This past August, as the outcry grew over the killing of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager who was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, the hacktivist collective Anonymous took up the cause. On August 14, an Anonymous member posted a YouTube video calling for a “National Day of Rage” to protest the shooting. A computerized voice warbled over an ominous Carl Orff–ripoff score: “We call upon the citizens of the United States to collectively gather in support for those who are suffering in Ferguson.” News sites heralded the heroic arrival of Anonymous. Initially, few of these reports noted that the exact time, date and locations of Anonymous’s National Day of Rage corresponded with a previously planned protest, the National Moment of Silence, spearheaded by black feminist blogger Feminista Jones. Jones was dismayed by Anonymous’s attempt to co-opt her peaceful demonstration and the media’s eagerness to help. “I was bothered that they chose this moment to be destructive, but it showed people just how little they care about the safety and well-being of Black people,” she later told the blog Visual AIDS. “As a Black woman, I’m also used to the historical erasure of our work and theft of our labor.” It only went south from there, after Anonymous’s dramatic claim to have identified the police officer who shot Brown turned out to be wrong.
Ferguson was a hit to Anonymous’s reputation as masked Internet superhero that saves the day. Luckily, Anonymous’s own hero came to the rescue: the anthropologist Gabriella Coleman. In an interview with The Washington Post, Coleman cast the fiasco as a rare misstep. She was “really surprised” that Anonymous released the name of the wrong officer, since the group had been “pretty precise” in leaking “important data” in previous operations. Coleman suggested the error was either an unfortunate product of Anonymous’s “whimsical, experimental” nature, or else the entire operation was a “false flag” by an enemy meant to make Anonymous look bad. “I think both are completely plausible,” she said. A more obvious interpretation was not considered: the Anonymous mystique had allowed a group of incompetents to hijack, then discredit, an important grassroots movement in the eyes of national media. The absurdity of the Ferguson debacle is overshadowed only by the fact that somehow we are still expected to take Anonymous seriously. How did we get to a point where people expect a gang of young geeks with nanosecond attention spans wearing masks from an action movie, who write manifestos in faux-revolutionary prose and play amateur detective in chat rooms, to help a fraught social cause like Ferguson?
Coleman, who holds the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University, has long been a fervent stoker of Anonymous’s mystical fire, appearing on the TED Talks stage, in documentaries and in countless newspapers to extol the unique power of Anonymous. Her new book, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous, is an artful advertisement for Anonymous, bolstered by endless spools of chat logs collected over six years embedded with Anonymous, during which she became essentially an honorary member. As a narrow oral history, the book offers interesting anecdotes and insider information about a little-understood topic. But in arguing that Anonymous is an exciting new model of political action, Coleman exaggerates Anonymous’s achievements, downplays crucial failures, and is blind to the ways this supposedly novel way of organizing protest rests on bad old myths. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy helps us understand how well-meaning and intelligent people can fall for the Anonymous mystique, and exactly why that’s a bad thing.
The book traces Anonymous’s remarkable transformation, in the public imagination, from feared Internet folk devils into digital warriors of justice. Born in 2003 on the notorious message board 4chan, Anonymous began as a loose-knit group of Internet trolls who conducted harassing “raids” on unsuspecting Internet users for their own amusement. During one legendary raid, dozens of Anonymous members invaded the online teens’ game Habbo Hotel and formed their matching avatars into a giant swastika while spewing racial epithets. Anonymous came to be known as the “Internet Hate Machine.” But, Coleman tells us, everything changed when Anonymous decided to take on the controversial Church of Scientology in 2008. Angered by Scientology’s attempt at suppressing an embarrassing recruitment video starring Tom Cruise that leaked online, Anonymous launched an anti-Scientology campaign called ”Chanology,” which hacked Scientology websites, spread anti-Scientology propaganda and even organized real-life protests, one of which, Coleman tells us, attracted “a whopping one thousand people.” With Chanology, Anonymous “emerged from its online sanctuary and set out to improve the world.” Since then, Anonymous’s members have undertaken a series of “ops,” protesting everything from Internet censorship by dictatorships during the Arab Spring, to PayPal’s refusal to process payments to WikiLeaks, to the rape of a high-school girl in Steubenville, Ohio. In its decade of existence, Coleman claims, Anonymous has evolved from profane pranksters into “one of the most politically active, morally fascinating, and subversively salient activist groups operating today,” as well as a “force for good in the world.”
