New Dimensions of Social Movement/Countermovement Interaction:
The Case of Scientology and its Internet Critics

Michael Peckham

Abstract The interaction between social movements and countermovements is a key aspect of resource mobilization theory, yet researchers have devoted comparatively little study to it. This article uses the conflict between Scientology and its Internet critics as a case study in movement/countermovement interaction, concentrating on resource deprivation and damaging actions. The uniqueness of Internet communication, however, requires adjustments to traditional resource mobilization theory in order to theorize this conflict, and this article proposes two refinements. First, the study of Internet movement/countermovement interaction involves the displacement of the normally-central role of the state in resource mobilization theory. Second, a rethinking of the definition of resources to include “virtual” resources facilitates movement/countermovement analysis on the Internet.

Résumé: L’interaction entre les movements sociaux et les contre-mouvements est au fondement même de la théorie sur la mobilisation des ressources, pourtant les chercheur-e-s y consacrent relativement peu d’attention. Cet article utilise le conflit entre la Scientologie et ses critiques internautes à titre d’étude de cas des interactions entre mouvements et contre-mouvements et s’intéresse particulièrement à la privation des ressources ainsi qu’aux actions préjudiciables. Cependant, le caractère unique de la communication internaute nécessite d’ajuster l’élaboration traditionnelle de la théorie sur la mobilisation des ressources de manière à expliquer ce conflit particulier. Le présent article propose donc deux rafinements importants à la théorie. D’abord, l’étude de l’interaction internaute entre les mouvements et les contre-mouvements nécessite un déplacement du rôle habituellement central dévolu à l’État dans la théorie sur la mobilisation des ressouces. Ensuite, l’inclusion des ressources “virtuelles” dans la définition même du concept de ressources facilite l’analyse de l’Internet en termes de mouvements/contre-mouvements.


In the 1970s, McCarthy and Zald (1973, 1977) formulated a new approach to theorizing social movements and participation in political activism. Resource mobilization theory was a response to social psychological theories that focused on grievances and viewed movements as collective identities (Eyerman and Jamison, 1991: 13; Stotik et al, 1994). The resource mobilization approach contextualized people’s actions in a rational choice framework (Stotik et al, 1994), and the theory postulated that much of a social movement’s activity involves procuring and organizing resources in order to maintain its viability and effect social change (Zald and McCarthy, 1987). Researchers have used resource mobilization to study all manner of social and political movements such as environmentalism (Kaminstein, 1995), “fathers’ rights” groups (Bertoia and Drakich, 1993; Coltrane and Hickman, 1992), religious movements (Bird and Westley, 1988; Bromley, 1985), and abortion rights (Staggenborg, 1988).

A central but largely unexplored feature of resource mobilization theory is its treatment of opposition among social movements (Meyer and Staggenborg, 1996).2 As one social movement begins mobilizing resources toward its goals, individuals and institutions who oppose those goals or whose resources are threatened coalesce around opposing goals into countermovements. The movement in favour of unrestricted access to abortion clinics, for example, faces opposition from the “pro-life” movement (Meyer and Staggenborg, 1996). Movement/countermovement interaction involves one group mobilizing resources to meet its own agenda while at the same time countering the actions of the opposing movement. In its original formulation, movement/countermovement interaction was largely concerned with influencing a government agency: forcing the state to pass legislation either restricting or allowing a contentious point (Meyer and Staggenborg, 1996). For example, supporters of gun control legislation in the USA regularly lobby the government for stricter regulation of firearms. The National Rifle Association, conversely, tries to block passage of gun control legislation and appeals to the state for protection of gun owners’ constitutional rights.

Although traditional resource mobilization placed emphasis on the government-influencing activities of movement/countermovement interaction, the theory also implied that movements and countermovements would compete directly for resources. For instance, movements often attempt to garner favourable public opinion at the expense of opposing movements (Kent, 1990). Each side may attempt to convert members of its opposition and both movements and countermovements may compete for recruitment of unaffiliated bystanders. Movement/countermovement interaction, then, takes place on two fronts: appeal to the state or other governing body; and direct competition for resources.

Of primary importance to the discussion of Scientology and its Internet critics is resource deprivation or “damaging actions” (Zald and Useem, 1987: 260). A movement or countermovement often tries to undermine its opponent’s position by “neutralizing, confronting, or discrediting its corresponding countermovement” (Zald and Useem, 1987: 248). A group takes steps to “raise the cost of mobilization for the other groups” (Zald and Useem, 1987: 260) while pursuing its own agenda. Additionally, raising bad publicity about an opponent hinders the opponent’s ability to recruit and raise funds from the general public, thus deviance labeling, smear campaigns, and other types of public discrediting are forms of resource deprivation (see Kent, 1990).

Despite the formulation of movement/countermovement interaction in resource mobilization theory, most studies of social movements have concentrated on the movements’ interactions with the state (Meyer and Staggenborg, 1996; Zald and Useem, 1987). Consequently, little information exists on direct movement/countermovement interaction, despite the apparent wealth of social activity that is appropriate for such analysis. Only a few sociologists have focused on movement/countermovement interaction, most notably Kent (1990), who discussed attempts of competing religious groups to deprive each other of resources through the rhetoric of deviance labeling. While this and other studies (Groch, 1994; Jasper and Poulsen, 1993; Pichardo, 1995) provide some insight into movement/countermovement interaction, Meyer and Staggenborg (1996) argue that this potentially rich area of investigation is under-studied.

Consequently, Meyer and Staggenborg (1996: 1629) invite scholars to broaden the investigation of movement / countermovement interaction: “Because most theoretical work on social movements focuses on movement challenges to the state, the phenomenon of ongoing interactions between opposing movements demands a revision and extension of our theories of social movements and social change.” In particular, they argue that more work needs to be done regarding cross-national, longitudinal, and comparative studies of movement/countermovement interaction. Cross-national studies would displace the central role of the state in usual approaches to movement/countermovement study, while longitudinal studies would enhance our understanding of ongoing movement/countermovement interaction.

To further the investigation of movement/countermovement interaction, Meyer and Staggenborg (1996: 1637) provide thirteen propositions or hypotheses that seem to fit existing studies of movements and countermovements, but which require considerably more research. These propositions cover the preconditions for movement/countermovement conflict (e.g., divided government authority, initial signs of movement success), and the specific contingencies of movement/countermovement interaction (e.g., “Mass media coverage encourages the emergence of a countermovement as journalists seek out opposing interests in response to movement claims” (Meyer and Staggenborg, 1996: 1645)). They warn that not all of the propositions will be present in a particular conflict, but the general rules provide a framework within which to expand the study of movement/countermovement interaction.

The present article uses Meyer and Staggenborg as a starting point for investigation of a particular conflict: Scientology and its opposition on the Internet. This article argues that the interaction is primarily one of resource deprivation or “damaging actions,” and the debate enhances our understanding of how demobilizing an opponent’s resources can be the focal point of movement/countermovement interaction. Since the Internet is the forum for this interaction, however, the article requires a rethinking of certain tenets of traditional resource mobilization. The ultimate goal of this rethinking is the introduction and initial adaptation of resource mobilization theory to the study of movement/countermovement interaction in the information society.

