Revealing Anonymous: An Interview With Gabriella Coleman
BY Carola Frediani | Tuesday, November 11 2014
Gabriella Coleman, a cultural anthropologist and professor at McGill University, spent years observing Anonymous, witnessing the group’s rise from within the trolling subculture to its current pursuit of cyber activism. Her new book, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous, is the most comprehensive research to date about the hacktivist collective.
Professor Coleman travels through the complex and mysterious underground universe of online activism with the help of a necessary sense of humor, referring to it as “ultracoordinated motherfuckery.” Her book is certainly an anthropological feat, revealing the inner culture and functioning of Anonymous, as well as its complexities, with details that even the best journalistic accounts struggle to capture.
The book compelling covers all the activities of Anonymous: from the pranks and lulz of image board 4chan to the campaign against the Church of Scientology, from the attacks on PayPal to the rise of splinter group LulzSec, from the chat channels like AnonOps to the streets of Occupy. The author is also refereshingly open about her account of the hacktivist group and does not seek to hide her personal fears and troubles. TechPresident's Carola Frediani reached out to Coleman by phone. Below is a condensed and edited version of the Interview.
How successful was the last Million Mask March in your opinion? Was it a vital movement? Is Anonymous becoming even more entangled with street and offline activism?
It was not as big as the year before but it was still impressive, especially in London, where austerity measures run deep. I was impressed (and not all that surprised) that in Dublin, where I happened to be at the time, the mask and iconography were used by the water meter fairies who are disabling the meters that will be used to charge people for water. Anonymous has provided a ready made template for expressing dissent--whether it is during a large yearly march like Guy Fawkes Day or protesting a more local affair as is the case with water rights in Dublin.
In your book, you recount Anonymous’ roots within 4chan and troll subcultures, a beginning that makes Anonymous and its many activist operations - from the Arab Spring campaign to the Avenge Assange operation to the Ferguson campaign - even more surprising. The WikiLeaks financial blockade - which started in December 2010 and targeted MasterCard, Visa, PayPal and other banking institutions in response to the publication of US diplomatic cables - was one of the moments that led to such a transformation.
Within days, around seven to eight thousand people at a time were flocking to some of the Anonymous IRC channels, downloading specific software and using it to launch a DDoS attack on PayPal. You wrote in your book that Anonymous “really provided a platform through which people who were quite angry at the banking blockade, could express their discontent."
Do you think that those days are gone? We haven’t seen IRCs (chat channels) flooded with those numbers any more.
It was an exceptional moment, the equivalent of a large street demonstration. There were at least seven thousand people; it was the biggest political protest on IRC in history. At the time the Anonops IRC network was like the local bazaar: everyone went there, there were many rooms where people exchanged ideas. But because of the crackdown, many activists don’t trust IRCs any more, since they realized that authorities can infiltrate them very quickly. So anons became more scattered and the level of activities have never reached that one. At the same time, operation PayPal set such a high bar, in terms of participation, it was difficult to repeat it. Any way, activities never stopped, they tended to move to regional areas and to act in a sort of “guerrilla architecture.” During operation Ferguson we have seen again that kind of “open platform architecture” we witnessed at the beginning.
Anonymous, you write in your book, is “composed of multiple competing groups, short-term power is achievable for brief durations, while long-term dominance by any single group or person is virtually impossible.” Can you explain how leadership works in Anonymous and to what extent it is different from the traditional ideas of leadership and hierarchy? And why is this concept so confusing for many people outside that movement to understand?
Because it is difficult to understand. Anonymous is not the hive anons claim it to be, neither is it about finding the leaders, as media often try to do. It is something in between. At any one moment a technical team can be very important and tend to command power and authority just because it can make certain things happen, and within the team itself you might find a classical team working with different roles and strengths. But there's a way in which the infighting on one network prevents the complete pulling of power by a specific group. Of course people who are in secret channels tend to have more power but during many operations the public facing IRC channels could exert much influence on the secret channels. So we have team work, multiple factions, people who don’t hack and just organize protests, people on the ground who are independent from the hackers. We should talk of multiple nodes of leadership.
