Westboro Baptist Church and Anonymous come to internet blows

Filed Under: Denial of Service, Law & order

Westboro Baptist Church signThe loosely-knit Anonymous group appears to have launched a distributed denial-of-service attack against websites belonging to a highly controversial American church, after the two launched a war of words across the internet.

Westboro Baptist Church is a small, independent church based outside Topeka, Kansas, which has become notorious around the world for picketing funerals, burning the American flag and its hateful stance against homosexuality.

The group's head, Fred Phelps, has encouraged members to picket military funerals with offensive signs such as "Thank God for Dead Soldiers", claiming that the United States is being punished by God for not condemning homosexuality.

And it is a number of websites run by the church, with hateful names such as "GodHatesF**s" and "GodHatesAmerica" that have been disrupted by an internet distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack.

Here's what seems to have happened.

A couple of days ago, a message appeared on an Anonymous website accusing Westboro Baptist Church of bigotry, and calling on the congregation (most of whom are members of Phelps's extended family) to stop its public protests or have its websites attacked.

Westboro Baptist Church threatened

Westboro Baptist Church's response was typically robust and uncompromising, calling Anonymous a group of "coward crybaby hackers", and a "puddle of pimple-faced nerds":

Response from Westboro Baptist Church

To be honest, my feeling is that Westboro Baptist Church probably revels in feeling persecuted, and probably gets a perverse kick out of receiving the attention of the world's media and groups such as Anonymous.

If that's the case, then they're probably enjoying what's happening right now - with their websites flooded by traffic, preventing internet users with legitimate interest in the group visiting them.

It always makes me uncomfortable when controversial groups have their freedom of speech curtailed by activists, however unpleasant the things that those groups may be saying. When groups - such as the Westboro Baptist Church - have repellent views, I feel it's better to allow them to express them than to have them silenced through internet attacks.

What's interesting is that there may be some affiliated with Anonymous who don't agree that targeting the Westboro Baptist Church is an appropriate use of their time and resources. But when you have a group like Anonymous, with no leadership and no organisational structure, where anyone can claim to be speaking for the group, it's impossible to tell what actions hactivists should take and which they shouldn't.

One thing's worth remembering though. Participating in a denial-of-service attack is illegal, however much you disagree with the contents of the website that you're attacking.

Update: Another twist in the tale! As some have pointed out in the comments to this article, some people claiming to represent Anonymous claim that the initial anti-WBC message that appeared was actually posted by the Westboro Baptist Church itself!

A message on the AnonNews site urges Anonymous supporters not to DDoS the Church's websites.

Anonymous press release

As with all things Anonymous, it's hard to tell who's who. The group is headless, and has no structure. Anyone can speak and claim to be representing the group. I have to wonder if such a chaotic structure is really to Anonymous's benefit in the long run.

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38 Responses to Westboro Baptist Church and Anonymous come to internet blows

  1. Anon · 1285 days ago

    They may have freedom of speech, but doesn't make their picketing and hate-fueled propaganda something to be tolerated. Time for them to get a bit of their own back.

  2. Tina · 1285 days ago

    I am a Christian and I am actually glad that the hackers are attacking them. They make the rest of us look horrible. So illegal or not I say keep up the "GOOD" work and keep these hate filled sites shut down.

  3. Jimi Cutting · 1285 days ago

    Dear Graham,

    While I agree that Freedom of Speech is very important there is a line where one's Freedom of Speech dissolves when it impinges upon the freedoms of others; and that is just what Westboro does. Protesting at military funerals, threatening to picket a high school students project demonstration... Where do we draw the line? Unfortunately it seems our representatives are unwilling to do anything about it, which is rather sad.

    People are disgusted and frustrated with Westboro and this is an issue that needs some resolve. Hiding behind "God" is a poor excuse for the venom they spew forth. I am not a Christian but I have read the Bible, and no where in there does it promote the hate that they are encouraging.

    • Yes, I agree that you shouldn't have freedom of speech to say what you like, where you like.

      For instance, I don't agree that you should be able to shout out "Fire!" in the middle of a crowded cinema.

