Anonymous has been making headlines lately for their online and offline protests in support of Wikileaks, North Africa, and the unions in Wisconsin. But are they pranksters, hackers, or activists? New York University anthropologist Gabriella Coleman says that they represent the gamut of internet behavior, from its most idealistic to its most nihilistic.
BOB GARFIELD: In response to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union push, the loose-knit group of netizens calling themselves “Anonymous” took down the website of the Koch brothers’ political action committee, Americans for Prosperity. The purported reason? Money from that pack supported Walker’s campaign. “Anonymous” seems to have its hands in a lot of political actions lately, from supporting WikiLeaks by taking down MasterCard and PayPal’s websites, to attacking the websites of North African governments in support of the protestors. Their online weapon of choice is what’s called a “distributed denial of service attack,” which crashes websites by flooding them with messages. On the Media has in the past couple of months referred to Anonymous as “hackers,” “hacktivists,” “Internet pranksters,” even “vigilantes.” But New York University anthropologist Gabriella Coleman, who has studied Anonymous, says it’s more complicated than that. She believes that Anonymous is a microcosm for the entire continuum of online behavior from its most idealistic to its most nihilistic. Take, for example, its recent attack on Aaron Barr, who was CEO of the security firm HBGary Federal.
GABRIELLA COLEMAN: Aaron Barr had spoken with a reporter in The Financial Times and revealed that he had supposedly infiltrated the group and was about to release the real identities of what he called the kind of core group of Anonymous. And a small contingent of Anonymous took almost immediate action, hacking into his Twitter account and taking it over, and they also hacked into the company he works for and downloaded, I believe, 50,000 emails, which then they put on the Internet. So this is an example when certain elements of Anonymous were trolling and hacking, as other elements were continuing to protest, for example, and lend a helping hand in the Middle East.
BOB GARFIELD: I'm glad you raised that point because that seems to me a structural problem with Anonymous being anonymous. How do they retain their identity as righteous fighters for justice when anybody can go out and create mayhem and blame it on them?
GABRIELLA COLEMAN: Within each network there are certain participants who can allow or disallow certain people. And what happens then is that people go elsewhere and set up their own network. Within a network there are techniques that are used to, quote, unquote, “keep people in line.” When they were engaging in operations in Tunisia, some people were talking about attacking the media. And when you have a swell of people saying, no, no, that’s not what we do, it kind of keeps people in line on that network. So there are forms of control, but to be sure, as you noted, anyone can then take the name and as long as they corral enough human power, they, too, can lead actions as well.
BOB GARFIELD: We were talking about individuals under the banner of Anonymous creating mischief. What happens if, for example, a country engaging in cyber warfare decides to do so masquerading as Anonymous?
GABRIELLA COLEMAN: While anyone can take the name, people who are familiar with Anonymous, which includes journalists, people like me, other interested parties, could come about and say, look, this may be Anonymous but it did not spring forth from the networks whereby Anonymous is currently organizing themselves. And so you can sort of respond in the media and say, well, it is, but in name alone.
BOB GARFIELD: To some people’s way of thinking, Anonymous, or at least some of its elements, have been engaged in actual crimes, including theft of intellectual property and, you know, a whole bunch of other stuff. And you would think governments have resources to identify IP addresses and so forth. Is that a threat to this non-organization?
GABRIELLA COLEMAN: Forty subpoenas were issued in the United States for people believed to be participating in Anonymous. In the UK, five, again alleged, participants were arrested, released, and I believe there'll eventually be a trial. I think when it comes especially to the forms of what I saw as civil disobedience with MasterCard and PayPal, there is an awareness that there are legal consequences to civil disobedience. But if the punishment is something like ten years in jail, which is what could happen with denial of service attacks, I think that there would be a huge, huge protest movement that formed as a response to that. They really have a sense that they are participating in a global stage, where the political stakes of questions of information access, transparency really do matter to the future of democracy. And while – I mean, this is one of the tough things about Anonymous, because it’s definitely the case that the trolling and the lulz seem so anti-ethical, and I agree that it really can have those ramifications. I don't want to whitewash that element. But to sort of pigeonhole Anonymous as kind of basement dwellers who are marginalized, who kind of have no lives, who are just exercising their psychological pathology is really selling this world short.
BOB GARFIELD: Anonymous acts in the name of good government and justice and transparency in ways that are unilateral, sometimes arbitrary and certainly opaque. How does Anonymous justify that, you know, central irony, maybe even hypocrisy?
GABRIELLA COLEMAN: There are some participants who don't engage in the kind of lulzy trollish behavior, and so for them there is no contradiction. What they do is civil disobedience. They help in terms of human rights activism. And, yes, they do things in a kind of way that enacts spectacle, but that’s actually quite tactical and effective. Anonymous pontificates quite a bit about what it means to be Anonymous. They write a lot of documents and manifestos and papers, and this is where you can get a sense of their political sensibility. This is what someone says about anonymity. It says, “Certainly there’s power in accountable free speech. I mean, look at the figures like Martin Luther King or Gandhi. They did incredible things. But there’s something lost when it is focused on one person or on one group. People and ideas get swept under the rugs. There’s just something spectacular about the necessarily egalitarian nature of a democratic movement on the Internet.” And what I think is so interesting about Anonymous is the fact that it is a kind of political gateway for a lot of geeks who may have not participated in politics before.
BOB GARFIELD: Gabriella, thank you very much.
GABRIELLA COLEMAN: You’re welcome.
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BOB GARFIELD: Gabriella Coleman is an assistant professor in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University.