Anonymous: “Self-organisation of the computer nerds”

Guy Fawkes mask, associated with Anonymous, worn at a Wellington demo in solidarity with Palestine

Guy Fawkes mask, associated with Anonymous, worn at a Wellington demo in solidarity with Palestine

Daphne Lawless.

For those who’ve been watching Internet culture for a while, it’s still a bit of a culture shock to see Anonymous being discussed in the mainstream media. As this article is being written, Anonymous has been credited with bringing down the website of a large private university in India whose boss had been censoring Internet articles criticising him. Also in the news, Anonymous claims to have hacked some 600,000 Israeli email accounts as part of an ongoing campaign.

The media generally describe Anonymous as a “hacktivist” group. But the most important thing to understand is that Anonymous is not a group of any sort, or an ideology. It’s an idea, and a culture.

The birthplace of Anonymous as we know it was the infamous webforum 4chan, whose “random” board (/b/) is known (among much less polite things) as “the cesspool of the internet”. Contributions to 4chan are all credited to “Anonymous”– there is no way to trace any image or message to any individual.  Under the Anonymous moniker – except a permanent ban for anyone posting child pornography – posters to /b/ (known as “/b/tards”) are free to act out the darkest impulses of their psyche and of the cultural environment.

The board has become notorious as the place to go for the most sexist, racist, homophobic, gory and otherwise transgressive content imaginable. However, the no-limits creativity of this environment also has also given birth to so many of the Internet injokes we can now take for granted. “LOLcats”, for example, began as a 4chan custom known as “Caturday”. You can now buy T-shirts, calendars, badges and other items featuring images  and concepts which had their origin on 4chan. Of course, the anonymous originators of this content don’t get a slice of the profits.

In this culture, harrassment and “trolling” are not only tolerated, but considered high entertainment. Those who get on Anonymous’ wrong side can expect to have their personal details broadcast, their websites and email addresses hacked, and to be harrassed with prank phone calls and bogus pizza deliveries – and worse.

But – perhaps surprisingly – the power of Anonymous began to be used for pro-social causes. One famous target of Anonymous was an American teenager who posted a YouTube video of himself abusing his pet cat. Another was neo-Nazi talk radio host Hal Turner, who was driven off air and unmasked as an FBI provocateur.

If Anonymous can be said to have any principle – apart from “doing it for the lulz” (i.e. the laughs) – it is that of preserving its environment, a free Internet.  In the past five years, Anonymous have declared war on powerful social institutions which threaten that freedom.

anonymous scientology

In January 2008, the Church of Scientology bullied YouTube into taking down an internal video of its biggest celebrity convert, Tom Cruise, making a bizarre speech in Scientology jargon. This was brought to 4chan /b/’s attention, in a post which specifically called for the power of Anonymous to be used in a good cause:

“I think it’s time for /b/ to do something big… I’m talking about hacking or taking down the official Scientology website. It’s time to use our resources to do something we believe is right.”

Scientology’s official website was indeed “taken down” by Anonymous hackers. But Project Chanology, as the attack was called, didn’t stop there. Anonymous began an ongoing campaign of harrassment against Scientology, on the net and in real life. The young enthusiasts for Chanology joined up with existing critics of Scientology to organise street protests and media coverage.

Anonymous was the perfect foil for Scientology, an organisation notorious for suing its critics and attempting to destroy them personally. You can’t slander someone whose name you don’t know, and while you can destroy an organisation, you can’t destroy a meme.

Anonymous brought the techniques of guerrilla warfare to internet activism. With no centralised controlling mechanism, individuals or small collectives could take independent action, or co-ordinate initiatives via one of their many online forums.

In June 2009, Anonymous found its next “big target” in the government of Iran. As part of the crackdown on protest after the disputed Presidential elections of that month, the Iranian government shut down social media and websites used by protestors. In response, Anonymous in the West took down Iranian government websites, and made free internet access available to Iranian dissidents.

One online commenter suggested:

“Not only did Operation Chanology [sic] get some of the more serious /b/tards organized, it got their minds more organized as well… [and] gave them the idea that they could do stuff that doesn’t involve spamming the Fox News forums”

The “political” turn of Anonymous produced a internal resistance. Many long term 4chan denizens resisted doing anything for a “good cause” – in /b/’s peculiar homophobic dialect, this was called “moralfaggotry”. It’s important to remember, even today, that many Anonymous actions are taken in service of a political agenda – and others may be pure wanton destructiveness, for “the lulz”.

Anonymous is not a socialist movement by any stretch of the imagination. Its politics could be best described as techno-anarchist – opposed to any governmental or corporate power which aims to censor, privatize or otherwise shut down free expression or free exchange in the media. They come from the same social milieu as the anti-copyright Pirate Party, which has won seats in some European legislatures.

But Anonymous is best seen as “the self-organisation of computer nerds”. Highly skilled yet socially marginal information workers have come together to “do something big” against the major powers of the world. Some major activists in Anonymous have been tracked down and prosecuted by state agencies. But there’s no way you can prosecute an idea.

Anonymous shows that all the repression in the world can’t stop motivated activists who can identify the weak points in the system, exercise effective power over the means of communication. This is a lesson that needs to be relearned by the wider working class in the 21st century.

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