Gabriella Coleman’s history of the Anonymous collective is as much about her complicity in the group’s attention-seeking tactics as it is about the group itself.
A hundred years ago, Dadaists made prankish, confrontational “anti-art” to protest an increasingly nationalistic and fractured Europe that was hurling itself into World War I. Their art was meant to reveal and criticize things as they were, not to be distracted from them. While the jarring effects of modernism as a whole was their muse, they also had a knack for precision strikes, as when Marcel Duchamp famously signed a urinal and submitted it to the Society of Independent Artists exhibition. It was never displayed, but that was sort of the point: The works were meant as an antagonism, not an ends in themselves. “One cannot understand Dada,” wrote Richard Huelsenbeck in 1920. “One must experience it.”
Likewise, an assortment of savvy Internet users have chosen to adopt the signs and tactics of Anonymous to make a similar protest about contemporary society, attracting attention by creating mayhem. Reflecting a fundamental distrust of hierarchical organizations in favor of voluntary associations of like-minded individuals, Anonymous’s actions run the moral gamut: from leaking classified government documents to uploading gifs of strobe lights to epilepsy support forums.
Those vaguely entertaining and disturbing headlines about the Church of Scientology back in 2008? That was Anonymous. The leaked documents from corporate spying agency Stratfor that, in 2011 and 2012, gave us some of the first glimpses into the 21st century plutocratic spying apparatus? Anonymous. That asshole that showed up to your prison-abolition march in a Guy Fawkes mask and started shouting about the Fed? That was probably Anonymous too.
That’s the thing about Anonymous: If you do something in the name of Anonymous, you become part of Anonymous. They refuse to ally with a dedicated cause, but many of them — in spite of themselves it seems — have developed a political consciousness that drives them to use their expertise for what they define as the public good. Sometimes they hack for their own twisted amusement, but their best-known actions have responded to the seemingly insoluble problems of inequality, racism, ever-broadening surveillance, and slow-motion climate catastrophe. But there are no membership lists, no charters, no overarching manifestos. And they do not hack for personal fame, but to make the collective as a whole recognized, if not feared.
In Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous, anthropologist Gabriella Coleman sets out to provide a thorough history of the group, tracing it from its pre-2011 roots in trolling all the way through to the eventual (some might say inevitable) court cases that would put some of the more active members in jail for over a decade. She situates what would otherwise be the group’s tedious chat logs within a global context of activism and Internet culture. At the same time, Coleman, possibly inadvertently, provides a broader snapshot of a generation’s misbegotten coping mechanisms for dealing with a fundamentally dysfunctional civil society. Among these are the creation of confusing and off-putting vocabulary, which intensifies feelings of being part of a definable culture but also erects barriers to broader coalitions; an orientation toward only those ideas that can be implemented immediately and show immediate effects; and the confused notion that everyone’s free speech and not just their own can be defended by using intentionally misogynistic, racist, and homophobic language, but is threatened by the defacing of corporate and government property.
“Given Anonymous’s ancestry lies in the sometimes humorous, frequently offensive, and at times deeply invasive world of Internet trolling” Coleman points out, “it is remarkable that the same Anonymous became a banner seized by political activists in the first place.” Hacker, Hoaxer wants to tell this story of remarkable transformation, but it can be read instead as a warning about how technology and precarity are affecting a generation, and about what it takes to get noticed at the end of history. Color-blind racism, hipster homophobia, and deep commitments to the lie of meritocracy run rampant in Anonymous, yet the group is frequently described — in Coleman’s book and elsewhere — as this generation’s Weathermen or Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI. Some Anons flit back and forth between messiah and victim complexes. As is common in highly stratified societies, every action, internally and externally, is about competing for attention and status while acting like you don’t want it.
As a whole, Anonymous seems to rely on a handful of established tactics. One of the most popular is the distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack. Technically, a DDoS is a sudden and intense burst of requests to load a single web page. Anons describe it politically as akin to a sit-in that disrupts normal business, which makes some sense, since DDoS attacks are the digital equivalent of chaining yourself to the front door of a building. You block the site so no one can use it. Other strategies include doxxing, where the personal information of a target is posted publicly, and phishing attacks that trick information out of functionaries not with especially sophisticated technological approaches but with the tried-and-true methods of confidence men.
