Authority and Power within Anonymous | P2P Foundation

Michel Bauwens, 7th May 2011

 Excerpted from a very interesting analysis of Gabriela Coleman:

“Who participates in Anonymous? What connects the different faces? Where and how does authority lie, pool, and disperse?

Technically, Anonymous is open to all and erects no formal barriers to participation. However there are forms of tacit and explicit knowledge, skills, and sympathies that lead some people and not others to politically engage in this domain. In contrast to most organizations, including Wikileaks, it is easier to contribute to Anonymous as it offers numerous micro-protest opportunities coordinated at the drop of a hat, among other possibilities for participation.

To grasp some of the power dynamics at play in Anonymous, it is imperative to address the technical architecture where many spend a significant time chatting and coordinating action: Internet Relay Chat. And it is worth emphasizing that there are currently two distinct and unconnected IRC networks where participants coordinate different efforts: Anonet and Anonops. Contrary to a number of media reports, these are open to the public. However a good deal of the public has no idea how to find or use Internet Relay Chat, although it is not technically difficult to use.

Within each IRC network there are also scores of channels, although there is usually only a dozen or so that are well populated at a given time. There are some channels devoted to social topics and lighthearted and humorous (ie: lulzy) banter, as many participants still value the lulz. The lulz provides “a release valve,” as one participant explained, a valve that makes the hard and sometimes depressing work of political engagement more bearable. Other channels exist to address technical issues, and of course, there are also multiple channels where the many political operations are coordinated; some participants have a pivotal role to play in many of them, others are only involved in a few channels.

On IRC there is a class of participants who hold more authority, those vested with infrastructural power: the IRC operators (“ops” are common to all IRC networks not only those of Anonymous). Tasked with maintaining order, they have the power to kick and ban individuals from the IRC network, which they might do for various reasons, including violating network and cultural norms, such as constantly connecting and disconnecting or in the case of Anonops, targeting the media or promoting violence. There are dozens of ops on each independent irc network. To be an op does not require that one be highly technically skilled. Although their opinions carry more weight during the many debates that unfold on these networks, they do not determine the course of every action or operation within Anonymous. Some are there simply to provide infrastructural support, others also engage in many of the political operations.

Authority and order also come in the form of policy, ethical sensibilities, and norms, all of which develop over time and often continuously formed and reformed in reaction to historical events. Participants across both networks are oriented towards issues of censorship, information freedom, and as their name so obviously signals, they tend to be overwhelmingly committed to the long-standing liberal principle that anonymous speech is necessary for a healthy democratic society. In the case of Anonops there is now an established policy to refrain from attacking the news outlets, even in nation-states where the media is seen to be a corrupt arm of state power, as in Iran. This provision is not universally accepted, and there have been periods when some participants violated this norm, leading to what is common to any political protest movement: debate and discord.

Finally, to understand the dynamics of power and authority in Anonymous one must confront what is one of the most interesting, prevalent, and socially-vibrant norms within Anonymous: its anti-leader and anti-celebrity ethic. This ethic that modulates, even if it does not fully eliminate, the concentration of power. Anonymous provides what Mike Wesch had described as “a scathing critique of the postmodern cult of celebrity, individualism, and identity while serving itself as the inverted alternative.” It is key to note that participants do not only wax philosophical about this commitment; they enact it. Participants remind each other with remarkable frequency that one should not behave like a leader, nor seek personal attention in the media, calling the practice “name fagging” or “leaderfagging.””  If you do ‘leaderfag’, you most certainly will receive a private or public drubbing, and if you have called a lot of attention to yourself, then with a mere keystroke, you might be instantly banished from IRC.

I was recently witness to just this very act after a participant had been too public about himself to a reporter, an anon who had not even built social capital by putting himself at risk participating in the DDoS attacks. After reading the article where he had been featured, one interlocutor condensed the collective mood in a mere sentence: “Attempting to use all the work that so many have done for your personal promotion is something i will not tolerate.” Then he was killed off— exiled from the IRC network

Does the existence of this ethic mean that power never pools, that there are no forms of authority? Or is Anonymous just living out a lie? Neither. To be sure, when it comes to certain actions, such as targeted hacking, only a small group of talented hackers can successfully pull this off; unsurprisingly, Anonymous is secretive about these types operations. This fact does not mean, as this Gawker piece argued that a small group of hackers are the leaders; they are confusing the power to hack, which is certainly powerful, with the power to lead all actions within Anonymous. As stated earlier, those who are more present on the network and have put in more work carry more authority; and even they don’t necessarily call all the shots. A more compelling rendition of these power dynamics would examine the dialectic between the creation of centralized power and its dispersal, which is common to many other geeky and hacker domains of collaboration. The uneasy relation between these two tendencies is partially resolved when anons constantly remind each other to refrain from behaving like a leader, and thus push participants to strive for consensus as the preferred mode of decision-making.”

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