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Today’s Dead End Kids

Anonymous, Stockholm, 2013 (Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos)

Anonymous, Stockholm, 2013 (Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos)

William Gibson, who invented the word “cyberspace” for his futuristic 1984 novel Neuromancer, has said that the notion came to him when he watched kids playing video games at an arcade in Vancouver. They stared into their consoles, turning knobs and pounding buttons to manipulate a universe no one else could see. They seemed to want nothing more than to vanish through the looking glass:

It seemed to me that what they wanted was to be inside the games, within the notional space of the machine. The real world had disappeared for them—it had completely lost its importance. They were in that notional space, and the machine in front of them was the brave new world.

“Cyberspace” was a nonsense word. He hoped it would pass muster for his science-fictional purpose: to evoke a domain that might be created by networked computers—“a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation.” Thirty years ago there was no such thing.

Now billions of legitimate (and illegitimate) operators live simultaneously in two worlds, or in two divided and contrasted modes of experience. Terminology is still a problem. On one hand is “cyberspace” or “the online world” or “virtual reality” or, not quite accurately, “the internet.” On the other hand we speak of “the real world” or “meatspace.” IRL is a standard geek acronym for “in real life,” and Wikipedia, an institution of cyberspace, helpfully explains, “The real world is another term for reality.” Of course the dichotomy is flawed. Billions of people live their entire lives offline; and the smartphone-bearing zombies plodding blindly down our sidewalks still inhabit the real world even if their souls have gone elsewhere. And as for that other place, it may be virtual, it may involve that metaphorical “cloud,” but cyberspace is real, too. It intersects with, and clashes with, the old world.

In the beginning they were “trolls,” the cyberspace term for people who, in the real world, would be called assholes.

One of its defining creatures—to some its most intrepid, to others its most fearsome—is the entity known as Anonymous. I say “entity” because it is so difficult to pigeonhole. Organization? Movement? Sometimes it seems like little more than a brand, or an attitude, that anyone can adopt or discard at will. “Leaderless Internet hive brain” was the phrase Time magazine used in declaring Anonymous one of the World’s 100 Most Influential People (yes, “people”) of 2012. “Shadowy, snide international collective of hackers and online activists” was how The New York Times identified it this summer, when members of Anonymous crashed the municipal Web servers of Ferguson, Missouri, and revealed the name of the police officer who shot and killed eighteen-year-old Michael Brown—except that it turned out to be the wrong name.

Gabriella Coleman likes the word “collective.” She is a cultural anthropologist, now a professor at McGill University, and for several years has been a public authority on Anonymous, giving workshops and seminars all over the world on hacking and “hacktivism” and virtuality. Her new book, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, tells a version of the story from the beginning, almost a decade ago, and from the inside. She wears various hats (or masks); she switches between being an academic observer and acting like a privileged member—an “Anon”—whatever membership means in this unorganized organization, which declares: “We are everyone and we are no one. We are Legion.”

The Anonymous phenomenon unfolds in a political sphere independent from, and often in conflict with, real-world governments. The online world spawns electronic militias and virtual liberation fronts. The United States Air Force has declared cyberspace a “battle domain.” Anons think of themselves as freedom fighters in a perpetual global cyberwar. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is happy to think of them as cyberterrorists. Anonymous has attacked the Church of Scientology and various pro-copyright organizations and has supported WikiLeaks and Occupy Wall Street. Coleman goes so far as to say that Anonymous, or its members, have been “integral, even, to some of the most compelling political struggles of our age.” Still, identifying its actual achievements, or even its activities, turns out to be a challenge.

In the beginning they were “trolls,” the cyberspace term for people who, in the real world, would be called assholes. Trolls seek attention by disrupting online conversation with taunts, insults, racial and sexual slurs, hoaxes, rape threats, gore, and scatology. Provocation is valued and truthfulness is not. (As Coleman says, “lies, guile, and fabrication are the tools of the trade—often wielded with pride.”) Trolls naturally tend to use pseudonyms—they want to be noticed but they don’t want to be seen, which creates a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. The trolls who began calling themselves, collectively, Anonymous emerged on the internet forum known as 4chan (created in 2003), specializing in particularly juvenile and malevolent prankishness. Users either hid behind pseudonyms like “weev” and “dirk diggler” or, more often, posted as the default user: Anonymous.

Actually, weev and dirk diggler were the same person, a notorious troll who used his anonymity to spew hate against blacks and Jews and, in 2010, begged Coleman for attention and appreciation. “This is my art, ma’am,” he said in a voicemail message. He urged her, “Google my name.” By her account, Coleman was both attracted and frightened. Some 4chan trolls specialized in violent sexual fantasies about female bloggers; others liked to “dox” people—expose private addresses and Social Security numbers to invite harassment.

