Anonymous – Behind the Mask Lurks a Troll

Research just published by a Canadian anthropologist reveals the true nature of the Anonymous hacktivism movement and shows it is still defined by its roots in ‘trolling’, the practice of posting images and hate-speak on the internet to humiliate and intimidate. Professor Gabriella Coleman’s scholarly yet immensely readable book ‘Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy was published to coincide with this month’s major global action by the online agitators. Masked supporters of Anonymous staged demonstrations across the globe in what was billed on their websites as a ‘million mask march’ but in reality achieved far smaller numbers. On the streets of London, England, Ferguson, Missouri and Manila, Phillippines the protestors showed how they use the Anonymous brand to publicise a wide variety of ‘pick and mix’ local and national issues. Demonstrators in London cited grievances as diverse as high train fares and insitutionalised paedophilia in the British establishment as the reasons why they took to the streets. Many held placards demanding ‘Tax the rich’. Yet celebrity millionaires such as comedian  Russell Brand and fashion designer Vivienne Westwood joined the party, watching as some maskers lit a bonfire outside the Houses of Parliament and burned their gas and electricity bills. In Ferguson, Missouri the ongoing anger at the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Micheal Brown by a white police officer was the focus of the marchers’ demands, whilst in the Philippines a pro-democracy demonstration coincided with a hack attack on government websites. The Anonymous website claimed to have inspired actions in 482 locations across the world, clustered in Europe and the United States of America. The European landmarks include Skopje in Macedonia, Thessaloniki in Greece, Bordeaux and Cannes in France, Frankfurt and Munich in Germany, Turin and Catania in Italy and so on. This diversity is in keeping with the Anonymous tradition, according to Professor Coleman, who calls it ‘a protest ensemble’. The use of masks, she says, dates back to 2008 when hacktivists took into the real world their objections – already voiced online – to the Church of Scientology. “Because the Church of Scientology is a litigious organisation, known for going after its critics, they decided to cover their faces” says Professor Coleman, who holds the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec.

Gabriella coleman

Professor Gabriella Coleman

The masks they chose are a stylised version of the face of Guy Fawkes, the English Catholic terrorist who tried to blow up the English Houses of Parliament in 1605 and was executed for high treason. However the hacktivists were not really history experts – they appropriated the mask from the movie V for Vendetta, set in London and starring Hugo Weaving and Natalie Portman. In the film a masked revolutionary takes over TV stations and incites a violent rebellion against the British Establishment – the monarch, politicians, forces of law and order and ancient institutions. Ironically, the copyright on the mask is owned by Time Warner, the distributors of the film. It is a top seller on Amazon and a big earner for Time Warner. Still, it has become the symbol of Anonymous and of generic dissent against ‘the system’ in Europe and other westernised societies. Just as the mask hides a multitude of identities and beliefs, so the Anonymous online tribe is difficult to categorise. But Coleman is an anthropologist, so she has spent fourteen years winning the trust of the hackers and pranksters so that she can write authoritatively about who they are and what they stand for (if anything!). Some have hacked into highly-sensitive websites such as the US Federal Bureau of Investigations and been prosecuted for computer misuse. Other actions aimed at economic targets like PayPal. There have been more than 100 arrests from Cambodia to the UK with many participants arrested for engaging in DDoS campaigns. (A DDoS – distributed denial of service – is an organised attempt to bring down an internet server by bombarding it with hundreds of thousands of requests at the same moment, causing it to crash).

“The state treats their activities as criminal, but the people who engage in these actions are doing it for protest and activism,” says the Professor. However some of them did their hacking not as a political statement, but just for fun or ‘lulz’. Lulz derives from textspeak lol which stands for ‘laughs out loud’ and is reckoned to be an extreme form of ‘lol. The anthropologist seeks to dignify this form of internet vandalism as a cultural activity within the European tradition of the trickster or shape-shifter – like Proteus in the Greek myths or the Norse god of fire, Loki. She says it also finds an echo in West African and Caribbean folk tales about Anansi the Spiderman. ‘LulzSec’ became a splinter group within the movement and some of its UK-based followers were arrested and charged with defacing the Serious Organised Crime Agency webiste and other examples of computer misuse. They have now been released from jail (and one has completed a community-based sentence). LulzSec’s story has been dramatised and the freed hackers have appeared on stage at a London theatre with Gabriella Coleman. Ryan Ackroyd, Ryan Cleary, Jake Davis, Mustafa al Bassam answered her questions with disarming frankness. You can watch a recording of the debate here. Ryan Ackroyd still insists that he was not just a joker: “Personally there were political reasons: Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, ACTA (the trade agreement on counterfeiting and intellectual property infringement that never happened), governments spying on people. I’d like to see Anonymous take on a legal political role, there’s lawyers and police in it. There’s a lot of brains and knowledge that could come together to effect political change.”

However they all admit that they have been part of an element on the internet that promotes misogyny, targets homosexuals and is racist, sexist and deliberately offensive. Its roots lie in an image board called 4Chan which was founded in 2003 for organising trolling campaigns. “I’ve known many individual members of Anonymous who are involved in struggles against misogyny and homophobia” says Professor Coleman. ”In fact one of the surprising things was how many queer (sic) Anons there were.” She says all ethnicities and various sexual preferences are represented in Anonymous but the striking exception is gender – there are hardly any girls or women (although young men often adopt female pseudonyms online). Coleman puts this down to the macho bravado of most of the chatrooms and the frequent use of images of violent rape. Strange, then, that she herself has been tolerated for over a decade as an academic researcher snooping on them. Many of her online dialogues with notorious hackers are reproduced in the book. Its tone suggests that she is pleased to be allowed in to their secretive world and therefore inclined to justify their behaviour. As the Anons’ agony aunt she may be more of an advocate than an impartial observer, but her insights are revealing and a must-read for anyone who seeks to understand the mystery behind the masks.