The Internet and Resource Mobilization

In order to apply movement/countermovement interaction theory to a conflict that has been played out predominantly on the Internet, I propose two adjustments to current movement/countermovement interaction thinking. First, the radical democracy and lack of cohesive authority on the Internet alters movement/countermovement interaction in regard to appeals to the state. Second, and perhaps most important, utilizing resource mobilization to examine an Internet conflict requires conceptual and definitional changes to what traditional resource mobilization theory means by “resources.”
According to some observers, one of the defining characteristics of the Internet is its lack of any form of cohesive governing body. Although numerous government agencies worldwide have tried to place regulations on certain Internet activity (e.g., pornography, the Communications Decency Act (CDA) in the USA (see EFF, 1996b, 1997)), most legislation is either unenforceable or ignored. While some commentators view this lack of an effective ruling authority as chaotic, most agree that the Internet is a large-scale democracy. Studies of interaction on Usenet, for example, indicate that behavior is mostly policed by means of peer pressure and sometimes vigilante actions (Baym, 1995; McLaughlin et al, 1995). Although appeals to external authorities do exist (such as reporting a troublemaker to his or her Internet Service Provider (ISP)), the predominant method of conflict on-line is played out in (often vitriolic) democratic discussions.

Additionally, many Internet users see themselves as constituting a community that does not recognize external authorities (Kling, 1996; Shade, 1996). In this community, attempts to regulate from outside meet with resounding disfavor, as shown in the uproar over the CDA. The worldwide scope of the Internet, coupled with the difficulties of regulating such complex technology, make it nearly impossible for a single government to regulate the entire network. Nevertheless, the primary impediment to effective regulation of the Internet probably is the attitude of Internet users themselves.

Using resource mobilization as a framework for discussing movement/countermovement conflict on the Internet requires displacement of the centrality of the role of the state. In traditional movement/countermovement interaction, the government plays the role of arbiter, and each side of the dispute attempts to enact social change through influencing government legislation. The Internet’s lack of such an authority, however, means that movement/countermovement interaction is necessarily direct. The case study later in this article demonstrates that although some appeals may be made to external authorities (e.g., the courts), the vast majority of movement/countermovement interaction on-line takes place in the absence of a government arbiter.

Moreover, the radical democracy of the Internet places more importance on popular opinion and attempts to sway disinterested bystanders. Since the real authority of the Internet (in perception, certainly) lies in the strength of numbers and popular appeals, the struggle for popular legitimacy is more important for on-line movement/countermovement conflict than lobbying a government for legislation. If a movement is to meet its goals on the Internet, then it must appeal to the only real authority extant: Internet users.

The same technology that makes external control of the Internet so difficult also has a leveling effect on resources that, in other contexts, would tend to advantage or disadvantage a movement against its opponents. Since access to the Internet is worldwide, an individual with free access through a community freenet can potentially compete with large, well-funded organizations (Crawford, 1996: 594). Although greater financial resources may enable a group to create a more professional web site (although money does not guarantee this) and purchase advertising on-line, the potential audience and scope of reach is no greater than that of an individual with basic Internet access (Peckham, 1998). In terms of resource mobilization, traditional resources that normally would give one group an advantage in movement/countermovement interaction may be much less important.

Internet-specific movements (i.e., movements or countermovements that have their genesis on the Internet) also may not have any form of leadership hierarchy. Such movements may be amorphous, but the instant communication of the Internet allows coordinated action even without any leadership directives. Thus, it is difficult if not impossible for a movement to counter its opposition by targeting its leadership.

Virtual Resources

While resource mobilization theory normally addresses tangible economic or physical resources (e.g., money, recruits), examining movement/countermovement interaction on the Internet requires an expansion of the definition of “resources.” The term “virtual resources” as I define it refers to resources that have no intrinsic value and little meaning outside the context of on-line activity, yet are highly valued by Internet users. These are resources whose worth is not measurable in terms of monetary value, but nonetheless have real consequences. Recognizing the existence of virtual resources is important in part because the internal economy of the Internet blurs common notions of production, capital, and goods values (Interrogate the Internet, 1996: 128). In the on-line environment, the ability of a movement to take action does not necessarily require money or elite voices, but rather, as we shall see, it requires a mobilization of resources that primarily have value only to Internet users.

Among the virtual resources mobilized on the Internet, the two most important to the Scientology/Internet critics conflict are “bandwidth” and “anonymity.” Bandwidth is a term that normally refers to the amount of information that moves through a particular transmission medium at a time (Baker, 1995: 205).3 For example, fibre optic cables can carry more electronic information than copper wire, and thus have wider bandwidth. On the Internet, bandwidth is a slang term for the total amount of information space available in a particular forum. Users of Usenet often accuse each other of “wasting bandwidth”; in other words, using informational space for frivolous or wasteful purposes (McLaughlin et al, 1995: 98). A related term that is important to this discussion is “signal to noise ratio.” The “signal” is relevant information, and “noise” is chaff such as off-topic conversation, advertisements, and personal dialogue between individuals that is not important to the wider user base. A high signal to noise ratio signifies an efficient use of bandwidth, whereas a low ratio indicates that useful material makes up only a small proportion of the total amount of information.

The second important virtual resource in contention on the Internet is anonymity. More precisely, anonymity is a way of accessing bandwidth without revealing one’s identity. To some extent, the uniqueness of Internet communication relies on its varying levels of anonymity (Baym, 1995; Shade, 1996; Sobel, 1995: 8). Since there is no face-to-face interaction on the Internet,4 participants can divorce their everyday identities from conversation and, in some cases, adopt entirely new personae on-line (Baym, 1995: 154). The use of anonymous re-mailers (utilities that allow one to send e-mail anonymously) amplifies this removal of identification, and participants now can conceal their real names, organizational affiliations, Internet Service Provider, and location. Many users utilize these services to engage in controversial activities such as the spread of non-mainstream sexual materials, and anonymity ensures that the users do not ruin their reputations or become blacklisted. “Defenders of anonymous re-mailers claimed they made it easier to talk freely about sensitive subjects such as sexual abuse, and protected users from reprisals from repressive regimes” (Brown, 1996: 10). In some cases, people use anonymity as a shield for illegal activities such as posting threats, copyrighted material, or making libelous statements about others.

Movement and Countermovement: Scientology5 and its Internet Critics

The conflict between Internet users and the Scientology movement is one of the most controversial topics in current discussions about computer communication. Stories about the debate have appeared in news media all over the world, and numerous court cases are working their way through the legal systems of several countries (Grossman, 1995; Heldal-Lund, 1997). Scientology claims that Internet users are illegally disseminating secret, copyrighted materials (Goodman, 1996a; 1996b), while Internet users say that Scientology has trampled on their rights in an attempt to silence critics (Newman, 1996; Heldal-Lund, 1997).6 Many of the media have struggled to explain the conflict, usually concentrating on the moral and ethical issues that it raises. This article critically examines the conflict without resorting to value judgements about the morality of the participants’ actions. Instead, it argues that a fruitful way of contextualizing and explaining the conflict is to investigate the role of resources.

In the conflict between Scientology and Internet users, Scientology is a social movement that is countered by an organized group of critics on the Internet. Founded in the 1950s by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology purportedly is “an applied religious philosophy” that comprises “the study and handling of the spirit in relationship to itself, universes and another life” (Church of Scientology International, 1993[1978]: 566). Sufficient precedent exists for the identification of Scientology as a social movement7 (see Kent, Forthcoming; Hall, 1998), but the characterization of Internet critics as a countermovement requires further explication.

The group of Internet users who oppose Scientology mainly use the Usenet Newsgroup alt.religion.scientology (a.r.s.) as their forum. Many of these people are former Scientology members who now are outspoken critics of it, and through the organizational facilitation of the Internet have formed a fairly coherent group (Grossman, 1995; Post, 1996).8 This group comprises an anti-Scientology countermovement on the Internet. As this study shows, however, the group of individuals opposed to Scientology includes people who are not necessarily opposed to the organization itself, but rather are opposed to the attacks on the Internet. Thus, anti-Scientology critics are a subgroup of a wider movement that supports the Internet, so that Scientology is in conflict with both a countermovement (critics) and a wider social movement (Internet supporters).