What motivates the trolls? They like to say, “I do it for the lulz.” That means, approximately, for the laughs—“lulz” deriving from the internet acronym LOL (laughing out loud). It’s a special kind of laughter, though: venomous, directed at victims of pranks. Coleman abhors the cruelty but likes the lulz as “a deviant style of humor and a quasi-mystical state of being.” She puts on her professor’s hat: “I recognized trolls as kin to the tricksters of myth. After all, I am an anthropologist, and tricksters are a time-honored topic of anthropological rumination.” She has in mind such archetypes as Dionysus, Puck, and the Norse shapeshifter Loki.

Anonymity is incompatible with the formation of reputation, and reputation is a component of trust.

In another way, though, the trolls were also kin to those early video gamers whom Gibson observed disappearing into their fantasy universe, blasting away at avatars and cartoon monsters. In gaming, identities are freely adopted and just as freely discarded. No wonder trolls have trouble seeing their victims as real. When they post images of mutilation and call themselves golum and Violentacrez, they are acting as though they’re in a land of make-believe, where blood is made of pixels.

The trolls still come out in force. Over the past few months, a self-described movement known as GamerGate has made headlines with campaigns of harassment aimed particularly at women. Most gamers and most game developers are male; when female critics began to push back against a culture of misogyny celebrated by the games, they met a barrage of mostly anonymous rage. “Virtual rape” is now a term; so is “slut-shaming.” The GamerGate people are mainly anonymous, but that doesn’t make them Anonymous. On the contrary, people who consider themselves “Anons” have been embarrassed by these gamers, making their mischief and wreaking their havoc in the name of “open discourse” and “ethical debate.”

Much of GamerGate has played out on Twitter. In a comical moment in October, some of the gamers were seen trying to educate and harangue a user called ElizaRBarr, who turned out not only to be nonfemale but also nonhuman—a bot, using some simple artificial intelligence to generate her tweets. The same month, however, they attacked a feminist critic, Anita Sarkeesian, who had created a video series called “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games.” Sarkeesian was barraged with online vitriol and death threats. She was forced to cancel a talk she had planned at Utah State University after an anonymous e-mailer promised a gun massacre and the university police insisted that, under state law, attendees must be allowed to carry concealed weapons. That happened in real life.

Anonymous has a generally accepted origin story that hinges on a transition from trolling to political activism. In January 2008, participants in the 4chan board found a convenient enemy: Scientology, the cult or religion founded by the science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s. Scientology was famously secretive and doctrinaire, qualities any hacker could hate, and it made news that month through the leak of an internal promotional video featuring a glassy-eyed and inadvertently hilarious Tom Cruise. The video became a momentary Internet sensation. The church responded bluntly, threatening lawsuits against YouTube, Gawker, and many other websites. This was like trying to sweep up a spilled candy bowl at a six-year-old’s birthday party.

Calls to action began to appear on 4chan, from users logged in, as usual, as Anonymous:

Join the legion against Scientology, help in its demise, in its long awaited doom!… For when we are victorious, the chans will stand united in a new chapter of anonymous existence and batshit insanity, we will have begun our world take over. If we can destroy Scientology, we can destroy whatever we like! The world will be but our play thing.

And: “I’m talking about ‘hacking’ or ‘taking down’ the official Scientology website. It’s time to use our resources to do something we believe is right.”

What resources did they have? What powers could 4chan’s members bring to bear against Scientology, or at least its website? The primitive hacker weapon is the “denial of service” attack, or DoS, which can be multiplied and amplified as the “distributed denial of service” attack, DDoS. (Also known as: smurf attack, teardrop attack, syn flood, ping of death…) In a denial-of-service attack, the victim’s network is jammed with information packets spuriously demanding attention from its servers; the servers become overloaded and cease to function. It is much like hecklers flooding a lecture hall or trespassers blocking an abortion clinic, but in the physical world the trespassers can be seen, arrested, photographed, and fingerprinted.

In the information world, attacks can be automated and scaled up by orders of magnitude. So in 2008 an ad hoc group of trolls and hackers from the 4chan board flooded Scientology’s servers. For good measure, they also placed prank calls to the church’s telephone lines, sent black pages to its fax numbers, and had unpaid-for pizzas delivered to its doors, showing that they had not completely forgotten the ways of old.

None of this did Scientology much harm. But for Coleman and other aficionados of Anonymous history, the episode known as Chanology represents a turning point, the beginning of “sustained political will.”

