s oddly now almost forgotten as the V for Vendetta mask has become a prominent symbol. It was a teenage girl, in a Hello Kitty T-Shirt and a gas mask. Well, it wasn’t a gas mask, it was a respirator and goggles, but that didn’t stop her becoming ‘gasmask girl’. Even before the other protests were due to take place, her picture went round the world, was manga’d, Rule 34’d and macroed. An iconic image from a protest movement was created before most of the protests were even due to start. It somehow made it all real and everyone waiting to see what would happen and whether it would be worth getting up for the protests very quickly had a pinup, and an image that was massively different from the bunch of socially maladjusted male nerds that were expected. The Internets smelt of excitement that morning. So, I thought I’d go and have a look at it all.
And lo and behold, it was great. Mounted police were having to deal with hundreds of people in silly costumes Rickrolling a building in London’s financial area. The Scientologists were walking around in suits, taking pictures of anyone who wasn’t wearing a mask and many who were and trying to order the police to remove the protesters. And being soundly ignored. If you want a refresher on all this, I’m sure there’s plenty of footage still up on YouTube. I could go on about it, but my word count is racking up here and I’ve yet to get to the really interesting stuff. Suffice to say, I kept going back to the protests and getting more involved in Anonymous.
The protests continued monthly and were largely very peaceful, if rowdy, but when, as the saying goes, ‘shit got real’ was when the Church of Scientology decided that they had to react. Despite trying, they couldn’t get the police to do what they wanted and ban or restrict protests and they attempted to take out injunctions to prevent further protests happening and then tried to target individuals that we were to learn they called ‘Directors of Anonymous Activities’. Except they had nowhere to aim their legal threats. It was a beautiful thing to watch them floundering, as by the time of the third or fourth protests there were leaks from within the CoS and even active members turning up amongst the protester groups, in masks, asking for help and offering information in return. Naturally, this was viewed with suspicion, but some of the info and leaks came good. The CoS told its members they were ‘working with the police’ to curb the ‘uprising against them’, but the leaks we had from inside and the friendly chats we had with the police seemed to suggest that once the basic ground rules were laid out, which to the CoS’ frustration were mostly to facilitate the safety of protesters not to restrict them, the police weren’t interested in continuing to meet them.
The media had taken some interest in Anonymous and the protests early on, and getting some news coverage was fun, but it was mostly treated as a curiosity by the mainstream press. Some of the Anons had started writing press releases to try to interest the media in the ‘cause’ and as that was an area I had a fair amount of experience in, I contributed to the threads in the various online ‘secret treehouses’ where Anonymous gathered to plan. I encouraged the press release writing to move away from the very dry and dull American style to a more playful, irreverent, but still informative offering. Press releases sent out by American companies and organisations such as the CoS are always horribly self-congratulatory and boring. You’ll mostly see them getting posted on free newswire sites rather than achieving any actual coverage. Whilst I can no means take all the credit for the way Anonymous subsequently courted the media (although I shall, of course, attempt to try) I strongly encouraged the collaborative media release writing process to head in a much more fun but still professional direction and to bring some of the humour seen at the live protests to this process, whilst encouraging credibility by ensuring that they were also businesslike in terms of their format. The process was as much a case of writing press releases ‘by committee’ as any PR exec or press officer in a corporate environment will be familiar with. This can be very frustrating when you have to do it for a business client and co-ordinate multiple people to contribute quotes and check facts and hone it into something that everyone is happy with, but within the part of Anonymous that was working on media matters, I did my best to kick the output into a more journalistic direction which I hoped would be media friendly and effective.