      But I'm not sure that attacking and bringing down a website helps those who are opposed to the Westboro Baptist Church. The WBC's outrageous opinions are exposed by hearing what they have to say and what they believe in. Silencing their websites will only encourage others to believe that they are being persecuted, and may actually bring them more supporters.

    • That's the trouble with the lack of structure in Anonymous.

      One person can say one thing, another can say something else. Hard to tell who's really speaking for the organisation isn't it?

      • Geektastic Whimsy · 1285 days ago

        Go to AnonNews. The original open letter is not there. The press release from yesterday, along with several discussions of the WBC thing, are there. It is a moderated site.

      • That's one thing I always wonder when I read these press releases. Who wrote them? The person who wrote and released it really has no official say on what's going on. Then again, I believe that if they're going so far as to make such a release, they would also make sure to gauge the general mood amongst other members, or collaborate with others (the recent report stating that WBC was responsible for the first open letter claims that it was written by over 20 people).

        Yes it's completely disorganised, the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing (and there are far more hands than just two, to stretch an analogy), and nobody is in charge. Yet somehow, it seems to work. The way I see it, there isn't even a defined boundary to the group that is referred to Anonymous. It's a gradient, with some people Anonymous only in name, others would be right in there doing all the things that Anonymous is notoroious for. In fact, there isn't even really a clear-cut definition of what makes a person Anonymous. I believe that a person is only Anonymous if and only if they themselves believe that they are.

        But despite this disorganisation, there's something there. And it all comes down to that last thing, that a person is Anonymous if they think that they are. This creates a sort of group mentality, a "hive mind" if you like. Thus it is that when I think of Anonymous, I don't think of it as an organisation, or even a group. I think of it as a single widespread entity, one that will continue to exist and evolve far into the future.

        I would like to state that the above reflections on the nature of Anonymous are only my personal opinions.

  4. Geektastic Whimsy · 1285 days ago

    More like Graham Clueless. If there is, in fact, a DDoS attack against WBC, it is not Anonymous' doing. Anonymous claims the original letter was released by WBC itself: http://anonnews.org/?p=press&a=item&i=494 , and urges Anonymous not to DDoS these cretins. This was released yesterday. Try to keep up.

    • Did you see the bit where I said..

      "But when you have a group like Anonymous, with no leadership and no organisational structure, where anyone can claim to be speaking for the group, it's impossible to tell what actions hactivists should take and which they shouldn't."

      Clearly anyone can post to AnonNews whatever they wish, and it may lead to some taking actions like the attack against WBC.

      Maybe Anonymous's lack of organisation is going to be the thing which makes it unravel?

      • Geektastic Whimsy · 1285 days ago

        There actually is a leadership structure within Anonymous. True, anyone can post anything on the internet, some may go rogue and do this on their own, but not with the backing of the entire group. As for AnonNews, there are moderators and posts must be approved. Also, I don't see the original open letter on AnonNews anywhere; isn't it likely that it would be there if it were in fact endorsed by the majority of Anonymous?
        I feel your article completely ignores the release yesterday. Is it less believable than the original "press release" to you?
        Can you confirm that there is a DDoS attack in progress? godhatesfags.com comes up fine.

  5. Gabriel Espinosa · 1285 days ago

    "Participating in a denial-of-service attack is illegal, however much you disagree with the contents of the website that you're attacking."

    In this case, ....SO WHAT!

  6. dave b · 1285 days ago

    Why post a comment when to block it? what they are doing has nothing to do with free speech.

  7. fed up · 1285 days ago

    Although I laughed when I read the headline, reality tells me that this is just more free publicity for the hate mongers of WBC.

    The best thing we can do is stop giving these people there 15 minutes of fame and ignore then

    The millions of dollars that they continue to receive in free publicity just keeps them going

    You are aware, I presume, that Phelps family members are lawyers to boot

  8. T.Anne · 1285 days ago

    It's sad really - many of Anon's actions I haven't completely agreed with, in many areas - I think they've crossed lines. But based on the little bit of info I know of this issue - I don't see a line being crossed. Yes, it's illegal - but at one point so was drinking... there were laws on the books saying certain people couldn't be out on the streets past a certain time of night. There have been numberous laws making things illegal, that quite honestly shouldn't have been - and they needed people to take a stand against it, willing to accept the results of their actions, in order to make a difference. Now, I'm not so sure that's the case with DDOS attacks - but my point is that Anonymous clearly views it as justified and ok. I think they see it as more of a protest - I would argue that in many cases protests can keep people physically out - not because the protest is violent, but because it makes people uncomfortable so they avoid it. Now their internet attacks don't give people the option to choose to go through the "picket lines" or not - but I can see how they'd view it as similar.