“The unified bulk of anonymous collaborated through massive chat rooms to engage in various forms of ultracoordinated motherfuckery” is how a participant told the story to Coleman’s university class. “The ‘secrets’ of their religion were blasted all over the internet. I also personally scanned my bare ass and faxed it to them.” Coleman sees this as the event that turned Anonymous from aimless trolling to “one of the most potent protest movements of our times.” It got a lot of press. Demonstrators turned out at Scientology premises on three continents. “Came for the lulz; stayed for great justice, epic win, and moar lulz,” one protester at a street demonstration told Coleman.

The street protests were more photogenic than the DDoSing, particularly when protesters donned the stylized Guy Fawkes masks that have become a familiar part of the Anonymous brand. They succeeded in generating considerable television news coverage, which had the effect back in cyberspace of making Anonymous a more serious-seeming entity than its individual members had previously dreamed. By then Fox News had dubbed them “the internet Hate Machine,” which they naturally wore as a badge of honor. This overheated publicity becomes self-fulfilling.

One of the first lessons everyone learned about cyberspace was that, on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog (as Peter Steiner put it in The New Yorker in 1993). It is liberating to think you can be whoever you want; to reinvent yourself, and keep reinventing yourself, as often as you like. As a technical matter, anonymity is not easy to achieve. Anyone can sign up for pseudonymous addresses from one of the free e-mail services offered by Google, Microsoft, and others. “Get an Alias for every you” is a Microsoft marketing slogan. Hotmail addresses are to online villains what disposable “burner phones” are to drug dealers. Still, the internet protocols generally assign traceable Internet addresses to users’ computers, and hiding one’s tracks requires at least a bit of knowledge and effort. All the more nowadays: a cryptographic arms race is underway between hackers and their pursuers in corporations and in government security agencies.

From the beginning, anonymity online has been both a promise and a threat. Democracies are meant to cherish whistle-blowers and protect unpopular speech. We all feel the need sometimes to shed our skins. On the other hand, even the most fervent advocates of anonymity admit that when Internet communities require real names, they experience epidemics of niceness and civil discourse. When they allow users to hide behind pseudonyms, the trolls return. After all, anonymity is incompatible with the formation of reputation, and reputation is a component of trust. Ebay built its online shopping service on the principle that persistent identity would be necessary: buyers and sellers rate one another and build up reputations over time. Uber, the online taxi service, works the same way: riders and drivers cannot hide behind masks, because trust is needed to make the system work.

Coleman sees a moral virtue in anonymity as an antidote to “fame-seeking” in a culture fascinated by celebrity:

Fame-seeking pervades practically every sphere of American life today, from the mass media, which hires Hollywood celebrities as news anchors, to the micro-media platforms that afford endless opportunities for narcissism and self-inflation.

Thus the ideal of Anonymous is, in one version, the “elimination of the persona, and by extension everything associated with it, such as leadership, representation, and status.” This leads to a sort of paradox. Who can “claim the name” of Anonymous? Anyone. The lack of identity may not be ideal for organizing a political philosophy or program, but that is not seen as a drawback.

Somehow, decisions are made. Coleman monitored chatrooms in real time to try to understand the process. Examples from a few different conversations may give the flavor—and by the way, Coleman occasionally warns the reader, with no apparent irony, that she has altered the “real” pseudonyms:

<gibnut>: if we can get into that server we can root tunisias .tn tld nameservers and control its entire internet space

<p-ground>: Arm the nuclear warheads guys.

<z>: 2 or 3 people standing around doesn’t look epic, it looks lame…. it’s gotta go viral, you know?

<lafdie>: btw mad props on the lolcats

Here they consider whether to attack the British Phonographic Industry (BPI)—a trade group automatically despised because Anonymous associates piracy with free speech and copyright with censorship:

<Anon8>: what has BPI done?

<Anon7>: Well

<Anon9>: Guys, do not discuss any drama in the main chat.

<Anon9>: We are here for propaganda. Lifting spirits….

<Anon9>: If we even INDICATE our efforts are “useless,” people will leave en-masse….

<Anon9>: We don’t have like 800 people because we tell the truth.

<Anon9>: we have 800 people that BELIEVE they are doing something.

They argue. They vote. Action may or may not be taken. These generals without names, summoning their legions to action, must sometimes feel like Glendower and Hotspur in Henry IV:

 Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.

 Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man;

But will they come when you do call for them?

Coleman does not pretend that her story is neutral or detached. She dedicates the book to its subjects: “the legions behind Anonymous—those who have donned the mask in the past, those who still dare to take a stand today, and those who will surely rise again in the future.” Like Sarah Palin, she reserves particular contempt for “the mainstream media” (another collective entity that turns to smoke when you try to define it exactly). The media are clueless; the media buy into Anonymous’s branding; the media are the unwitting source of its power. She sees Anonymous as fragmented and amorphous and loves those qualities: “the wily hydra.” Her perspective is always partly anthropological, but she is also something of a romantic: “The pressure and desire to efface the public presentation of self,” she writes,

allows the participants to perform an admixture of their souls, conjuring into existence something always emergent and in flux. The number of relationships, fiefdoms, and cliques in simultaneous existence is largely invisible to the public….

