Cyber is Sexy, and Anonymous is the Belle of the Ball

Max Halupka

Max Halupka is a research fellow at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra. He is also Managing Editor of 'The Policy Space'

Anonymous is a popular media subject, drawing praise and criticism alike for their ‘hacktivist’ approach to political participation. In this post, Max Halupka, a PhD candidate at the University of Canberra asks, how well do we understand the way that Anonymous works? This post peers beneath the popular narratives surrounding Anonymous, and illuminate the inner workings of this very esoteric community.

Cyber is sexy right now. Indeed, attach the word ‘cyber’ to anything and it’s bound to attract some form of attention. From cyberactivism through to cyberterrorism – such portmanteaus both scare and intrigue us. Perhaps it’s the sense of unknowing attached to it all that gets a rise out of us. Most of us know how to use a computer, some of us would even deem our skills adequate. However, save for a few experts and those under 25 (often one in the same), the internet largely remains a mystery.

We check our emails, browse our Facebook, catch-up on the news, and perhaps procrastinate a little on YouTube. Yet this is as far as our use of the internet goes.  However, when we hear stories about cyberterrorists and hackers, our mind conjures up Hollywoodesque scenes of fast typing geniuses playing a deadly game of cat and mouse. So far removed are their skills and actions from our own that we latch onto these grandiose narratives, reiterating them through every news report and media release. Nothing could be further from the truth.

One such group who has received a lot of attention of late is Anonymous, the seemingly faceless hacker collective responsible for attacks on targets such as: PayPal, the Church of Scientology, and the Israeli Government. Just recently, Anonymous declared war on ISIS, vowing to nullify their online presence. Yet, as a result of both the Hollywood narrative, and the general misunderstanding concerning the community itself, much of what is written on Anonymous fails to adequately conceptualise them.

Anonymous first gained mainstream media attention in 2008 with their global protest of the Church of Scientology. While Anonymous had been an active community since 2003, staging a number of attacks against targets such as the social networking site Habbo Hotel and holocaust denier Hal Turner,  their protesting of the Church of Scientology was the first to draw significant coverage. Since then, Anonymous has been at the centre of a number of high profile stories. In addition to attacking sites such as PayPal and MasterCard in a sign of support for WikiLeaks, and forcing the CEO of the security firm HBGary Federal to resign, they have launched operations against several governmental bodies, including the Australian government.

It is easy to think of Anonymous as cohesive hacking force, a secret ‘organisation’ which methodically chooses its targets. The truth is that Anonymous is a loose knit community, lacking leadership, definitive purpose, or formal membership. No one is officially a member of Anonymous, you simply participate within the Anonymous community. Indeed, save for knowledge of their esoteric culture, being a member of Anonymous is a simple as saying you are. Go to a comments section, type whatever you want, and replace you name with Anonymous. Congratulations, you are now part of the collective. While this is a rather simplistic explanation of what is a very complex set of social and cultural interactions, it does serve to highlight the transparent nature of Anonymous itself.

The simplest way to understand Anonymous is as a decentralised virtual community. First and foremost, they are a virtual community. In addition to orchestrating and enacting various operations, they chat about games and movies and the weather – developing social norms and a cultural ethos. However, they do this, for the most part, under the mass-pseudonym of Anonymous. By adopting this collective identity, the community effectively side steps the issue of hierarchy, promoting a free flow of ideas, and effectively negating the negative repercussions of their actions. This ability to avoid retribution has been at the heart of Anonymous’s longevity, and is aided, in no small part, by their decentralised structure.

Unlike most online communities, Anonymous is not located on any one website. Rather, Anonymous is spread across a myriad of different platforms, each one a community unto itself. Furthermore, these communities are not permanent, with participants moving between locations at intermittent periods. This, in addition to their anonymity, makes Anonymous particularly difficult to combat. Yet the notion of combating Anonymous raising another significant point- the actions of one Anonymous participant do not reflect the whole.

When you read that Anonymous has attacked a website, or hacked a database, you are reading about the actions of an individual or small section of the community, not Anonymous as a whole. Anonymous, as defined by characteristics, is unable to act as a collective whole. Rather, Anonymous facilitates the capacity of its participants to engage in a diverse range of activist actions. When Anonymous makes threats against ISIS, it is not necessarily the same part of Anonymous which is protesting anti-piracy legislation. Due to its fluid participant base, and lack of formal membership, anyone is free to make threats and engage targets under the name of Anonymous.

It is for this reason that we see such variety in both Anonymous’s tactics and targets. Indeed, many of the attacks carried out by participants are not based on moral or ideological reasoning. Rather, many of the attacks are carried out because they possess the skills to do so. Though anyone may utilise the Anonymous identity, this does not mean that those who adopt the persona are any less skilled in their chosen medium. Many participants find entertainment or even satisfaction in orchestrating attacks for no reason other than because they can.

Similarly, many who adopt the mass pseudonym do so as means to engage politically. Anonymous, as a community, allows such participants to find like-minded individuals, and draw upon the collective’s unique characteristics to further their cause. Such diversity is indicative of their fluid participant base – a direct result of their collective identity. Interestingly, such is the freedom of their community as that it is not unheard of for two separate groups within Anonymous to be fighting on separate sides of the same issue.

So, what do we take from all this? Perhaps, if anything, it is that sexy labels such as cyberterrorists or cyberactivists fail to do such complex agents justice. Anonymous is not inherently a ‘hacktivist’ group – their label as such derives from the social perception of those who choose to act in this way. Anonymous, as a decentralised virtual community, is a tool – a means to an end for those seeking a vehicle for expression. This is not to say they’re not harmless, or that their threats carry no weight – those who adopt the persona have certainly shown themselves more than capable of supporting their claims. However, not every claim is a threat from the collective itself, but rather, an individual or section of the wider community speaking on its behalf.

So when a media report states that Anonymous hacked something, or took down a website, remember to limit that Hollywood narrative, and question that sexy label.


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