    • Personally, I believe that Anonymous should be counter-protesting at the events that the "church" pickets. If they could get the same support that they got for the anti-Scientology protests... Well, just imagine the WBC turning up to a funeral to preach their messages of hate, only to be met by a crowd five times their size who are supporting and protecting those who the WBC seeks to upset. Imagine this happening at every event that the WBC attempted to picket. I think they'd get discouraged fairly quickly.

  9. T.Anne · 1285 days ago

    And in all honestly - in this particular case, I think it's high time someone went up against WBC... regardless of who the party is, and regardless of if the actions are illegal... this one (at this point) I agree with. Now if they cross the line like they did with HBGary, I'd disagree - no matter how wrong the other party is, I do believe there should be a line (even if there are areas of grey)... WBC has walked on that line and in the grey spots for far too long - that's why I believe no real action has been taken against them. This time - they're having that line walked against them, it's giving them a very SMALL taste of their own medicine.

  10. Gerard van Kralingen · 1284 days ago

    That something is legal doesn't automatically make it right.
    That something is illegal doesn't automatically make it wrong.

    • I think I would agree with that.

      However, people should consider the possible repercussions of participating in a DDoS attack. Many may be unaware that many countries have handed out severe penalties for participating in them - and may find a less risky way of having their say than bombarding a website with traffic.

  11. The thing is, the more publicity groups like the WBC get, the more they'll keep up what they're doing. They make a living on getting publicity, peeving people off to the point of violence and then suing, and so on -- literally. Like someone else said upthread, the adults in the group are trained lawyers. They know how to manipulate people expertly so that people throw the first punch, then they sue for damages.

    Freedom of speech is all well and good, but it also goes both ways. I have a friend whose family friends died in a house fire. It was a young girl, her older brother (home on leave from one branch or the other of the Armed Forces), their parents, and an elderly grandmother. Because of the older brother, WBC came and protested the funeral just like they do for any soldier who dies on the front lines. They cold-heartedly picketed, insulted, and name-called every single person at the funeral in a most trying time, and finally someone threw a punch. The person who threw the punch won the case. Do you know why? Because he was on private property and the owner of the private property countersued WBC for trespassing. *That* is the way to defeat people like them.

    I also give much praise to the Patriot Guard, a group of motorcyclists who will come when called to protect gatherings at which the WBC has said they will protest and picket. The Patriot Guard surrounds mourners and other groups in a perimeter, keeping the hate-filled speech of the WBC from the group, and revving their engines to drown out the insults and chants of this divisive group.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-DZbix25Oy0

    If more people would stand up to groups like the WBC -- peacefully, as the PG do -- they would soon realise that their method of money-making is not longer lucrative. But as long as emotional, hurting people can hear the vocalisations of hate coming from WBC members, and lash out as a result, they will continue to do it, continue to make money, and continue to get the publicity they crave.

  12. Chris · 1284 days ago

    Being honest, I'm not sure what Anonymous achieved, assuming that it was them that launched this attack. I mean using just myself as an example, I had managed to forget that Westboro 'Church' (and as a Christian, I cannot help but feel the inverted commas are necessary) even existed until I saw this article linked from Facebook. So as far as I see it, the more that decent people do to put them in the spotlight, the less they have to do to spew their hatred to the world.

    Now that's just my opinion, I promise I won't study law just to sue the pants off anyone that disagrees, I quite like the fact that people wear pants for one!

  13. kurt wismer · 1284 days ago

    "To be honest, my feeling is that Westboro Baptist Church probably revels in feeling persecuted, and probably gets a perverse kick out of receiving the attention of the world's media and groups such as Anonymous."

    in other words, what we have here is a troll-fight. troll vs. troll and the one that gets the most attention wins.

