Historicizing Anonymous:

Parmy Olson’s We are Anonymous (2012) and Gabriella Coleman’s Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy (2014)

“Trolling is in the Socratic tradition,” said Splendid Spoon, a hacktivist and system administrator, on the documentary The Hacker Wars (2014). Socrates is the troll of Platonism, who lectured for the lulz, and against popular beliefs in the Dialogues. Sanctioned for corrupting the youth and for impiety, he continued on like a cog in the system until he was sentenced to drink poisonous hemlock.

The tolerance or prosecution of views and behaviors antithetical to the norm represents the limits in which a given society is prepared to protect free speech as a tradeoff to safeguarding civility. Two memorable books paint a complicated picture of the landscape upon which free speech exists today within Anonymous–a global hacktivist network–that is: Parmy Olson’s We are Anonymous and Gabriella Coleman’s Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous.

Like it or not, Anonymous may very well be the most prolific examples of online organizing in recent years, with members having been responsible for in-person protests, and involved in the Occupy movement–raising awareness of the protests, and orchestrating actions like doxing police officers filmed using excessive force. Such a relationship has been explored by journalists including Quinn Norton, correspondent for Wired Magazine on Occupy. On the other side, Coleman notes that some have accused Anonymous of “fortifying the cyberwar industrial complex,” though she offers the probabilistic statement that, “cybersecurity initiatives would be well funded with or without Anonymous.”

Anonymous’ size, a constant source of speculation, has proven hard to measure. Some have said its strength is heavily carried by the core group of hacktivists taking part in their major attacks, often in secluded private channels of their own, for others an Anon might be anyone who finds their way into an Anonymous IRC chat or forum, yet still it can be generalized even more as a culture of thinking highly suspect of corruption in institutions, corporations and government. Both books point to the corporate media industry and organized government as prominent ongoing enemies of Anonymous; it’s targets of hacking and defacement for instance, have included: Fox, X-Factor, FBI Affiliates, CIA, AOL, AT&T, PBS, Sony Pictures, Sun, News of the World, US Navy, NATO, and more.

r2hox, Lisbon, Spain

New methods of reporting are required to get the scoop on online activist groups that take privacy and anonymity seriously. Anonymous, for instance, coordinates much of their efforts on IRC (Internet Relay Chat), a text-based group chat for the technically-minded, composed of “channels,” which one navigates through. Both authors reflect on the challenges they faced on IRC to do their research. This includes Anonymous’ around-the-clock stream of activity, the barring of journalists from certain chats (sometimes for their own protection), the issue of corroborating evidence, and the looming fear of the researcher’s own proximity to illegal information being cause for increased legal risks and government surveillance.

At work, these books offer high stakes action, lurking, and narrative conceit usually found in crime or detective fiction.

Gabriella Coleman, an anthropologist at McGill University in Montreal, doesn’t shy away from dramatic language in Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy. She writes “Anonymous participants were politically inclined; they may tunnel and undermine, but they do so in an attempt to dig through to daybreak–to end the dark reign of injustice.” Guardian reporter Jamie Bartlett has said of Coleman “Her language throughout betrays her loyalties.” This much seems true, as Coleman notes herself, “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,” for instance in the book, she attends the Occupy protests with a described sense of moral obligation, and writes letters to some of the Anons in prison, and to the judge of Jeremy Hammond, asking for leniency. “Strangers were reaching out to work towards a common goal. I myself was inspired,” she accounts.

Still her background as an anthropologist shines through in her tendency to pause and asses the underlying cultural meaning through topics oft encountered by anthropologists: humor, friendship’s role in group formation, and violence to name a few. Such an approach is seen throughout Coleman’s work, in her book Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking (2012) for example she theorized:

Humor is not only the most crystalline expression of the pleasure of hacking. It is also a crucial vehicle for expressing hackers’ peculiar definitions of creativity and individuality, rendering partially visible the technocultural modes of life that is computer hacking.”

On the other hand, Parmy Olson, former London bureau chief for Forbes magazine, takes a fast-paced play-by-play journalistic approach in We are Anonymous, focusing much of the book on a core group of Anons who formed the offspring, LulzSec. Despite having less in the way of cultural analysis, Olson’s use of Anonymous IRC chat logs and dialogue re-told to her by Anons makes the book more wrenching and cinematic, while also more technical. Pseudonymous LulzSec members, Topiary, Kayla, Sabu, tflow, q, and Owen, among others, are fleshed out to a level of emotional intimacy unrivaled by Coleman’s accounts.

