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Digital Activism From Anonymous to Occupy Wall Street: a Conversation With Gabriella Coleman

Nov 8, 2011

We sat down for an interview with NYU professor Gabriella Coleman on digital activism, hacking and protest from Anonymous to Occupy Wall Street.

Anonymous2 Digital Activism From Anonymous to Occupy Wall Street: a Conversation With Gabriella Coleman

When Gabriella Coleman and I spoke, it was either the day of or day before Occupy Wall Street officially began. Ostensibly, the interview was to be about hacktivism with a particular emphasis on Anonymous and its temporary tendril LulzSec and how they had influenced digital activism, including the forthcoming launch of Occupy Wall Street.

As I listened to the recording, I can see now that the interview ended up being much more about how the digital realm, this aether of information, can influence individuals in the biological realm that we inhabit.

We didn’t speak directly of it, but what we were getting at, by degrees, was the idea of digital/biological feedback loops as it related to activism and protest. Professor Coleman might disagree with my terminology here, but I think it’s appropriate. With the internet being what it is, and us being jacked in to it (to borrow a cyberpunk term), it’s hard to say where a thought, a movement, or anything else is really generated these days.

It’s interesting to imagine a world that didn’t yet have Occupy Wall Street spreading like a good-spirited, anarchic virus from city to city, with procedures, techniques and a countercultural vision.

Media coverage for Occupy was non-existent at that point, except from Occupy itself, Adbusters, Infoshop News and Death and Taxes. Clouds of tear gas weren’t yet drifting through America cities. Keith Olbermann and Dylan Ratigan had yet to experience what was brewing. No one could have imagined that we were a month and a half away from Oakland Police laying out American Army veteran Scott Olsen with a cracked skull.

The political agenda was firmly rooted in the debt crisis—a squabbling, infantile dust-up between Republicans and Democrats. No one could have dreamed that a combination of hackers, protesters and independent media would manage to shift the debate in this country; that politicians and commentators would have the word “Occupy” hanging from the precipice of their lips, whether good or bad.

We have almost forgotten that this shift came from an idea. But where? Could the seeds have been planted by the individuals within Anonymous?

Anonymous1 Digital Activism From Anonymous to Occupy Wall Street: a Conversation With Gabriella Coleman

Gabriella Coleman and I met in Washington Square Park. We sat down in the grass and chatted a bit about the nature of writing, Arab Spring coverage, and the nature of publishing, until we eventually turned to the subject at hand—Anonymous, hacking and digital protest.

Gabriella Coleman is a media scholar and anthropologist who has done work on different hacker and geek communities, ranging from free and open source software developers to Anonymous. She teaches a class on hackers examining the differences as well as similarities that define hackers, hacking, and their actions.

Coleman began straight away by addressing a lingering question in my own mind—one that had surfaced the moment I noticed she’d retweeted an article I’d written on Anonymous. I’d noticed that she was an NYU professor, but just as with my own commentary on Anonymous, I was curious to know if she had any reservations in supporting the hacking collective.

“One of the fascinating things is that very few people have an idea of what my relationship is to Anonymous. Constantly, I get these Anon haters who send really nasty tweets. It’s sometimes a difficult juggling act to have some objectivity but also be part of an academic enterprise that is telling you to participate,” she said.

I responded by saying that one cannot always be objective—at some point, a journalist, a writer or anybody really, must pick a side. (Edward R. Murrow would be a great example.)

She responded by saying that one needs to be objective but also find something that is compelling. “There are things about Anonymous that I currently can’t write about because I don’t understand it well enough. You have to have some discretion because there are some back-room politics, and they need time to develop before you make a claim about it. It was the same for Debian, the free software project I studied.”

Anthropologists like Coleman exist in a strange triangulation of opinions and distortion between Anonymous itself, the haters and the mainstream media.

And distortion is of prime importance here because it is well-known that hackers use social engineering as a tactic, to access information and control opinion. Naturally, it had occurred to me during 2011 that this free information and digital activism campaign against government and corporations might be one big social engineering operation. That we, in fact, have stepped through the looking glass and nothing is as it seems. It is rather like spycraft made very public—the possibility of misinformation, disinformation and false flag operations cannot be disregarded.

occupy4 Digital Activism From Anonymous to Occupy Wall Street: a Conversation With Gabriella Coleman

“I’m aware that I am operating within webs of duplicity. While I’ve come to trust certain Anons and have more empathy than less, I’m also well aware that duplicity is the name of the game—misinformation and social engineering—and I’m being caught up in it myself,” observed Coleman. “But, if it was clear cut and transparent, it wouldn’t be as effective politically.”

When asked how both critics and supporters misunderstand Anonymous, Coleman is unequivocal. “I think some of the detractors tend to hone in on the hackers as the locus of power within Anonymous, and then offer criticisms based on that. And while I would say that they’re right that hackers have a different form of influence and power compared to other operations or hackers who are not in Anonymous, I think they’re missing a lot of different facets and elements of Anonymous. If you just boil it down to the hackers you miss those elements, which are important and relevant.”

