In Numero:

La politica senza volto di Anonymous

La lunga intervista che segue è il frutto di una conversazione con Gabriella Coleman, un’antropologa nata a Puerto Rico e formata a Chicago, con una cattedra alla McGill University a Montreal in Canada. Si tratta di una discussione approfondita sui diversi temi a cui è dedicata la sua intensa ricerca su anonymous. Le difficoltà che ha incontrato, la trepidazione, l’integrità e la forza che ha dovuto usare per mantenere una distanza di sicurezza dal gruppo, pur partecipando profondamente alle vicende del gruppo hacker. Si tratta di una testimonianza inedita e molto vitale del lavoro di una studiosa appassionata capace di dichiarare il coinvolgimento con il suo oggetto di ricerca, perché l’oggettività non esiste in nessuna disciplina e tantomeno in antropologia.

In un mondo votato all’apparire dove ognuno vuole soprattutto dirci chi è e dove si trova, un mondo in cui la cyber-presenza e l’identità online sembrano regolare gran parte della vita sociale, alcuni decidono di negare la propria identità e di agire sotto forma di soggetto collettivo senza volto: così nasce il movimento politico Anonymous.

Ma è possibile un gesto politico senza l’assunzione di responsabilità di chi lo compie? Durante le proteste pubbliche i sostenitori di Anonymous scelsero di indossare la maschera di Guy Fawkes, un cospiratore inglese giustiziato nel 1606 per aver attentato alla camera dei Lord. La maschera di Fawkes è diventata virale dopo il successo del film V per Vendetta (2005), il film di James McTiegue, basato su un fumetto omonimo di Alan Moore che descrive una distopica futura dittatura nel Regno Unito combattuta da un anarchico libertario che si nasconde sotto la sua maschera. Il soggetto per la pellicola fu scritto dalle sorelle Wachowski. La combinazione di anonimato e uso di potenti simboli mediali hanno reso Anonymous uno dei movimenti libertari e antagonisti più importante degli ultimi anni, sebbene non manchino le inquietudini.

Com’è possibile impedire alle spie di partecipare ad Anonymous, conoscerne le mosse, individuando i responsabili per tradirli o solo infiltrarsi per orientarne le scelte? Qual è il confine tra i comportamenti dei servizi segreti e dei loro agenti e quelli degli attivisti di Anonymous?  A queste domande cerca risposte con l’instancabile lavoro di ricerca e di osservazione partecipata Gabriella Coleman. Per le sue competenze la studiosa è stata perfino invitata a tenere una conferenza per l’agenzia di intelligence canadese sul tema, un invito accettato per demolire i pregiudizi di quei servizi segreti su Anonymous.

A maggio scorso ha preso parte a un dibattito sulla lista di discussione Nettime – un luogo storico del dibattito politico e critico sulla rete e sulla cultura digitale – su una possibile commistione all’origine di Anonymous e del fenomeno dell’alt-right, il coacervo di gruppi e personalità di estrema destra che opera in rete, apertamente razzista e neo-nazi. Entrambi gli ambienti sembrano aver avuto origine nel fenomeno dei troll, i disturbatori della rete, che hanno popolato le imageboard di 4chan, in particolare la random board (/b/), una bacheca pubblica online dove si comunica con immagini invece che con i testi, cercando di superare gli altri in oscenità e abiezione. “Biella” Coleman però nega che si tratti di un vero e proprio collegamento.

Sebbene tra i troll si trovino anche seguaci della destra, il fenomeno di Anonymous è completamente diverso, secondo Coleman, per le tattiche di guerriglia e per la struttura dell’organizzazione. Se anche in alt-right si adotta l’anonimato, l’organizzazione si basa su figure dominanti top-down che determinano obiettivi e strategie. La struttura organizzativa gerarchica è del tutto assente in Anonymous.  Inoltre mentre alt-right ha fallito nel diventare un movimento internazionale, Anonymous ha cellule in ogni area del pianeta.

Il recente lavoro di Coleman su Anonymous è sintetizzato in un libro, tradotto in Italiano da Stampa Alternativa: I mille volti di anonymous (2016, pp. 473, 24 Euro). Dopo il nostro incontro al convegno di maggio scorso (Fear and Loathing of the Online Self a Roma presso la John Cabot University e l’Università Roma Tre) abbiamo condotto con Biella una lunga discussione via email che riportiamo qui, in inglese.


