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‘Epic Win’ for Anonymous? Hacktivism and the 99%

The Anonymous 'V for Vendetta' mask is an icon of the Occupy movement. But how does this band of deviant web pirates fit with the Occupiers ethics of responsibility, transparency and democracy? Cole Stryker's new book goes some way to deconstruct the generalisations.

Jamie Mackay
2 February 2012

The Anonymous 'V for Vendetta' mask is an icon of the Occupy movement. But how does this band of deviant web pirates fit with the Occupiers' apparent ethics of responsibility, transparency and democracy? Cole Stryker's new book goes some way towards deconstructing this tension.

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The end of OurKingdom’s year-long debate on the Networked Society, making way for a new focus on the Occupy movement, comes at a formative moment in the future of online activism. Aaron Peters' excellent summing up of last year’s events demonstrated, amongst other things, the increasingly important role that networks have had in the mobilization of political resistance against states held to ransom by non-democratic financial bodies. His concluding question, 'What would it mean to 'occupy' everything?', is an urgent one, and in the context of the imminent Occupy LSX eviction and the low-key release of the networking site occupii.org, appropriately anxious.

One factor in danger of getting lost in this shift of emphasis onto Occupy, is the still germane issue of anonymous ‘hacktivism’, reference to which is notably absent from Aaron's walk back through 2011. Given the recent surge in DDoS attacks attributed to (capital a) Anonymous, including unprecedented assaults on government bodies supporting SOPA and ACTA, it is important that the online community do not make the same mistake as the mainstream media. We must keep this issue in discussion while the strategy of ‘occupy everything’ is being formulated.

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This is by no means incompatible with OurKingdom’s new focus. Anonymous have, of course, been present in the iconography of the Occupy movement from the very beginning. News coverage has pushed the Guy Fawkes masks into the foreground, making them one of the movement’s most recognisable symbols. Inspired by the film adaptation of V for Vendetta, the masks were originally conceived by Anonymous as a way of concealing identity during protests against the Scientology movement in 2007. In light of the Occupy movement the mask has been appropriated as an image of the 99%. It is now the top-selling mask on amazon.com.

This adoption has been controversial, offending many Occupiers who do not identify with its expression of comedic, carnivalesque menace. The reputation of Anonymous as a band of deviant criminals, a generalisation propagated by the mainstream media, means Occupy’s close visual association with Anonymous can certainly be seen as ‘bad-press’. But there is a deeper tension based on the seeming disconnect between Occupy’s purported values of ‘responsibility’ and ‘accountability’ and the status of Anonymous as an amorphous and thus unaccountable meme. 

To accept such an assertion though is to misunderstand both the specific political basis of Occupy’s commitment to transparency – inseparable from its target of the financial sector – and the way in which the Anonymous meme has emerged and developed in the context of a growing challenge to internet freedom. Cole Stryker’s timely book Epic Win For Anonymous: How 4Chan’s Army Conquered the Web released last September, goes some way towards dismantling these misunderstandings.

The book traces the history of Anonymous from its inception on various imageboards to its growth into a leaderless, yet project-orientated collective. While steering clear from an explicitly political interpretation, its very explication of the ontology of the meme demonstrates the shortsightedness of accepted understanding. So, too, the usual retort that ‘Anonymous are not a group’ is problematised as Stryker attempts to discover the outline of such an identity through a focus on 4chan and similar sites where Anonymous gather (or perhaps used to gather before books such as this were being published).

This perhaps explains the vehement criticism which the book has received. I quote from Amazon reviewer ‘Brandon’ - “You are part of what is considered an inoperable tumor within this ever-evolving Internet phenomenon. Unfortunately since [A]nonymous is made up of all and none you are a necessary evil”. Indeed, the uncanny correspondence between the range of the book’s factual material and that available on Wikipedia is unimpressive. Undoubtedly large numbers of these critical reviews are from 4chan users themselves who feel misrepresented by the book's superficial research. Furthermore, Stryker’s frequent and abrupt generalisations - “4chan’s relationship with women is weird and sad” (81) - seem to contradict his own stated aim of impartiality. Too often, he treats 4chan as if it were a single mindset, playing down the extent to which it is a space for debate.