Anonymous issues declarations, manifestoes, screeds. It also performs “operations” and “ops”—Operation Payback, OpTunisa, OpEgypt, Operation Anti-Security. Wired magazine declared in 2011, “Anonymous has grown up to become the net’s immune system, striking back whenever the hive mind perceived that the institutions that run the world crossed the line into hypocrisy.” How does it choose its targets? Not (by now this should go without saying) in any organized fashion. Just as anyone can claim to be part of Anonymous, so Anonymous can claim anyone as an ally or an enemy. Sometimes targets seem to arrive at fortuitous moments.

So it was in November 2010: the Anons were mostly idle, drifting, wondering what to do next, when Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks teamed with The New York TimesThe Guardian, and three other major newspapers to publish a quarter-million classified diplomatic cables. This had nothing to do with Anonymous, but within days they figured out a way to join the party: by encouraging DDoS attacks against companies that had cut off their services to WikiLeaks. There were four main targets: PayPal, MasterCard, and Visa, which had handled donations to WikiLeaks, and Amazon, which had hosted its website on its servers.

When the Anons at their computer terminals call themselves freedom fighters, and law enforcement and security agencies call them terrorists, they are not working entirely at cross-purposes.

Anonymous never quite made a coordinated decision; it was practically forced on them, Coleman says, by “confusion and happenstance.” Hackers used automated software—the cartoonishly named “Low Orbit Ion Cannon,” in “Hive Mind” mode—to flood the companies’ servers. They called it Operation Avenge Assange. The attacks had some effect—not on Amazon, which swatted them away, but on PayPal, a much smaller e-commerce company. Even the damage to PayPal was modest. The company said its servers had been slowed but had never crashed; on the other hand, in court, it estimated damages in the millions of dollars.

A wave of publicity ensued—The New York Times called Anonymous a “hacker army”—and the FBI treated the attacks as a wave of cybercrime. The cybercriminals were not exactly geniuses. The Low Orbit Ion Cannon left a trail of IPaddresses, better than footprints. By the next summer, the FBI had arrested and indicted fourteen young “suspected Anonymous members” who had called themselves by names like “Toxic,” “No,” “MMMM,” and “Reaper,” but who now turned out to have real names after all. Under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, they could have been subject to fifteen years in prison. That would have been draconian and was averted by plea bargains. Other Anons, in the United States and several other countries, are serving prison terms for similar offenses—virtual crimes, that is.

A feedback loop is at work here, a cycle of exaggeration and amplification. In 2012, the director of the National Security Agency, General Keith Alexander, warned the White House that Anonymous was acquiring the capability to attack the power grid; soon major newspapers were speculating about an Operation Global Blackout supposedly planned for March 31; anonymous Twitter users had a good laugh about it. When the Anons at their computer terminals call themselves freedom fighters, and law enforcement and security agencies call them terrorists, they are not working entirely at cross-purposes; they are empowering each other. We should have learned this much by now: denial-of-service attacks are an expensive online nuisance, but they should be confused neither with terrorism nor with freedom-fighting.

Anonymous is “everywhere,” Coleman concludes, but it is nowhere, too. It is “shifty” and “it simply consists of humans sitting at their glowing screens and typing.” It continues to reach both for new enemies and new friends—Arab dictators, Occupy Wall Street, Chelsea Manning, the police department of Ferguson, Missouri. And now: Edward Snowden. “The politically engaged geek family continues to grow,” she writes excitedly. You can see why Anonymous embraces Snowden: wizard of cyberspace and cryptography and—at last—an effectual opponent of the security state. Among Snowden’s revelations is that British intelligence has targeted Anonymous chatrooms with its own DDoS attacks. In the leaked documents, the spies, too, begin to sound like trolls, with their code-named ops, “Scrapheap Challenge” and “Spring Bishop,” spoofing e-mails and faking Facebook posts.

But Snowden is not anonymous. He needed to be believed and he let us see his face.

First published in the New York Review of Books, December 18, 2014.

1 Comment

  1. OK James, now that we are digesting Time Travel: A History (thank you) once the cudos die down how about tackling “Anonymous: A Fly in the Ointment” (or something to that effect). A broader social dialog on this subject is perhaps long overdue! Since your fingerprints are all over early Internet development, a lucid view on how we got where we are today and whether it’s possible to alter this arrow in time, would be most welcome.

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