So much might be due to Olson’s proximity to members of LulzSec, a source of frustration for Coleman by her own account:

“LulzSec taunted journalists with the lure of information and then gave them the silent treatment–with one notable exception, Parmy Olson of Forbes. These hackers (almost) exclusively fed her info about their dealings and, to retain her privileges, she was discreet about the arrangement.”

Throughout the book, Coleman’s jabs at Parmy Olson’s close contact with members of LulzSec sometimes feel competitive, other times bitter. This scenario is telling more generally of the challenges of reporting on secretive, online groups in general. A few figures are seemingly often chosen by the group to be their sort of “reporter in residence” who is coached into understanding the house rules enough to lurk quietly in the backchannels, causing less suspicion because of their familiarity, and in general presenting the group with a direct line to the press. In this way, reporting on Anonymous also means competing for the trust and affections of members enough for them to trust the reporter to enter private channels and tolerate their questioning.

The relationship between Anonymous and message board culture is somewhat murky and certainly less clear than the mainstream media often abstracts. Olson describes 4chan as “a recruiting tool” for Anonymous, especially in its early days, where alerts and instructions to join IRC chats would get pasted into 4chan to get the word out. There is also some obvious crossover with the slang used by both communities, with tactics like “rickrolling” and “swating” being used by both. But both Coleman and Olson’s books paint the picture of Anonymous as a deeply politically motivated and eclectic group of individuals, drawn together by common views on free speech (and the hacker ethic code is speech), intellectual property, who defy the stereotypes of “white male-children in their parent’s basements looking for lulz.” Dispelling these myths seems to be one of Coleman’s prominent goals, and she vies for the recognition of Anonymous as a serious activist group; “Anonymous had tapped into a deep, widespread disenchantment, and by providing a conduit for confrontational activism, had channeled it into a more visible and coherent form.”

Occupy Wall Street

It’s a well-known truth that there will always be hierarchy and power in organization. So much seemed true of both accounts of Anonymous, focusing on the major players of the core hacker groups. These players also became, towards the end of both books, the targets of criminal investigation and raids, à la the especially shocking story of Hector “Sabu” Monsegur, the assumed leader of AntiSec–a hacktivist group positioned against the computer security industry–flipping to become an FBI informant after an arrest that lasted less than 24 hours. Both dwell on Sabu extensively because of his charisma and centrality to Anonymous’ strategy and so many of its attacks. While Olson discusses extensively the suspicions and subsequent reactions of Anonymous members when Sabu’s role as an informant went public, Coleman’s breakdown includes a strong analysis of the legal ambiguity surrounding the FBI informant process:

“The majority of cases involving informants never go to trial in the United States, so we largely learn about this system–and are able to argue for its reform–thanks to occasional trials and leaks..

The fact that Sabu was allowed to facilitate so many hacks under full view of the FBI is testament to the ongoing abuses of the informant system. It also serves as a painful reminder that the state will use methods both legal and illegal to dismantle a movement deemed threatening.”

Regardless of the account, both present the legal repercussions of associating with Anonymous as highly ambiguous, hard to investigate and enforce because of the global scale of the group, and highly suspect due to the undercover investigations done by the FBI and other government groups.

The book of Anonymous continues to be written. Most recently, the media has reported that Anonymous has declared a war on ISIS in what has been called #OpParis (Operation Paris) or #OpParisIntel in “revenge” for the November 13, 2015 Paris attacks, despite that Anonymous does not claim responsibility for these operations on Twitter.

CNBC has reported that Anonymous has plans to cut off ISIS’ online recruiting operations, and that Anonymous took down 20,000 ISIS Twitter accounts shortly after the Paris attacks. As Anonymous denies culpability for these actions, we are left pondering the general public’s association of Anonymous now with online vigilante activism more generally. Coleman and Olson’s books might continue to help us understand the escalating high political stakes at play within hacktivism, and allow us to question the hyperbolic refrain of the daily news media about Anonymous.