Wikileaks and Anonymous

Paul Raven @ 27-10-2010

There are a few things worth noting about the latest Wikileaks document-dump, the first and most obvious being how utterly unsurprising (though still deeply saddening) the contents were; for me at least (and I suspect for many others) it’s more of a confirmation of long-held suspicions than anything else.

The second is the reaction from the US and UK governments, which have focussed on the supposed risk to military personnel that the leaks will create; we heard that warning last time, too, and it turned out to be hollow. But it’s proving a very effective distraction to career journalists and their readers, most of whom have overlooked one very telling fact – namely that the aforementioned governments have made no attempt to claim the leaked documents are false. “OK, so we lied… but we were doing it to protect you!” Oh. That has worked out well, hasn’t it?

Thirdly is an observation from Mike Masnick of TechDirt, who compares Wikileaks with everyone’s favourite internet-prankster boogiepersons, Anonymous. The common themes are that they’re both products of our newly-networked era, and that they’re both being underestimated by the very powers that they most threaten.

I’d argue that the time to take the concept of Anonymous seriously came quite some time ago, actually. Even as people dismiss the group as often immature and naive (at times, quite true), what’s impressive about it is that Anonymous is a perfect example of truly distributed, totally anonymous, ad hoc organizations. When the group puts out statements, they’re grandiose and silly, but there’s a real point buried deep within them. What the internet allows is for groups to form and do stuff in a totally anonymous and distributed manner, and there really isn’t any way to prevent that — whether you agree with the activity or not.

Some think that “a few arrests” of folks behind Anonymous would scare off others, but I doubt it. I would imagine that it would just embolden the temporary gathering of folks involved even more. Going back to the beginning of the post, if the US government really was effective in “stopping” Julian Assange, how long do you think it would take for an even more distributed group to pick up the slack? It could be Anonymous itself, who continues on the tradition of Wikileaks, or it could be some other random group of folks who believe in the importance of enabling whistleblowing.

And yes, there’s a smattering of self-aggrandisement on my part here, because I made a similar suggestion back in July:

It’ll never be a big-bucks business, I’d guess, but the accrued counter-authority power and kudos will appeal to a lot of people with axes to grind. But what if they manage to make it an open-source process, so that the same work could be done by anyone even if Wikileaks sank or blew up? An amorphous and perpetual revolving-door flashmob, like Anonymous without the LOLcats and V masks? It’s essentially just a protocol, albeit one that runs on human and electronic networks in parallel.

Nowadays I flinch from making bold statements about profound change, but I find it very hard not to look at distributed post-geographical movements like Wikileaks and Anonymous and not see something without historical precedent. Whether it will last (let alone succeed in toppling the old hierarchies) is an open question that I’d not want to gamble on just yet, but what’s pretty much undeniable is that the nation-state is under attack by a virus for which its immune system has no prepared response.


The Troll Crusade: Anonymous, Scientology and all that

Paul Raven @ 06-10-2009

Anonymous - they are legion.To paraphrase the lovely Pat Cadigan, reality is always weirder than fiction… because fiction is constrained by the need to appear plausible. Which is why, had someone tried to write a novel about an ad-hoc tribe of sociopaths united by membership of an internet bulletin board attempting to take down a notoriously weird young religion created by a fast-talking science fiction writer that numbers some of the biggest names in Hollywood among its ranks, they’d have probably been laughed out of the slush pile with a form rejection slip. [image by Sklathill]

But Chanology, the Anonymous crusade against Scientology, is a very true story, and one that’s still being told. Julian Dibbell has a good long-form piece in Wired all about it, and it’s a fascinating read… not to mention ideal source-material for writers of near-future speculative fiction. Dibbell highlights the real driving motive behind the fluid alliance of Anonymous, which is much less the desire to right wrongs than it is the desire to wind up a legendarily uptight organisation – a desire that focusses inward as well as outward, like an irascible hydra whose heads turn on one another as often as they strike at their enemies.

Dibbell also points out that while Anonynous may represent the arrival of “the kind of ad hoc, loosely coupled social activism that many have hoped the ad hoc, loosely coupled architecture of the Internet would engender,” it may also represent its apogee. Anonymous and Scientology are almost made for one another, so perfectly diametrically opposed at an ideological level that they can’t help but feed the flames of the conflict; potential future opponents may well learn from Scientology’s mistake, and avoid feeding the trolls.

What interests me most about Anonymous as an amorphous (id)entity, though, is the potential it has for temporal continuity independent of its current membership. It’s a banner that any rebellious or angry group could raise at any point in the future, because although its methods and aims are fundamentally individualistic, its public face is exactly the opposite. Like the Luddites and the saboteurs before them, all that’s needed to join the cause is an awareness of its existence… and of its power to enrage the forces of order. Even if Chanology fizzles out against the superior legal firepower of Scientology, I suspect we’ll not have heard the last of Anonymous.


Crowdsourced justice, or just Vigilantism2.0?

Paul Raven @ 11-06-2009

Anonymous vigilantism against Kenny GlennThere’s been a steadily increasing number of stories about “crowdsourced justice” of late, a phenomenon that arguably started in China but which is spreading across the world to anywhere that has a population with ready access to the internet.

