Disclaimer: This article expresses opinions about a hacktivist group that I have no inside knowledge of; these opnions should not be taken as facts about Anonymous. This is only a representation of my thoughts about Anonymous from a non-anarchist non-hacker outsider’s perspective. This post may contain incomplete or unintentionally untrue informaton.
The hacktivist group Anonymous is a truly democratic – and yes, I know anarchists hate the word! – movement. And nothing proves that more than their method of initiating new members.
Wjen I’ve seen people online tweeting Anonymous from non anonymous accounts and asking to join, I thought it was stupid because it only demonstrates how inexperienced you are about the basics of anonymity and therefore how unsuitable you are for the job. I thought you got in by communicating with them anonymously and demonstrating your hacking skills. But apparently Anonymous consider everyone to already be in their group, and it’s up to us to help Anonymous by raising awareness of issues and communication technologies or run our own (legal or illegal) ops (what Anonymous calls its hacktivist operations).
This non-hierarchy in itself challenges the way in which the State, and especially the Law, see cybercrime. Because according to Anonymous you’re already helping them if you’ve ever blogged against a corporation or tweeted a link to an anonymizing tool. Instead of responsibility being cut and dried (you either did it or you didn’t) Anonymous blurs the lines.
This concept also challenges traditional activism. Historically most activist groups want to make sure their members are committed and that they all believe in the same values. But although Anonymous are anarchists, you don’t have to be an anarchist to join – in fact, you don’t really ‘join’, you just start doing an op and communicating with other members of Anonymous.
The reason that Anonymous claims “we are legion” is not only because it’s probably true, it’s also because they don’t know how many are in their group. In cyberspace identity is fluid and if you’re doing ops – even if you’re doing them legally – it’s probably advisable to change your name, if not for each op, then at least every now and again. Anonymous’ own definition of who is a member is very blurred – we’re all in Anonymous, or at least those who publiciise Anonymous’ activities without running ops are. Whether or not you’re in Anonymous becomes a case of self identity (similar to identifying as a feminist).
Will this unique organisational (non)structure work out for them? I’ll list the pros and cons, starting with cons:
They won’t have control over their media image. Because Anonymous has no official spokesperson or official twitter account (there are multiple social media accounts) they cannot effectively make official statements or press releases. Whatever an Anonymous twitter account says can only represent the views of that particular person.
Their movement may become hijacked, like feminism is sometimes hijacked by the American moral right. Because anyone – even an anti-anarchist – can call themselves a part of Anonymous and start doing ops that the majority of Anonymous don’t agree with.
The movement may become unintentionally hijacked or sidetracked by individuals doing one-off hits on their enemies. To use exanples from the sex positive and atheist online communities, what if Pat Bohannan or AsheIstheRaven/Della Winters had been outed in Anonymous’ name? Outing trolls, especially those who are influential or who’ve attacked others’ anonymity (like Amy Ponomarev) or have the resources to sue (like Pat Bohannan) might be safer if done in Anonymous’ name. And outing trolls in Anonymous’ name will attract more media attention especially from media outlets which specialise in internet news (e.g. the Daily Dot, Gawker).
A non-hierarchical structure may also make a movement become directionless, with everyone out for themselves and disagreeing with each others’ ops.
Not knowing how many people are in your group might make it hard to organise (but it’s also a pro- see below).
However, there are good points too. No hierarchy means all members are equals working together and might facillitate the distribution of tasks to those who are the most suited to those particular tasks, instead of the popularity contest which characterizes elections and corporate promotions. This structure may also mean that only those who are enthusiastic about particular projects will end up working on them.
Not knowing how many people are in your activist group is a good thing because if you know something then theoretically the State can drag that info out of you. If you don’t know in the first place, you can’t tell the police.
By not being able to talk to the press, Anonymous force us to confront the existence of an anarchic organisation and accept that anarchism can work (at least in the case of Anonymous). In this way, they’re setting an example of their political non-system for the rest of us. Instead of constructing our own narratives about Anonymous from our own cultural experiences and political beliefs, we can only watch what they do. The corporations which give us our news can slag off Anonymous but they can’t really engage with Anonymous or use their words against them. Bloggers and journalists who want to speak to or write about Anonymous have to research them and speak to several different members of Anonymous – which gives them a clearer, more truthful picture of Anonymous than they’d get from a press release or looking at a site for a couple of minutes.
Anonymous can never be quoted out of context if they cannot talk to the media.
Although it’s not the only hacktivist group, Anonymous is a unique entity and its truly anarchist structure is a perfect fit for its values of anarchism and full equality. Anonymous reminds me of the fictional planet K-PAX in the trilogy by Dr Gene Brewer – a governmentless, leaderless and utopian society. Whether you agree with its activities or not, Anonymous is the in-your-face proof that we don’t need hierarchies to accomplish our goals.