Early Anonymous used these tactics to bring about “lulz” — what Coleman describes as “a deviant style of humor and quasi-mystical state of being” — more than political protest. Their actions were “prone to misfiring and, occasionally, bordering on disturbing or hateful speech” and spoke “primarily to the pleasures of transgression.” Anonymous at this point seems almost synonymous with the infamous message board 4Chan. Perhaps anticipating a skeptical audience, Coleman asks, “How did 4chan — one of the seediest zones of the Internet — hatch one of the most robust instantiations of a collectivist, anti-celebrity ethic, without its members even intending to?” She points to the board’s technological affordances: “The ethic thrived organically on 4chan because it could be executed in such an unadulterated form.”
4Chan doesn’t maintain consistent user names and content eventually disappears if it isn’t consistently interacted with. Attention is difficult to sustain, only coming in intense bursts, and it is near impossible to maintain a reputation of past successes. One must constantly prove one’s worth to the group. Anonymous carries this ethic forward even after most of its organizing work moves off 4Chan and onto several privately hosted IRC channels.
Coleman makes it clear throughout the book that Anonymous’s approach “exceeds a liberal politics of publicity, speech and debate, having the goal of directly halting activity or impacting and inconveniencing the targeted party.” They reject representative democracy, relying on a particularly masculine kind of consensus where the person that can argue the best and longest wins the day. They adhere closely to a political ethic that’s best captured by a quote from prominent computer scientist David Clark: “We reject kings, presidents, and voting. We believe in rough consensus and running code.” Coleman portrays early Anonymous as at once an anarchistic collective dedicated to direct action and as a gaggle of libertarians trying to act on their internally inconsistent idea of freedom.
But during the summer of 2011, when the social movements of the Arab Spring were in full tilt, Anonymous experienced what Coleman calls a “Cambrian explosion of hacker splinter crews.” Subgroups with names like LulzSec and AntiSec emerged, ready to employ Anonymous’s extra-legal tactics on overtly political targets. Suddenly, Anonymous became a manifestation of a thoroughly postliberal political ideology in action. No longer mere troll-like pranksters, their attention-grabbing intrusions now served a political aim. The chat logs reproduced in the book show long and impassioned speeches, hard work, and only the occasional inside joke. There’s still hints of child-like glee at the moment of the hack, but what was once Joker-esque tricksterism mostly gives way to realpolitik. When it’s decided to attack the U.S. Trade Representative’s website in protest of ACTA, then pending intellectual-property legislation, one Anon goes so far as to say, “I am not here for the fuckin lulz.”
Coleman likens Anons to Eric Hobsbawm’s notion of the “social bandit,” Robin Hood–types that steal but usually with redistributive ends in mind. But while Coleman highlights Anonymous’s obvious similarities to other social movements, she also acknowledges that the collective constitutes a more slippery entity. “Anonymous encompasses an abundance of relationships, structures, and moral positions,” she points out. Parsing Coleman’s vignettes about the collective yields four distinct components that, alone or in any combination, could constitute the “subject” going by the name Anonymous during any given action: the people, the technologies used, the tactics deployed, and the shifting but cohesive semiotics of the Anonymous brand — Guy Fawkes masks, headless business suits, Nyan Cat gifs, aesthetics lifted from The Matrix and Korn music videos, all served with an indeterminate amount of irony.
As a result of this slipperiness, “researching Anonymous,” Coleman warns in the introduction, “felt like following a thread through a dark and twisty path strewn with rumors, lies, secrets, and the ghoulish reality of spies and informants.” The difficulty in placing boundaries around Anonymous as an agent makes seemingly straightforward claims like, “Once Anonymous left 4chan to engage in activism” difficult to comprehend. What is “leaving 4Chan” in that statement: The people that self-identify as Anonymous? The speech acts that are Anonymous’s sole manifestation? The distributed collective desire to hack institutions like Scientology? This is the ultimate strength of Anonymous as a movement that wishes to hide until it can strike opportunistically, but it is also what makes it impossible to study.
Of course, this isn’t the first time a research subject has refused the very idea of objective analysis. Coleman has bumped up against the same problems that Niels Bohr encountered when first studying subatomic particles. He realized that studying things that are impossible to observe without sophisticated instrumentation blurred the lines between “objects of observation” and the “agencies of observation.” Science, which relied on universally applicable “objectivity,” had become radically contextual. It wasn’t enough to enumerate the properties of photons; one had to also meticulously describe the scientific rationale for the way one perceived those properties.