Despite these considerable flaws, the book’s third chapter, which takes the form of a transcription of eight hours spent on 4chan, is lively and informative and aside from visiting the website itself is certainly a more valuable way of understanding Anonymous than the various attempts to speak for them. Stryker’s notes are frantic and multifarious, conveying precisely the diversity that he sometimes threatens to nullify. Engaging in a discussion ranging from techno babble to the sharing of hentai, he describes the extent to which - “4chan behaves like the Internet, but harder, better, faster, stronger – a whirling microcosm of creativity. A fetid, bubbling meme pool” (33). The implication here, that people spread memes not for reputation or monetary benefit but just to be part of the phenomenon, is suggestive and one cannot consider the potential of such a system without thinking the Occupy movement has something to learn. 

The book’s presentation of 4chan as an ‘anti-Facebook’ is also useful in destabilizing the immediate association of anonymity with the undemocratic. While Mark Zuckerberg describes Facebook as offering ‘radical transparency’, his users' information is being sold on to marketers whose profiling techniques have lead to more aggressive and invasive forms of advertising. Worse still, the fact that the site’s interface is accessible and designed specifically to be compatible with US intelligence networks remains unknown to the majority of the site’s users. Facebook’s ‘radical transparency’ may initially sound noble enough, but in reality this equates to radical control and the radical exercise of power. Those who criticise Anonymous should at least consider the possibility that in a world in which the dominant institutions are themselves so guileful, accountability and transparency soon give way to exploitation and dominance. It may only be through anonymity that this cycle can be broken.

The identity of Anonymous starts to look quite different from this perspective - not as an ‘army’ of deviant criminality arising from a single ‘dark’ centre, but a collective reaction to the impending twilight of internet freedom. Stryker’s book is important for providing this alternative, more positive narrative in a published and therefore ‘official’ space. In particular, there are aspects of his argument that are refreshingly lucid in contrast to other sympathetic articles.

First is his acknowledgement of the fact that 4chan is not about being able to do anything but about being able to say anything, a sentiment expressed particularly eloquently in 4Chan founder Christopher Poole’s TED talk. Secondly, Stryker argues that anonymity allows people to fail at things without being afraid, and in doing so draws attention to 4chan’s liberating and empowering capacity for those who for whatever reason feel alienated from society. Finally he emphasises the fact that 4chan, and by extension Anonymous, draw attention to what is being said rather than who is saying it. This final point is perhaps the most important. That while anonymity is ‘un-accountability’ it is also equality. From my own experiences of Occupy LSX, and the disproportionate authority of its ‘facilitators’, it is clear that precisely though rejecting conventional ideas of (top-down) ‘responsibility’, Anonymous are able to come closer to true egalitarianism than the Occupy movement.   

The questions remain then - what can Occupy learn from Anonymous and vice versa? Should OurKingdom’s move away from a debate on the wider implications of a networked society to an emphasis on Occupy mean a correlative de-emphasizing of the issue of ‘hacktivism’? Certainly, the conception that Anonymous can be associated with the 99% is an untenable one; in purely numerical terms they represent a small percentile of technically skilled individuals who communicate in a deliberately abstruse way. But then again – is the same not true of academic involvement in Occupy? Or some of its more obscure religious supporters? At its best, Occupy should be able to accommodate all discourses that wish to participate while promoting and celebrating their agreements, differences, and contradictions.

Specifically though, in so far as they can be equated with 4chan (which of course is no clear cut move), Anonymous’s channels of communication and organization could be adopted to spread support for Occupy. While the Occupy movement has been creative in its use of physical space its online presence remains weak and the potential for greater global connectivity and involvement of those beyond the tents is far from fully exploited. To suggest that Anonymous could be an important factor in rectifying this is not to suggest the phenomenon should be reduced to a function of Occupy. Just as their identity is heterogeneous so are their battlegrounds and the current battle against SOPA and ACTA will only be won through the combined efforts of ‘hacktivist’ groups worldwide.

For all its problems of accountability and all the perverse activities that have been done in its name, online anonymity has an important role to play in ensuring the 1% who have been allowed to exploit the financial and political sphere are not given the same command over the virtual.

James Mackay is a freelance writer based in London.

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