There’s an interesting post by Nate Anderson on Ars Technica about transformations in Anonymous, a group of un-named hackers which began on the 4chan imageboards in 2003 and collectively troll for apolitical fun and for justice.
They are most famous for their successful DDoS attacks against high-profile and resources-rich organizations. Probably their greatest coup to date is taking down the MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal sites in defense of Wikileaks, for whom the companies refused to process donations.
Why Anonymous Matters for Digital Activism
Anonymous is an important case study in digital activism because they are one of the few powerful and effective flat, networked, digital organizations in the world and, though they do occasionally have offline actions (as in the Chanology campaign against Scientology), most of their actions take place online.
In discussing the rise of networked organizations made possible by the Internet, Anonymous is the most impressive example. Even flatter than Wikipedia, anyone can start a campaign so long as they are able to convince other members to join. Anyone can speak on behalf of the organization by publishing a press release.
Though their tactical repertoire is mostly limited to hacking, DDoS, and online harassment, they should still be counted within the digital activism fold since they do use digital technology for politically-motivated action. And, because of their effectiveness in attacking their targets and bringing attention to their causes – alleged bad acts by Scientology, the payment transfer boycott of Wikileaks by credit card companies – their methods should be studied.
Stress Point I: Dilution of Resources
Yet the extreme egalitarianism of the flat network seems to be driving down effectiveness. Even an organization with porous boundaries does not have unlimited resources, and those human resources are being diluted by too many campaigns, such that each campaign cannot recruit enough people to carry out all the tasks necessary for success. Notes Anderson:
As the targets have spread, the effectiveness of the attacks on them appears to have diminished. Even when much of the Anonymous interest was on #opwisconsin over the weekend, the group’s vaunted distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks could only take down right-wing strongholds like Americans for Prosperity, Koch Industries, and Club for Growth for short periods of time. Several targets, including the government of Sweden, appeared impervious.
There is evidence that even the Anons are fed up. As one noted in a press release:
We cannot afford to tackle every opponent that dares to confront us…. Everyday, there are new operations. Some even in the same exact topic…. This does NOT help gain support. This does NOT make matters simpler. This will only cause more problems than solve them. Anonymous, we should work to consolidate our tactics.
Though, as Anderson notes, press releases can be authored by anyone and thus do not reflect an official viewpoint or even a majority one.
Stress Point II : Lulz vs. Moralfags
In addition to the tension over human resource dilution, there is also a tension between the “lulz” members who like to humorously torment people who they think deserve it (like Jessi Slaughter) and the “moralfags” who act out of political and social justice motives by attacking the web sites of the government of Egypt, assisting Iranian activists with circumvention and DDoS, and even lobbying the UN on behalf of Libya. Since harassment of some perceived evil-doer is often involved in the campaigns of both types of members, sometimes the two can peacefully co-exist, though there are few lulz to be had in drafting a letter to the United Nations.
As a result of this tension, a group of activist Anons recently created their own splinter group, Magnanimous, which has a leader, Anti-Vigilante, and is dedicated to a social justice mission. In true Anon fashion, this traitor soon found his blog and Twitter feed hacked and defaced with pro-Anon slogans. In addition to lowering morale, in-fighting saps resources from other campaigns.
Why These Stresses Matter
Why does all this matter? Because Anonymous is an organization engaging in activism that could operate only in the Internet age and breaks the seemingly iron link between money and influence, with powerful implications. What happens to Anonymous will influence and also foretell the possible future of other digital organizations.