Yesterday Gabriella Coleman, Anonymous-expert and author of „Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The many Faces of Anonymous“ spoke to Max Hoppenstedt of Motherboard and Frederike Kaltheuner about the possibilities and limits of Hacktivism.
Coleman likens Anonymous to a mythological figure, a trickster, a jester, a trouble maker, a dancing little goof that defies authority and disobeys rules and norms.
Multiplicity and simultaneity are the strengths of the movement. The organisation of Anonymous groups is a like maze. It is a labyrinth structure with different groups and parallel channels. During the uprising in Tunisia, there were four channels with only one person participating in all four. The benefit: it is resistant, hard to understand and hard to infiltrate or destroy.
Coleman was a post-doctorate fellow at the University of Alberta when she began researching Anonymous. The University has the largest Scientology archive in the world and Anonymous first political campaign happened to be against Xenu. Coleman was intrigued, how the culture of trolling and offensiveness at 4chan developed into something else. Coleman describes Anonymous „as a big accident“. Something that started as an internet prank turned into global action with a political agenda.
According to Coleman, it is a diverse movement, too. Anonymous is the Puerto Rican who lives in the projects, the ex-military, the kid from Ireland: race, class, gender and background are very different. Hackers in general are against totalitarianism and therefore Anonymous leans towards the politically progressive and liberal, but there is also the occasional conservative kid, who would hack an abortion clinic. At the lecture, there were just as many girls as guys. That´s nice and supports Coleman´s point.
So how does Anonymous pick their targets? According to Coleman it remains a little mysterious. There is an accidental element to it, but mostly it is a reaction to censorship and “triggered by world events“,and like Operation Ferguson, a reaction to injustice and misuse of power.
DDos-ing became an act of civil disobedience and political in support of the Arab spring and WikiLeaks vs. Paypal. Anonymous hoped to escape law enforcement because there is “strengh in numbers“. But that is not entirely true. Especially in the US, law enforcement did prosecute to a ridiculous extend with penalties up to 124 years in jail for people participating in the hacks. But the Paypal example also led to exposure of Anonymous in the mainstream media and a lot of support from a broad political spectrum from left to right. It was recognized as a freedom of information issue and legitimized Anonymous in a public forum as a protest movement.
So is Anonymous the good knight, the digital batman? Maybe. And because no one knows exactly who and how many people are involved, the movement escaped the fate of WikiLeaks that became almost synonymous with Julian Assange. They are very visible, yet have no faces.
The Problem: every confused person can adapt the mask, can wear the mask and sell their conspiracy theories under the label of Anonymous. Max Hoppenstedt illustrated that with the example of the most popular German Anonymous Facebook-page, that is a nightmare slideshow of every imaginable demand of the new right.
Coleman, with a wink and a smile, speculates it could very well be a set up by some intelligence organisation to discredit the movement.
It is a communal idea that anyone can take, but many years of progressive/ liberal use limit a conservative interpretation. The strength of Anonymous is protest in a public forum. The first street action was against Scientology. Seeing people protesting in more than 120 cities, wearing the masks as a symbol and as protection is powerful imagery.
The stage has changed. Digital activism can turn into real bodies on the streets.