Post-mortem: Why Scientology’s ‘Going Clear’ Twitter attack backfired

The Church of Scientology is well-known for going full-out in attempts to silence its critics. But as its tactics leading up to the March 29 premier of Alex Gibney’s HBO documentary “Going Clear” show, it’s less successful in its use of social media.

The church dialed up its efforts online, using Google search ads and promoted tweets via @FreedomEthics to push out its rebuttal material to a wider audience.

While the official church handle @Scientology has stuck to promoting inspiring messages of church members, it left the dirty work to @FreedomEthics, which flooded its feed tabloid-style with negative material from its online publication Freedom Magazine about the film and its participants with unflattering photos and tone.

It then switched gears in the days leading up to the premier with a tweetstorm aimed at discouraging people from seeing the movie on the basis that it’s boring. The tweets were paired with bland stock art of people sleeping at the movies. (Aside from the fact that most viewers would have been watching the movie at home, the tweets were guilty of the same thing they criticized the movie of.)

The church took out a full-page ad in The New York Times on Jan. 16 and has been publishing articles on Freedom Magazine to discredit the film and its sources. But the site is a small one (it doesn’t meet comScore’s minimum cutoff to be measured), and the Times readership isn’t exactly a church-friendly one.

A spokeswoman for the church, Karin Pouw, said it saw an “all-time high” in interest in Scientology while the film aired. “Over 50,000 people came to our website before we even issued a tweet,” she said.

But judging from the sentiment around the promoted tweets, Scientology hasn’t won many fans with this approach.

There have been 9,038 posts including the Twitter handle @FreedomEthics from Jan. 26 to March 29, according to social analytics firm Crimson Hexagon. Excluding news-sharing or neutral tweets, the firm found that 62 percent of the conversation was negative.

“The negative discussion centers on the uselessness of this handle, and the support of the Going Clear documentary outing Scientology’s behavior,” according to the firm.

The church’s Twitter strategy, with its cheap smears and vindictive language, doesn’t translate well to that public platform, where it just comes across as trolling, film critic Scott Tobias wrote in The Dissolve.

“Scientology has an infamous history of being very aggressive in defending itself, through harassment in the form of lawsuits,” Tobias told Digiday. “Those are extremely effective in the private basis. When you do that publicly, the impact is not the same. It’s coming across as vindictive and bullying. It’s kind of a one-size-fits-all. You don’t want to get that from an institution. It feels like they weren’t getting any advice on social media.”

And with just 645 followers, @FreedomEthics is a small bully at that.

Image courtesy of Colleen Day.

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