Was "Anonymous" church threat a hoax?

Fred Phelps Jr., a member of Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka Kansas, walks around the US Supreme Court with anti-gay banners on October 6, 2010 in Washington,DC Getty Images

Fred Phelps Jr., a member of Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka Kansas, walks around the US Supreme Court with anti-gay banners on October 6, 2010 in Washington,DC
Getty Images

This story gets more bizarre by the day.

Last week, a message left on AnonNews, an Anonymous-affiliated website and purporting to be from the Internet activist group, took aim at the Westboro Baptist Church, intimating that Internet revenge attacks were imminent. But the group now denies it all, saying in a statement on the website that it has "more pressing matters to deal with at the moment."

The new posting, which claims to be from 20 members of the hacktivist group, warns off Anonymous followers from participating in any denial of service attacks against the church. It accuses Westboro of creating the story as a publicity stunt.

Who to believe? Some news organizations have updated their original stories to describe this episode as a hoax. But as Salon noted in a piece it wrote on the affair, why give more credence to the second letter over 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 ball originally got rolling on Feb. 16, when an open letter to the Westboro Baptist Church left this message:

"Should you ignore this warning, you will meet with the vicious retaliatory arm of ANONYMOUS: We will target your public Websites, and the propaganda and detestable doctrine that you promote will be eradicated; the damage incurred will be irreversible, and neither your institution nor your congregation will ever be able to fully recover."

The church's response, in the form of an open letter on its website to "Anonymous Coward Crybaby "Hackers," was to "bring it."

Update: During a live radio interview on The David Pakman Show on Feb. 24, a source claiming to be from Anonymous called in to confront church spokesperson Shirley Phelps-Roper from the Westboro Baptist Church, saying that the letter was not in fact real. The caller then proceeded to hack a Westboro Baptist Church-owned website during the interview (which you can hear at 8:24 in the accompanying video). See Video: Anonymous hacks Westboro Baptist Church website during on-air confrontation

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