Anonymous’s invasion of the online teens’ game Habbo Hotel.
Anonymous’s core virtue, according to Coleman, is its fostering of a subversive and potentially revolutionary form of consciousness in its members. Joining Anonymous requires subsuming your identity into the collective; anyone can claim the Anonymous name, after which their actions become Anonymous’s. Coleman believes the collective identity, combined with Anonymous’s embrace of trickster-like irreverence, liberates its members from the oppressiveness of our corporate-controlled, celebrity-obsessed, NSA-surveilled world. Channeling Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Coleman writes that donning Anonymous’s signature Guy Fawkes mask allows one to “act out the secret desire to cast off—at least momentarily—the shackles of normativity and attain greatness—the will to power set to collectivist and altruistic goals rather than self-interested and individualistic desires.”
As with any revolutionary technological phenomenon, buying into Anonymous’s liberating power requires swallowing a self-aggrandizing buzzword, in this case “lulz.” Lulz is a major aspect of Anonymous’s subversive political potential, as Coleman tells it. Lulz, a corruption of “LOL,” is essentially an evil laugh at someone’s expense. It is a holdover from Anonymous’s birth on 4chan, when trolls claimed that they harassed and attacked victims not because they were horrible people, but “for the lulz.” It was a sort of game: the bigger the reaction provoked, the bigger the lulz. Typical lulzy behavior includes spamming a teenage car-crash victim’s memorial page with gruesome photos of the accident scene. I first encountered the lulz when I wrote a story for Gawker about how Anonymous had harassed an 11-year-old girl into police protection “for the lulz” after she had recorded a YouTube video that annoyed them. Even as Anonymous has evolved into its current do-gooder phase, the mischief and deviance of lulz remains an important cultural lodestar.
Coleman does her best to sugarcoat this ugly word with grandiloquent language. “Lulz-oriented actions puncture the consensus around our politics and ethics, our social lives and our aesthetic sensibility,” she writes. “Any presumption of our world’s inviolability becomes a weapon; trolls invalidate that world by gesturing toward the possibility for Internet geeks to destroy it—to pull the carpet from under us whenever they feel the urge.” Coleman repeatedly interprets Anonymous’s most bewildering and troubling actions with ham-fisted analogies to legendary tricksters like Loki and Eshu, placing Anons in the realm of myth and outside responsibility. Lulz float serenely in cyberspace, their allure self-contained and purely existential: lulz are “unmistakaby imbued with danger and mystery and thus speak foremost to the pleasures of transgression.”
But like a Silicon Valley buzzword, “lulz” obscures more than it reveals, glossing troubling details with a rebel-chic sheen. The lulz originally did not speak to the pleasure of some abstract transgression, but the specific, cruel pleasure of a bully tormenting a helpless victim. Whitney Phillips, another scholar of Internet trolls, spent thousands of hours observing 4chan trolls and found that their victims had something in common. She found that “the vast majority of lulz are derived from targeting people of color (especially African-American), women, gay men and lesbians.” Many early Anonymous “raids” were nothing more than the distributed cyberstalking of young women until they fled the Internet. The trolls, meanwhile, were overwhelmingly white and male, between the ages of 18 and 30, according to Phillips. Consider also that the height of Anonymous’s trolling days was the height of the Web 2.0 boom, when the first blogging platforms and early social networks ushered in a flood of less-savvy Internet users who were less likely to be white male geeks. In its early days, Anonymous was a gang of white men who systematically terrorized minorities and women, with the often explicitly stated goal of driving them from an Internet the men had once totally dominated.
