Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous
New York, NY
“Anonymous is not unanimous.” In a media climate that scours the day to day for sound bites and rough-hewn adjectives with which to classify political actors, this has become a slogan for Anonymous, the amorphous, mostly-online, somewhat-hacktivist, sometimes-clandestine group known for its oftentimes politically-charged pranks on governments, corporations, and individuals. After years mired in the trenches of Anonymous’ IRC channels, interviewing countless Anonymous members, and even becoming involved in the group herself, Gabriella Coleman has managed to catalogue and expound upon the politics, culture, and structure of a group that firmly rejects any form of celebrity leader or spokesman, that represents no single political ideology (and in fact often contradicts itself), and which doesn’t exist in any single geographical location.
But even without some of the traditional mores of historical analysis, Coleman has managed to represent Anonymous as a group unified by the Internet and computer technology, a culture of pranking (the “lulz”), and an antipathy toward precisely the things that usually unify social and political groups—ideologies, leaders, centralization. In terms of how the book reads, this means that the reader can never get the whole story, will never fully grasp this group that is not only deep and wide, but also always in flux. To do so would be like grabbing at water. Even to freeze it at a single moment would destroy its most essential fluid dynamic. Coleman understands this and examines Anonymous through some of its most visible actions, providing some panoramas of the group, and diving more deeply into some of the group’s offshoots and subgroups to illustrate how the ebb and flow of IRC banter transforms into widespread political action, how internal power dynamics shift, how anything at all gets done without a codified structure or protocol.
Coleman muses about this at length, marveling at how Anonymous ever became a political force whose activism became effective enough to attract serious FBI attention. Indeed, Anonymous began in what might seem like the least likely place for an activist movement to emerge—4Chan’s /b/, widely described as the “asshole of the internet” (4). Coleman charts Anonymous’ ascent from this insular cesspool of hate speech, vulgarity, and trolling to a group—though not necessarily devoid of the aforementioned cesspool qualities—capable of organizing itself, taking down the websites of major corporations, leaking confidential documents, and giving assistance to global revolutionary movements.
Anonymous gained its political sea legs in 2008 with its attacks on the Church of Scientology, whose capitalistic promulgation of pseudo-science and its harassment and silencing of dissenters earned it the ire (and protests and pranks) of geeks everywhere. But not all Anonymous members embraced activism so readily. One of the internal tensions that Coleman charts throughout her book is the opposition between the trollers (those who are just in it for the lulz) and the activists who are concerned with broader ethical implications and political efficacy of vandalism and protest (in Anonymous’ argot, “moralfags”). Though the prankster and the radical are by no means mutually exclusive, and in fact most of Anonymous’ political actions seem to contain some element of the lulz, the political dimension was anathema to many Anonymous members—especially early on. However, as the group began to attract media attention, Anonymous began focusing more of its efforts on political issues. From attacking censorship and copyright laws (and the corporations that defend these policies) to aiding Wikileaks and Tunisian revolutionaries, Anonymous has taken highly visible actions both online and on the streets, both legal and illegal.
When it comes to the morality of Anonymous’ actions and methods, it is clear where Coleman’s sympathies lie. She is generally supportive of Anonymous, and this helps her to underscore some of the more flagrant abuses of the establishment: of corporations (who engage in some of the same extralegal tactics as Anonymous but do so with impunity), of government intelligence and its private contractors (the former, as we now know, has run illegal spying programs for years, and the latter, as Coleman reminds us, receives an estimated “70 percent of America’s $80 billion intelligence budget”) and of the judicial system, which punishes hackers (i.e., hackers opposed to corporate/government interests) like violent criminals and pressures informants to sway their organizations towards more radical politics and tactics (235). But despite her firm political views, Coleman still leaves room for opposing viewpoints. Within Anonymous, many members opposed methods, such as DDoS campaigns with the aid of botnets (distributed denial of service—a method of taking down websites—that would often be ineffective without enslaving private computers via viruses). Understandably, individual targets were often outraged after being “doxed” (had their personal information—contact info, addresses, social security numbers, etc.—released to the public and exposed for abuse). Even activists and political radicals often frown upon Anonymous and its methods (for example, the Pirate Party, which opposed Anonymous’ extralegal tactics as they felt it alienated mainstream political support for their goals of copyright law reform). While Coleman points out some of the possible hypocrisies of Anonymous—for example, that supposed defenders of privacy will “dox” their opponents, that supposed defenders of free speech will vandalize or take down their opponent’s websites, oftentimes destroying data—she generally defends their actions as the necessary tactics of rebels or else reminds us that “Anonymous is not unanimous” (which is a rather convenient aphorism to have on hand if you need to move past the fact that, for example, in 2012, Anonymous members caused seizures after spamming an epilepsy forum with flashing images).
While in most cases Coleman does not allow her biases to prevent her from presenting other perspectives or even condemning Anonymous (she does call the epilepsy prank “one of the most morally reprehensible and notorious attacks to date”), there are certain points where she seems to miss the mark (69). For example, after hacking and releasing confidential information from a global intelligence firm called Strategic Forecasting, Inc. (Stratfor), it was later revealed that amidst the somewhat-lackluster data were several emails that had been forged by AntiSec—an Anonymous offshoot—and that the emails were not actually written by Stratfor’s CIO and CEO. More than just misrepresenting or falsely incriminating Stratfor’s employees, at least symbolically, these forgeries constitute a glaring breach of trust in Anonymous itself, compromising its values of free information. If those who are supposedly leaking confidential documents to expose misconduct are not simply publicizing incriminating information but in fact fabricating that information, it not only discredits them, but also casts an additional (and counterproductive) cloud of doubt on any whistleblower or scrap of evidence pointing toward corporate/government misconduct. Coleman mentions that the emails were fraudulent but leaves it at that, never discussing the possible moral issues of AntiSec’s forgeries.
Coleman is clearly an expert (really the expert) in her field, but she nevertheless manages to explain even Anonymous’ technical aspects to the uninitiated in plain, oftentimes casual prose. Despite her involvement with Anonymous and an unveiled enthusiasm for the group, most of the time she comes off as an authority whose opinion can be trusted. Because more than any of Anonymous’ methods or political views, it seems that what Coleman respects and finds fascinating about the group is that it represents a new sort of community and a new model for radical political action. Residing in the deepest tubes of the Internet, fiercely opposed to celebrity and leadership, composed of a diverse crowd with a variety of technical and non-technical skills, always changing and heedless of its own reputation, Anonymous is a force to be reckoned with, ready to take action at any moment and very, very hard to kill.
Lincoln-Vogel studied art and Russian at Reed College in Portland, OR. He works as an animator in Oakland, CA. Selections of his work can be seen here.