What It's Like to Participate in Anonymous' Actions

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Anonymous, who have been on a week long sprint/spree to paralyze website sites like Mastercard and Paypal, are often described in the news as a "group" with "members." This is usually followed by a series of prolonged qualifications and caveats because many characteristics we usually associate with groups don't seem to apply comfortably with Anonymous: there are no leaders, anyone can seemingly join, and participants are spread across the globe, although many of them can be found on any number of Internet Relay Chat Channels where they discuss strategy, plan attacks, crack jokes, and often pose critical commentary on the unfolding events they have just engendered. Earlier this week, The Economist listened in on the IRC channels, opening a fascinating window into the order behind the seeming chaos of Anonymous and providing a sense of how the Distributed Denial-of-Service attacks are coordinated by a trusted group of Ops who leverage the labor of thousands of other contributors.

But there is a lot more to how Anonymous, at least in this operation, deliberate about their mission, make decisions, and produce collective statements, such as Manifestos. Here I want to give a fuller picture of what it looks like to participate in Anonymous, how they arrive at some consensus, how they change tactics, and how they use technology to produce collaboratively. Although this is quite an incomplete picture, it will perhaps give a more human face to an operation that otherwise seems faceless.

As mentioned already, IRC is where many participants congregate. They do so in very large numbers to coordinate attacks, debate, and simply watch. In the constant streams of chatter (and they are often multiple channels), there is always a strange mix of pragmatic imperatives with more philosophical or critical takes on the events:

(11:23:42 AM) XXXX Well until we get real orders, just keep attacking MasterCard, until we get real orders(in the topic)Well until we get real orders, just keep attacking MasterCard, until we get real orders(in the topic) migs.mastercard.com.au port . . .

(11:23:43 AM) YYYY: i think most of people here do not fight because of something... they are fighting because of the fight... such a shame

We see here how one participant is trying to rally the infantry to stay on target but this is followed by critical commentary on motivations behind the attacks. But is it the case that "most people here do not fight because of something?" In reality, it is hard to tell. In some ways, it may be impossible to gauge the intent and motive of thousands of participants, many of who don't even bother to leave a trace of their thoughts, motivations, and reactions. Among those that do, opinions vary considerably.

And yet there are other statements made by Anonymous that do give a clear sense that some fight for "something" and that this is part of a larger political plan, even if surely not everyone participates in Anonymous for noble causes. Along with IRC, Anonymous have also made ample use of collaborative writing software, in this case Pirate Pad (which rose from the ashes of Etherpad) and do so to coordinate actions, pick targets, and write manifestos. If IRC is where the cacophonous side of Anonymous is most clearly manifest, then the documents and conversation on Pirate Pad reflect a calmer, more deliberate and deliberative side of Anonymous, where participants offer arguments that are picked apart or supported through reasoned debate.

Take for instance a snapshot from a document written by 31 anons, 16 writing simultaneously:


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Here they get into a few more details as to who and why they attack:

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From at least this vantage point Anonymous starts to look more like a group of seasoned politics activists, debating the merits and demerits of actions and targets, warning for example, not to attack the media. Even if these documents cannot be taken as the totality of Anonymous, they reveal that some of the participants do engage in strategic and political thinking.

These documents are not, however, the only place where participants deliberate or announce tactics. IRC, as I noted, is where so much of the action and the coordination occurs.

As I was writing this up, a number of participants were calling for a change of tactics: (12:25:13 PM) AAAA: Decision: Our message has come across. We have been mentioned in medias, blogs and other sources. Our response has been succesful. Our point has come across. We need to stop all attacks now and focus on organization, so that future attack may come in tenfold strength. Stop all attacks!

And yet, did this happen? There are some signs -- like Operation Leakspin -- that it has. But it's too early to make a real determination. And Anonymous has shown that it's willing to change as circumstances change. And the news that Julian Assange expects to be charged for espionage could shift things for Anonymous, as this tweet makes utterly clear. Stay tuned.

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Trained as an anthropologist, Gabriella Coleman examines the ethics of online collaboration/institutions as well as the role of the law and digital media in sustaining various forms of political activism. She's an assistant professor at New York University.

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