Considering its past, it is worth wondering how much sadism drives Anonymous today. Coleman admits that Anonymous is still overwhelmingly and aggressively male. Any female-identified person who seriously engages the group, positively or negatively (but especially negatively), can expect to receive a torrent of sexist remarks, unsolicited flirting and leering requests for “Tits or GTFO [Get The Fuck Out],” a beloved Anonymous catchphrase. Yet when Coleman encounters “constant belittling of female contributions from certain Anons” during her research, she pauses to wonder: “Is this sexism or just trolling?” When Coleman introduces Topiary, the spokesman of an Anonymous offshoot called LulzSec, we are told he is a master of “brilliant nonsense and absurdist media manipulation.” Then Coleman offers this bit of chat-room banter to illustrate his charm: “Anyway,” Topiary chats, “just got done talking with some monstrous homogay named Andy who’s writing up on our latest fax shenanigans.” Perhaps this is some sort of meta-troll and the joke is getting a respected leftist publisher to put out a book that offers stupid frat-boy humor as the epitome of wit. In which case: lulz.
The pitfalls of Coleman’s infatuation with lulz were on display recently when one of the major characters of her book, Andrew “weev” Auernheimer, revealed himself to be a neo-Nazi. Auernheimer became a geek hero in 2010 after he helped hack into an AT&T website to expose a security flaw, then was unjustly imprisoned in 2012 under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Coleman holds obvious admiration for Auernheimer’s mastery of lulz: “weev is a troll’s troll—a rare standout in a field that mostly spawns so many garden varieties,” she writes. This is partially why so many people (including me, regrettably) would write off Auernheimer’s tendency toward anti-Semitic and racist rants as “just trolling.” But this past October, Auernheimer’s racism took an undeniable turn when he published an essay on a white-supremacist blog with statements like “the Jews abused our compassion to build an empire of wickedness the likes the world has never seen.” As former supporters denounced Auernheimer, Coleman tweeted: “Is transgression and subversion only ok if progressive? My answer is no. The tricksters/subverter’s paradox.” Paltry liberal ideals such as “Don’t be a Nazi” pale in the face of the lulz’s mythic power.
A new book by law professor Danielle Citron, Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, vividly makes the case that online harassment is a serious civil-rights issue, comparing the trivialization of widespread Internet harassment of women to the “boys will be boys” justification of workplace sexual harassment in the 1970s and ’80s. Today, if you’re a woman, you are significantly more likely to experience harassment online. The legacy of the lulz has fostered an insidious logic of victim-blaming that is still used today to excuse cyberharassment and stalking that disproportionately affect women and minorities: if someone tweets rape threats at you, they are “just trolling.” They are just trying to provoke a reaction, “doing it for the lulz.” If you react by, say, speaking out, you have, in the smug refrain of message-board creeps, “fed the trolls” and you’re getting what you deserve. The geek romanticizing of lulz as a symbol of the Internet’s unfettered nature is a large part of why it has yet to live up to its reputation as an egalitarian space.
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But Coleman doesn’t believe Anonymous is worthwhile merely for its lulzy liberation from social norms. Anonymous gets results. The accomplishments Coleman catalogs read like the suspiciously bloated extracurricular-activities section of a college applicant’s résumé: Anonymous “helped catapult Occupy onto the national stage,” came to “symbolize the general plight of Tunisians,” “ignited a desperately needed national conversation about rape culture in the U.S. and Canada,” and “made people pay attention to the sordid state of Internet security.” Anonymous is the Swiss Army knife of protest, adaptable to any occasion. But Coleman backs these claims with extremely thin evidence, and a cursory examination of Anonymous’s operations shows that the group’s impact has often been superficial and mixed at best.
