Scientology vs. Anonymous – The Online Battle

For those of you who have been unaware of the Anonymous vs. Church of Scientology story, here’s a quick recap.

When videos of Tom Cruise speaking at a Church of Scientology function leaked onto the Internet in January they quickly became the viral topic du jour, showing up on celebrity sites and mainstream news sites alike. The tapes gave outsiders an unprecedented glimpse inside the typically private organization, and showed a fascinating side of Cruise and the Church that few have been privy to.

Church of Scientology attorneys acted quickly to have the videos removed from YouTube and other top video-sharing sites, claiming that the files had been acquired illegally and that sharing them was tantamount to distributing stolen property.

That action in turn angered some fervent critics of Scientology who claimed the Church was attempting to censor the Internet. One group of critics, calling itself "Anonymous," issued a declaration of war on Scientology and, claiming the banner of "freedom of speech," launched denial of service attacks on several Scientology websites (ironically trampling the Church’s freedom of speech in the process).

To get a sense of online reaction to the situation I took a look at traffic to two sites that represent the respective sides of the conflict: Scientology.org, the Church of Scientology’s homepage, and Xenu.net, the URL for Operation Clambake, a site which, though not officially linked to Anonymous, has been one of the most prominent critics of the religion. So how did the controversy affect visitation trends in January?

Visits to Scientology.org more than quadrupled in the month of January, with over 200,000 individuals visiting the site. Xenu.net also saw a bump in visitors, ending the month with a significant percentage increase, but still only managing less than half the traffic to the Scientology site.

This made me wonder if the Anonymous attacks may have backfired by generating new interest in the religion. Looking strictly at searches for the term "Scientology," it’s possible that this is exactly what has happened.

I don’t want to get into taking sides in this debate, there’s enough of that already taking place in chat rooms and on message boards all over the web. I just wanted to see what trends are in the data surrounding the issue. I’ll leave it to you to decide what it all means.

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