Why did you decide, as an anthropologist, to do research on Anonymous? What does the movement represent for you, also as an opportunity of doing a particular kind of fieldwork?

Anonymous stormed into my life rather unexpectedly through the vessel of a much smaller historical project on the Church of Scientology—one of Anonymous’ most famous targets. Before turning to this Anonymous campaign, let’s back up: why was I studying Scientology given my area of expertise is hacking?

During my first research project on free and open source software development, Scientology came up with remarkable frequency. A number of hackers I interviewed had either been involved in protesting the Church in the 1990s or simply enjoyed poking fun at them. Needless to say, I was intrigued by these connections. Although I never intended to pursue research covering the battles between hackers and Scientology, an opportunity to do so was handed to me on a platter in 2007 when I ended up at the University of Alberta, home to the largest Scientology archive in the world. I dug into the material and learned the particular details that drove a small band of hackers and other netizens to duke it out with Church officials. In the 1990s, after secret Church documents were leaked on a popular Usenet mailing list, Scientology ruthlessly hunted down its critics and tried to shut down the newsgroup as well as the anonymous remailer server used to distribute the documents. At the time, my interest settled on the deeper and often unstated cultural reasons driving some geeks and hackers to fight what I eventually came to see as their perfect nemesis: because Scientology is something like a hacker’s evil doppelgänger, it tends to rub hackers the wrong way and they enjoy sticking it to this totalitarian organization.

For those unfamiliar with Scientology, it markets itself as a religion rooted in science and technology, but if you spend five minutes perusing its “scientific” theology, it is pretty much straight up science fiction and its technologies, like their e-meters, don’t technically work. Since hackers consider science and technology as their sacred territory, a proprietary, pricey, secretive for-profit organization that masquerades as a religion and that claims science and technology as its province is going to—at minimum—be seen as a highly dubious enterprise. That Scientology is a cult only makes it more suspect. So small quarters of the geek and hacker community have long been exposing Scientology as a farce, especially following Scientology’s aggressive legal pursuit of its critics, and I was simply unraveling some of the deeper cultural reasons driving these skirmishes. I expected to write a few articles from this research.

Then in 2008, something entirely foreign to me, “Anonymous,” lunged at the Church with a massive trolling campaign. Sparked by Scientology’s attempt to censor a leaked video that went viral of its most famous and enthusiastic adherent, Tom Cruise, Anonymous spent a few weeks doing what Anonymous trolls did best: blasting websites with distributed denial of service attacks, sending unpaid pizzas to Churches, and prank calling Scientology phone lines.

That geeks were harassing and lampooning the Church of Scientology was far from surprising. It was entirely consistent with my cultural thesis: if the opportunity arises, geeks will not only strike back at the Church, but also experience a serious endorphin rush in so doing.

But what happened next caught me off guard. Let me give a bit of context. At the time of the first set of raids against Scientology, Anonymous was more or less a subcultural trolling outfit. As Whitney Phillips has explored, these self-identified lifestyle trolls harass targets in the pursuit of a particular payout: “lulz,” a dark form of humor and jouissance. Basically, you get off by duping others, or worse, inflicting pain, humiliation, or harassment on your chosen targets. Keeping with past trolling escapades, I figured this one, described by participants as “ultra-coordinated motherfuckery” would quickly run its course and flame out.

My forecast was wrong. What was fascinating and shocking was to witness the accidental constitution of an earnest movement—they dubbed it “Chanology”—directed at exposing the human rights abuses of the Church. I figured this was a bit of an accident (the story of how and why some trolls became anti-Scientology organizers is recounted in my book) and that the name “Anonymous" in subsequent years would be used only for trolling and this quirky and small-scale protest endeavor..

Again, I was wrong. A few years later, Anonymous morphed more substantially to become a full-fledged Internet-based protest movement, with hefty wings that allowed it to soar across the world. Nodes popped up everywhere—from Japan to Italy, from Macedonia to the Dominican Republic—and activists embraced a stunning array of causes: from railing against dictatorial regimes or fighting for environmental rights to routing around state or corporate censorship. And of course, there was lots and lots of hacking. The pace of events was punishing and dizzying, and I tried my best to keep up with all the operations unfolding in 2011.

