When reflecting on the major moments of political conflict over the last several years, it's difficult to think of a fight in which Anonymous--the world's most famous group of online "hacktivists"--hasn't been in the mix. Love them or hate them, Anons seem to be everywhere. Since taking on the Church of Scientology in the late aughts, the actions of Anonymous have diversified and deepened with an explosive power. Whether its participating in Arab Spring and Occupy movements, threatening drug cartels in Mexico, or exposing--correctly and sometimes incorrectly--the identies of rapists, corrupt officials, and cops accused of murder, Anonymous has proved to be, for better or worse, a significant player in world events.
In her new book, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous, Gabriella Coleman details the evolution of Anonymous from their roots as a small band of loosely-organized hackers bent on stirring things up for kicks to a world-wide collective with an explicitly political face. Coleman, the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University and a leading academic authority on Anonymous, has spent nearly half a dozen years following the group, observing their activities online in real time, and establishing relationships with its members in the flesh. What emerges is a fascinating study of social movement transformation, political awakening, and the power and pitfalls of emerging technologies in fights around the world against injustice.
I caught up with Coleman to discuss her book, the excitement and troubles of studying the collective, and the controversial role of Anonymous in the Ferguson uprisings.
Michael Busch: Let’s start by talking about the origins of the book. How did you come to get involved with Anonymous and make it a subject of anthropological study?
Gabriella Coleman: Like many things in life, it was an accident. Anonymous found me or, to be more accurate, I found them through a winding, circuitous route when I ended up living in one of the coldest North American cities—Edmonton, Canada.
To be more precise, the story begins in 2007 when I was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Alberta which happens to house the largest Scientology archives in the world. After diving in the archives, I started a historical project on geek and hacker protests against the Church of Scientology and, in specific, the critiques and protests from the 1990s that were indebted in part to Usenet, a discussion board system. Much of the discussion on the board revolved around leaked church documents and scripture. Scientology went after its critics and those who circulated the documents. As a result, there were a series of battles over free speech, intellectual property law, and anonymity waged around the release of these documents.
I was secretive about the project because I was concerned about the possibility of legal (or even extra-legal!) retribution by the Church of Scientology. They are well known for going after academics and journalists who write about them. And so I was quite stealthy and quiet about the project.
But then in 2008, something by the name of “Anonymous” comes into being to prank and troll the Church after the Scientologists tried to censor a video of Tom Cruise that had been leaked online.
Given my ongoing historical project, it only made sense to turn my attention to this trolling campaign. To my surprise, these trolling hell raisers who were targeting the church for the lulz—that is, for the fun of it—took a U-turn away from trolling and moved into the sphere of activism.
These mischievous tricksters started to earnestly protest the Church, and I was hooked. I was fascinated that a deeply cynical, anti-activist practice mushroomed into street protest. Since I already had this one project on geeks and hackers and Scientology, it just made sense to delve into this new world. That’s how I became initially involved with Anonymous.
MB: What were the biggest challenges—practically, legally, ethically, and methodologically—in engaging with Anonymous as an academic researcher?
GC: Initially, the wing called Project Chanology—which was focused on protesting the Church of Scientology—was relatively easy to study. They are a straight-forward protest operation. Participants have a presence online, but to this day they also organize street demonstrations, so it was quite easy to study them. I attended protests, had meals with Anons, and, as a result, could interview them in person.
A few years later, everything got a lot more difficult and chaotic. In 2010, a new Anonymous node by the name of AnonOps came into being and it became much harder to study for a rather simple reason: AnonOps embraced illegal digital direct action techniques, such as hacking, and distributed denial of service campaigns (which is when you overwhelm a website with too many requests, thereby rendering it inaccessible). Because of the illegal activity, Anons had to conceal themselves. Secrecy exploded.
Another difficulty concerned the sheer number of simultaneous operations. Along with the use of illegal tactics, which required secrecy, AnonOps and its chat server became ground zero for dozens of political operations. To follow all this activity, I had to give up on my life. I was glued to the computer, constantly, just trying to follow things and keep up. The pace was ruthless. Staying on top of things was punishing.
During the course of my research, though, I gained the trust of a select number of individuals and also learned a lot simply by being constantly around—watching and lurking and asking a lot of questions. But I was left in the dark about many things, too, and avoided the chat channels where hackers met to coordinate their illegal operations. It was only much later—after participants had been arrested and had gone through the legal system—that I learned the details that had been kept from me.
MB: One of the most interesting features of Anonymous is its very anonymity. In a society characterized by status, celebrity, and narcissism, what drives members of Anonymous to keep their identities concealed?
GC: This is one of the most important and interesting parts of Anonymous: their commitment to anonymity exceeds self-protection, but also encompasses an ethical drive that questions one of the most dominant cultural norms: the celebration of celebrity. They sacrifice the individual in favor of creating a collective celebrity that goes by the name of “Anonymous.” The interesting question is why?
