1998 | New Dimensions of Social Movement/Countermovement Interaction: The Case of Scientology and its Internet Critics
This paper applied a particular sociological perspective to the ongoing battle between the Church of Scientology and critics who express themselves and organise real world opposition through the Internet.
If you can translate the technical language, about ‘social movements’ and ‘resource mobilisation theory’ it is actually an accurate and insightful description of the sea-change in the fortunes of Scientology that occurred after Internet access went mainstream.
So this is what I have tried to do below…
A ‘social movement’ is any group of people who come together for a common cause and assume a common identity. For example, organised campaigners for ‘father’s rights’ and environmentalist groups are social movements. Their aim is almost always to bring about significant social change.
‘Resource mobilisation theory’ proposes that the success or failure of a social movement depends on what resources it has, and how well it can deploy them. Consequently, most of the work done by members of social movements is dedicated to accumulating resources (e.g. recruiting members who are willing to take direct action and raising money) and deploying them (e.g. staging protests and buying advertising).
The Church of Scientology can be viewed as a social movement. Its members perceive themselves themselves to be working together on an ‘important mission’ (clearing the planet) and view being a Scientologist to be an important part of their identity.
The Church certainly spends a lot of its time accumulating resources. Its financial reserves contain a staggering sum of money, and the total commitment is requires from its members insures that it always has access to deployable agents.
The Church effectively deployed both of those resources against the US tax authority (the IRS) in order to acquire its present, tax-free, status as a ‘non-profit’ organisation. Among other tactics, it provided money to large numbers of Scientologists to sue the IRS, forcing them to expend their resources on defending themselves. It then offered to end this harassment if the IRS complied with their demands. The IRS did, making an agreement that remains secret to this day.
A new social movement will typically attract a counter-movement. For example, environmentalist groups who campaign to raise fuel taxes in order to reduce carbon dioxide output are likely to be opposed by groups of driving enthusiasts, and people ideologically opposed to taxation. The Church of Scientology soon attracted a counter-movement composed of disaffected ex-members and activists who objected to the abuses perpetrated by the organisation.
Historically, the massive resources of the Church ensured that its critics were effectively powerless. The Church was both capable and willing to persecute to do whatever it took to stamp out criticism. They,
- Effectively suppressed critical books by legal and extra-legal means
- Persecuted individuals who they thought might damage their image
- Launched propaganda campaigns to discredit critics
The advent of widespread Internet access turned the tables. In the online world the resources of the Church (money and committed members) are no longer effective.
For example, it is now easy for an individual (like me) to publish a critical website and there is little or nothing that the Church can do to prevent it.
Consequently, a Google search for “Scientology” yields far more critical sites that supportive ones. Bandwidth (the ability of every individual critic to publish online) and anonymity trumps money and members.
The fact that critics now have access to anonymity and bandwidth has, for example, led to the publication of almost all of Scientology’s previously secret documents and despite the Church spending a fortune in legal actions to enforce their copyright, multiple archives are still freely available online.
This has done significant damage to Scientology. Scientologists are told that they must not read ‘higher level’ materials until they have been prepared for it. Now that new members (who might doubt that the OT levels are worth so much money and commitment) have the opportunity to read these materials online, they many are disillusioned, and leave. Also, the free availability of Scientology’s more bizarre doctrines (for example, the OT3 ‘Xenu’ story) has led to the Church being widely ridiculed, which has done serious damage to recruitment.
Since this paper was written there have been many more examples of how the new ‘virtual resources’ held by critics, are proving to be more powerful online than the Church of Scientology’s money and the direct actions of its (dwindling) membership.
The best example is, of course the success of protests and other actions by a social movement dedicated to opposing the Church of Scientology’s efforts to censor Internet discussions – Anonymous. Their protests and online actions have drastically reduced recruitment to Scientology. Bandwidth has enabled them to effectively organise, and Anonymity has prevented the Church attacking them personally.