What are the risks and the potentialities in doing research on such a fluid and opaque movement? Did you have to manage being personally involved, even emotionally, through such a participatory observation method? Did you struggle, and did you manage, to remain impartial on the research object?

Let me begin with the last question. Generally, anthropologists don’t strive for impartiality. This follows from the fact that the core anthropological imperative—fieldwork—presses us to burrow as deeply as possible into the communities, places, and people we’ve chosen to study. Nor are these constraints on knowledge really all that unique to anthropology. It’s questionable whether any form of human knowledge can ever be described as neutral given researchers ask particular questions that are rooted in some disciplinary orientation or perspective—a set of filters, constraints or biases that shape the sculpting and thus contours of knowledge.

Given these entanglements, what I strove for instead was some measure of transparency. In my book I attempted to make my perspectives, positions, queries, interests, and biases explicit and obvious. I found Anonymous compelling and said so. I generally could get behind their interventions, though not universally so. While supportive, I did not want to scrub away the ugly moments and so made sure to include some of the more unsavory incidents in my narrative. The reader, I hope, can reach different conclusions than my own precisely because I’ve made my position clear.

Still, even if objectivity is a bit of an illusion, not every academic becomes as close to their human subjects as anthropologists do. “More than any other discipline in the human sciences,” as Tim Ingold muses, “[anthropology] has the means and the determination to show how knowledge grows from the crucible of lives lived with others.”  Living lives with others often means we are obliged to contribute and give back. In my case, what did this entail? When many of the hackers got arrested in 2011 and 2012, I did not remain on the sidelines to watch their fates play out; I jumped into the field and got involved in the small ways I could. For instance, I wrote to the judge overseeing the Jeremy Hammond case, pleading for leniency (she listened to none of us and Hammond got the maximum prison sentence of 10 years). I wrote journalistic pieces about the over-criminalization of Anonymous hacktivists. And I worked behind the scenes with investigative journalists who could write more substantial stories about the massive crackdowns against the hackers. I’ve since documented my role as a gopher and broker with media professionals, as this became integral to research and my obligations to the collective.

Though I could of course achieve moments of critical distance, such intimacy also meant I rarely cast a clinical, antiseptic gaze, and instead strove to experience—practically and emotionally—nearly everything they did. Due to this closeness and because humans are what they are—complex, delightful, fickle, and difficult lot— emotional turbulence and excitement are par for the course. When Anonymous did something risky, scary, uplifting, admirable, or upsetting, I was there, feeling the excitement or fear right along with them.

The most thrilling part of all the anonymous—actually pseudonymous—interaction also happened to be hardest. In contrast to prevailing views of anonymity—that such a shield brings out your inner pathological jerk—my experience was markedly different. Anonymity brought out admirable qualities in those I conversed with, such as compassion and kindness. Being barred from meeting those generous people behind the text was at times draining, and even became a source of sadness. In the end, I did meet a number of participants, but I still have never met some of my most cherished interlocutors.

Finally, even if I got really close to the action, my presence did not extend infinitely nor indefinitely as I wanted to minimize any risk posed by my presence. By 2011, Anonymous was doing all sorts of things, but they became notorious for hacking and I had to stay clear of secret online nooks where hackers were organizing illegal infiltration operations. In the end, because so many hackers were arrested, I was able to cover some of these illegal operations; but had many of the participants had better security, my book would have looked very different. I address that issue in more detail below.

A section of one of the chapters is titled “Legitimacy vs. Legality”: what do you think of this contrast? Is there a way to keep the substance of legitimacy within an illegal call to action so as to achieve revolutionary results?

The question brings to mind one of my favorite quotes by Ursula Le Guin:  “To make a thief, make an owner; to create crime, create laws.”