Many good overviews of the conflict between Scientology and the Internet already exist (see Grossman, 1995; Heldal-Lund, 1997; Holmes, 1995; Newman, 1996), so here a brief outline of the events should suffice. On July 17, 1991, a former Scientology member forged a request to Usenet control that led to the creation of a.r.s. (Grossman, 1995: 174). Participants note that for the next few years the newsgroup was home to discussions about Scientology minutiae such as the workings of e-meters and auditing techniques (Holmes, 1995). In mid-1994, several former members (including some “squirrels”)9 began posting criticism of Scientology, and documents circulated that appeared to outline a Scientology plan to flood the newsgroup with positive messages in order to silence critics.10 Former member and outspoken critic Dennis Erlich began posting his experiences in Scientology in August, 1994, and he soon became a catalyst for the countermovement.

When more critical posts became common on a.r.s., copyrighted materials started to appear among the messages. Some representatives of Scientology allegedly began forging messages to cancel critics’ posts in December, 1994 (Holmes, 1995), and Internet users soon dubbed the perpetrator of these forgeries the “Cancelbunny” (named after a character in a battery advertisement) and later “Cancelpoodle.”11 Those who posted copyrighted materials without the aid of anonymous services received legal threats, and Scientology representatives filed complaints against anonymous servers. On February 8, 1995, The Church of Scientology (based in Los Angeles), with the help of Finnish police, obtained the identification of an anonymous user of — the most popular anonymity service provider on the Internet (Quittner, 1995).

On the same date, February 8, the Religious Technology Center (RTC) and Bridge Publications (branches of Scientology and copyright holders of L. Ron Hubbard’s Advanced Technology and Hubbard’s published works, respectively) filed a copyright-infringement lawsuit against Erlich, Tom Klemsrud (the operator of a small Internet Service Provider), and Netcom, which provided access for Klemsrud (United States District Court, 1995a). Five days later, Scientology lawyers seized materials — including storage disks and other information media — from Dennis Erlich (Grossman, 1995; see United States District Court, 1995b). On August 12, 1995, a similar raid took place against Arnaldo Lerma, a former Church member who posted copies of the Fishman affidavit.12 On August 22, police and several Scientology attorneys seized materials from the chair and director of FACTnet,13 “an anticult electronic library and archive” (Grossman, 1995: 174). On March 21, 1996, the RTC filed a lawsuit against Grady Ward for allegedly posting copyrighted materials using an anonymous server (Newman, 1996). To date, numerous Internet Service Providers have received legal threats, in addition to the numerous a.r.s. critics who have been subject to various forms of harassment (Newman, 1996; Grossman, 1995).

The history of the conflict is complex and filled with allegations and unreliable evidence. My purpose in presenting this admittedly sketchy history is to provide readers with a sense of the issues at stake. The above account, however, should provide an adequate foundation for the discussion that follows, and this paper will elaborate upon some of the events when necessary.

The Potential Deprivation of Scientology Resources

The countermovement of critics on the Internet poses a threat to Scientology resources through two primary actions: the posting of copyrighted, “secret” documents and the dissemination of unfavorable information about the organization. A third, more peripheral action is the organization of off-line activities such as picketing and letter-writing campaigns. These activities by Internet users are not so much competition for the use of resources, but rather an attempt to deprive Scientology of money, recruits, and access to what resource mobilization theory calls the bystander public.14

The dissemination of Scientology documents on Usenet and the World Wide Web was the central catalyst to many of Scientology’s subsequent actions against Internet users (Grossman, 1995). Citing the disputed documents as copyright and trade secret violations (Goodman, 1996a), organization representatives have engaged in a series of actions designed to limit damages to Scientology resources.

The dissemination of closely guarded Scientology documents is a clear example of a potential deprivation of Scientology resources. Widespread exposure to such materials is costly to Scientology in several ways. First, and perhaps most obviously, the unfettered dissemination of these documents costs Scientology the money members pay to access the documents, in the same way that software piracy can result in lost revenue for developers. Simply put, since the materials are freely available, people are considerably less likely to pay for them.

According to some commentators, Scientology has a history of profit-driven publication (Lamont, 1986; Miller, 1987). Allegations that Hubbard and the organization valued sales above all else trace back to the early days of Dianetics, the precursor to Scientology15 (Atack, 1990: iv; Gardner, 1952: 280), and indications exist that sales of written material are still very lucrative for Scientology (Atack, 1990: 3). Hubbard was a prolific writer, both in his science fiction career and his tenure as a supposed religious leader, and official Scientology publications comprise hundreds of volumes. The advertisements in the 1992 reprint of Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health encourage readers to buy fifty-six other publications, including audio and video tapes.16 Clearly, then, Scientology and Dianetics materials are sources of income.

While Scientology does not explicitly state that it is concerned about a direct loss of revenue, the special Internet issue of Freedom17 contains numerous statements that indicate that fear of a potential reduction in book sales contributes to Scientology’s attacks on Internet users. The central theme to the Freedom issue is that copyright violation of any kind will spoil the Internet by prompting government regulations, but Freedom also makes numerous analogies to people whose livelihood is threatened by the posting of copyrighted materials:

This problem has emerged with alarming frequency. In Boston, a professor and book critic found many of his reviews getting posted and used without his knowledge — until after the fact. Such postings potentially denied him any livelihood he may have been able to make from his own works.
A software developer in San Jose, California, found new and unreleased programs being pilfered from computer files by pirates who broke in through the Internet on a Sunday afternoon; though he quickly pulled the plug, more than enough programs had been stolen to eat up his paycheck (Freedom, 1996: World Wide Web page).

The tacit implication in examples such as these is that copyright violation can financially disadvantage Scientology, as it does the software developer and the book reviewer.

The loss of potential sales revenue is a key factor to the debate over copyrighted materials, but Scientology also has taken action against users who posted short excerpts that are allowable under “Fair Use” legislation in the United States (Post, 1996). Furthermore, Scientology officials have made attempts to halt the use of the terms “Scientology” and “Dianetics” (Newman, 1996). This protectionism indicates that Scientology is not only concerned with lost book sales, but it is trying to control what people can say about Scientology in any context.

Scientology’s sales of books and other materials are linked closely to a stratified system of courses, and the organization “possesses an ‘enrollment economy’” (Wallis, 1976: 157). As members move through the levels of Scientology training, they must take and pass various courses, each with its own set of associated costs (Atack, 1990: iv; Ebner, 1996; Lamont, 1986). Each organizational level requires that the participant purchase written, audio, and visual materials (often not available until the participant reaches that level of training), pay for and attend courses and seminars, and undergo an unspecified number of hours of costly auditing (Wallis, 1976). By the time members have reached the state of “clear” (the goal of Dianetics),18 they may each have spent tens of thousands of dollars (Ebner, 1996: 43). Additionally, if a member does not pass a course, then the individual must pay for and take the course again, for as many times as it takes to meet its requirements (Bainbridge and Stark, 1980: 132). Thus, a tremendous amount of revenue rests on a member’s movement through the stratified system.

The posting of “sacred” documents on the Internet affects the revenue potential of stratified courses in several ways. First, since such posts provide a free-of-charge source for this information, prospective course attendees are less likely to follow the established path of progression, leading to a disruption of the organization’s revenue structure. Second, if people can obtain costly, higher-level information immediately, then there is little incentive to devote years of their lives (and large amounts of money) to the levels leading up to the information. In other words, the spread of sacred texts encourages people to abandon the costly, time-consuming path through the various levels of the organization. The Internet reaches millions of people all over the world, and conceivably Scientology could lose years of revenue in the time it takes to download a copyrighted document over an ISP.

