Here is a question without an easy answer: Who is Anonymous? I have spent the last three years spending copious time with Anonymous on chat rooms, during protests and interviewing participants. Still this question has no easy or at least straightforward answer.
Since 2008, various groups of hackers, technologists, activists, geeks and unknown parties have used the name ‘Anonymous’ to organize diverse genres of collective action. These have stretched from humiliating hacks against security firms to technological support for Occupiers or Arab revolutionaries. In some instances, a multitude participates, as was the case with one their most famous operations: ‘Operation Payback’ in December 2010. They targeted the websites of PayPal and MasterCard after they ceased accepting donations for Wikileaks. Anonymous can also involve smaller, and more exclusive hacker groups such as Antisec. These hackers violate the law by breaking into servers to scour for politically-damning information to leak to the world at large.
They are generally misunderstood, alternately described by journalists as a collective of ‘online activists,’ ‘global cyberwarriors,’ and ‘cyber vigilantes.’ The source of this confusion is not hard to understand. Although Anonymous has increasingly devoted its energies to digital dissent and direct action, it has no definite trajectory, nor any single point of interaction, and they are located here and there.
Analyzing a subject that remains under “prolonged obscurity [and] desires to be incomprehensible, concealed [and] enigmatic” (to quote Friedrich Nietzsche), might seem impossible. But just as each twist of a kaleidoscope reveals a distinct pattern, so too have the patterns of Anonymous been revealed, at least momentarily.
To better understand the political significance and intentionality of the work of Anonymous, it is useful to cite the Enlightenment’s greatest critic, Friedrich Nietzsche as a starting point for exploration. The defiantly unclassifiable work of Anonymous that encompasses interventions, visual imagery and manifestos, gains clarity and insight when paralleled with these kindred aphorisms that feel almost tailor-made for the group.
Despite being a phantasmagoric army of resistance, unyielding to the desires and demands of statistics, systems and even sociological analysis, they have revealed fleeting revelations of their underlying logic through flashes of art, digital tactics or stinging words. Like the broader mimetic and troll culture from which it came, Anonymous is quick to appear, circulate, submerge, even vanish and perhaps reappear.
A 'subterranean man' [is] at work, one who tunnels and mines and undermines. As though he perhaps desires this prolonged obscurity, desires to be incomprehensible, concealed, enigmatic, because he knows what he will thereby also acquire: his own morning, his own redemption, his own daybreak? —Friedrich Nietzsche
Anonymous are subterranean sorcerers whose art is to conjure spectacle—but unlike Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle—Anonymous has done so largely on their own terms. Their magic resides foremost in their ability to exploit society's prevalent technical ignorance, which is, at times, amplified by media distortions.
A journalist describes one of their main places of daily interaction—Internet Relay Chat (IRC)—as “the deep web.” This characterization helps to create the illusion that Anonymous are inaccessible. But there is nothing deep nor even hidden about IRC; around since 1989, IRC is used by geeks and hackers all over the world to coordinate and communicate. It is where I spent much of my time doing research on Anonymous and where you too can find them, if you so desire.
Another journalist might call one of their main weapons—a distributed denial of service attack (DDoS attack)—as a “the equivalent of thermonuclear war.” But can it be war if nothing is hacked into, broken, blown up, or even in the least bit damaged? Even the typical Anonymous DDoS attacks, which utilize traffic floods, are unlikely to be successful against sites that perform a lot of data transaction such as, say, Amazon. Anonymous DDoS campaigns have tended to focus on more static, ‘business card’ style sites such as Mpaa.org (Motion Picture Association of America). Their DDoS tactics are a political stunt; the sites that are more vulnerable to DDoS tend not to be actual important infrastructure, just a symbol of that infrastructure.
Even those journalists who report responsibly and accurately on Anonymous love to seize on these types of tactics—and how they especially love to zero in on the figure of the hacker. Once they report on them, it works to amplify their actions, sometimes throwing some distortions in the mix, for instance by making it seem Anonymous is composed primarily of hackers. A great majority are not.
The political hacking operations of Anonymous became quite prominent only in the middle of 2011. It was the summer of endless hacks: for instance, the CIA website was taken down, PBS.org was defaced, and Fridays were christened ‘Fuck FBI Fridays.’ But hacking remains one tool of many (some networks oppose hacking and defacing) and there is other work to be done: stirring press releases to write, propaganda posters to design and videos to edit.
But we know so well that the media simply craves a leader, a compelling character, at minimum a face. Anonymous, for the most part, do not yield to their demands. They laugh back. Eventually the media and the public at large gets what they want: for once the state enters the fray, arrests are made, bodies and lives are uncovered and the media can write their story of the hacker-hero or hacker-traitor.