Laws per se are never legitimate on their own, even if citizens have seized on some of them to demand and seek and in rarer instances, secure justice. They can be wielded as a tool for both the weak and the powerful. It all depends on which law is being used, the nature of the legal system, and the political order under which laws are embedded. Many laws, even in ostensibly democratic nations like Italy or the US, are nothing but a sham and worthy of a challenge. Slavery was legal. Apartheid in South Africa was legal. Today in the United States, many states are passing laws transforming legitimate protest activity into a potential felony! There are environmental laws meant to protect citizens and natural habitats which are routinely circumvented by corporations, as they use all their economic and political might to shield themselves from their legal obligations.

Sometimes, the only way to secure substantive change is to defy and disregard the laws. Whether taking the form of radical direct action or more liberal civil disobedience, this strategy is well-known to activists and organizers of all kinds and recognized as a legitimate and necessary course of action. One of the most exciting parts about my time with Anonymous was witnessing a young crop of Internet-based activists figure this out: they often did so on the fly and experimentally, but eventually came to view blind allegiance to the law as politically regressive and dangerous.

The other interesting question that follows from your questions is: why are many hackers willing to break the law in the first place? They are a pretty privileged group of people after all, and the perils that come with hacking are enormous. I’ve recently gathered my thoughts in the following article, trying to grapple with this very question.

In your presentation at the Fear and Loathing of the Online Self conference in Rome you identified the use of the Guy Fawkes mask as both a strategy to maintain anonymity and evade identification (for example during the protests against the Church of Scientology) as well as something that managed to keep the movement shielded from a terrorism accusation. Can you briefly explain how this played out?

So many radical freedom fighters, like Nelson Mandela in the past and radical groups like animal rights activists in the present, have been unfairly demonized as terrorists. Anonymous, in many respects, was well positioned to be smeared and vilified by the US government as a new, dangerous breed of cyber-extremists and terrorists. But not only did this fail to happen, Anonymous has been lionized by Hollywood and other niche cultural producers instead.

The question that follows is: how did they manage to scuttle away from being backed into a terribly disempowering corner? I’ve identified about five reasons, stretching from the timing of their interventions to their ample use of humor, but probably the most ironic inoculant concerns Anonymous’ adoption of the Guy Fawkes mask. Ironic, because for centuries, the British state cast Guy Fawkes as a vile, terrorist-like figure for his role in trying to blow up in the Parliament in 1605. British citizens were enjoined on the 5th of November to remember… remember Guy Fawkes as the bay guy by burning his effigy. But the value and meanings emanating from symbols are always up for grabs. And as Alan Moore, author of the enormously popular graphic novel V for Vendetta, has so provocatively explained, the British government eventually lost control of the narrative around Guy Fawkes:

“Jump forward 300 years, though, to the battered post-war England of the 1950s, and the saturnine insurrectionary had taken on more ambiguous connotations. When parents explained to their offspring about Guy Fawkes and his attempt to blow up Parliament, there always seemed to be an undertone of admiration in their voices, or at least there did in Northampton. While that era’s children perhaps didn’t see Fawkes as a hero, they certainly didn’t see him as the villainous scapegoat he’d originally been intended as.”

Indeed thanks to writers like Alan Moore (but also others that preceded him including authors of children’s books), Guy Fawkes underwent a more drastic, fundamental metamorphosis from an unquestionably dark menace into an ambivalent hero/anti-hero figure. By the time Anonymous adopted the mask, the transformation had been nearly complete, thanks especially to the blockbuster Hollywood film V for Vendetta, which allowed a more positive message and vision about Guy Fawkes to circulate the public at large. By taking the icon, the collective also accrued the positive associations with Guy Fawkes, and in turn—now that the Guy Fawkes symbol is nearly synonymous with Anonymous—it too has ensured Guy Fawkes will continue to be admired by future generations. The end result is that the close association between Anonymous and this icon has made it a bit harder to bog Anonymous down with the terrorism label.

Also, don’t you think that this successful and savvy media campaign presents a contradiction in terms of the desire not to have a precise identity and the movement’s refusal of the logic of personalization administered by the media?