For example, you may have heard about the 4chan crusade against one Kenny Glenn, a teenager foolish enough to post videos of himself abusing a kitten; Anonymous doesn’t respect many things, but it sure loves cats, and swiftly unearthed enough information about Kenny to land him in very hot water (and to get the cats rescued, natch).

An article at H+ Magazine takes an in-depth look at the phenomenon, which the Chinese refer to as the “human flesh search engine”:

Fortunately, human flesh search engines don’t end the lives of their victims, like the witch-hunts or lynching of the past.

(Erm… they don’t yet.)

We will not know for some time how these cyber-hunts will shape the future of our privacy, freedom of speech and sense of justice and security. But there is no doubt that these cases are just the beginning a vast social change taking place right now. What we can see from these incidents is that the flow of information will no longer be controlled and that the power of public outrage will not easily be quelled.

Kitten Killer of Hangzhou and her cameraman will walk away from their brutal act.. An apology is hardly appropriate recompense for the death of the tiny tortured feline. But these small stories will remain a part of our collective human memory and help guide the decisions of future societies, because the Internet does not forget, does not forgive and cannot be stopped. Ever.

While containing more than a mote of hyperbole, that final sentence is very telling – not because it is de facto true, but because many people believe it to be true. It’s that motivation combined with the ease of acting upon it en masse that gives human flesh search engines their power. [image sourced from Anonymous’ Kenny Glenn site]

And via SlashDot we find that it’s not just animal abusers who can become the focus of public ire, even in censorship-ridden China: the China Digital Times has a report regarding the dissemination of personal information about one Chen Hua, a deputy director of the Beijing Internet Propaganda Office who was foolish enough to boast of his own corrupt practices to a girl he was seeing “in a personal capacity”. Whether the story is true or not is irrelevant; word got out, the human flesh search engines dug up a lot of Chen’s personal details, and Beijing is now trying to contain the viral spread of said information… which makes me wonder yet again about how effective the blackout on the Tiananmen massacre really is.

Much as with any other technology, the uses to which the internet can be put are decided by the people with access to it; most of these cases could be argued to be ethically justified to a greater or lesser degree (though the lines are as fuzzy as ever), but that may not always be the case. The lord of the flies tends to follow us wherever we go, and I can’t see the transition to the digital world slowing him down too much.


Anonymous continues to blur the boundaries between the internet and the real world

Tomas Martin @ 12-02-2008

Some of the Guy Fawkes masked protestors in London
After calling for mass protests against Scientology in its videos a few weeks ago, did online collective Anonymous have any effect on the world? Well, around 500 people showed up to protest in both London and Los Angeles, with hundreds more in other cities. The majority of protesters in London wore striking Guy Fawkes masks like in the film ‘V for Vendetta’. Protests appear to have been peaceful and in good spirits – eyewitnesses talk of lots of shouting of internet memes such asThe Cake Is A Lie’ from video game ‘Portal’, and little to no problems with police. Overall an estimated 7000 people in 100 cities across the world protested against alleged human rights abuses by the church.

It’s fascinating to see that many of the protesters were in their teens and twenties. This, together with evidence of large youth turnout in the Democratic Presidential Primaries suggest that the internet is gradually starting to increase the participation of some young people with real world politics and protest, rather than diminishing it. And with Anonymous’ activities moving away from the legally murky waters of hacking towards peaceful protest, are we seeing a return of the protest-happy youth of the sixties, with the help of some www’s?

[picture by xerode]


Battles in cyberspace: Anonymous vs Scientology

Tomas Martin @ 29-01-2008

William Gibson, considered by many to be the father of cyperpunk, has written recent novels in the present time as we’re almost in a cyberpunk world alreadyWhen the first cyberpunk writers picked up their pens in the eighties and wrote about conflict acted out over computer networks, it seemed like a lifetime away. In recent years we’ve seen internet attacks on Estonia and on power infrastructure. Countless griefers, hackers and virus-creators have found a way to virtually attack others.

Now it seems there’s something akin to a war on in one corner of the internet. A number of individuals calling themselves ‘Anonymous’ have posted a series of videos on Youtube decrying the Church/Cult of Scientology and what they call its manipulation of its followers. In related moves, a number of high profile Scientology websites were attacked by hackers and taken down. The Anonymous group seems to be using many of the techniques used by Alternate Reality Games like World Without Oil or Perplex City to create a campaign against elements of the real world.

It’s very reminiscent of the blending between virtuality and reality seen in Charles Stross’ Halting State. You can find Anonymous’s original message to Scientology video here and their reply to the media interest here on Warren Ellis’ blog. A new video was released yesterday explaining some more of the group’s message, in particular making it clear they are not just a group of hackers. It also warns of protests against Scientology on the 10th February. Whoever is doing it and for what reason, it’s a fascinating example of just how different our world(s) are now compared to even a few years ago.

[via Elizabeth Bear, image via Wikipedia’s page on William Gibson’s Spook Country]


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