The theoretical physicist and feminist philosopher Karen Barad applies Bohr to the study of humans’ relationship to technology. Barad’s essay Getting Real: Technoscientific Practices and the Materialization of Reality, introduces the word “intra-action” to refer to “the inseparability of ‘objects’ and ‘agencies of observation.’” Intra-action may help us understand how, for example, fetuses are socially constructed into stand-alone entities through sonogram technology and standard medical practices at the expense of reducing “pregnant women to technomaterial environments for fetal patients.” The sonographic picture of a fetus, an actual fetus, and all the technoscientific inventions that are put to work to produce both of these objects are epistemologically inseparable from one another.
Because objects emerge out of the intra-action between discourse, apparatuses, and bodies, one cannot study or understand Anonymous without first intra-acting with the attention economy that birthed it. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy is meant to be a popular press book, but its existence is possibly a radically innovative contribution to social scientific method. That is to say, Anonymous is a liquid (perhaps quantum?) case that cannot be studied without a kind of deep, participatory observation. Just as the physicist can’t shine a light on photons in order to see them better, a social scientist can’t pay attention to Anonymous and not expect some sort of self-aware reaction.
Coleman is certainly aware of this experimental relationship: “While it might seem unusual for a researcher to become so entangled with his or her object of study, it has long been par for the course in anthropology … I’ve thought long and deliberately about the underlying goals motivating this book. Ultimately, I reached the conclusion that I have two clashing objectives: to stamp out misinformation and to embrace enchantment.” While much of the book is dedicated to “dispel[ing] some of the many misconceptions about Anonymous” there is a secondary, yet abiding commitment to “nudge forward this process of historical and political myth-making—already evident in the routine functioning of an entity constituted by adept artists, contemporary mythmakers, and concocters of illusion.”
Perhaps the best way to confront Anonymous is not as a subject in a controlled study but as an environment to be understood. Anonymous is not a mystical force channeling the public will; it is an expert species of contemporary marketing. Coleman calls Anonymous the “quintessential anti-brand brand” and emphasizes how the collective was forged by its portrayal in the media. The group is thus deeply reflexive about how it is represented — this reflexivity may be the chief point of consistency holding it together. Everything from their over-the-top pronouncements of global domination to their wink and a nod jokes are meant to hold, deploy, and activate attention for a specific purpose.
Because of its constitutive audience-consciousness, Anonymous is reshaped by the media coverage that is its purpose, its social trace. This means that Coleman’s watching, and the existence of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, has reshaped the nature of Anonymous. Since Anonymous is an entity held together by attention, to write a book about Anonymous, then, is to contribute to Anonymous, and perhaps in a sense even be Anonymous. “It took only the single month of January 2011 to graduate from a confused outsider to a confused semi-insider,” she explains, in a short methods tangent in Chapter 6 that might have been more useful toward the beginning. “The transformation was underwritten by the hours I clocked for research: Five hours a day online — at least — every day of the week. I tuned into seven to ten IRC channels at a time, observing and absorbing the comings and goings of Anonymous.”
Coleman concedes that despite her tireless pace, “Anonymous’ embrace of multiplicity, secrecy, and deception makes it especially difficult to study and comprehend.” It was only a matter of time however, before the Anons in the IRC channels asked who this lurking, silent username was. “Had they called me out as lame or untrustworthy it would have spelled the end — or at least made the prospect of trust and access into a herculean feat.” She introduces herself and quickly becomes a part of her own research.
She finds herself perpetuating white lies and helps manipulate reporters, perhaps at least in part, to maintain a rapport with her Anonymous contacts. Months after “Operation Payback” she helped hackers working under the banner of “AnonOps” to convince members of the media that the Motion Picture Association of America had hired a firm called Aiplex to carry out DDoS attacks on sites like the Pirate Bay. Coleman writes, “I myself repeated this fib on countless occasions. To this day I cannot ascertain who first proposed it, and whether it was borne from honest confusion … or conniving duplicity.”