Take the anti-Scientology Operation Chanology, a remarkable “political victory,” according to Coleman. One of Chanology’s most notable actions was called Operation Slickpubes, in which an Anonymous activist ran into a New York City Scientology church, naked, smeared with Vaseline and pubic hair. Coleman suggests that “there is no better example of activist Anons engaging in carnivalesque humor than Operation Slickpubes”—yet more proof of the sub-Jackass level of activity that Anonymous and its fans manage to find clever. (The Operation Slickpubes member was convicted of a hate crime.) As painfully unfunny as it was, Operation Slickpubes also hurt Anonymous’s cause. As the prominent Scientology defector Marty Rathbun later explained on his blog, the favorite strategy of the church’s leadership for bolstering support within its ranks is to portray itself as an unfairly maligned victim. In Anonymous’s crude assaults, Scientology “found its perfect justification for dramatizing being the victim.” Coleman claims that Anonymous’s actions gave critics the courage to speak out against the church. But Lawrence Wright, in his definitive history of Scientology, Going Clear, mentions Anonymous only in passing, portraying it as having “seized on the issue” of the Tom Cruise video. Wright makes it clear that a strong community of Scientology critics had been speaking out for years before Chanology and notes no change at all in the difficulty after. In accepting Anonymous’s own hype, Coleman adapts its simplistic view of social change as a matter of “raising awareness” via brash Internet spectacle. Anonymous activists swoop in on some issue or cause, refashion it as a cartoonish battle between good and evil, and proceed to wage a dumb Internet war. Anonymous’s entry into a conflict inevitably draws widespread attention from idealistic geeks like Coleman. Sometimes they even attract sympathy from pre-existing activists. But the frame of this attention—Anonymous to the Rescue, Again!—inevitably exaggerates the power of a disembodied Internet army while marginalizing more knowledgeable and dedicated activists who do the painstaking work of sustainable organizing.
Operation Chanology saw Anonymous waging war on the Church of Scientology. Tactics included the live protests that popularized their Guy Fawkes masks.
Internet activism is at its most effective as an extension of real-world solidarity. In Brooklyn, the tiny watchdog group El Grito de Sunset Park has called attention to NYPD abuse by recording cops and releasing videos of their brutality on the Internet. The videos offer stark proof of police misconduct, brought to light by a network of committed activists who follow up the attention-getting releases with actual organizing in the community. Even after the attention has faded, El Grito will remain a resource for resistance, unlike Anonymous, whose interest in an issue dies with the limelight.
When something questionable happens during an Anonymous campaign, lulz comes to the rescue, recasting incompetence and callousness as a whimsical flight of fancy. When Anonymous leaks the personal information of thousands of BART passengers during an operation, this is “dicey although admittedly lulzy.” When an Anonymous cabal hacks a security firm, it leaks newsworthy documents only after failing to use them to blackmail the firm into firing an employee that had been investigating Anonymous. These Anons clearly value vengeance over exposing corporate wrongdoing, but Coleman sees the leak as a “welcome public good provided by the insatiable, boundless curiosity of hacking.” It is no surprise that the members of Anonymous act with the arrogant recklessness of people who believe they can do no wrong; it drips from their every insufferable video manifesto (whose comic-book-villain prose Coleman chalks up, inevitably, to lulz) and leads directly to debacles like Ferguson.
Coleman argues again and again that we should take Anonymous seriously as a political actor. Yet over and over, she emphasizes its technological means rather than its political ends. Each hack is intricately narrated, but any attempt to divine a coherent politics from its results is futile. “It seems impossible to arrive at a universal…maxim regarding the group’s effects,” Coleman writes. The ultimate political significance of Anonymous lies instead in the tools and strategies it uses: hacking, video editing, identity-masking software, decentralized organization and, of course, lulz. These “weapons of the geek,” as Coleman calls them, are “a modality of politics exercised by a class of privileged and visible actors who often lie at the center of economic life.” Coleman sees Anonymous as part of a great geek political awakening, along with Edward Snowden, WikiLeaks, the Pirate Party and Debian programmers, “clearly part of a wellspring of hackers and geeks who were taking political matters into their own hands and making their voices heard.” Finally, the global economic elite will have their say!
By fetishizing the “weapons of the geek,” Coleman belies her radically techno-utopian belief—which colors the entire book but is never stated outright—that geeks offer the way to a better world through technological mastery. Anonymous is a political vanguard because it is the purest, most potent expression of geek power, able to slice through the Gordian knot of state repression and grueling organizing conditions that so often tie down activists. But why should we take an action seriously as a political statement simply because it uses the Internet? Currently one of the most potent examples of “weapons of the geek” is the #GamerGate movement, a vociferous faction of video-game nerds waging an anti-feminist witch hunt against female video-game developers and critics, wrapped in a cynical call for “transparency” within the video-game industry. It was organized in a decentralized manner, often in IRC chat rooms, and loudly claims a cherished geek value. Should we celebrate #GamerGate as a political uprising?
