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.

Is Chinese web censorship effective?

Paul Raven @ 04-06-2009

Soldier guarding portrait of Mao Zedong in Tiananmen SquareThe last week or so has seen a number of stories regarding today being the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in China, many of them focussing on the sad but unsurprising fact that the Chinese government has locked down access to a swathe of web tools (like Twitter) and news sites (like HuffPo) in anticipation of its citizens talking about a subject on which it is still hugely touchy.

The first question I asked myself was “how effective will that be, anyway?” I’m obviously not the only person to wonder the same thing – though it seemed my initial optimism was unfounded, as BoingBoing linked to a short post by Beijing-based journalist James Fallows, who reports that knowledge of the Tiananmen protests among young Chinese is virtually non-existent:

I have spent a lot of time over the past three years with Chinese university students. They know a lot about the world, and about American history, and about certain periods in their own country’s past. Virtually everyone can recite chapter and verse of the Japanese cruelties in China from the 1930s onward, or the 100 Years of Humiliation, or the long background of Chinese engagement with Tibet. Through their own family’s experiences, many have heard of the trauma of the Cultural Revolution years and the starvation and hardship of the Great Leap Forward. But you can’t assume they will ever have heard of what happened in Tiananmen Square twenty years ago. For a minority of people in China, the upcoming date of June 4 has tremendous significance. For most young people, it’s just another day.

Similar sentiments crop up in a series of PBS interviews with journalists and experts in Chinese sociology [via MetaFilter], though there is some hope as well – here’s author and journalist Jan Wong:

I don’t know what it tells you about a country when you could have such a cataclysmic event as Tiananmen Square and then suddenly you lop off the reality for all the people coming after. … But the great thing about China is that history is valued so that it will come out one day. People will keep records, people will eventually write about this. It’s not that it’s disappeared forever. You know, in Chinese history, each dynasty has secrets that it suppresses, and then it’s up to the next dynasty to write the true history of the previous dynasty. Each dynasty writes its own propaganda, the next dynasty writes the true history, so I assume this will happen in China, too.

But how long will we have to wait for this to occur? Has the old cultural chain of the dynasties been snapped by the Communist Party’s ubiquitous censorship, or is it just another Emperor in different clothes?

Of course, one of the great claims about the internet is John Gilmore’s belief that it “treats censorship as damage and routes around it”; whether that is still the case (or if it ever was) is a subject for debate, but it’s reasonable to suggest that the internet must be a difficult beast to cage, even with the immense amount of manpower available to the Chinese government. China specialist Orville Schell suggests that China is the ultimate test of Gilmore’s aphorism:

We do have some interesting wild cards, like the Internet, and I think the Internet is fundamentally a liberalizing force. But I think China, in this regard, is the great petri dish for whether the Internet can be brought to heel, or whether it is, on the face of it, a sort of spontaneous free agent that will catalyse China into a more open direction. And I think the returns are not in yet. China needs the Internet, and it’s using it to good effect in business. And the Party is using it very effectively to help communicate with the provinces, the counties, the police units, the army. It isn’t purely an engine of dissident energy or of individualism or of democracy. We’ve seen many technologies from telegraph to radio to television that have been brought to heel quite nicely by commercial interests. So we’ll see.

Now you can’t control the Internet completely. I don’t even think that’s their aspiration in China. But their aspiration is to make it difficult enough for most people so that they’ll stay within the confines of the intranet, not the Internet. The intranet being China’s sort of hermitically sealed room, which is connected to the outside world by a very limited number of gateways. And it is through those gateways, that all the information to the outside world flows, both ways, and that’s where it can be controlled.

As with so many things, only time will tell. But I find myself wondering about the curiosity that is so much a part of being a young adult, at least here in the West – can censorship and obfuscation have really erased that completely among China’s young citizens? Would they not notice the increase in website blocking and wonder what is being hidden so carefully, like a child told to stay out of the cupboard under the stairs as Christmas approaches?

Maybe I’m more optimistic than I thought – I imagine that knowledge of the Tiananmen massacre isn’t as rare as it might appear to outside eyes, perhaps passed around in secret by good old word of mouth, quiet whispers and hand-written notes guarded closely against the surveillance of the state, a tiny precious flame shielded against the wind and rain, never shown to outsiders for fear that to do so would incur the wrath of the Party.

Or maybe I’m being naive; perhaps curiosity is easily quenched. After all, it’s not as if the ‘free’ West isn’t full of people who cultivate their own ignorance of political history, so as to avoid having to ask themselves awkward questions about the way the world works. [image by Gene Zhang]

Smart mobs – more smart, less mob, says Rheingold

Paul Raven @ 01-07-2008

Korean political protestorsWeb anthropologist and elder statesman Howard Rheingold got invited to address South Korea’s citizen journalism website OhmyNews by video, in light of the protests currently ongoing there in opposition to the importation of US beef. The video and a transcript are available for everyone to see, and Rheingold has some sensible things to say about the Pandora’s Box of smart mobs:

A smart mob is not necessarily a wise mob.

The technology itself does not guarantee peace or democracy. It really requires a literacy. It requires an informed citizenry. Journalism plays a role in that. Journalism brings to the people news they need to know about the workings of the State. And it helps bring public opinion to the policy makers to know that they cannot make policy that goes against the majority of opinions of the citizens.

Wise words, for sure – but the inference is that Rheingold recognises that smart mobs are simply one emergent property of recent technological advances … and that the same technology, with a very slight adjustment of attitude or motive by its users, can be used for oppression just as easily as liberation. [image by hojusaram]

New technologies, same old problems.

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]

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