At some general level, whenever anything dominates, such as celebrity-seeking in this case, critiques will invariably arise. Anonymous is proof of this dynamic. But why these geeks? What were the conditions of possibility for the establishment of this ethic?
Quite simply, one vital precursor was the message and image board, 4chan, where trolling campaigns first hatched. It was there where this ethic first took shape. 4Chan, of course, is one of the seediest, most offensive zones of the internet. It’s a place that embraces an “anything goes” culture, and is known for its extremism in both admirable and disgusting ways. What is important to highlight, though, is that on 4Chan, people post anonymously. There are no stable nicknames, handles, or pseudonyms. It’s almost impossible, as a result, for any one person to accrue a reputation or status. Many of the people who got involved in the activist wings of Anonymous had participated on 4Chan, and experienced what it’s like to create and collaborate without being singled out, or accruing any status, reputation, or recognition. So for years, there existed an environment—4chan—where countless nerds and geeks could experience creation independent of any expectation of gaining and seeking recognition.
In the activist wings of Anonymous, however, you do have stable identifies. Because interaction is pseudo-anonymous—that is, participants use aliases, handles, or nicknames—participants accrue status and reputation. Working outside of 4chan in chat rooms means it is much harder to abide by an anti-status and anti-celebrity ethic, but that’s precisely when and why it becomes an ethic. On 4chan, anonymity is imposed by the technical architecture. Activist Anons had to live this ethic out in practice since it was no longer a technical default. Many of the episodes related in the book involve individuals, or hacker groups, that fail to follow that ethic, and as a result get heavily criticized.
MB: You talk about Anonymous’ evolution over time from being a group primarily motivated by the lulz into something more politically or morally-minded. How did this change take shape, in your estimation, and why?
GC: I still consider Anonymous to be one of the great political aberrations, or accidents, ever. All political movements are defined as much by their contingencies and accidents—all the things that you can’t forecast or foretell—as by their deliberate acts of engagement.
But think about it: Anonymous was not whipped into being for activism in the first place. It was a trolling endeavor and trolling—to put it bluntly—has a pretty ugly side to it. Here I’m thinking of the work of Whitney Phillips, a media scholar who argues in a forthcoming book that in trolling we see a distilled and weaponized version of a more pervasive form of ironic, cruel, and destructive cynicism.
Anonymous overcame this cynicism to embrace a radical activist politics!
And while the operations sometimes employ controversial, even trollish tactics, today Anonymous is still nevertheless oriented toward questions of social justice and exposing corruption. The transformation from puerile Internet hell-raisers to hopeful activists is uncanny and remarkable.
The shift is not beyond explanation, however. A number of the trolling campaigns prior to the switchover from trolling to activism embodied a proto-political sensibility. For example, Anonymous trolls once attacked and hacked Hal Turner—the racist radio personality—and in the process discovered that he was working as an FBI agent. Through their trolling, they inched along towards activism.
What was particularly significant, in my opinion, for cementing the transition was taking to the streets. Back in winter 2008, these activists decided to protest Scientology earnestly, and take to the streets. They coordinated in 127 cities across the world. Numerous people just wanted to meet other people who were on 4Chan. But I think that there’s something about protesting on the street, the experience of it, and receiving the sort of media validation that they did, that really consolidated the change. It really sealed the deal.
Once Anonymous activists used the name for political operations, the anti-celebrity ethic found a happy home; if you are trying to change the world for the better, there is something noble about doing it for the cause instead of doing it for fame and recognition.
Something else to consider is this: Anonymous—even though it is steeped in secrecy, and there’s a specific geeky cultural milieu from which it comes—is a name which is free to take. The artistic practices and images the collective uses are very Hollywood-esque and popular; this is hardly vangaurdist art. All of this makes it open to a lot of people, and helps facilitate its circulation.
And one final factor that helps explain the manifestation of Anonymous activism today is the growth of geeky politics in the very same period. There was WikiLeaks, most famously, but also the emergence of the Pirate Party and the like which contributed to a thickening of hacker politics, and which certainly helped nudge these geeks into the political arena.
MB: Anonymous’ most recent high-profile action involves the ongoing protests in Ferguson. What’s been your sense of their role there? There was the incident of the erroneous outing of a man accused of being the cop who killed Mike Brown, but other activity, as well. Has it been a positive force overall in the efforts to secure justice there, or a hindrance? Have events there shed any new light on your understanding of Anonymous?
GC: Generally, I think it has been positive. The incident—doxing the incorrect officer—is an example of mistakes made by Anonymous. But these very same problems plague journalistic practices as well. For instance, Newsweek ran a story about the founder of the cryptocurrency, Bitcoin. As it turns out they identified the wrong person. Or to take the most egregious example of the decade: The New York Times ran a story about weapons of mass destruction that we now know was dubious. The effects have been catastrophic. So while I think we should call out Anonymous' mistakes, the errors made follow from Anons taking action and are hardly unique to the group—and unlike the field of journalism, they tend to be rarer and usually less consequential as people are more skeptical of Anonymous, than say, the New York Times or Newsweek.