Third, posts of higher-level documents could encourage members to question the tenets of Scientology. Exposure to these materials could cause a Scientology member to leave, especially if the person has been involved with the organization only for a short time. Understanding what I call the system of “stratified revelation” characteristic of Scientology helps to explain how exposure could lead to defection.

Each level of progression through Scientology involves a series of courses and auditing sessions (Wallis, 1976). Scientology keeps these levels closely guarded, and the information attendant at each level remains secret to those at other organizational levels. The longer members are a part of the organization and the farther they progress in the organizational structure, the more doctrine and revelation to which they are privy. This form of stratified revelation is common among course-driven alternative religions and occult groups, as well as some quasi-religions such as Freemasonry (see Pike, 1920[1871,1906]; Regardie, 1990). It also serves as a method of controlled socialization, requiring participants to accept and internalize the revelations of the present level before moving on to the next doctrinal level. This procedure maintains commitment through investment of time and resources (see McGuire, 1987[1981]: 72–79), and it prepares members for the particulars of the next level of revelation. Thus, by the time members have reached the highest levels of the organization, they have the socialized preparation that they need to accept the teachings of the successive level.

In many religious groups, leaders stress that adherents must ascend through the levels of revelation in sequence to maintain the faith of followers (see Persinger et al, 1980; Wallis, 1976: 157–189). Scientology clearly uses this sequential model:

[T]he Church of Scientology’s practice of reserving a portion of its scriptures for those who have attained specified levels of spiritual advancement has well-established precedents in established religions . . . The Church of Scientology holds that a fraction of its scriptures are only to be viewed by those who have completed certain prior steps of religious study and counseling (Goodman, 1996a: 19).

Scientology officials insist that dire consequences would befall the unprepared, were they to see revelations prematurely. Hubbard himself extended the ramifications of unprepared exposure to include physical well-being, and “anyone trying to absorb [OT-III]19 without [L. Ron Hubbard]’s guiding light would [allegedly] die of pneumonia” (Lamont, 1986: 50). The preceding levels, OT-I and OT-II, are preparatory, and without such training and experience, individuals cannot cope with the information contained in revelation.

Some critics and former members assert that the information in the OT levels is “gobbledygook” (Brown, 1996: 10), and is “science-fiction garbage” (Ebner, 1996: 43). This “bizarre cosmology” (Bingham, 1996) likely would seem outrageous to anyone not prepared by years of indoctrination. Some of the Internet critics who posted higher-level doctrine claim that they did so in order to show people how bizarre Scientology beliefs can be (Bingham, 1996; Grossman, 1995). If, however, participants have taken the proper steps in the proper order, then they are ready for these “outrageous” beliefs and thus do not abandon the path. Additionally, Hubbard’s writing may tend to discourage newcomers, as Robinson (1995) explains:

[T]o a person who has not been trained in the communications technology of Scientology(tm), L. Ron Hubbard’s style of writing may seem poorly structured, tedious, repetitive, and generally unpleasant to read. As a result, many persons who have obtained copies have found themselves unable to persevere through the entire material.

For an individual simply interested in the therapeutic promises of Dianetics — promises nominally couched in rational, scientific terms — higher-level doctrine may seem irrational and even fanatical. Thus, the wide dissemination of higher-level materials could cost Scientology adherents as recent recruits, not yet properly prepared, find the materials too “outrageous” for belief.

The second primary way that the Internet has threatened Scientology resources is through the dissemination of unfavorable information about the organization. Former members, counter-cult groups, and other critics use Usenet and the World Wide Web as venues to sway members away from Scientology and, more importantly, mobilize the bystander public in favour of the Internet critics. Many a.r.s. posters who are critical of the organization want “to alert people to the dangers” of Scientology (Dennis Erlich, quoted in Langan, 1995: 12). The radical democracy and resource-leveling effects of the Internet mean that such criticism instantly reaches a global audience and give critics a voice equal to that of the much wealthier Scientology movement.

Alt.religion.scientology primarily is a forum for voicing anti-Scientology sentiments (Goodman, 1996a). The most damaging criticisms come from former members who describe their experiences in the organization, reveal higher-level cosmology, and deconstruct Hubbard’s teachings. Allegations of coercion, mind-control, and other reputedly deplorable Scientology actions are common on a.r.s. (Holmes, 1995). Additionally, a.r.s. participants regularly discuss Scientology’s attempts to silence its critics, providing bad publicity. Many commentators feel that bad publicity is the primary motivating factor for Scientology’s actions against Internet critics.

Additionally, harsh criticism may make formerly neutral parties adopt an anti-Scientology stance. For example, several of the frequent posters to a.r.s. claim that they had no previous dealings with Scientology, but became critics after learning of Scientology’s actions against Internet users (Spaink, 1995). Critical posts on a.r.s., whether from ex-members or recent critics, serve as both a warning for disinterested parties to avoid Scientology and an enticement to support the Internet critics.

The third major resource-related activity in the conflict on the Internet is less direct, but it is nonetheless an important aspect in the countermovement’s attempts to deprive Scientology of resources. Besides the dissemination of Scientology doctrine and criticism, the Internet and World Wide Web provide venues for the organization of anti-Scientology activities. For example, a.r.s. and critical World Wide Web sites helped raise awareness of the anti-Scientology protests held at Scientology centers worldwide (Mayett, 1997). Internet users also helped organize legal defence funds for Dennis Erlich and Arnaldo Lerma through a.r.s. and the World Wide Web (EFF, 1996a).

These off-line activities, such as picketing, distributing leaflets, legal defence funds, and letter-writing campaigns, are attempts to sway the bystander public to a hostile position toward Scientology. As Kent (1990) discusses, countermovements often use deviance labeling to increase tension between religious groups and wider society. Through Internet-facilitated organization, the countermovement of critics participates in activities that, if successful, would lead to a negative labeling of Scientology. In addition, some of these efforts directly threaten other Scientology resources such as the Church of Scientology’s tax exempt status in the United States. Thus, the countermovement is attempting not only to sway the bystander public, but also deprive Scientology of a valued resource.

In summary, if one views Scientology as a social movement (with many affiliated social movement organizations) and the a.r.s. critics as a countermovement, then it is evident that the actions of Internet users directly affect Scientology resources. Posting copyrighted materials deprives Scientology of revenue, both from sales and reduced enrollment in courses. Also, the free distribution of sacred documents can deprive Scientology of potential recruits and discourage recent initiates from continuing on in the organization. The countermovement also attracts members from the bystander public and sways public opinion through on-line criticism as well as Internet-organized events.

The Resource Mobilization Consequences of “Rights and Freedoms” Arguments

Much of the conflict between Scientology and Internet critics revolves around a perceived clash between certain rights and freedoms. Numerous other social movements have mobilized the rhetoric of rights in attempts to spur social change. For example, one group attempted to change family laws by invoking “fathers’ rights” rhetoric, arguing that fathers have a right to equal treatment in divorce hearings and custody disputes (Bertoia and Drakich, 1993: 592; Coltrane and Hickman, 1992). The general approach of mobilizing rights rhetoric seems to be an appeal to the most immutable perceived laws: to deny someone “rights” or “freedoms” is anathema to most people in democratic societies (Howard, 1994). Thus, by implying that a particular action is a right, the rhetoric frames the debate in very sober, moralistic terms.

Additionally, the perception that rights and freedoms are at stake in the Scientology debate broadens the range of potentially interested parties. Meyer and Staggenborg (1996: 1639) state as one of their propositions that contentious issues can help sustain movement/countermovement conflict: “The likelihood that opposition to a movement will take the form of a sustained countermovement is directly related to the opposition’s ability to portray the conflict as one that entails larger value cleavages in society.” The countermovement of Internet critics argue that certain highly valued rights are at stake.

