Listen to the very first New Humanist podcast, recorded when Paul Sims and stand-up comedian Christina Martin visited the Anonymous protest in London

If you live anywhere near a Scientology centre, and that is possible given that there are more than 3,000 worldwide, there’s a chance you may have come across members of the protest group Anonymous. Every month since February they’ve been out in force complete with Guy Fawkes masks from the comic-book film V for Vendetta and sound systems blasting out the hits of previously forgotten ‘80s crooner Rick Astley. Not your conventional protesters, then.

Anonymous protesters gather across from the Church of Scientology, Blackfriars, LondonAnonymous originated on the internet, taking their name from the default identity websites assign to commenters who decline to reveal their names. Having previously been involved in trolling – internet pranking – they turned their attention to Scientology following the appearance of the now infamous Tom Cruise video on YouTube shortly after the New Year. With the clip spreading rapidly across the internet and millions of viewers enjoying Cruise’s claims that Scientologists are “the authorities of the mind” and the only ones “who can really help” at the scene of a car crash, the Church intervened and forced YouTube to remove it, citing copyright laws. Fiercely protective of internet freedom, the individuals set to become Anonymous launched web-based attacks on Scientology, even bringing down the Church’s official website for a short time, and issued a sinister call-to-arms on YouTube, where a computerised voice warned Scientology that “Anonymous has … decided that your organisation should be destroyed” before declaring “We are Anonymous. We are legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.”

Can a masked protest movement that started out playing internet pranks really be taken seriously? I went down to one of their central London protests in July and, arriving in the early stages, found a group of around 30 people in various forms of fancy dress, among whom the average age must have been around 17. One of the first protesters I approached, a young man dressed in a pantomime bear outfit, had a straightforward answer for why he was there. “It’s just a really good way to spend a weekend. To be honest with you, it’s just a really good laugh.”

On the principle that you should never take the man in the bear suit’s word for it, I went off in search of the views of more protesters. By this point the protest area had become a lot livelier, with perhaps as many as 100 masked demonstrators dishing out cake and dancing along to the sound systems they’d brought along for the occasion. The theme tune for Anonymous is Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up”, a shocking piece of ’80s pop that was catapulted to number one in the download charts earlier this year as a result of “Rickrolling”, one of Anonymous’s many online pranks, perhaps best explained by one of their own: “A lot of people involved in this are trolls. On message boards, people started putting up a link to a picture that would distract from the original thread, initially a picture of a duck on wheels. That was a ‘duckroll’, and now you’ve got a ‘Rickroll’.”

Anonymous make their way into St Paul's tube stationTrue to their online origins, this same protester explained how it was Scientology’s censorship of the web that had led him to get involved. “What really got me was when the cult of Scientology tried to censor what people were putting on YouTube,” he said. “Freedom of speech is the thing that makes the internet what it is, so that pissed me off enough to do a bit of research and realise that I can help destroy an evil cult and have some fun at the same time.”

But was this enough to demonstrate that Anonymous are for real? In among all the masks, the music and the bizarre chants (“Chicken-cult, chicken-cult” being one involving a Scientology centre and a branch of KFC), you might be forgiven for seeing a large group of bored teenagers and students looking for kicks, or as they call them “lulz” (which derives from “LOL”, web-speak for “laugh out loud”). One protester did argue that the bizarre nature of the protest was supposed to reflect the “inherent weirdness” of Scientology, but was I not just encountering a severe case of idiocy disguised as irony?

One prominent critic of Scientology, the American filmmaker Mark Bunker, was initially taken aback by the jokes and online pranks and issued a message of his own to Anonymous, urging them to adopt legal, peaceful methods such as picketing. “I was opposed to their initial plans of taking down websites,” Bunker told me when we met during the London protest. “I’m for free speech. Scientology tries to shut its critics up and that’s not right, so when Anonymous tried to silence Scientology, I didn’t think that was right. So I decided to make a video to them, suggesting they take a different approach, and oddly enough they listened to me.”

In amongst the trolls and the bears were people with much more serious tales to tell. Former Scientologist turned critic Tory Christman, whom UK Anonymous had flown over from the US specially for the occasion, had joined Mark Bunker earlier in the year in appealing to the group to keep things legal, but is now full of praise for the campaign. She explained how Anonymous had boosted the profile of protest against Scientology. What had been a handful of isolated individuals now looks more like a movement. “We were out in the desert, trying to fight them one on one, but then all of a sudden this army came in with better tools and thousands of people.” But aren’t they just bored teenagers? Maybe, says Christman, “but if you’re a bored teenager you can create a lot of shit, and these guys have passion. They’re YouTube generation, and they’re not going to let Scientology screw with that. What they’ve done is truly incredible, and I believe they’re creating history.”

A regular protester and Polly the Suppressive Parrot give their viewsSharone Stainforth, who grew up on the Scientology ship Apollo in the 1960s before breaking away, agrees, saying that Anonymous are “the most wonderful bunch of people” she’s ever met. “When I saw the videos of the first protests, I sobbed my heart out, because I couldn’t believe how amazing the response was,” she said. “I’d always been too afraid to say anything to anyone about my involvement in Scientology, so when I saw what Anonymous were doing I just cried and cried.” And she’s not put off by the flippancy of their strategy, explaining that a light-hearted tone is essential given their target. Admitting that the online jokes made her “a bit dubious about coming to the first one”, she points out that “Scientology is such a serious thing that it can drive you around the bend, so the fact that these guys are having some fun is great. For people who have never had anything to do with Scientology to come forward as a big collective, worldwide, and do this for those of us who have is a remarkable thing.”

This concern for the ordinary members of Scientology was shared by many of the protesters, who were keen to stress that the demonstrations are intended as an attack on the organisation itself, rather than on individual adherents. “The reason we protest across from the Church,” explained one protester, “is so the members can see that there are people trying to help them. If they want to leave, we can help them leave.” Considering Scientology’s low profile in the UK, I ask him if they really matter. Should Anonymous not be protesting something else? “Someone’s got to do it,” he says, before his friend points out that in the US Scientology “crept their way up” before anyone even noticed. “In this country we have more of an opportunity to nip it in the bud. Even if there are only 1,800 of them in the UK, that’s still 1,800 people who aren’t necessarily in a cult they want to be in.”

By early afternoon, perhaps as many as 200 protesters have gathered, chanting “cult” in the direction of the burly security guards protecting the doorway of the Scientology centre, as passing traffic honks in support. Use of the word “cult” has become something of a badge of honour for Anonymous, after one of their number was threatened with prosecution for inciting religious hatred for using it earlier in the year. The Crown Prosecution Service dropped the case and ruled that there was no problem, and now the word adorns almost every placard and features in nearly every chant in the Anonymous repertoire.

Those who have criticised Scientology in the past have been fiercely pursued by the Church and its lawyers but, after more than six months of protests, the masked ranks of Anonymous show little sign of being deterred. The big question is whether the teenagers and students who make up the bulk of Anonymous will maintain their interest long enough to keep up the fight. Mark Bunker says they’ve already achieved a great deal – since February the actor Jason Beghe and Jenna Miscavige-Hill, niece of Scientology head David Miscavige, have both spoken out about their times within the organisation – and believes they can go on to achieve more: “They’re all doing this for the right reasons now. Initially I thought it would last a month or two before they lost interest, but it’s going from strength to strength and they keep coming up with terrific ways to inform the public. And Scientology are not going to be able to succeed in quashing this, because there’s not one person they can go after.”