Is the Anonymous-Westboro Baptist Church feud a hoax?

Conflicting reports confound the media's coverage of hacker group ultimatum to controversial anti-gay church

Topics: Internet Culture, Religion, Hacking,

Is the Anonymous-Westboro Baptist Church feud a hoax? (Credit: Picasa 3.0)

Yesterday, we reported that hacker collective Anonymous issued an ultimatum to the hard-right Christian activists at the Westboro Baptist Church. The group purportedly posted an open letter to the Kansas-based congregation on AnonNews.org, warning that it would launch a cyber-campaign against the church unless it abandoned its controversial anti-gay protests. Since then, Westboro issued their own response, saying, in a nutshell: “Bring it.” And the stage was set for a bizarre showdown between two little-loved groups.

Then things got weirder. Another “open letter” appeared on AnonNews — the website is built on an “open-posting” concept, meaning anyone is free to publish anything there — claiming that the first letter did not represent the will of the infamous “hacktivists.” 

When Anonymous says we support free speech, we mean it. We count Beatrice Hall among our Anonymous forebears: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

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The letter also accuses Westboro of fabricating the entire story to generate headlines and further propagate its message.

A number of media outlets have been quick to update their coverage of the news by stating that the whole thing was a hoax — some of them even reporting as fact that Westboro staged the kerfuffle.

However, some aspects of the “hoax” theory seem iffy. To start, if stories on AnonNews don’t necessarily reflect the will of Anonymous, why should the second open letter be given any more credence than the first? Even if some members of Anonymous denounced the Westboro plot, the organization is more a loose agglomeration of individuals than a centralized body with one agenda whittled in stone. (While there does appear to be some form of organizational hierarchy, the group is still largely amorphous to the public eye.) For that matter, why would the church — even if trying to drum up media coverage — refer to its mission as “inimitable bigotry and intolerant fanaticism,” as stated in the first open letter? (Could Westboro be a little too self-aware to be true?)

The Westboro Baptist Church website was inaccessible for portions of this morning. Of course, that in itself doesn’t necessarily suggest a cyber-attack. But a tweet from Megan Phelps-Roper — granddaughter of the church’s founder, Fred Phelps — seemed to corroborate the notion that Anonymous attacked the website. 

We contacted Westboro Baptist Church for confirmation one way or another, but haven’t yet received any response.

Peter Finocchiaro is the deputy editor of Salon. Follow him on Twitter @PLFino.

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