Internet users widely view Scientology’s actions as attacks on freedom of speech and freedom of expression (EFF, 1996a; Grossman, 1995; Newman, 1996). Conversely, Scientology portrays the conflict as a threat to freedom of religion (Freedom, 1996; Goodman, 1996a, 1996b; Grossman, 1995), although Scientology also has drawn upon the freedom of speech argument to a lesser extent (see Freedom, 1996). The invocation of rights and freedom rhetoric is a method for both sides of the conflict to gain alliance from other social movement organizations. By invoking these types of arguments, movements can call upon other groups for assistance. As I will show, both the Internet critics and Scientology have courted the assistance of other groups through the use of the freedom argument.

While I remain neutral regarding the veracity of the freedom arguments, I feel obliged to point out that critics have accused Scientology of cynically invoking the freedom of religion argument as a shield from criticism (Newman, 1996; Bingham, 1996). Scientology has a history of claiming religious persecution (see Atack, 1990; Lamont, 1986), and on various occasions the organization has set up committees and task forces to combat “religious discrimination.” Some commentators argue that Hubbard created the religion of Scientology purely to benefit from the constitutional protection religious groups receive in the United States (Miller, 1987: 220). Regardless of whether such appeals to religious freedom are cynical, Scientology’s invocation of the argument in the Internet conflict should not be surprising, given the organization’s history of such invocations in other contexts.

The anti-Scientology community on the Internet has garnered a great deal of support from third parties. Freedom of speech is a highly contentious issue on the Internet (Shade, 1996) and the perception of a threat to that freedom has brought both individuals and groups to the support of Internet critics (EFF, 1996a; Grossman, 1995). While Scientology maintains that its actions are a response to “copyright terrorism” on the Internet (Freedom, 1996), a large group of Internet users view the conflict as a series of rights violations, both attempted and committed. As a result, a number of people who previously had no stake in the countermovement of anti-Scientology critics feel that Scientology threatens all the Internet, and numerous Internet-supporters joined the a.r.s. critics in protesting violations of freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

Some Internet critics, previously disinterested in the issues debated on a.r.s., are now prominent posters. This kind of activity also entails a certain risk, since Scientology has sued and threatened suit against numerous Internet critics (Grossman, 1995; Newman, 1996). Some of the most frequent posters to a.r.s. are not former members of Scientology, but rather they are individuals who see Scientology as a threat to the freedom of Internet users. By joining the countermovement, these formerly disinterested parties are now showing the solidarity of Internet-supporters. In this way, the contextualization of the dispute as a fight to maintain freedom has won over individual members of the bystander public, as well as gained allies from other Internet-supporting social movement organizations.

Additionally, the anti-Scientology users have the support of several other social movement organizations, all working on the defence of rights and freedoms on the Internet. For example, the Electronic Frontiers Foundation (EFF), which is a lobby group dedicated to opposing restrictions to Internet use, continues to work against Scientology on the Internet (EFF, 1996a). Among other actions, the EFF procured pro bono legal defence for Dennis Erlich, and spearheads the campaign to raise funds for his expenses in the case. EFF also has published scathing attacks on Scientology’s actions, and the group maintains a database of court documents from the various legal challenges to anti-Scientology critics. Also, Wired magazine, a strong advocate of Internet freedoms and one of the premier Internet-related publications, continues to speak out in support of Internet critics. Like many of the individuals involved in a.r.s., these organizations are not anti- Scientology social movements, but rather they are pro-Internet social movement organizations that have mobilized in response to the apparent threat to freedom of speech on the Internet.

Scientology’s portrayal of the conflict is that Internet critics — through the dissemination of sacred doctrine and the spreading of negative information — are attempting to impede the freedom of the organization and Scientologists to practice their religion (Goodman, 1996a; Freedom, 1996). Scientology charges that the anti-Scientology Internet users are not simply criticizing the organization, but are assaulting religion as a whole. Scientologists routinely call critics anti-religious bigots, atheists, and religious persecutors:

[Alt.religion.scientology] is really a forum for a handful of individuals to engage in bigoted attacks upon the Church of Scientology and its parishioners . . . Ninety-nine point nine percent of them [posts to the group] are no more criticism than it is criticism to abuse a black by calling him ‘nigger’ or a Jew by labeling him a ‘kike’ (Goodman, 1996a: 18).

Critics, the Scientologists say, also distort and demonize the movement’s message, providing an unfavorable view of Scientology to outsiders. Scientology charges that Internet critics spread harsh criticism and misinformation in an attempt to bring down the organization and ridicule its members.

By invoking the religious freedom argument, Scientology appeals to a number of other groups that are concerned with the persecution of religion. Many political and social groups lobby against certain Internet activities. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, for example, opposes anti-Semitic hate speech and holocaust denials on the Internet.20 The controversy over hate speech has pitted the Simon Wiesenthal center against the EFF on certain free speech issues, and Scientology’s declaration that anti-Scientology posts on a.r.s. are “hate speech” is clearly an overture to anti-hate speech groups.21 Thus, Scientology has mobilized the rhetoric of the religious social movement in an attempt to gain their support in the a.r.s. conflict.

Scientology’s tactic of declaring criticism “religious persecution” is not new, nor is it peculiar to the Internet conflict. In the past, Scientology’s invocation of the freedom of religion argument has brought reluctant allies into Scientology’s camp. For example, during a series of lawsuits against the organization dating back to 1977 (Lamont, 1989: 144), Scientology gained the support of a number of conservative Christian groups who felt that suing a religious organization was tantamount to religious persecution. These Christian groups, which normally oppose Scientology as a “cult,” nonetheless saw that a legal victory for Scientology’s opponents would set a dangerous precedent for litigation against religious groups. The case, which the judge eventually dismissed as a mistrial, is a good example of how Scientology obtained help from other social movements with dissimilar doctrine but a similar stake in the outcome of the case.
The debate between Scientology and Internet critics features a great deal of “rights and freedoms” rhetoric. As I have shown, the “freedom” arguments have implications for the mobilization of resources. Chiefly, the arguments have allowed both social movements to court allies from the social movement industry. Without questioning the sincerity of the freedom arguments, the resource mobilization perspective allows us to see the economic and physical consequences of invoking ideological rhetoric.

Virtual Resources: Scientology’s Attempts to Deprive the Internet Critics of Resources

Internet critics pose a threat to Scientology resources, both in terms of economics and adherents. In response, Scientology moved to reduce or eliminate this challenge to its resources, primarily by attempting to inflict damage upon valued Internet resources. By depriving Internet users of certain resources, Scientology hopes to end those Internet activities that threaten Scientology resources. Thus, the conflict is one of attrition rather than direct competition for resources that either side could mobilize.

Scientology’s actions deprived critics of both physical resources (i.e., through seizure of computer materials, discussed below), and “virtual” resources. The Internet is primarily a world of “virtual” resources, some of which are the main points of contention between Internet critics and Scientology. Bandwidth and anonymity are two key resources that Scientology sought to deprive from its critics.


Bandwidth, as defined by the total informational space available on Usenet, is the primary virtual resource under contention in the conflict between Internet critics and Scientology. The Usenet Newsgroups a.r.s. and are the main theaters of war in the conflict, and both parties have sought to control bandwidth by posting a majority of posts. Newsgroups consist of messages that users post to a virtual bulletin board, and the messages are then available to anyone with access to the newsgroup. Users can respond to posted messages in the group, and dialogues on certain topics form in discussions called “threads” (McLaughlin et al, 1995: 92).

