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Nearly a decade after Scientology prompted a high-profile internet protest movement — sparked when the church attempted to remove a damaging YouTube video of member Tom Cruise speaking about the religion — comes the discovery of a new covert campaign to subvert online criticism of the organization’s social work. A series of forged court orders were submitted to Google (and possibly to Yahoo and Bing as well) in 2016 in an attempt to convince the search giant to expunge links to written objections to Scientology’s controversial anti-drug program Narconon. The U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment when asked whether it is investigating the issue, which involves the bogus signatures of judges from multiple states.
Collectively, the material seeks to mend the standing of unbranded Narconon facilities in Michigan and their owner, a prominent Scientologist named Per Wickstrom, whose reputations have been battered by statements on a number of dedicated websites and message boards critical of the church and the program, including WhyWeProtest.net and Exscn.net, as well as the general consumer watchdog service RipoffReport.com. (Neither Wickstrom, reached through his Serenity Point facility near Grand Rapids, Michigan, nor the Church of Scientology returned requests for comment.)
Four fabricated orders, dated May and August 2016, ostensibly grant injunctions against the tech companies, preventing them from linking to material that, the documents assert, the courts found defamatory in Hamilton County, Ohio; Fulton County, Georgia; and Philadelphia. Some of the orders appear to be templated on an authentic Hamilton County court order from March 2015, which also was submitted to Google on behalf of a small San Francisco production company called Wild Strawberry Entertainment.
It’s unclear who’s responsible for forging the orders. However, THR reviewed another sham Hamilton County document involving a request to remove links from search engines, a process known as de-indexing. THR obtained a business contract connected to this other filing, indicating that an entity called Web Savvy had charged a fee of $3,750 for the successful elimination of each “negative” link. Web Savvy and a related company, ReputationMasters.com, are based in Torrance, just south of Los Angeles, and both are run by a marketing consultant named John Rooney, who describes himself on LinkedIn as an expert in “removing negative content from the web and promoting client’s positive image,” citing RipoffReport.com at the top of a list of sites he focuses on.
Corresponding by email, Rooney denied that his firm had any connection to Narconon. When pressed to explain the documentation, he stopped responding to emails and phone calls.
Neither the judges nor the lawyers impersonated in the materials would comment. The search firms also declined to address the matter.
The affected websites themselves, however, were both candid and unsurprised. “We’ve been dealing with shenanigans like this for a while,” explained Mary McConnell, the pseudonym of an activist volunteer with two of them, NarcononReviews.net and ReachingfortheTippingPoint.net. “To go so far as using the name of real judges is what’s eye-opening.” Adds a weary Ed Magedson, owner of RipoffReport.com, with a more general observation: “It has become far more prevalent in the last year or so to attempt to de-index us with Google, since that’s how users find content anyway, and Google appears to almost automatically rubber-stamp [requests], so some people try to take advantage.”
NarcononReviews.net had previously alerted its readership community that in February 2016 a “Larry Brennan” requested that Google remove, due to an alleged copyright violation, a document published on Carnegie Mellon’s website detailing the state of Oklahoma mental health board’s 1991 denial of a Narconon application for certification. Brennan, a former high-ranking Scientologist turned critic — who was transgender and transitioned in 2012 to Denise — died in 2014.
The multinational Narconon has, like the church, long borne a complicated and often troubled public image, dogged by a trail of investigative reporting, government findings and court rulings questioning its care practice, medical approach and persistent effort to incorporate questionable programming into school systems. (In May, after parents’ outcry, Santa Monica High School canceled a series of substance abuse prevention lectures after it was revealed that the organization that had been brought in to provide them, the Foundation for a Drug-Free World, was affiliated with Scientology.)
The fabricated court orders were brought to THR‘s attention by Eugene Volokh, a noted UCLA legal scholar who specializes in free speech and religious freedom law. He discovered them while researching online content removal requests in a digital Harvard archive of takedown legal notices, provided in part by Google.
“This situation is an interesting illustration of how every system breeds parasites,” says Volokh. “The right thing, given the huge amount of power these companies wield, is to allow for the possibility of de-indexing search results, and the best way to go about that process is to require a court order so that they aren’t stuck in the position of arbitrating each request. Yet, even then, things can go wrong.”
This story first appeared in the Aug. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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