You call operation PayPal the largest DDoS civil disobedience campaign the world has ever witnessed. Later on you say that Anonymous actions are similar to direct political actions. But, as you note in the book, governments, prosecutors and judges would rather cast anons as mere criminals, if not cyberterrorists. So could you further explain this concept of civil disobedience?
Civil disobedience requires law breaking and law breaking alone do not constitute criminality. Most people participating in Anonymous operations were not always aware of the consequences of law breaking, even if they knew that they were breaking the law. In order to do a DDoS on PayPal they were also using botnets, which is ethically controversial. There’s a paradox here: if you want to take down a big website like PayPal you need a botnet, and that controversial use provokes the media attention which makes the operation successful. But from the perspective of people participating in that action, it was clear to them that they were engaging in some sort of direct action of civil disobedience.
Of course a lot of people understand anons as vigilantes, and there are still many negative associations to them, but overall anons managed to escape the terrorism frame, which is an amazing fact since there has been an effort to depict them as terrorists. At a certain point General Keith Alexander [the former NSA director] claimed Anonymous had the capability of taking down the power grid. It was just propaganda, and of course it never happened. And the propaganda didn’t work. It was too late to frame them as terrorists. Of course any real attack to critical infrastructures made under the name of Anonymous, and looking to come out of an existing group of anons, would be game over for them as activists.
Even if Anonymous’s actions are driven by an activist calling, they have been swiftly criminalized. Thanks to Snowden’s leaks, we even realized that intelligence agencies engaged in controversial tactics against cyberactivists: smearing campaigns, DDOS attacks to anon IRCs, spreading malware. Why did they target anons so heavily? Why has US hacktivist Jeremy Hammond - now sentenced to ten years - been one of the FBI's most wanted cybercriminal? Why is the United States so afraid of them?
The fear depends on the fact that geek/hackers are a group of people that hold a lot of power. Think of LulzSec, where a small hacking team was able to break into corporations and governments. These people can access data that others can’t access, causing total havoc. So they are a threat. People from the energy, financial and security sector just hated Anonymous.
Hammond was threatening to them because they were afraid he could provide an example to others, and the fact that he was politically motivated was even more threatening. One of the things that amazed me is that they let him hack for a long time; they probably could have arrested him earlier. It seems there was a strategy to nail him and set an example: “If you dare to to this, you’ll be nailed by the State.”
At the end of your book, you talk about the way Anonymous is also about hope, solidarity, rejection of the cynicism and the anxiety of our society. From trolling to solidarity, that's really quite a quick evolution. What kind of future developments should we expect from Anonymous?
It is always surprising when people decide to cross the line of cynicism and apathy in order to do something for others, and it was amazing how a full-fledged political movement arose from trolling, which is a very cynical culture. On the other side, it is really hard to gain attention today in the media, since we live in a spectacle culture, and Anonymous was not different: it needed spectacle to circulate widely. The problem is how not to be caught in spectacle for the sake of it, how not to to gain attention for itself. Anonymous has been able to combine the art and the visual imagery with the politics. It has been able to embody Internet politics - which usually feels disembodied - through the videos, the music, the masks.
Since it came from an extreme culture of trolling, it transferred some of those extreme tactics to politics as much as it transferred 4chan dedication to extreme free speech outside 4chan and the Internet, stretching forward to social movements.
Today hackers have become more politicized because of Anonymous, WikiLeaks, Snowden, and the Pirate Party. Maybe there will be more quiet forms of action and “sabotage,” like the recent hack of FinFisher. But I think we’ll keep seeing forms of hacktivism, whether they take the shape of Guy Fawkes masks or not.
Carola Frediani is an Italian journalist and co-founder of the media agency, Effecinque.org. She writes on new technology, digital culture and hacking for a variety of Italian publications, including L’Espresso, Wired.it, Corriere della Sera, Sky.it. She is the author of Inside Anonymous: A Journey into the World of Cyberactivism.