Scientology has tried to gain control of a.r.s. bandwidth in a number of ways. Since a.r.s. is the primary source of the Internet critics’ threat to Scientology resources (the World Wide Web is the second greatest source), it is not surprising that bandwidth on the newsgroup is a valued resource. If the critics control most of the informational space (or, more appropriately, are allowed to use it without constraints), then Scientology potentially loses resources as outlined above. Conversely, Scientology can protect its resources by gaining control of or placing restrictions on a.r.s. bandwidth. Scientology has attempted to control this valuable resource in a number of ways.

When Scientology first became aware of the threat a.r.s. posed to its resources, one of the organization’s first responses was reportedly to try to drown out critics’ voices by flooding the newsgroup with pro-Scientology postings (Holmes, 1995). If Usenet is analogous to a bulletin board, then Scientology essentially tried to take up as much space on the board as possible, making the critics’ posts seem like a small minority. A message that a Scientology official allegedly sent to members details a plan to run the critics off Usenet by flooding the discussions with positive stories about Scientology (see Holmes, 1995; Newman, 1996; Spaink, 1995). For a period in 1995, critics allege, Scientology representatives “attempted to snow the a.r.s. newsgroup under with positive posts” (Bingham, 1996). Whether or not the document was genuine, Scientologists seemed to have adopted the strategy it outlined. Scientology’s “flooding” of a.r.s. continued until late 1995.

The probable purpose of Scientology’s voluminous posting was to gain control of a.r.s. bandwidth. If successful, then controlling bandwidth in this way would have led to a reduction to the threat to Scientology resources. Domination of bandwidth can have this effect in several ways. First, as indicated in the alleged letter to Scientologists on the Internet, voluminous posting could overwhelm the critics by outnumbering their posts. If the critics could not keep up with and respond to the large number of pro-Scientology posts, then the task of criticizing may be too time consuming and discouraging for continued opposition. Additionally, the comparatively small number of critical posts could be lost in the sea of information. Outsiders would have difficulty locating critical posts, and the uninitiated would view the critics as a small minority (if, indeed, an outsider could even find critical posts).

Another way of conceptualizing attempts to control bandwidth is to utilize the signal to noise metaphor. The informational value of a newsgroup is closely linked to the amount of useful information that users can glean from a newsgroup as compared with the number of posts one has to scan. Reading newsgroups involves a time investment, and if non-useful posts (noise) outnumber the signal, users may see the newsgroup as a poor time investment. In the conflict between Internet critics and Scientology, critics potentially could have found the signal to noise ratio too low for reading the group to be worthwhile. Scientology’s strategy, then, was to lower the signal to noise ratio so that the large time investment would discourage critics from participating. Thus, even if control of bandwidth did not help Scientology gain resources (e.g., recruits), the actions would have soured a.r.s. for critics.

Voluminous posting and a low signal to noise ratio also have implications for physical resources such as data storage space and ISP charges. Different news software accesses Usenet posts in different ways, but every post takes up storage space and requires data transfers. For example, many ISPs copy Usenet messages from all over the world so that users of the service can access the messages locally and with a minimum of delay. Many news programs must download a list of authors and subjects from the Internet Service Provider before a user can browse the list. Thus, the number of messages in a newsgroup determines the amount of storage space it takes up and the time it takes to download. Some ISPs do not carry newsgroups that have a high volume of posts.22 The volume and signal to noise ratio of a.r.s. therefore affect the number of users who can access it. If a.r.s. is too large, then some ISPs may not support it, and if the signal to noise ratio is too low, then individuals may find that the information the newsgroup contains is not worth the time it takes to download.

Critics allege that, along with filling the newsgroups with stories of “wins,” Scientology attempted to lower the signal to noise ratio in other ways (Newman, 1996). Occasionally posts appear on a.r.s. that purport to be from prominent critics, but are actually forgeries (Newman, 1996). Critics argue that Scientology representatives forged posts to discredit prominent critics while at the same time filling the newsgroup with noise. Off-topic posts frequently appear on a.r.s., and Scientology supporters regularly posted messages about such topics as the Cult Awareness Network23 (CAN) and the alleged evils of psychiatry, Scientology’s self-identified enemy (Newman, 1996). These posts lower the signal to noise ratio and potentially hamper the efficacy of the newsgroup as a critics’ forum.

Contention for bandwidth is competition for a virtual resource — a competition that has implications for physical resources. Scientology’s attempts to control a.r.s. bandwidth are primarily attempts to deprive critics of resources. Furthermore, Scientology could gain recruits from the bystander public if a.r.s. contained mostly positive messages. To date, Scientology has not successfully dominated a.r.s. bandwidth, so most of the movement’s actions are attempts to deny critics of resources rather than converting those resources to Scientology’s use.

As well as flooding the a.r.s. with positive posts, Scientology also engaged in attempts to block critics’ posts (Newman, 1996; Grossman, 1995). When a user posts a message to Usenet, it is possible for that user to cancel the post. If one can duplicate the identification of another user, it is also possible to cancel the other user’s post. Scientology representatives used this type of forged cancel to block some critical posts to a.r.s. The “Cancelbunnies” and “Cancelpoodles” deleted critics’ posts from a.r.s., purportedly to curtail the dissemination of copyrighted materials. Many Internet users felt that the cancellation attempts were the most serious infringement on freedom of speech on the Internet (Bingham, 1996; Holmes, 1995). Allegedly, Scientology not only attempted to overwhelm critics by voluminous posts, but also it reduced the number of critical posts by forged cancellations. Thus, individuals found themselves unable to participate fully in a.r.s. because their messages were disappearing.

The forged cancels damaged the ability of individuals to post critical information. Scientology also attempted to deprive certain critics of bandwidth through less selective means, and some a.r.s. posters lost access to the Internet entirely (Grossman, 1995). Scientology representatives persuaded some ISPs to close down critics’ accounts, effectively silencing those individuals until they could have their accounts reinstated or find another ISP (Grossman, 1995; Newman, 1996). Whereas the forged cancel attempts target specific posts, terminating a user’s account means that all of that user’s potential messages are gone — a total silencing. Additionally, loss of ISP access deprives the critic of all Internet resources and not just the contended resource of bandwidth.

Another example of Scientology’s desire to control bandwidth is the attempted removal of a.r.s. from Usenet. Since a.r.s. began as and continues to be a critics’ forum (Goodman, 1996a), Scientology may prefer to destroy the newsgroup rather than attempting to control it. As a resource, bandwidth is more valuable to Internet critics than it is to Scientology. Therefore, if Scientology cannot control it through voluminous posting and silencing individual critics, then the organization could protect its resources by depriving Internet critics of the forum.

Scientology made two attempts to eliminate a.r.s. First, a Scientology representative sent a letter to Internet Service Providers asking them to remove the group on the grounds that it was a breeding ground for copyright violations. Second, Scientology sent a “rmgroup” [remove group] message to Usenet control requesting the deletion of a.r.s. entirely (Holmes, 1995; Newman, 1996). If the Internet Service Providers had complied, then many users would have lost access to a.r.s. Moreover, if the rmgroup request had been successful, then the newsgroup would have ceased to exist, thus denying critics of their forum.


Many of the copyrighted materials first appeared on a.r.s. through anonymous sources, and some of Scientology’s harshest critics use anonymous re-mailers as a way to spread unfavorable information about Scientology without fear of reprisal. Arguably, Scientology would benefit if anonymity ceased to exist on the Internet, and the evidence shows that Scientology has tried to deprive Internet critics of this valuable resource (Sobel, 1995: 8). Scientology, however, claims that anonymity is threatening to destroy the freedom of the Internet, and the organization argues that the abuse of copyright overshadows the positive uses of anonymity.