As far as Anonymous supporters, Coleman isn’t quite so sure who the supporters might be. “The detractors are really so visible, whereas, who are the unadulterated supporters outside of Anon themselves?”

Perhaps credit should go to Anonymous here for being able to absorb its supporters and transmogrify them into Anonymous members, even if these new Anonymous members are not part of the hacking and DDoS apparatus.

Indeed, Coleman states that outside of Anonymous “I think there are a ton of supporters. Some supporters become participants, others remain fascinated spectators.” More recently Coleman commented that, “The support has been wild and extensive, which we can see registered with the Guy Fawkes iconography spreading everywhere during OWS or earlier with the Paypal boycott day on Twitter. I think Anonymous has garnered a lot of attention, some of it negative but a lot of it quite positive.”

Coleman also seeks to dispel the myth that Anonymous is purely about the hacking. Anonymous is indeed many things.

“The technology activism in the Middle East. Operation Bart—most of which was not hacking, I think. The DDoS campaigns [defined as digital sit-ins by Anonymous members]. The videos, the artwork, the manifestoes, the Anonymous solidarity network. You can go on and on and on. There are so many different campaigns and actions within Anonymous that have nothing to do with the hacking, but because hacking commands so much power in our society, there’s just a spotlight that gets focused in on it. It adds a dose of thrill and mystery and excitement. There power comes from that.”

“Some Anons themselves attempt to whitewash the world of Anonymous,” says Coleman. “As a researcher, I think it is important to show that the rowdy politics, whether that be the hacking or the offensiveness, is part and parcel of what Anonymous is as well. It’s understandable because of the fact that they get tagged as extremists and terrorists, and so the natural reaction is to whitewash. This happens across the board with hackers generally.”

When Coleman and I spoke, there was some worry that Anonymous might attract negative attention to the nascent and very under-the-radar Occupy Wall Street proposal. I asked her if this was a legitimate concern or if it was disinformation disseminated by authorities to neuter OWS before it could take root.

Occupy2 Digital Activism From Anonymous to Occupy Wall Street: a Conversation With Gabriella Coleman

“The interesting thing is we just don’t know what the Anonymous presence is going to be like, or what the relationship between the protesters and the police will be like,” said Coleman. “On the one hand, it’s very clear on the website that it should be peaceful. I think the Anons at OpBart reiterated so many times about how important it is to have a peaceful protest, and yet there is a sentiment that shit can go down… There is a sense that things can get a little bit out of hand and, of course, people should also be concerned about agent provocateurs who might be there. It would be perfect to target Anonymous for that.”

And what of the possibility that Anonymous has already been subverted by authorities?

Coleman “Some people within Anonymous have raised that concern at two different levels, one of which is ‘because of the way we are, we are just open to that.’ And the way to protect against it is to make sure that there are three, four, five independent, vibrant networks. And, in fact, because one of the networks, AnonOps, was so stable over time—although it was internally diverse with different operations—it did set things up for potential infiltration. That’s at the potentially hypothetical level.

“And then a few Anons have mentioned that it is possible that some of the hacker activities have either come as a result of infiltration or, alternatively, authorities have sat back, opened a can of beer and said, ‘We’ll just let it go on for a long time because it is a form of chaos that can help our cause.’”

Coleman adds, “They bring up the issue of infiltration themselves at times; there are suspicious whisperings but they haven’t fully engulfed the discussion. Hypothetically speaking, such interventions could certainly destabilize some operations but Anonymous is currently a bit too fragmented, dispersed, and subterranean for complete infiltration.”

In other words, subversion wouldn’t have led to OpBart, in Coleman’s opinion, but the authorities’ laissez-faire approach might have helped direct public opinion against Anonymous in the long run.

“There is a tradition among black hats who believe in AntiSec—which existed prior to LulzSec/AntiSec–who are hellbent on exposing the police, the FBI, and they’re pretty extreme in their tactics. So, you don’t necessarily need the theories of infiltration to explain that sort of behavior—there’s a tradition already at play. My understanding is that some folks who were part of the earlier AntiSec movement are now involved in LulzSec and AntiSec, too.”

This past year the DDoS attack was heavily used as a method of digital protest. I asked Coleman if we should, in fact, define the attack as a form of protest and, if so, how it might be utilized in the future.

“What Anonymous did with [DDoS attacks] was much more populist,” said Coleman, noting that it had previously been used in smaller groups. In the famous December 2010 DDoS attacks, undertaken as Operation Avenge Assange against Visa, PostFinance, Mastercard and Paypal, to name a few, non-hackers downloaded the low orbit ion cannon to launch the DDoS attack, thus redefining its use.

lulzsec Digital Activism From Anonymous to Occupy Wall Street: a Conversation With Gabriella Coleman

“The problem with DDoS, from a tactical standpoint, is that it can lose its efficacy really quickly by being over-abused,” notes Coleman. “And, if by using it, are you creating an arms race where you’re proliferating a tactic that really does have a lot of negative consequences because corporations and governments use it against small human rights organizations to silence them? On the one hand, yes [it's digital protest], but it loses its value really quickly. Anonymous didn’t DDoS all that often after December 2010. It happened, but they started to focus on other types of politics because DDoS became a less powerful tool.