Now, as I was saying the CoS had been flailing around trying to find anything they could to legally counter Anonymous and mostly failing, but one thing that they did try to influence the police to counter were the signs that protesters were holding up. The UK Public Order Act prohibits signs which are ‘threatening, abusive or insulting’ and at the protest on May 10th 2008 a couple of power-suited Scientologists insisted on having police accompany them on a sign audit. They most strongly objected to any signs with the word ‘cult’ on. This was apparently insulting and abusive. To their credit, the police at first simply politely asked protesters to take down signs that used the word ‘cult’ and because they were asked nicely, many did. The power-suited Scientologists clearly loved this and you could see them visibly gloating about it (I was following them around and actually witnessed all this myself, by the way). However, one 15 year old boy in a Venetian mask with a big nose who had a sign that said ‘Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult’ refused to remove his sign, on the grounds that these were words a British high court judge had actually used. He was threatened with arrest or a court summons if he refused. He stood his ground. He got a court summons. And in doing so became the legend that was ‘Epic Nose Guy’. And I was standing there thinking the dual thoughts ‘fuck, we’ve got to help this kid’ and ‘fuck, this is a massive civil liberties news story we can spin’.
Now, what I did have access to via the job I had at the time was a media database. Which contained the names, profiles and contact details of pretty much every journalist in the world. So I interrogated it for a list of anyone and everyone who covered the City of London, civil liberties, law, politics, and everything else relevant. We quickly got together a press statement about Epic Nose Guy. My thinking was that we had to take the lead in terms of swinging media opinion to his side, in order to both help him out and also, and sitting here now, I can’t quite decide whether this was less or more important, establish a second precedent in British law for calling the Church of Scientology the C-word.
The secret to crisis communications and dealing with the media when you want to swing things your way is to be transparent and easy to deal with whilst maintaining a clear, consistent and unflinching position. Of course, transparency would seem anathema to Anonymous, in theory, so this would be tricky. There are no ‘spokesmen for Anonymous’ either, so consistency was also a problem. But if, under the normal terms of media relations, you can’t be fully transparent, you can still be easy to deal with, provide loads of comment and information about what’s happening and try to be amusing and newsworthy whilst still dealing with a serious issue. So I doled out media contacts for the people who had self-selected as Anonymous’ media team to approach. I have no idea who these people were, and who did what, but I spoke with the BBC and journalists from several major newspapers, and I know others did too, and we all took the same line that this was a civil liberties issue and that there was a precedent of the words used in court. The journalists following up the story then called MPs and lobby groups such as the National Council for Civil Liberties (Liberty) for comment, who then took and interest and got involved. Epic Nose Guy was supposed to be revising for his GCSEs whilst all this was going on and he found himself at the centre of what we turned into a small media storm. There was a massive amount of resulting coverage and the Guardian even linked to a page hosted by a site owned by an Anonymous member. It was suggested that this be changed to Goatse. This could have been counterproductive, but the Grauniad should have known better and it was doing this sort of thing that kept the more trollishly-inclined elements of Anon on side.
Whether by accident or design – and I like to think by design – we’d got the media largely on Epic Nose Guy’s side by turning this into a freedom of speech issue and being articulate and reasonable when talking to the media. It probably helped that this was a virtually non-political protest so the media didn’t feel that it had to react along partisan lines, but when we had figures as diverse as the then Shadow Home Secretary David Davis and Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty commenting in support of Epic Nose Guy’s stand, something had been done right. Possibly fearing an even bigger backlash, or simply because it made the wise decision taking things further wasn’t in the public interest, the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to proceed with action against Epic Nose Guy. Which meant that he could get on with his exams and that anyone who wanted to call the Church of Scientology a cult in the UK was safe to do so.
And, of course, Epic Nose Guy turned up at the very next protest with an even bigger sign, which just had the single word ‘Cult’ on it. He received many handshakes and hugs and the incident is still cited in stories on civil liberties. Win. Football-terrace style chanting ‘One-Nil To Anonymous’ was loud and proud that day.
It’s impossible to tell how things would have played out if we hadn’t approached the media in the way we did, but it gave many in Anonymous an appetite for, and experience of, working a press campaign alongside activism. Including a media-friendly aspect to projects became a part of what Anonymous was about, and even seemed to have continued into Lulzsec and Antisec’s activities.