Despite its anointing by Coleman, Anonymous is not a vanguard; it’s the relic of an already twice-failed dream. Anonymous is the latest and most dysfunctional marriage between a particular strain of countercultural utopianism and the boundless faith in technology that first appeared in the 1960s. Fred Turner, in From Counterculture to Cyberculture, traces the evolution of what he calls the New Communalism into contemporary techno-optimism. In the 1960s, the New Communalists became convinced that traditional political action wasn’t working. They attempted to create utopian communes removed from society in order to practice the “politics of consciousness.” The commune movement collapsed, but by the 1980s some of its most prominent adherents had seized on the burgeoning Internet. These idealistic geeks conceptualized the Internet as an “electronic frontier” on which they could create virtual communities that lived up to the ideals of nonhierarchy and total personal freedom and fulfillment they’d tried to implement in the real world. In this new formulation, information technology replaced agriculture and ecology as the tools that would liberate us from corrupt society. The Internet became, as Turner writes, “an idealized political sphere…in which authority was distributed, hierarchies were leveled, and citizens were linked by invisible energies.”
Members of this group endorsed criminal hacking as political resistance. They dropped acid and spoke of online experience in trippy language that echoes Coleman’s. Then they went on to found some of Silicon Valley’s most influential institutions, including Wired, Apple and the Global Business Network. Today, their techno-utopianism is why a tech mogul like Mark Zuckerberg is celebrated as a visionary social engineer. In this context, Anonymous is anything but subversive; it is the most radical advocate of a widespread conflation of technological prowess with political wisdom. Anonymous is Silicon Valley’s unwitting shock troops, a live demo of the Internet’s power to transform our world. When Anons call for revolution, they’re calling for a better world. But the shallowness of their politics and their uncritical embrace of technology means this energy is easily channeled into Silicon Valley’s parody of revolution: a techno-liberation from the doldrums of day jobs with health insurance and steady benefits, in favor of the radical freedom and flexibility to pilot an Uber under contract.
Anonymous has no more transcended the limits of conventional society than the proto-techno-utopian communes of the 1970s. Commune dwellers cloaked sexism in romanticized ideas of “natural” gender roles—Turner quotes one saying “a girl just becomes so… so womanly when she’s doing something like baking her own bread… it just turns me on”—just as Anonymous’s sexism is recast as lulz. With no established rules, charismatic figures frequently trump strong anti-authoritarian values. The hacker Hector “Sabu” Monsegur dazzled Coleman and the rest of Anonymous, before he was revealed to be an FBI informant who helped to imprison several high-profile Anons. In order to fulfill their pioneer fantasies of forging a new world through skill and grit alone, back-to-the-landers ignored the existing communities they moved into (often poor and nonwhite), thereby actively contributing to their economic and political marginalization. Similarly, the members of Anonymous barge into issues they know nothing about and proceed with the only logic they understand—believing, as Coleman does, that their position as a technological elite gives them an innate political ability. Along the way, they are helped by a tech-crazed media desperate to find a tech angle in struggles for social justice, like Ferguson.
It’s telling that the best parts of this book about the supposedly most fascinating Internet movement of our time take place offline. When Coleman steps away from the screen and narrates her own increasing entanglement with Anonymous, the story takes on a refreshing humanity. We see an intelligent and compassionate researcher struggling to reconcile her many roles. A visit to CSIS, the Canadian CIA, turns into a nerve-racking tightrope walk as Coleman balances her desire not to inadvertently snitch on Anonymous with her curiosity about its sworn enemies in state intelligence. By the end, this small personal drama seems a thousand times more meaningful than the tiresome blow-by-blows of Anonymous’s digital skirmishes. “I was slipping into deeper, darker recesses of this labyrinth,” Coleman writes of Anonymous’s thicket of secrets and lies. This is Anonymous’s real power: to run us through a maze so tantalizing and bewildering that we don’t realize how totally lost we are.