Blog Article

Ideas are bulletproof; why we should still be expecting Anonymous

By Ben Collins:

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Anonymous November 5th protests [photo by Ben Collins; published by permission]

In 2013 the FBI declared that the hacker activist network Anonymous had been dismantled due to the arrests of ‘major players in the Anonymous movement.’[1] Others have decried the dilution of causes and foci among those who consider themselves Anonymous,[2] as well as the allegedly hypocritical use of personal information on heavily monitored social media platforms.[3]

However, among the widespread outcries against Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, Anonymous has once again been making headlines. On July 25th 2014 22 year-old Tayeb Abu Shehada was shot and killed in the West Bank in a clash between Israeli soldiers and stone-throwing protesters. Reports and alleged pictures of Tayeb show that he was wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, unifying common symbol of those who consider themselves as part of Anonymous.[iv] In response to both Tayeb’s death and the wider context of Operation Protective Edge, the ‘AnonGhost’ hacker group interrupted access to Israeli government and military websites and claim to have hacked some of Israel’s banking systems.[v] Without understanding Anonymous’ history and development, it is difficult to determine whether these events are part of an overall reawakening and remobilisation of Anonymous, or whether they are simply ‘business as usual’ for a largely ephemeral and intangible actor.

Anonymous emerged from the image-board website 4chan.org which was created in 2003. Initially conducting limited raids on other web communities for both the entertainment value and to document for posterity, these attacks escalated in scale and sophistication over the next four years. Anonymous’ breakthrough moment was a protest campaign in early 2008 against the Church of Scientology, dubbed ‘Project Chanology’ after the Church removed a video from YouTube showing Tom Cruise talking about Scientology for breach of copyright. Anonymous subsequently campaigned worldwide to raise awareness of the Church’s habitual censoring of information online, their litigious pursuit of detractors and the numerous suspicious deaths that are allegedly attributed to Church activities and members.

Project Chanology boosted Anonymous’ support and popularity beyond their original constituency, starting an upward trajectory of actions and campaigns. In 2010 Anonymous struck again, this time against the entertainment industry for the removal of several file-sharing websites, which in turn snowballed into ‘Operation Avenge Assange’, attacking Mastercard, Amazon and Paypal for freezing Wikileaks’ financial services.

This momentum continued into 2011 thanks to the Arab Spring. Anonymous worked to help activists circumvent internet censorship and attack government websites in Tunisia and Egypt. From these events the hacker splinter group LulzSec emerged, who in the first half of 2011 went on a 50-day hacking spree against governments, security services and corporations around the world. As one would expect, this campaign gave LulzSec, and vicariously Anonymous, a long list of powerful enemies. During this period Hector Monsegur aka ‘Sabu’, one of LulzSec’s members, was caught by the FBI and turned into an informant. Information he supplied helped authorities in the UK and US arrest the rest of LulzSec and a number of other prominent activists such as Jeremy Hammond.

The combination of the events surrounding LulzSec and the widening spectrum of causes being championed by those considering themselves Anonymous meant that many of their activities moved towards the path of least resistance. These were either humanitarian causes such as Operation Safe Winter which sought to raise money and awareness for the homeless during the winter months, or attacking targets who were unlikely to respond with the levels of legal reciprocity as were faced by LulzSec and their predecessors. These targets have included the government websites of Syria, North Korea, Russia, as well as the ‘500 plus’ Israeli websites hit by the AnonGhost team.[vi]

The arrests of individuals or small groups may have impacted overall morale, but they fail to stop the spread of the ideas behind the mask. The ubiquity of the internet means that protest and resistance movements can organise and communicate instantaneously on a global scale, connecting disparate movements and groups that otherwise would have had a much harder time finding others sympathetic to their cause.

This cellular and largely independent nature, coupled with the digital Matryoshka doll of IRC internet chatrooms and networks makes Anonymous very resilient – they should not be viewed of as a conventionally organised movement or group. The idea of Anonymous is more akin to a brand or franchise; a patron collective nomenclature which is invoked to strengthen solidarity and create an identifiable in-group among widely disparate causes and beliefs. This unifying common denominator brings ‘concerned citizens’ together against a system they deem unfair and impossible to change through traditional political channels. As such, individuals and groups adopt the common visual language of Anonymous as a tool of solidarity and recognition with other activists: Tayeb fought and died while wearing the Guy Fawkes mask, but it is highly unlikely that he was involved in Chanology, Operation Payback or LulzSec, for example.

Ultimately, the AnonGhost attacks are not a precursor to some new galvanisation of all the widely disparate cells, nodes and individuals who consider themselves Anonymous. Tayeb’s death will fade from collective memory and at best become a brief mention on Anonymous’ Wikipedia page. It is highly unlikely that the attacks carried out by the AnonGhost hackers will have any long-term effect on Israel’s military or political policy. However Anonymous is an actor with a completely different political agenda and language; reducing complex arguments to sticky, violent images which dominate and subvert conventionally written and spoken political discourse. These images diffuse through social networks and the wider media, resulting in self-generating feedback loops of outrage and opposition to perceived injustices. If indeed ‘the screen is our generation’s North German Plain’,7 then this ability to wield and deploy such images and information to the wider public, outmanoeuvring states and governments on the way is a significant capability that we would do well to continue to expect.

 

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Ben Collins is a 2nd year PhD student looking at hacker activists in comparison to 19th century Anarchism. Other focus includes how war and conflict are portrayed in videogames, as well as how players interact and question both the events in them and the relevant analogous real-world wars, conflicts and insurgencies we see in comparison.

 

NOTES

[1] Smith, G., FBI Agent: We’ve Dismantled The Leaders Of Anonymous, The Huffington Post 21/08/13, accessed 06/08/14 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/21/anonymous-arrests-fbi_n_3780980.html
[2] Anonymous, Anonymous R.I.P., AnonUKRadio 21/08/13, accessed 21/08/14 http://anonukradio.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/anonymous-rip.html
[3] The pages of at least two Anonymous Facebook groups have been verified by Facebook, a process normally reserved for celebrities or brands/products as, ironically in the case of Anonymous, ‘having an authentic identity’.
[iv] Gilbert, D., Hacktivists Hit Back at Israel After Death of Anonymous Member in West Bank, International Business Times 28/07/14, accessed 06//08/14 http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/hacktivists-hits-back-israel-after-death-anonymous-member-west-bank-1458623
[v] AnonGhost Team, BREAKING NEWS: #OpSaveGaza The Biggest Bank System in Israel Has Been Hacked By AnonGhost Team الحمد لله, Twitter 23/07/14, accessed 06/08/14https://twitter.com/AnonGhostTeam/status/491836637761245184/photo/1
[vi] Ridley, R., Gaza Anonymous Hacking Attack Shuts Down ‘Hundreds’ Of Israeli Government Websites. The Huffington Post 05/08/14, accessed 06/08/14http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/08/05/gaza-anonymous-hacking-at_n_5650652.html

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