Anonymity's Role In Activism | MIT Center for Civic Media

Anonymity's Role In Activism

[I wasn’t able to spend time on IRC this week, as by the time I gained access to the Etherpad to see the assignment, I was at my office. Ironically, almost half of the links from the articles were blocked; gaining access to IRC from my current client’s office is laughable at this point.]

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the role of anonymity in discourse and consensus lately: anonymity as an enabler, anonymity as a deterrent. At his SXSW keynote last year, 4chan founder Christopher Poole referred to Mark Zuckerberg’s assertion that anonymity online could be equated to cowardice. Poole wholly disagreed with the statement, noting that anonymity “lets you create without the fear of mistakes.”

Poole’s community, as Gabriella Coleman notes in her piece entitled “From Lulz to Collective Action,” was the birthplace of the Anonymous movement. Coleman goes on to summarize Anonymous’ major political actions over the past few years, providing a great deal of evidence of the group’s collective, decentralized power. It’s this decentralized approach that was espoused as the most effective in Critical Art Ensemble’s “Electronic Civil Disobedience” in 1995: “[L]eftist political action must reorganize itself in terms of anarchist cells, an arrangement that allows resistance to originate from many different points.”

At what point, however, must an anonymous, coordinated decentralization go before it requires some sort of formation as a cohesive, bureaucratic group? According to CAE, never. “Every time we have opened our eyes after wandering the shining path of a glorious revolution, we find that the bureaucracy is still standing. We find Coca-Cola gone and Pepsi-Cola in its place—looks different, tastes the same. This is why there is no need to fear that we will one day wake up and find civilization destroyed by mad anarchists. This mythic fiction is one that originates in the security state to instill in the public a fear of effective action.”

This intrigues me. It feels utopian (in a dystopian sort of way). Where can I look to see examples of this anarchy in action? Better yet, where can I find examples of it as an effective tool for systematic change against decentralized foes?

Again, Coleman provides some examples of attacks: against Amazon, PayPal, and MasterCard after their action against Wikileaks; taking Sony’s network down after its legal pursuit of a hacker; DDoS attacks on the MPAA after their attempted crackdown of PirateBay. But where is the effectiveness? Wikileaks’ PayPal account remains restricted, hacker George Holtz has agreed never to attempt any homebrew hacks on the PlayStation, and The Pirate Bay defendants were still found guilty, sentenced to jail, and fined nearly $5 million.

This is not to argue that a centralized, non-anonymous force could have caused anywhere near the same amount of chaos or brought any more awareness to these causes than Anonymous could. I am probably asking for too much as I try to measure “effectiveness.” So let’s turn to a more topical use-case: Occupy.

The decentralized nature of the Occupy movement makes it a bit difficult to track its origins. It’s actually unclear to me whether Anonymous inspired AdBusters to support the movement or vice versa, but I can say with certainty that Anonymous is certainly a strong promoter. In fact, the AnonOps blog is completely filled with Occupy news and updates, providing users with schedules of the OWS program as well as a list of every Occupy meet-up around the world.

According to this FastCompany piece, however, none of those organizing the individual movements have noted any connection to Anonymous. On the one hand, the vaguely bureaucratic nature of the general assembly feels rather anti-Anonymous and CAE. These people are organizing against a decentralized enemy (banks, government, corporations) by performing acts of civil disobedience. Yet they do not follow Anonymous’ or CAE’s lead: the focus is on awareness through collective, organized, physical civil disobedience. As it notes in Electronic Civil Disobedience, “[y]et even in terms of goals there is no consensus about the practical basis of authoritarian power. The perception of authoritarianism shifts depending on the coordinates from which a given socio-logical group chooses to resist authoritarian discourse and practice.” What, then, as Occupy learned from Anonymous and CAE?

Well, there are some recognizable characteristics: Occupy’s working groups could be considered the anarchist “cells” advocated by CAE. And each Occupy location continuously resists strong association with a centralized flagship location, referring only to “standing in solidarity” with the other protests.

As is usually the case, writing out my thoughts like this just leads me to more questions: does standing up and performing a “mic-check” take you from being anonymous to being seen? I realize no one is wearing name-tags, but does the continuous live-streaming of the protests online negate the anonymous nature of individuals within a large group? Should the processes used at Occupy be considered democratic to the point that they work against CAE’s assertion that “[a]n anti-authoritarian predisposition becomes useful only when the idea of the democratic monolith is surrendered”?

Maciej Ceglowski recently noted that “maybe the purest (!) example is 4chan, a Lord of the Flies community that invents all the stuff you end up sharing elsewhere: image macros, copypasta, rage comics, the lolrus. The data model for 4chan is three fields long - image, timestamp, text. Now tell me one bit of original culture that's ever come out of Facebook.” The creativity being driven by 4chan and its cleaner-cut cousins, Reddit, Imgur, et al., is certainly something Christopher Poole is proud of. It’s also the kind of thinking that builds eventually builds movements like Anonymous and Occupy. What happens, though, as the creative take their anti-authoritarian mind-set into the world of face to face activism?