But their sorcery is not simply duplicity borne from our collective ignorance or the media's own proclivity to distort and sensationalize. There is something magical and uncanny about Anonymous. And it is their birth, their genesis as an uncivil activist phenomenon, which arrests our attention and sparks the imagination. Aphorisms about the prank and the accident are thus in order. For it is the prank that laid the ground for the weirdest accidental birth of activist politics, possibly ever to exist.
Maintaining cheerfulness in the midst of a gloomy task, fraught with immeasurable responsibility, is no small feat; and yet what is needed more than cheerfulness? Nothing succeeds if prankishness has no part in it. Excess strength alone is the proof of strength. —Friedrich Nietzsche
The pleasures of recognizing the accidental are not to be confused with the pleasures of interpretation. Rather, they are a recognition of the point where power convulses itself. —Jon Roberts
I have been known to describe Anonymous as tricksters. This is because Anonymous were, in the first instance, nothing but Internet trolls—intentional provocateurs—who offend, play, prank, simply for their own pleasures, for what they call the ‘lulz,’ Internet jargon for the laughs. Trolling can take many different forms. It can be lighthearted or gruesome, but almost always entails an unpredictable combination of trickery, pranking, defilement and deception. The more offensive, the better. To those not in the joke, trolling can be especially terrifying.
In 2008, The Church of Scientology was upset that one their own internal recruitment videos featuring their most famous celebrity member, Tom Cruise, had leaked onto the Internet. Once the wealthy church unleashed its lawyers to sue web publishers to remove the video, Anonymous unleashed its classic trolling techniques back at them. And by all estimates, it was the mothership instance of their trolling: jamming Scientology websites, sending unpaid pizzas to organization headquarters, faxing nude body images to churches and, of course, relentless phone pranking of the Dianetics hotline.
As part of these acts of trickery and defilement, Anonymous published a video—which to invoke Nietzsche again was simply done to maintain their own cheerfulness. In the video, they declared a war against Scientology:
For the good of your followers, for the good of mankind—and for our own enjoyment—we shall proceed to expel you from the Internet and systematically dismantle the Church of Scientology in its present form. We recognize you as a serious opponent, and we are prepared for a long, long campaign. You will not prevail forever against the angry masses of the body politic. Your methods, hypocrisy and the artlessness of your organization have sounded its death knell.
You have nowhere to hide because we are everywhere.
We cannot die; we are forever. We're getting bigger every day—and solely by the force of our ideas, malicious and hostile as they often are. If you want another name for your opponent, then call us Legion, for we are many.
It was earnest—and quite compelling—but earnestly a joke. The trickery was so crafty they got swept by their own cunning, which indeed can happen to tricksters. At times they get ensnared by their own tricks. Although a joke, the video unexpectedly sparked a debate: should they hit the streets to protest the church or remain faithful to its madcap roots? The answer came in the form of a global day of street demonstrations on February 10, 2008, held in over 127 cities with over 7 000 participants.
Just then, a political movement was born. Soon unrelated nodes hatched and many taking the mantle started to identify as bona fide activists, albeit with a transgressive uncivil twist. But they of course did not want to become gloomy, they kept the prank and integrated into their activist arsenal.
Modeling Thermodynamic Chaos?
But there is more to their subterranean magic and it lies in their predictable chaos, which we can also describe slightly differently as an ‘unpredictable logic.’ They may be hard to predict but they are not pure chaos. They rise up for reasons: they are most often triggered into action when threats to civil liberties loom and this is when they are able to shore up most support from their supporters and admirers But they make so many appearances across the globe: Zimbabwe, Tokyo, Québec, Brazil, Philippines, a small town in Ohio, Steubenville and of course, rise up to defend the values associated with the Internet. But their success is unpredictable, even to them. Their world can be rather confusing.
This much is already known: for every sensible line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherencies. —Jorge Luis Borges
Anonymous screeches, or sometimes whispers, senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherencies. They weave multiple labyrinths. There are various IRC networks in existence, AnonOps, VoxAnon, AnonSet, sometimes at war. Regional nodes are plenty from Romania to India. At times, participants are purposely deceitful. If you are a law-breaker you must be clandestine for self-protection. Deceit can also be a tactic to coax headlines out of the media. They seek to expose state secrecy but they keep secrets. And secrecy once accepted, “becomes an addiction” once said Physicist Edward Teller, or at least a source of pleasure, as sociologist Georg Simmel so rightfully noted.