At this point I was still with the media agency and had access to its database, so I was now regularly producing media contact lists for other Anonymous groups around the world. A trick we used to enjoy was to create mailing lists that included everyone on a floor of a media outlet, or everyone in a particular newsroom, and send them a message all at the same time. This made it look like we were pulling off some kind of clever hack, but it was really just a bit of careful planning. It was a very handy tool to have access to, and in terms of competing with the Church of Scientology’s media reach; it enabled us to almost certainly exceed it.
Anonymous was soon inundated with requests for interviews and there were several excellent features written, the best of which was probably the wonderful Caitlin Moran’s piece in The Times on ‘How Anonymous Made Protesting Sexy Again’.
The effect that all of this had was that, indeed, ‘shit got real’ in terms of the CoS setting private investigators onto protestors and attempting to literally unmask people. They had been seriously embarrassed and went a bit crazy. I’ve no doubt their leadership were putting a massive amount of pressure on lower downs to ‘handle’ Anonymous, as they put it, and people who had let slip their identities were harassed and received legal threats.
As I’ve mentioned even some people who were still inside the cult at the time had been to protests. I’m sure there were also attempts at infiltration and almost certainly some information was gathered this way, but there were three or four people that I know of who were trying to get out, but still inside Scientology because of families or because they couldn’t move away from their current living conditions, who?were putting on the masks and protesting.
The London Underground was an absolute godsend when it came to Anonymity and avoiding getting tailed home. It’s virtually impossible to follow someone through the tube system, and the OSA – scientology’s ‘spies’, their ‘Office of Special Affairs’ – tried to follow protestors but were amusingly crap at it. The private investigators they hired were quite a bit better, but most people who were careful were still pretty safe.
With people from the inside Scientology coming along and gradually getting to know the other protestors, well, as far as any Anons knew each other anyway, Scientology because an incredibly leaky boat. We had copies of documents of all kinds, and these were in turn fed to journalists or simply put online. One of the things that we wanted in particular to expose was the RPF – the Rehabilitation Project Force – their punishment and forced labour regime.
Ostensibly, they claim, the people that are on this ‘want to be’ to get over whatever is causing them to under perform and make amends, but the insider reports frequently said that the RPF was full of Scientologists who were utterly broken and abused and couldn’t imagine a life on the outside of the cult. There were some fairly radical schemes suggested to get these people out and ‘rescue’ them, but because there was no way of knowing if this was what they even wanted or would consent to, the best plan seemed to be to continue gathering intelligence and information, including pictures and getting these to social services and the police.
The source of some of the information was actually a very tragic case, a person who was in a?very delicate position, and needed a lot more help than she was getting from Scientology. She had a history of mental illness and epilepsy, and her family had fallen for the promises of Scientology being able to cure and help her. But, of course, the supposed treatments she’d endured hadn’t helped in the slightest, as she really needed medication and proper care not ‘auditing’ for alien ghosts or dangerously high-dose vitamin injections.
At the point I became aware of her, she was trying to take the ‘official’ method of leaving the CoS, which is really a process of re-indoctrination, but was doing?that just to string out the process, so that she could lift more documents, and also try to get info on the RPF which will enable social services or the police to do something about it. She also, quite simply, didn’t have anywhere to go. At one point, she had come close to being caught passing information, so a decision was taken in one of the Anonymous secret treehouses to spread some misinformation about the sources of the info we were receiving and once again use the media and some of the channels Anonymous had successfully used before, specifically the ‘official’ youtube videos like the one which provided the initial call to arms, with the clouds and synthesized voice.
Now, the OSA is like a really crap version of Cobra, Spectre or Hydra and tangling with them is actually fairly amusing as they really are quite inept. After some debate, we realized that being subtle wouldn’t really work so we wrote a script for a video based on some information we’d received as a way of killing three birds with one stone. First, it insinuated that one of the law firms run by the CoS was the source of information we’d received from a different source about an visa dodging scheme used by some senior members of the Church of Scientology who did not have official permission to work in the UK. This involved them leaving the country to go to Ireland for a weekend every few months and then returning on a new visitor’s visa, which shouldn’t have allowed them to work here. Releasing this information and informing the UK Borders Agency about it was, of course, in our interests, but having the CoS pull itself apart in the process of trying to find out the source, whilst we dropped a load of plausible misinformation about it in various places, but mostly the new ‘official’ video bought our friend on the inside some time.
