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.