If she unintentionally repeated a fib to reporters, is it possible that — not for a lack of rigorous research — that parts of the book are a product of Anonymous’ self-conscious media manipulation? I do not think Coleman is lying to readers, but parts of stories certainly come across as deliberately vague or out of focus. Names of people and even IRC handles are made pseudonymous at times, while other people get full life histories and bodily descriptions. Some of this is because some Anonymous members need protecting while others have already been caught and exposed by various law-enforcement arms, but there’s no telling whether or not the pseudonyms are protecting people already arrested from further prosecution.
Coleman inserts narrative accounts of her doing the research into Hacker, Hoaxer. This helps readers get a better sense of her relationship to Anonymous, but it also makes the book personal, almost autobiographical, at unexpected moments. For instance, when Anonymous is gearing up for a campaign to punish companies like MasterCard and PayPal for withholding donations from Wikileaks, Coleman tells how this affected her family vacation: “I’m pretty sure my family thought I was being purposefully antisocial … [but] I was witnessing the first large-scale, populist, full-bodied online protest, and I was not going to miss it for the world, especially not for Settlers of Catan.”
Her enthusiasm certainly comes from having found an endlessly intriguing liquid subject that seems immune to standard techniques of theorization, let alone understanding. She’s generally sympathetic toward Anonymous, but that should not be read as being totally uncritical. Coleman points out that “the anthropological imperative requires a certain degree of distance, while at the same time compelling one to delve deep. The trick is to integrate and go beyond simply relying on participants’ explanations of events.” But there are parts of the book that would have benefited from relying less on the participants, and maintaining a critical distance. She reproduces in her book the phrases and vocabulary of Anons, which are replete with slurs and epithets that at times overwhelm the analysis, as when she titles a chapter “‘Moralfaggotry’ everywhere.” Her sympathies can lead to some apparent contradictions, as well. “Anonymous is not the white, middle-class, American boys’ club of everyone’s default imagination,” Coleman declares as she ends her chapter on Anonymous’s expansion to global resistance movements, but with the exception of some very prominent figures, most of the people she describes are white men from English-speaking countries.
While Coleman certainly recognizes that “Anonymous mirrors the structural inequities prevalent across the computer science world,” she never really delves into the race and gender politics of Anonymous, which might have made for a richer analysis. She acknowledges that the vulgar troll vocabulary the group typically employs is “like a pesticide, a repellent meant to keep naive users far away from their Internet playground.” But given that the epithets are almost always misogynist, racist, and homophobic leads readers to conclude Anonymous is committed to sustain white supremacy on the web — even if individual people of color or women participate in the group.
At times, Coleman can be a little too congratulatory, as when she praises LulzSec’s mixure of Nyan Cat and pirate themes as “a chimeric mixture of depth, mystique, and memetic mythology heretofore unseen in Anonymous hacker groups.” Coleman likens Anons to trickster figures who “are positioned to impart lessons — regardless of their intent,” which makes their actual identity irrelevant. This trickster imagery works to the extent that one believes that collective human action can also play the role typically held by forces of nature and unforeseen circumstance. From that vantage, Anonymous are less agents than objects cast about by an otherwise inscrutable collective consciousness. They are portrayed as a distributed entity that doesn’t decide so much as unpredictably acts.
I certainly get the sense that any lies, half-truths, or willful omissions in the book are the result of an anthropologist’s commitment to protecting her subjects, but it serves as another example of how Anonymous can enroll existing laws and customs around privacy into their mystique. Anonymous “works” because it can play off of these sorts of ambiguities in the information landscape. No matter the speaker’s intention, she or he inadvertently arms the collective with more shadows to hide in, more lore to build from.
Participant observers doing social science research must always deal with problems of objectivity and collaboration, with tainting results through overinvolvement and overinvestment, and research subjects’ behavior of course changes with their knowledge that they are being watched. But the particular nature of Anonymous’s attention-based strategies complicates these already complicated problems. As one reads Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, one gets the creeping notion that the book is folding in on itself, becoming an inherently suspicious instantiation of the obfuscating Anonymous strategies it tries to detail.
Even this review, and all reviews of Coleman’s book that have been and will be published, are a part of Anonymous. Each author is intra-acting with the symbols and mythos of this unpredictable but often contemptuous hive mind. The trickster-like nature of Anonymous is held together by attention spans but is ultimately agnostic to any one individual’s particular feelings about the actions ascribed to it. Hate the Internet Hate Machine or love it, as soon as you utter its name you are a part of its antics. Lulz.