A few separate pieces of disinformation were seeded that pointed to the law firm and another CoS front company being the origins of the leak, but we figured that just saying where we’d got the information blatantly but well… lying about it, as well would be something they wouldn’t necessarily expect.
The Anonymous video style was then the blank, hypnotic statements, presented as emotionless facts. I thought that by releasing this information from the original source, in as big a way as possible following the highly controlled pattern that had been established would be the best way to sell the lie. If it bought our source two weeks, then that would have been enough. (SPOILER: it was, but I’m going for a little dramatic tension here, please, indulge me.)
If she just left at this point she would have been immediately under suspicion, and that was a big problem if she hadn’t been able to get properly out of the way. The need for extra time was for reasons as banal a matter as her getting a place to stay outside of the whole South East of the UK sorted out quietly, with other people whose names will be on the contract and bills, so she couldn’t be traced that took the time.
She had already gone above and beyond what she ever needed to in terms of providing the anti Church of Scientology campaign with information. So, we did this to buy the people helping her time to organize everything for a place to stay and then to get the proper medical help she needed and for her to clear up her affairs as best she could before blowing the joint.
The guys who made the ‘official’ Anonymous videos were convinced that getting the top cult officials either deported, or out of the country in a hurry under their own steam was enough of a worthy campaign on its own to release another video, so our additional scheming was mostly irrelevant to them. And hell, we’d have done something with the information we had anyway, but the timing was done to get… I’m not even going to give her a pseudonym, this person, our ex-source… a vulnerable, epileptic who needed actual real help, who didn’t even know where her family was… this brave, brave girl out and towards actual help. We were having our lulz stitching up the Church of Scientology’s Office of Special Affairs who as far as we can tell, fell for it completely, to look the other way whilst this girl had things like a new bank account and mobile phone and home and getting registered with a Doctor sorted out for her. And that stuff’s actually quite difficult if you don’t start with an address in the first place. But yeah, by her account, when our video dropped, there was at first the pretense that nothing was wrong inside the CoS in the UK, but a barely concealed sense of panic and fear underlying everything came to a head and there was a quiet turmoil disrupting everything whilst everyone was under suspicion. Of course, if everyone’s under suspicion, then that actually reduces the chances of the right people being caught. So, she got out. And last I heard she was okay. But I have no idea where she is now, as (dear reader) I never even knew, nor ever learned, her name.
I’m completely out of the scene now, due to other life pressures, but I believe that the small victories like the two detailed here that I’ve mentioned helped to foster the idea that the Anonymous approach was a useful model to apply to protest and campaigning. I have no idea how far history will credit Anonymous’ contributions but I’m sure that to some extent the lessons learnt in the campaign against Scientology were applied in the Arab Spring in terms of being able to organize movements that had no leaders to be targeted, which could communicate very quickly.
My reasons for writing this now? Ego perhaps is one. Paying tribute in as cautious a manner as I can to the mole we had, who got out, and the people who helped her, is another. But yeah, despite all of the input I had into Anonymous’ dealings with the media and these campaigns, my actual media career utterly tanked (mostly due to my unsuitability for the environment I was working in and subsequent ‘attitude problem’) and I can’t openly talk about the biggest and best damn thing I did, that I’m most proud of, or stick it on my CV, and somewhere along the line that had to give before I went nuts and headed out on a naked wank rampage like the media guy behind the Kony Ugandan warlord campaign. So, thanks for the outlet here instead, and I’m sparing you that, at least.
But there you go. That’s how some of it happened.
- GUEST INFORMANT: Laurie Penny (warrenellis.com)
- Pixel-Oriented Philosophy (warrenellis.com)
- GUEST INFORMANT: Leah Moore (warrenellis.com)