Not just 4 lulz: Anonymous vs mass surveillance

Anonymous yesterday organised a simultaneous protest around the world against the revelations of mass surveillance by our own governments. Ignored by the media, this was an important event: "the beginning is near".

Jamie Mackay
6 November 2013

Map of Tuesday's protests

Yesterday evening a global demonstration took place with the aim of showcasing the extent of public anger and range of democratic grievances felt by anti-government groups around the world. The #MillionMaskMarch, organized by the hacktivist collective Anonymous, took place with virtual-simultaneity on Tuesday in over 450 cities, with chains of protesters from Tokyo to Sarajevo dancing, chanting, and blocking roads in a millenarian carnival of anger, fun and solidarity. An incomplete list of the communities involved is available here and their varying sizes and levels of activity makes for interesting reading. 

The scenes from London were among the most impressive. Merging with Bonfire night celebrations and a People’s Assembly protest on Westminster Bridge, the crowd outside Westminster was enormous and attracted admiring tweets and messages of support from around the world. “London does it again”, “Heart goes out to the brothers and sisters in London”, “wish I was in London right now L L”. This is not something activists in the city are used to following the demoralising collapse of the student and Occupy movements. Guy Fawkes masks were ubiquitous and fireworks aimed towards Buckingham Palace in scenes of euphoric rage and punk irreverence.

Both social and the mainstream media let the protestors down. The sudden disappearance of the movement’s hashtag from twitter, when it had been trending for hours and was clearly still being widely shared, was a concrete example and a marked escalation of the suspected monitoring of that platform. This was commonplace during the #occupygezi protests in Turkey last summer and many other large scale uprisings, but to see this censorship limited to the UK, and at a relatively small demo, poses real questions as to what criteria are being used to police the site and who is doing this.

The corresponding blackout on the Guardian and the BBC during the protest itself is less surprising and was met at the time by the usual and often darkly funny round of jeers. Hundreds of activists spammed the organisations’ respective twitter feeds with one masked man on the ground offering a particularly candid if phallocentric criticism of the British state broadcaster: “Prince Philip gets a urinary tract infection and your [sic] right there. Thousands march and what are you doing? Wanking in the office”.

There is, of course, a more worrying political component to this lack of coverage. Indeed, the case of yesterday’s march is just one example of the mainstream media’s seemingly structural hostility to any realisation of a participatory, deliberative or active public. When the story of the march finally broke (once everyone had gone home) it was under headlines that were as banal as they were manipulative. The BBC: “11 people arrested after Bonfire night protests in London by Anonymous movement”, The Guardian: “Protesters Target Buckingham Palace”. The Times: “Protestors launch fireworks at palace”.

The same ‘impartial’ language frames all of these examples, in which value is attributed to the story precisely because of the (minimal) violence that these publications are quick to condemn in the next breath. It’s just like Camilla and that stick all over again. Such cynical journalism certainly plays a key role in generating more extreme forms of antagonism among street movements desperate for coverage as well as imposing an embarrassing parochialism on what was a truly global protest. It was left to the Daily Mail to find the revolutionary seeds of the event in its bizarre headline: “masked Russell Brand leads Anonymous march against austerity cuts”.

He wishes. Here are some pictures of the global demonstrations that occurred across different timezones last night, all of which were hardly worth a second’s thought to the staff-writers in charge of this morning’s copy:





Sao Paolo



Anonymous is a divisive phenomenon. While their supporters laud their emphasis on freedom, creativity and fun, critics attack the lack of responsibility inherent to their disguises, a childishness of the ‘legion’ aesthetic and a widespread sexism visible on their webspaces. There are truths to all of these arguments and many debates to be had regarding each of these issues.

It is undeniable, however, that the organisation of this latest event, without the aid of the mainstream media or workers’ groups, was a stunning feat and worth considering on its own terms, especially as the over-hyped Occupy movement struggles to fight-off terminal exhaustion. At the very least, I hope that the dominant pub caricature of the collective as a group of sadistic and alienated teenagers playing at revolution might be reconsidered in light of this event.

The danger with attempting to read any kind of decentralized group is to treat it either as a homogeneous set of demands or, as is less often realized, to disregard its capacity for evolution. Anonymous has always been good at challenging these tendencies. In the 10 years since its inception the collective has already established a reputation for being involved in a diverse series of activities including anti-corruption campaigns in Africa, the hunting down of paedophile rings in America and web attacks against homophobic organisations worldwide. It is for this reason that it has become one of the planet’s most successful protest brands.

With the revelations of surveillance by the NSA and GCHQ their web presence has become more relevant than ever. Opponents of Anonymous have repeatedly argued that it is essential to have an ‘open’ identity in order to demonstrate responsibility and be held accountable to others. I have some sympathy with this view, understood as the predicate of a functioning democracy. But as large archives of meta-data are collated detailing the macro-structure of our social relationships with no protection on how this information will be used, and as the UK prepares to protect the very organisations holding this data using its terrifying Secret Courts, anonymity seems to me both an individual and collective necessity, as well as a powerful aesthetic meeting point, through which to fight for anything even resembling a society.

Anonymous will no doubt continue to release its cringe-worthy sci-fi videos but who really cares? YouTube hits are a small part of this story. Talking about Anonymous in 2013 requires more than a critique of the cyber-bullying on 4chan and other imageboards. These are separate and important issues but should be considered in terms of the internet in general. Yesterday’s march followed an important event on 4 November in London organized by Henry Porter and supported by openDemocracy amongst other organisations, at which a loose coalition of authors, writers, journalists, lawyers and politicians under the name Meeting on Mass Surveillance debated how the public could respond to the NSA/GCHQ revelations. It’s great to see this group of influential people beginning to reflect in public as to how they might use their power to make real changes at a Parliamentary level. You can follow them on twitter @stopbuggingusUK to get involved in the debate. May it be as discursive a process as possible.

While this initiative attempts to form into a lasting movement and galvanise a unified response from an exhausted public it gives me great hope to see the global reach of Anonymous stimulating an expression of freedom among a diverse range of social groups. I can’t help speculating as to what might happen if its various hubs were to work together to spread the kinds of discussions like that held at the event and use them to organise more confident and targeted demonstrations. ‘The beginning is near’ was the viral slogan that accompanied yesterday’s actions and was retweeted thousands of times. Naïve? Melodramatic? Perhaps. But when my friends look baffled at the idea of a secret court it’s a desire I find hard to sneer at. 


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