The availability of anonymous services is potentially damaging to Scientology in a number of ways. First and most obviously, anonymity allows individuals to post copyrighted materials without fear of legal reprisal from Scientology. Scientology lawsuits and the mere threat of litigation against Internet users has the potential to silence critics both by depriving them of their Internet access and by deterrence. Some Internet users allege that they have received threatening messages even though they have not posted copyrighted materials (Newman, 1996). Given Scientology’s history of using litigation to silence opponents (Atack, 1990; Miller, 1987; Wallis, 1976), fear of legal action among Internet critics is warranted. Clearly, then, litigation against critics is a potential deterrent for all Internet users, effectively making the consequences of criticizing too damaging for it to be worth the risk.

As a resource, anonymity is greatly valuable to the wider Internet community. Internet supporters argue that if Scientology manages to limit or destroy anonymity, then the exchange of free information on the Internet will cease. Although most Internet boosters do not support copyright infringement, they nonetheless contend that the benefits of anonymous services far outweigh the undesirable consequences of a few deviants (Sobel, 1995: 8). Despite Scientology’s public statements that the organization is interested only in curtailing illegal uses of anonymous servers (see Lewis, 1996), many Internet critics see any attempt at restriction as a threat to anonymity’s survival. Consequently, for Internet supporters, anonymity must weather what they see as Scientology’s attacks. Given Internet users’ response to the attack on anonymity, access to anonymous services is clearly an important resource — a resource whose existence just happens to facilitate deprivation of Scientology resources.

Some evidence suggests that Scientology’s attempts to disrupt anonymous services are in reality attempts to quell all types of criticism and not just copyright infringement (Newman, 1996). Scientology has a long history of intimidating and harassing critics, and anonymity makes it difficult to target opponents on the Internet:

An aspect of particular fear to them seems to be the anonymous re-mailers and I think you can see why. Kinda [sic] hard to frame a person that [sic] could be anyone anywhere on the entire planet. It’s not easy to quote from an ex-member’s ‘confidential’ files without knowing which file to pull.24 Think of the frustration of having somebody still in Scientology that [sic] can bring up serious allegations without [Scientology] being able to even declare them [sic] a ‘Suppressive Person’ (Bingham, 1996).

As long as critics’ names appear on their posts, they are vulnerable to traditional Scientology harassment techniques. Anonymity, however, effectively hampers Scientology’s ability to gather information on critics, thus making them harder to silence.

Scientology’s approach to anonymity is a form of resource deprivation. In order to curtail attacks on Scientology resources (as described above), Scientology has tried to deprive Internet users of a valuable resource. Additionally, anonymity is also a resource that critics can mobilize against Scientology resources. Deprivation, therefore, both harms Internet users (a form of retaliation by Scientology) and weakens the Internet critics’ ability to threaten Scientology resources.

Seizure of Materials

The final type of resource restriction/deprivation that I will discuss here is perhaps the most extreme: the seizure of materials from and lawsuits against Internet critics. Although these actions affect individuals rather than the critical community as a whole, the raids on Dennis Erlich, Arnaldo Lerma, and FACTnet are the most controversial events in the conflict between Scientology and Internet critics. Leaving aside the legal and constitutional aspects of the raids, the seizure of materials and subsequent litigation have a number of implications for the mobilization of resources.25

First, Scientology’s seizure of materials deprived the individuals involved of certain resources essential to their criticism. In both the Erlich and Lerma cases, Scientology seized computers and storage media, costing the critics access to the Internet (Grossman, 1995; Newman, 1996). Also, Erlich and Lerma lost many of their computer files including all those related to the conflict, thus seriously hampering their ability to criticize Scientology.26 The raids and the lawsuits that followed also subjected Erlich and Lerma to monetary difficulties, as well as the time and effort involved in mounting a legal defence. In the opinion of Scientology officials, the raids merely halted illegal activity that was damaging to the organization (Freedom, 1996; Goodman, 1996a). To Internet users, however, the raids were an attempt to coerce Internet critics into silence — Erlich and Lerma directly, and other critics through the deterrent effect (Newman, 1996). While Scientology cannot sue every single critic, a few high-profile cases potentially could dissuade others from criticism (Bingham, 1996).

In addition to the individual deprivation of resources, the raids and subsequent litigation put pressure on Internet Service Providers to censure the activities of their clients. Tom Klemsrud and Netcom faced lawsuits that would essentially hold them responsible for their clients’ actions (Grossman, 1995). Thus, if ISPs were held responsible, then they would be in the position of policing the Internet and would have to cut off service to those who offend Scientology (Langan, 1995). In order to avoid lawsuits, ISPs would have to be very cautious about allowing access to a.r.s., and any complaint by Scientology would require attention lest the ISP be subject to legal action.

Internet Service Providers also were implicated in Scientology’s attempts to remove certain material from the World Wide Web (Langan 1995; Times, 1995). Similar to the Klemsrud case, Scientology sued ISPs for allowing users to post the Fishman affidavits to the World Wide Web. Scientology attempted to remove those particular critics and establish a precedent that would make other ISPs less liberal with their clients. If successful, then such lawsuits would make it considerably harder for critics to post freely (Grossman, 1995). Since access to Internet services is a fundamental resource that allows the countermovement to exist, these lawsuits are potentially devastating to Internet critics, and the outcry of Internet users is understandable.

As I have shown, Scientology’s actions are attempts to curtail the threat to its resources by attacking Internet resources. Scientology has tried to dominate bandwidth, deprive Internet critics of access to services, and eliminate anonymity on the Internet. Also, Scientology lawsuits both deprive critics of resources and deter other people from becoming critics. Thus, I contend that Scientology’s actions are attacks on the countermovement’s assets, in an attempt to reduce the Internet’s capacity to deprive Scientology of its resources.


Some theorists concerned with the Internet assert that the new medium necessitates an almost total overthrow of existing social theory. For example, Nguyen and Alexander (1996: 99), writing about political analysis in cyberspace, state:

The field of study has no recognizable boundaries or parameters within which social scientists could use traditional approaches to formulate criteria for analysis. A manic frenzy characterizes changes in the electronic world, and thus analysis often reduces to piecemeal descriptions of segregated facets of the whole. This phenomenon’s components operate in ways that render obsolescent [sic] all previously analysable and easily understandable relationships.

Such statements imply that one cannot understand the Internet in any pre-existing terms, and that using traditional social thought to theorize the Internet is a fool’s errand. The rules have changed too much, the traditional boundaries no longer exist, and a wholly new approach is necessary.

The argument in the present study was an attempt to adjust a pre-existing social theory to a conflict that took place mostly in a virtual space. It shows that, in this case, a particular Internet debate is understandable in terms of traditional theory. The new medium, however, did require some modification to resource mobilization theory.

One such modification involved displacing the role of the state in movement/countermovement interaction. Although Meyer and Staggenborg (1996) call for studies that place less emphasis on movement/state contact, the Internet setting of the Scientology dispute renders the issue irrelevant. Since there is no real state authority on-line, movements must make appeal to the mass of Internet users and direct much of their action toward countering the opposing movement. The lack of a state authority and the radical democracy in this venue raises some complicated questions for further examination of social movements on-line: how does one measure the success of a movement when there is no record of legislative victories and losses to examine? How can one assess the goals of a movement when the movement has no clear leadership itself?27

Furthermore, the same technology that encourages democracy on-line also makes it next to impossible for a movement such as the anti-pornography lobby to effectively fulfill any part of its agenda. While the group may force the implementation of anti-pornography legislation in one nation, such restrictions hardly effect the worldwide distribution of pornography. If, as Meyer and Staggenborg (1996: 1647) argue, both sides of a movement/countermovement dispute require victories for continued existence, then how can an on-line movement sustain itself when the medium essentially precludes victories for certain agendas? One possible consequence of the difficulty of achieving certain goals on-line is that some movements that are successful in other arenas will fail in the electronic forum, while native Internet movements may have similar difficulty crossing over into wider society. With additional research it eventually may be possible to predict which movements are best suited for particular venues.

