From Lulz to Labor Unions: The Evolution of Anonymous

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The fuzzy goals of the loosely affiliated group Anonymous have changed in the last year.

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It wasn't so long ago that Anonymous staked its identity on relentlessly subverting culture for the lulz. The group became renowned for its mockery of egregious displays of political correctness, hypocrisy, social conservatism and lameness by way of constructing humorous memes, or by mythologizing these flaws in their satirical wiki, Encyclopedia Dramatica. Needless to say, their work had narrow appeal -- appreciated mainly by members of the group's forums. It took the inimitable trolling of Oprah -- which led to her hysterical announcement to middle America that a known pedophile network by the name of Pedobear was equipped with "over 9,000 penises that were all raping children" -- to garner the group significant time in the media spotlight.

These days, the narrative could not be more different. Over the past few months, Anonymous has constantly been in the headlines, but for reasons that are political rather than "lulzy." It seems the group has squarely concentrated its efforts on promoting freedom of information and speech by way of illegal, distributed denial-of-service attacks to crash the websites of authoritarian regimes in Africa and bolster the group's campaign for unfettered freedom of expression worldwide.

For the most part, the mainstream media remains befuddled by Anonymous, not knowing quite what to make of the group's mélange of illegal activity, political motivations and sardonic sense of humor. Moreover, as the group does not visibly toil on any ideological coalface, media outlets have been tempted to portray Anonymous as a group of lonesome hackers with nebulous but shadowy intent. Mass rallies -- like the ones in Wisconsin -- make for an easy, linear media narrative. But electronic subterfuge and virtual activism are often depicted as a bloodless sport -- the least compelling kind.

But now, things are getting bloody -- especially in the United States where Anonymous has gained considerable clout. This week, the group's actions spectacularly forced the resignation of beleaguered HBGary Federal CEO Aaron Barr after it was revealed that HBGary -- in tandem with Palantir Technologies, Berico Securities and Hunton and Williams -- were planning to initiate a disinformation campaign against pro-union organizers and opponents of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The group uncovered the astonishing lengths the three firms would go to in order to discredit their enemies: They planned to set up fake personas on social network sites to damage their opponents and contemplated using malware to steal private information. This has now prompted the Democrats to push for a Congressional investigation. (Being Anonymous, they also brandished their signature irreverence by hacking Barr's twitter account and announcing that he was a "sweaty ballsack of caterpillars.")

But certain aspects of Anonymous' methodology continue to divide those outside and inside the hacker community. DDoS attacks are useful for garnering media attention to certain political causes, but they can also be interpreted as an ironic attack on the opposing side's right to free speech. The persuasiveness of this argument depends on the size and character of Anonymous' targets. Multinational corporations and governments may seem fair game, but what about private citizens? Are critics right to suggest Anonymous is eroding an already blurry distinction between public and private spheres?

Pinning down a cogent ideology of the group is difficult, too. We can surmise a few things with confidence: Anonymous is a zealous defender of freedom of information; the free exchange of information; the right to be irreverent; and the necessity of calling out gross abuses of power. But how committed are they to, say, social justice? This excerpt of a recent missive against the Koch brothers goes as far to imply some level of solidarity with America's working classes and union movement, but it is hard to tell if the group's motives are genuine:

"Anonymous hears the voice of the downtrodden American people, whose rights and liberties are being systematically removed one by one ... we are calling for all supporters of true Democracy, and Freedom of The People, to boycott all Koch Industries' paper products. We welcome unions across the globe to join us in this boycott to show that you will not allow big business to dictate your freedom."

Generally speaking, as Anonymous is a decentralized, online community of individuals, it is probably misguided to slap a political label on the group. As a member explained to a newspaper in Baltimore: "We all have this agenda that we all agree on and we all coordinate and act, but all act independently toward it." It's a fairly vague description of the group's politics, to say the least. This brand of civil disobedience is a stark contrast to the centralized, "real-life" social movements of the past, which generally had an identifiable leader and hierarchical order. Theoretically, anyone can become a member, as long as they profess a loose identification with the group's objectives. Coldblood, a spokesperson for the group illustrates just how elastic this identification can be, suggesting that Anonymous is in fact an "online living consciousness, comprised of different individuals with, at times, coinciding ideals and goals."

So what happens when these ideals and goals fail to coincide, as was the case when Anonymous threw its support behind WikiLeaks? Well, the results could be kind of anarchic. In the WikiLeaks scenario, disagreement arose over how Anonymous should show its support. Agreeing on the duration of DDoS attacks on Visa, Mastercard and PayPal -- as well as agreeing on the attacks themselves -- proved a point of contention. The group splintered off into factions -- Operation Leakspin, Operation Payback and Operation Avenge Assange -- each outlining different tactics to demonstrate their support. Anonymous even published a press release addressing "perceived dissent" within its membership.

For better or worse, Anonymous is a by-product of the political freedoms we often take for granted. The group's ability to induce actual changes in social and political policy may be limited, but their ultimate value to democracy lies in their capacity to perform vital checks on institutional power. Their methods may be radical, but for now their outcomes have proved nothing more than regulatory.

Image: Hugo |-|/Flickr.

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Gillian Terzis is a freelance writer based in Melbourne, Australia. Her work has been published in The Guardian, Foreign Policy and The Jakarta Post.

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