“However, the difficult thing is that if you do entirely let it go as a protest tactic it’s not going to stop the corporations and governments from using it. So perhaps by totally stopping the tactic from being used, you’ve said, ‘Okay, we’ve stopped it but you guys go ahead and keep using it against groups.’ Perhaps the ideal path is to start thinking about under what conditions is it legitimate and powerful as a tactic and only deploy it under those conditions.”

If DDoS is used more selectively, then there is the possibility that Anonymous limits its own power. Coleman, however, disagrees.

“They discuss all sorts of tactics. Everything. Anonymous, at times, has a very ADHD quality to it. The reason for something sticking is different every time. Sometimes it’s because a group with more influence is asserting itself. Other times it’s because something is a really good idea and people jump on board. Sometimes it’s because the event itself going out in the world calls itself so perfectly for Anon. OpBart is a great example of that—it found them! It was a censorship issue that was so blatant and they gravitate toward that, which was the cell phone issue. The event-ness of their actions has to be part of the equation to understand why it is that something come into being and why some things don’t.”

And what of the rumors that Coleman is an Anon.

“Unlike certain other academic fields, anthropology encourages you to jump into an arena and not just observe but to participate and have some level of empathy. It’s often the case that anthropologists, because they have to get so intimate with people, tend not to study things they completely hate, otherwise it would be torture. So, obviously, there is some degree of empathy. Also, I find the politics compelling. But, the fact that I find them compelling doesn’t mean that I necessarily agree 100% of the time with all of their tactics. I’ve only ever spoken out once in defense of their tactics, which was an opinion piece I wrote in August, and that was because I think that the punishments against these tactics as felonies is just too severe.”

Coleman is also quick to note that many established activists joined the political ranks of Anonymous, while many Anonymous members became politicized and she wanted to tell the truth about this reality, which caused her to speak out publicly in the news.

“It was a reaction to a negative portrayals, many of which I felt were false,” she states. “Once a discourse was set early on, it would be very, very difficult to change it. That framing already exists but there has been a push back.”

As it turns out, Anonymous’ influence at Occupy Wall Street’s Liberty Square has been minimal, as it has been around the nation. If there has been any involvement on the part of Anonymous, it seems that its members have blended into OWS and acted almost as a publicity wing for Occupy, both at Liberty Square and with the various satellites movements.

In a recent conversation about the evolution of Anonymous and Occupy Wall Street, Coleman noted that, “some Anons have gotten quite involved on the ground in different cities, lending a helping hand.”

This was something that we hadn’t really imagined in the days before Occupy Wall Street’s September 17th launch. However, Coleman was keen to emphasize that Anonymous always seems to undergo a death and regeneration after an operation or a series of campaigns.

Indeed, perhaps Anonymous found that its efforts in awakening the American masses had come to fruition with Occupy Wall Street. That, in effect, it was no longer needed as the most visible face—that it might be counter-intuitive. That it could essentially be absorbed into OWS and regenerate wherever it was next needed.

“I just had a conversation with someone who is really a remarkable Anon. He’s very honest about some of the shortcomings and and weaknesses as well as the strengths of Anonymous. What he said was, ‘While we haven’t perfectly enacted a non-hierarchical entity—there were moments of poolings of power—it was still a remarkable experiment. I can’t believe the experiment lasted eight to nine months… If this one doesn’t continue then hopefully another one will.’

“And to me that was beautiful because it recognizes, again, that their ideological commitment wasn’t perfectly fulfilled, as it can’t be, and yet it wasn’t some utter failure in that there was some secret back room where everything was controlled.”

Is this necessarily a post-mortem on Anonymous, though?

“Well, I think it’s a recognition that currently things are not as active as they used to be, in part because the IRC server was down for two weeks [in the three weeks preceding September 16th]. I was told that [the server takedown] was an outside team effort. That people were working together to bring down Anonymous. They didn’t say who. It wasn’t a lone individual—it was really formidable. And it was a real blow because IRC is a force of centralization, a focal point, a lively meeting place for Anonymous.

“But one can argue that it is also imperative for Anonymous’ regeneration to have periods of dispersion, a fallow period, and that it makes sense for them to wax and wane. And that only if they wax and wane will they exist in a non-hierarchical form, because the tendency of political organizing over time is to create structure. They don’t even like structure. In order to obey that, a waxing and waning could be part of that. OpBart was a perfect example of that—there was a kind of waning prior to OpBart, and then a nice waxing.

“It was unusual that they had almost eight months of almost non-stop activity.”

Indeed, in the last few weeks Anonymous has resurfaced to help publicize National Bank Transfer Day and to launch a war against Mexican drug cartels. Now they’ve scheduled the mysterious “Night of a Thousand Masks” for 11-11-11.

If they are on the wane again, what else might be in store?

We shall see.

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