Recent targets of the highly effective “Anonymous” cyberattacks, made in the name of freedom of speech and social justice, include the Belgian website of steel giant ArcelorMittal, hacked in January in protest against the closure of two blast furnaces; the website of the US private intelligence firm Stratfor, from which a large amount of personal data was stolen; the website of the Syrian ministry of defence; and that of the Spanish police after the arrest in Spain of three alleged members of Anonymous.
Who hides behind the Anonymous mask? Elite hackers, ignorant adolescents, dangerous cyberterrorists or simply trolls (1) with a childish sense of humour? All these definitions miss the mark, because Anonymous is multifaceted: it is not a group or network but a collective, or more accurately, several collectives that support each other.
In an extreme way, Anonymous symbolises the protest movements throughout the Arab world, Europe and the US since 2011. The gulf that separates them from the political systems they oppose can be seen in their radically different ways of organising. The political systems have a hierarchical structure, with leaders empowered to speak on behalf of all through the delegation of powers, but their legitimacy has been undermined by corruption and favouritism. The collectives deliberately have no leaders, and reject the principle of representation in favour of individuals directly participating in concrete actions. Their diversity means decisions can be made quickly, by the participants coming together on a specific issue, rather than by getting an official majority. The political establishment cannot understand such forms of organisation or their lack of concrete demands.
These temporary collectives, or “swarms” (2), consist of independent individuals using simple tools and rules to organise themselves horizontally. As the founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, Rick Falkvinge, put it: “As all the people in the swarm are volunteers … the only way to lead is by inspiring others through action” (3). The collective’s power lies in the number of people it brings together, and the perspective it provides on the diverse issues they care about.
Promise, tool, bargain
A collective starts with an appeal, accompanied by the resources to carry out an immediate action. Clay Shirky, an expert in social media, has identified three key elements in this supple form of cooperation: a promise, a tool, and a bargain (4). The promise lies in the appeal, which must interest enough activists and seem achievable. It might involve attacking a government website in response to censorship. Tools available online, such as the Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC) programme (named in reference to the Star Wars films), allows scattered volunteers to coordinate their actions. The bargain refers to the conditions everyone agrees to when they take part in the collective action.
Over time these three aspects can evolve, and the collective can grow, change direction or break up. To make sure it does not disappear as quickly as it appeared, a fourth element is needed, a common horizon, which “allows the scattered members of a network to recognise each other as existing within a shared referential and imaginary universe,” explains the essayist Brian Holmes (5). This is where the Anonymous mask — the Guy Fawkes mask worn by the hero of V for Vendetta, a graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd set in a totalitarian world — comes in. Its open identity, which can be expressed in a few general slogans, its graphic elements and shared cultural references, means anyone can claim it as their own, but it only makes sense if you all share the same outlook, sense of humour, anti-authoritarian convictions and faith in free speech.
French president Nicolas Sarkozy may have wished for a “civilised internet” at the e-G8 Forum in Paris in May 2011, but dark corners where anything is possible persist. On the popular internet bulletin board 4chan, set up in 2003, anyone can post comments and images without registering, and all posts are signed “Anonymous”. Its most popular forum, /b/, has no rules on content. The site does not store posts: messages that do not get a response go to the bottom of the list before being wiped, which generally happens within a few minutes. Nothing is archived. The only memory that counts is that of the site’s users. Anything that is difficult to retain, and which is not repeated, disappears.
In an effort not to disappear, many of these messages are calls to action — say, an invitation to vandalise an entry on Wikipedia. If the idea appeals to enough people, a mini-swarm attacks the target, just for the fun of it. Repetition and commitment have created a culture in which individuals and their backgrounds disappear — “ultra-coordinated motherfuckery”, as one hacker put it to the internet anthropologist Biella Coleman (6). Within five years these individuals became Anonymous-es (the word can be used as a generic or to stand for a collective identity). Their outrageous behaviour (permitted by their anonymity) goes hand in hand with a profound distrust of any authority that tries to regulate the internet for reasons they judge to be hypocritical, such as the fight against child pornography.
Agree the formula
In 2008 internet users adopted this identity to attack the Church of Scientology. Hackers had declared war on it a decade before, accusing it of fraud and manipulation, while the Church used its considerable resources to eliminate embarrassing information, and attack the reputations of anyone who criticised it. Anonymous got involved when the Scientologists tried to prevent the circulation of a video in which the actor Tom Cruise — a senior member of the Church — appeared to be mentally unbalanced. In response to a torrent of law suits, Anonymous made a spoof video announcing the imminent destruction of the Church.
Debate followed on internet forums, at the end of which a specific promise-tool-bargain formula was worked out. People decided to go beyond online activity and organise a global day of action, on 18 February 2008 in 90 towns in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. To protect themselves from retaliation from the Church of Scientology, many wore the Fawkes mask. For the first time members of Anonymous met in the flesh, outside the internet, establishing a link with more traditional activists.
These protests remained Anonymous’s main political objective for the next two years. Then in September 2010 a collective formed around Operation Payback. This campaign began with an attack against AiPlex Software, an Indian company contracted to shut down the file sharing website, The Pirate Bay. The campaign quickly spread to Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) website, and other organisations that were felt to be advocating control of the net under the pretext of fighting file sharing. The campaign’s rallying cry was: “You call it piracy. We call it freedom.”
Anonymous’s political identity became more focused, and its technical methods and strategy more sophisticated as a result of these actions. In December 2010, when WikiLeaks was prevented from receiving donations after it published diplomatic cables (7), Operation Payback resurfaced and attacked the websites of Mastercard, Visa, PayPal and Bank of America. In January 2011 Anonymous members carried out a very organised attack against Tunisian government sites. This made Tunisian bloggers feel they could count on international solidarity.
During 2011 Anonymous collectives multiplied and made many calls for action, although sometimes these were just internet users seeking profit or attention. But other collectives brought people together. In August Anonymous circulated a video calling on people to occupy Wall Street, taking up an idea that the Canadian group Adbusters had been championing for several weeks.
The audacity of Anonymous has allowed it to adopt slogans such as “Piracy is freedom”, which are too extreme for any traditional politician to use for fear of losing credibility. Anonymous has had a galvanising effect on latent energies that traditional protests have failed to stimulate. But however powerful it is, largescale spontaneity can only confront established institutions through destruction. This type of organisation does not want to construct alternative institutions. It is working to create a common horizon of protest which may make future action easier. It has already cracked walls that seemed indestructible. Other protestors will turn these cracks into openings.
Source: Le Monde Diplomatique