From Lulz to Labor Unions: The Evolution of Anonymous

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?

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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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