They are not weapons of the weak, the phrase anthropologist James Scott uses to describe peasant politics for these voiceless, oppressed actors do everything possible not to call attention to themselves. “Their safety,” claims James Scott “lies in their anonymity.”
Weapons of the Geek
Anonymous are weapons of the geek. They are anonymous (technically pseudonymous) but perpetually call attention to themselves, seeking it out. They are an adept public relations portal. They rage against the machine but also lie deep in that machine. They are the makers and by-products of informational capitalism. Some Anons are system administrators who in their day job might fight spam and administer our e-mail but with Anonymous they install and maintain IRC and some might command the botnets, the zombie computers, used for a DdoS campaign. There are programmers who code the mountains of software which bring computers and the Internet to life, some who have erected websites for Anonymous news. Then there are those deft, adept designers who are the contemporary makers and ministers of desire. In the context of Anonymous they make the thousands of videos and posters used to rally the troops. These crafters—whether a programmer, system administrator, or designer—might even poach time at work to…work on their activism.
But Anonymous also houses the bored, the disenchanted, the mad and disabled, the merely curious and of course the unknown. They have become multitudinous, numerous and prolific. The collective power of the many, rather than the labor of the one, defines their ethical way of being.
The virtue of opacity and illegibility
What you want is fame? Then note the price: All claim To honor you must sacrifice. —Friedrich Nietzsche
Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth. —Oscar Wilde
They have shown us the virtue in opacity and illegibility. They heartily, one might say even aggressively, shun the ruling ethic of the century: celebrity, publicity, me. Seeking public recognition and especially fame is taboo. It is for this reason that hacker crews like Antisec got massive flack. While respected for potential political yields, they were disked by a great many due to their status-seeking behavior.
When this ethic is violated, people often get drubbed, chastised or marginalized; I myself have been told to act more humbly in the face of Anonymous. Those who bare the self—that is, those that seek public status—are certainly called out:
<A> hey Aaaa, can I say you really love attention and are just some wannabe?
<A> would be surprised if you are some faggot fed
<A> just like sabu [hacker working as informant]
<Aaaa> you can say whatever you like m
<Aaaa> but you'd be wrong
<A> You're just like @A, some attention seeking faggot
By sacrificing and effacing the selves and by shunning leaders, it has ensured their compelling mystery and helped their spread.
A small fire demands constant tending. A bonfire can be let alone. A conflagration spreads. —Anonymous on Anonymous
Taken globally, Anonymous has become a symbol for popular unrest, a way to channel via material from the deep disenchantment with a dictator, with a law, with the economy, with the culture of rape, basically with anything.
In North America and in Europe, Anonymous have come to life just as privacy and anonymity are slipping away, dying. They dramatize the importance of privacy and anonymity in an era where both are rapidly eroding. Anonymous, of course, champions anonymity in causes, but this commitment is echoed in both the iconography and its ethical codes. The movement provides a rare countermeasure in deeds, words and symbols against a world that encourages people to reveal their lives—where the Internet remembers everything about us, where our histories are permanently stored in search indexes and government databases—and at a time when governments’ ability to surveil its citizens has grown exponentially thanks to low-cost, ubiquitous digital technologies and the outsourcing of surveillance to the corporate world.
Anonymous, despite its call for privacy by challenging surveillance, may be nothing to celebrate. They are likely not our saviors. While it is too early to divine, I sometimes think Anonymous is merely the party at the funeral of online freedom and privacy:
We will be small scattered darknets on the fringes of the Internet after all is lost. —Anonymous
But maybe they are the irreverent clowns, rabble rousers and tricksters who are keeping the reaper at bay and enabling others, from protesters on the street to elected representatives in parliament, to join the political carnival and challenge threats to personal privacy and freedom.
Ever hungry like a flame
However explosive Anonymous is today, its continued presence on the world stage is certainly not guaranteed to last. It is plagued by infighting, fragmentation, as well as brand fatigue. Paranoia exploded in spring 2012 after the news broke that Hector Xavier Monsegur, known more commonly by his hacker handle ‘Sabu,’ had been exposed as an FBI informant. Most troubling for its long-term survival is government crackdown: since the summer of 2011, over 100 alleged participants have been arrested around the globe, in Romania, Turkey, Italy, the UK, the US, Chile and Germany.
Anonymous is an evolving thing
It is like a phoenix
It might occasionally catch fire and burn to the ground
But it will be reborn from ashes.
Yes, I know from where I came!
Ever hungry like a flame,
I consume myself and glow.
Light grows all that I conceive,
Ashes everything I leave:
Flame I am assuredly.