The second modification of resource mobilization that I introduced here is the concept of virtual resources. What is most important here, I argue, is that resource mobilization must take into account the context of movement/countermovement interaction in order to maintain effectiveness as an analytical tool. In other words, the worth of various resources may be relative: on-line, “bandwidth” is crucial, but in most other discussions it is meaningless. In the abortion conflict, for example, access to clinics and even space around buildings is a contended resource but one that has little meaning in other movement/countermovement disputes. The Internet conflict would seem to indicate that future work that examines movement/countermovement interaction must recognize the context-specificity of resource values, especially when wider economic issues have less importance in a particular arena.

Without a doubt, the Internet is a rich source of topics for study in movement/countermovement interaction. In addition to native on-line movements (e.g., the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, Internet critics of Scientology), many pre-existing movements have taken their struggles to the Internet. The study of social movements, therefore, should be a fruitful part of our attempt to understand and theorize the Internet.


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1 I would like to thank Stephen A. Kent for his suggestions and assistance with the preparation of the manuscript. I also wish to thank Susan A. McDaniel, Nico Stehr, and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. Thanks also to Joane Martel for the abstract translation and Jeff Bowlby for stylistic suggestions.
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2 Other theories concerning social movements provide a different perspective on movement/countermovement interaction. New Social Movement theory focuses on the role of such interaction in the creation of a movement’s collective identity, since groups define themselves in part based on their perceived opposition to others (see Touraine, 1981, 1985). Eyerman and Jamison’s (1991) cognitive praxis model concentrates on the ways that movement opposition contributes to shifts in consciousness among movement actors and the role these shifts play in knowledge production. Although the present discussion is limited to a resource mobilization perspective, these alternative approaches to movement/countermovement interaction may provide fruitful ground for further investigation of social movements on the Internet.
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3 The dictionary definition of “bandwidth” is the range of frequencies carried in a radio transmission. The colloquial use of the term on the Internet is less precise. <- Back to text

4 Camera-assisted video-conferencing is one exception to this statement, but the vast majority of Internet communication remains textual and graphical. <- Back to text

5 I refer to the social movement simply as “Scientology,” rather than “The Church of Scientology” because it is not recognized as a church in several nations (e.g., Greece and Germany). Also, Scientology has many subsidiary organizations that are not religious, such as Applied Scholastics and the drug abuse recovery program, Narconon (Atack, 1990). References to actions by specific organs of Scientology, such as the Church of Scientology International, will be stated accordingly. <- Back to text

6 Since many of the references in this paper refer to sites on the World Wide Web, I cannot provide page numbers. The dates cited refer to the latest update or the date of copyright. <- Back to text

7 Arguably one could refer to Scientology as a social movement organization (under the wider category of religious movements) rather than a social movement. I contend, however, that in this case Scientology’s agenda is unique and the Church is not mobilizing resources to enact social changes compatible with the desires of other groups. Scientology’s mission is that of “clearing of the planet” (i.e., bringing all persons to the spiritual level of “clear”) (Church of Scientology International, 1994: 3) and it maintains that it is the only path for creating a perfect society. Thus, Scientology’s program, while shared by members of the group, does not further the ends of a wider movement.
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8 Although it is impossible to measure directly the size of the opposition to Scientology, the Yahoo! ( directory lists forty-eight web sites as “Scientology – Opposing views.” An Excite ( search on the word “$cientology” (the pejorative spelling preferred by some critics) yielded 552 web pages. Ascertaining the level of support for Scientology is even more difficult, since many pro-organization sites are Scientology’s own (see Hausherr (1997) for a list of web sites in support of Scientology).
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9 “Squirrel” is a derogatory term for people who use Hubbard’s techniques but do not belong to Scientology (Hubbard, 1975: 399).
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10 The full text of this alleged briefing appears in Holmes (1995). <- Back to text

11 “Poodle” is a derogatory reference to Scientology’s current leader, David Miscavige (Holmes, 1995). <- Back to text

12 Documents from the Los Angeles court case Church of Scientology International v. Fishman and Geertz purportedly contain information that the Church claims is copyrighted (Grossman, 1995: 252; Newman, 1996). <- Back to text

13 FACTnet is an acronym for Fight Against Coercive Tactics Network (see the FACTnet website:
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14 The bystander public refers to the pool of individuals in society who are not affiliated with a particular social movement and who control limited resources (McCarthy and Zald, 1977: 1221). Social movements can gain adherents by appealing to members of the bystander public. <- Back to text

15 L. Ron Hubbard introduced Dianetics, a self-help “technology,” in 1950. Through a therapeutic process called “auditing,” individuals purportedly could rid themselves of mental and physical problems using Dianetics (see Hubbard, 1992[1950]). In 1953, Hubbard instituted the religion of Scientology, possibly for financial reasons (tax benefits) and constitutional protection (Miller, 1987: 220) and to avoid charges of practicing medicine without licenses (Kent, 1996: 30). Dianetics is still an important part of Scientology. <- Back to text

16 Many other Scientology publications have similar blocks of advertisement, including admonitions such as “Buy The Dynamics of Life today!” (Hubbard, 1983a[1950]: 155). For more examples, see Hubbard (1983a[1950]: 141–156) and Hubbard (1983b[1956]: 155–172).<- Back to text

17 Freedom is a magazine published by the Church of Scientology International. The special Internet issue appears in expurgated form on the organization’s World Wide Web site (Freedom, 1996). <-Back to text

18 “Clear” means freeing the individual of all engrams (memories or psychological recordings of traumatic events), a process that takes substantial amounts of Dianetics therapy (Hubbard, 1992[1950]). <-Back to text

19 OT refers to “Operating Thetan,” a reputed “state of complete spiritual freedom” (Church of Scientology International, 1993[1978]: 150). The OT levels “contain the very advanced materials of L. Ron Hubbard’s researches” (Church of Scientology International, 1993[1978]: 151), and are available only to participants who have completed Dianetics training to the point of “Clear.” <- Back to text

20 See the Simon Wiesenthal web site: <- Back to text

21 The Internet edition of Freedom uses the Simon Wiesenthal Center as an example in several places, but I can find no evidence that the Center endorses Scientology’s position. <- Back to text

22 This concern about high volume especially occurs over newsgroups that carry encoded binary files, where each post can take up a thousand lines or more. Many Internet Service Providers do not support newsgroups in the “alt” hierarchy because of the number of groups devoted to binary posts. <- Back to text

23 The Cult Awareness Network was a counter-cult organization that stored and disseminated information about various high-demand religious sects. In December, 1996, CAN was forced into bankruptcy due to lawsuits that Scientology brought against it. CAN’s name, logo, and post office box were subsequently purchased by a Scientologist (Kent, Forthcoming). <- Back to text

24 Numerous ex-members claim that Scientology uses auditing notes and other confidential information for blackmail (Atack, 1990: 147; Ebner, 1996: 34). <- Back to text

25 For extensive documentation of the legal aspects of the conflict, see Post (1996) and the EFF (1996a) archive. <- Back to text

26 Additionally, the raids resulted in the seizure of personal files unrelated to the conflict and various pieces of computer equipment including modems and scanners (Grossman, 1995: 174). <- Back to text

27 Also, it may be difficult to differentiate between a real movement or a parody movement. The Internet has spawned a large number of humorous “religious” groups, some of which are difficult to identify as parodies (Peckham, 1997). <- Back to text