Trying to learn more about Going Clear, the new HBO documentary premiering March 29 about the Church of Scientology? Maybe you’ve heard about the film and want to Google it out of curiosity. That approach, the one taken by just about everyone with an Internet connection, reveals Scientology’s own attempts to discredit Going Clear: A media counteroffensive that appears to rely on Google ads to give the church’s attacks on the film top billing on nearly every search term associated with the documentary.
The reasons the church would want to counter the film’s charges are, well, clear. The documentary, like the book it’s based on, contains a number of damning accusations that portray the church as a “brutal, heavily retaliatory organization,” according to NY Mag’s review.
The documentary—full title: Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief—accuses the church of, among other things, running a secret internment facility called “the hole,” and reeducation programs for members who run afoul of its powerful leaders.
Publicly the church has denied these charges. “This is another tired, false and offensive allegation. The only ‘hole’ at the Church property being referred to is on the golf course,” the church wrote to Business Insider, denying claims from former Scientologists.
A five-page letter from the church published by The Hollywood Reporter calls the film “biased propaganda” that “…on average includes at least one major error every two minutes.”
Scientology’s methods for dealing with its critics are notorious. Ex-members judged apostates, or “suppressive persons” in Scientology parlance; journalists whose coverage runs afoul of the church; and even the government have all come under concerted attack from the famously litigious organization. One section of the film covers the church’s response when the IRS seemed poised to rule against granting Scientology tax-exempt religious status. Church members filed more than 2,000 lawsuits suing the government body and individual IRS agents. It worked. In 1993, the church was officially deemed a religious organization and still enjoys First Amendment protections and tax exemptions.
So it’s no surprise that Scientology has put its weight behind attacking a documentary that “captures an ongoing cycle of seduction and bullying, fearmongering and profiteering, that appears to have turned Scientology into a hamster-wheel of greed,” in the words of the BBC’s reviewer.
But blasting the film in the mainstream press isn’t enough to get the message out. As everyone, including the church, knows, the media landscape has changed.
“Everyone in the church talks about how the Internet has changed everything,” said Alex Gibney, the director of Going Clear. “Back in the day, you could bury a story. There were some devastating stories that have come out over time, but you’d have to go to the stacks of the library to research it. Now it’s two clicks.”
That’s where buying Google results and Twitter campaigns come in.
The top Google search result for “Going Clear” is an advertisement for “Going Clear Documentary – FreedomMag.org,” with “ad” appearing beneath that title in the yellow letters denoting a purchased link, next to the site’s URL.
Freedom is the name of Scientology’s inhouse magazine, founded in 1968. Freedommag.org’s main site links to a separate page, devoted to refuting the charges made in Gibney’s documentary and attacking the credibility of its participants. The purpose, announced in a banner on the top of the page: “‘Exterminating’ Gibney’s Propaganda.”
That site, run by the Church of Scientology, is a full-fledged counterattack on the film. Along with disputing the claims made in Going Clear by high ranking ex-church members the site contains a virtual dossier full of accusations against them and the filmmakers.
Gibney, the director behind the documentary, won an Academy Award for Taxi to the Dark Side, his feature about U.S. torture and rendition policies in the war on terror. Gibney’s top Google result is the same as his latest film’s—an ad purchased by Scientology that directs to the page attacking him and his film. A mini-documentary profile of Gibney runs underneath the title purporting to “exterminate his propoganda.”
Gibney’s “pedigree” comes under attack in one segment of the video that attempts to ties his current documentary work to his father’s alleged particpation in a covert CIA operation while working as a journalist. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” the narrator intones, suggesting the connection between the implied sins of the father and the films of the son ought to be clear.
On Twitter an account called “Freedom Media Ethics” announces in its bio that it’s “taking a resolute stand against the broadcasting and publishing of false information.” There’s no visible reference to the account being an official outlet of the church but its top displayed image is of “Church of Scientology International” letterhead. Beneath the bio, the Web address listed is for Scientology’s Freedommag.org site set up to discredit the film. The account was activated on January 16 as Going Clear was ramping up promotion for its Sundance premier. Since then, the tweets have come in a predictable and steady stream. Every day it’s some variation on “#AlexGibney’s phony ‘threats’ claim regarding #GoingClear shows he’s desperate.” Everything links back to Scientology’s Freedommag.org site.
A column on the lefthand side of Scientology’s Going Clear site runs down the film’s participants. There’s ex-church member Mike Rinder, “the wife beater” beneath his name. Sara Goldberg, “the home wrecker.” Marty Rathbun, “a violent psychopath.” And so on. Everyone involved in Going Clear,” it seems, is some combination of criminal, embittered liar, and mentally unhinged propagandist.
Some of the material used to attack people involved in Going Clear isn’t actually new, according to Tony Ortega, a former editor at the Village Voice who writes frequently about Scientology. “Until this new campaign at the Freedom Mag website, the same exact material was appearing on anonymous attack websites for years,” Ortega said. Some of those sites still exist with names like ”Who is Michael Rinder” and “Who is Marty Rathbun,” linking to some of the same accusations against these ex-church members turned critics who now appear on the page connected to the film.
Ortega believes the Church of Scientology is behind the anonymous sites. “They just deny it,” he said. But for Ortega, the fact that the site run under Scientology’s name rehashes material found on the anonymous pages is evidence that those earlier efforts were the church’s work.
To get a sense of how much this sort of thing costs, in 2013 VICE tried to estimate the price of the Google ad campaign the church was running at the time. The bottom line: It isn’t cheap, and that was before the ads related to the film started to appear and the costs likely increased.
If it all seems a bit hackneyed and cartoonish, that may not be such a problem, say some Scientology critics. Ortega says it’s a question of audience. “Who they’re really aiming this at is the donors of Scientology,” he said. Among the church’s followers, attacks on the film show strength and give the impression of being on the offensive, he added.
Mark Bunker, a longtime Scientology critic, sees the campaign in similar terms, as an appeal to the faithful. “The truth for the Scientologists who watch these videos will be what Scientology tells them,” Bunker said.
In the end, there’s no legal problem with Scientology purchasing ad space to attack a film it considers slander. It’s a way of shifting terms of the debate, moving it away from specific accusations leveled in the film onto the characters of the filmmakers and subjects. But that may not be the most convincing method to discredit one of the film’s charges: that the church relies on intimidation and character assassination to silence its critics.