When someone released the incorrect name, there were a lot of people within Anonymous who were upset with how the name was released. It was done very haphazardly. The person who released the name was basically put in a corner and drubbed.
That said, people who were really involved in the protests on the ground were very supportive of Anonymous in part because they served as an amplifier, a type of bullhorn, and because they helped provide the resources on the ground for live-streaming. They’re seen by many as an ally.
It’s a fascinating question as to why Anonymous, which is often seen by the government as a serious cyber-threat, has escaped the frame of cyber terrorism, which I think they have, at least so far.
Part of the reason they’ve evaded this well-worn, tiresome script is because they have taken up so many different political causes—whether it’s in Europe to protest an unpopular copyright treaty or in San Francisco protesting police brutality, and now here in Ferguson. They keep showing up in places where clearly they’re trying to expose corruption and wrong doing.
And while many see some of their tactics as questionable—because they are—a lot of people understand that their motives are honorable and that any mistakes—however grave—have nothing to do with cyberterrorism, which would have involved the loss of life.
MB: You argue in the book that ultimately, there are two underlying goals that motivate your study. The first is stamping out disinformation about Anonymous. What are the biggest misconceptions about the group in your opinion?
GC: There’s primarily two misconceptions I am trying to squash. The first is that Anonymous is a name that is still used today for trollish actions and second that Anonymous is random.
Since late 2011, the name has been primarily used for activist endeavors. And again, some of their tactics are controversial—including some which are trollish—but it has primarily been deployed for the purpose of political activity. The name, I am sure, can be used for hard core trolling but for whatever reason, for the last three years, the great bulk of activity under the Anonymous banner has been used for activist operations.
And while Anons are unpredictable, they aren’t random. By that I mean that it is very hard to forecast when they will show up and what the consequences of their actions may be—they don’t even know themselves—but there are identifiable logics at work. For instance, they are usually triggered into action by existing events. The exception is when they are hacking, for example, into government or corporation computers for the purpose of exposing shoddy security, sabotage, or finding information of corruption to leak.
But generally they are reacting to world events, or trying to expose corruption. There are stable teams that work together, as opposed to being an amorphous group that comes together out of the blue. So that’s the first set of misconceptions I wanted to target.
Another misconception has to do with who’s behind the mask. There’s a common but totally incorrect idea that everyone involved is white and middle-class. Some are and the diversity may not be radically deep (nor are most academic departments either, where I happen to work). There are fewer women, especially in the hacking crews, for example. But when it comes to age, ethnicity and class—especially class—it is a lot more diverse than people assume. Many of the PayPal 14—those charged with DdoSing PayPal in support of Wikileaks—are not able to easily pay their fine (of slightly over $5000 each) because many don't come from economically privileged backgrounds. Many participants are teenagers or in their early 20s but there is a sizable chunk of folks in their 30s and 40s.
Pseudoanonymity allows for strange gatherings of people who would never associate if it weren’t for the fact that they are cloaked. Take LulzSec, for instance, the breakaway group that went on a hacking spree for fifty days. Among the group you had a Puerto Rican living in a New York City housing project, a sixteen-year-old Iraqi immigrant in London, you had an ex-military participant, a white anti-capitalist anarchist, and two Irish chemistry students, one of whom had a lot of experience with radical politics due to the fact that his father had been a member of the Irish Republican Army—an interestingly diverse group, to say the least.
MB: Your second goal with the book involves “embracing enchantment.” Can you tease out what you mean by this, exactly, and how it’s played out in your research and writing?
GC: Anonymous, is at root, an artistic movement with strong performative elements. There’s a magical, theatrical and certainly mysterious quality to it—you never quite know how things are happening, or who is participating. I found this experience, this aspect of Anonymous, compelling and important. By sacrificing the public self, by shunning leaders, and especially refusing to play the game of self-promotion, they ensure opacity; this alone is a radical political act given a social order than sanctions extensive practices of monitoring and a cultural context celebrating runaway individualism and self-gain.
They may not be the hive they often purport and are purported to be—there are those with more power and authority—but they still manage, somehow both in spite of and because of these properties, to leave us with the striking vision of a solidarity of a mass collective—e pluribus unum: out of many, one.
As an ethnographer, you are supposed to convey the world you are studying. Part of what I had to do, then, was communicate this in my writing—to portray the mystery, the magic, the opacity, the humor, the paranoia that goes into participating. So part of my task is to be faithful to that world which I encountered. But this book is also a political book published by a political press. Part of my goal was also to get more people excited about activism—whatever brand of activism is may be. Not everyone is going to be attracted to Anonymous, obviously and quite understandably.
But there is a kind of magical story to tell about them about how these hell raisers became passionate activists. Hopefully some readers of the book will be similarly excited to start taking a political stand, somewhere, someday.
Michael Busch is Senior Editor for Warscapes magazine. Twitter @michaelkbusch