  14. jessi slaughter · 1284 days ago

    why is the persons face censored, but the offensive commentary in the image from westboro is not? surely, as ms. megan phelps said on her twitter:
    http://twitter.com/#!/meganphelps

    Also, LMAO @ the crowing about an Anonymous "win" -- that's the beauty of http://GodHates----.com -- just typing the URL, you get the msg ;)

    isn't Sophos and other media outlets covering this (Gawker, etc) simply feeding the trolls at this point?

    • The person's face is pixelated because they're clearly a child. (Probably influenced by family members to hold up the signs..)

      Their life is probably screwed-up enough as it is, without also having their face plastered over the net.

      • jessi slaughter · 1284 days ago

        using the word 'f a g s' implies you may be spending too much time with anonymous if you think it's OK to use it, even in context :(

  15. Tim Jordan · 1284 days ago

    LOL. Simply makes me laugh. If it's true that Fred Phelps' hate group was behind this latest "attention whore" ploy, awesome. The WBC site is down.

    On a positive note, this prompted me to donate 50 Euro to the Anonymous folks. Seems like despite being an unrepentant ass-wipe, Fred Phelps and his ilk actually have inadvertently done something positive.

  16. laura · 1284 days ago

    It seems like Anonymous is the worst possible group to oppose these people. All they can do is be mean and interfere with their internets. I am sure WBCs web presence is among their least effective tools and it's not like Anonymous will get them to stop their protest stuff. On the other hand, I have heard that WBC is a scam and they go around being obnoxious so that when people are obnoxious back, they can sue them and get lots of money. Because WBC makes sure not to break laws, while their detractors don't necessarily. In this case, I think they are wasting their time, because Anonymous is a stupid target that has no money in particular. Overall, this is just a troll fight and I don't see why I should care.

    I guess I am glad that hackers are busy with this and not causeing trouble for people who matter.

  17. Eddy · 1284 days ago

    WBC are short on $$$ and publicity...They set this whole thing up..

    I know i'd forgot about them until this happened..

  18. Guest · 1284 days ago

    My fear is that WBC will meet up with someone equally out-of-control and will really meet their maker. I don't wish that on anyone, but they are certainly creating that possibility. I read they accused someone of bombing one of their buildings, but others accused them of bombing their own building to get publicity. Who really knows.

  19. Guest · 1284 days ago

    WBC has a long history of suing, infact the bulk of the "congregation" is in fact lawyers, I seriously doubt anything religious actually occurs there, they appear to be more of a litigious scam group than anything else, they provoke people into getting offended and doing something illegal and then bring their lawyers online to start the money making machine. The best thing that we can do to Westboro is to completely ignore them.

  20. T J from Kentucky · 1281 days ago

    I am a member of the Patriot Guard. We protect the families of fallen hero's from these creatures. Unfortunately, ignoring them will not stop them. They were doing this long before the press and public became aware of their activities and will continue to harass and torment grieving loved ones for their own sick twisted purposes until they are stopped. The supreme court is currently deciding the fate of one case between a father and WBC, I doubt seriously if they have the backbone or the foresight to see the difference in freedom of speech and mental torture. These people thrive on lawsuits and controversy, what we need is MORE attention to what they are doing. People need to be outraged so new laws can be put in place to protect innocent people from activities such as this. I don't approve of hacking as a rule, but as far as I am concerned, hack away! Anything at all that can be done to tax their resources, their time and their ability to continue in their efforts, is fine with me. They all need to be jailed as far as I am concerned.

  21. Alien · 1280 days ago

    I really hope you all realise exactly what WBC is doing? Over half the adults in that church are LAWYERS. They use their religion as a way to draw someone up to punch them, kick them, or what ever, JUST so they can take them to court for a law suit.

    Sorry WBC, but I dont think you are one bit pious or godly or anything else but a FRAUD. I cant wait til they do something stupid, which they will, and be claimed a TERRORIST community and be kicked out or jailed, or even killed... that would be my personal choice.

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About the author

Graham Cluley runs his own award-winning computer security blog, and is a veteran of the anti-virus industry having worked for a number of security companies since the early 1990s. Now an independent security analyst, he regularly makes media appearances and gives computer security presentations. Send Graham an email, subscribe to his updates on Facebook, follow him on Twitter and App.net, and circle him on Google Plus for regular updates.