If Anonymous simply was meant to behave as a social laboratory for experimenting with collective identities and disturbing stable identities, then it might have been odd for them to seek out so much media attention. But between 2010 onwards, the collective of collectives exploded around the globe as a means for citizens to intervene in all sorts of political fights. In order to bring attention to the despair in Tunisia, to expose the shady shenanigans of security firms, to advertise the hopeful message emanating from the 15-Movement in Spain and Occupy all over North America, publicity was crucial. Participants had no choice but to roll up their sleeves and play the media game many movements are forced to play: agitate, organize and especially publicize. Still, by refusing to offer up a person, or even a stable, even if masked spokesperson, they played by their own refreshing rules. It’s hard for me to provide proof, but I am pretty sure that to be denied by Anonymous what they wanted—a single individual, or better, a celebrity to feature—it drove some journalists batty and that this in turn psychologically baited them into covering them.

You are very clear in linking the actions of Wikileaks and the political transformation of Anonymous in a collective revolutionary subject.  Can you elaborate on this connection you identify?

In December 2010, the fates of Anonymous and Wikileaks became entangled soon after a slew of corporations, including Amazon, PayPal, and Mastercard, caved into soft government pressure to halt servicing the embattled whistle-blowing organization after it released American diplomatic cables. After the financial blockade, Anonymous decided to support Wikileaks by hammering these corporations with days of a distributed denial of service attack. This, in turn, lead to colossal media attention. Anonymous essentially piggybacked on Wikileak’s geopolitical visibility, but soon after became a prominent actor in its own right.

What happened in the following months was perhaps more important: Anonymous got involved in all the revolutionary movements of 2011. These interventions, which were hefty, aligned them with a more revolutionary sensibility, if for no other reason than the fact that a the movement was infused with a population of more leftist, anarchist, and progressive activists Anonymous in this period.

You seem to be convinced that there is something that resembles a revolutionary method in the practice(s) of Anonymous. Can you explain where?

I’m not sure I would go so far as to describe the nature of Anonymous as revolutionary, but there are insurgent and subversive aspects to Anonymous. Along with their involvement in revolutionary movements, here are two other elements. The first concerns their biting and uncompromising critique of celebrity culture and individualism, demanding that contributors—many who never break the law—blot out the pursuit of personal fame and recognition. Social peacocking behaviors are swiftly and surely condemned. That’s revolutionary given a society that is so wedded to individualism we’ve managed to elect a narcissistic washed out celebrity leader as president who so blazed a stunningly fightening trial of destruction.

All political movements, to be effective, need to nurture some level or form of collective will. And achieving social unity and solidarity, especially in a society that idolizes the individual, requires serious effort. It must be practiced, normalized through ethics and, to gain wider appeal, should even be glamorized. Anonymous, built on a bedrock of a certain type of collectivism, allowed practitioners to experiment with and pursue a type of unity through anonymity and in turn, made it sexy and glamorous.

The second revolutionary aspect concerns the use of a newish tactic: the hack to acquire and leak documents in the public interest. Prior to Anonymous, hackers hacked for all sorts of reasons, secured all sorts of documents and data, but the deliberate strategy to find incriminating information via a hack and then get it out to the world is something that Anonymous brought into being—at least that’s my argument here. The outcome of Anonymous’ many years of hacking was what rarely existed before: a strategy to locate and exfiltrate evidence of corruption via a hack. This tactic, if executed carefully, is a powerful one—so potent because the risk of being caught can be minimized, as I will explain below.

Can you tell us how Anonymous’ weak and fluid organization has managed to avoid the lethal consequences of being infiltrated by informants or having the name appropriated by other figures for ethically problematic purposes? 

It’s pretty much a fact of life that all progressive and radical political movements are being surveilled by informants. Their presence is also often destructive: they meddle in affairs to sow mistrust and entrap participants by encouraging dangerous acts. Anonymous is no different and is quite susceptible to informants, but there is one important difference: for the hacking operations, if participants are disciplined enough to truly implement security protocols, it can hamstring the destructiveness and effectiveness of snitches. After all, those involved hackers should not be hanging with each other at the local pub, drinking some beers. Online, through the medium of text, there is no flesh to see, no apartment to visit; and if you are truly careful, details concerning name, place, age, ethnicity, and nationality should never be shared. In fact, a hacker should not only refrain from offering personal details but can use deception to add another layer of security. By leaving false cues and hints related to personal identity, you can sow confusion and throw off the investigation.

Any movement that relies on face-to-face interaction, which is pretty much the great majority of them, simply cannot provide these types of security protections. Now, many Anonymous hackers failed at implementing the sort of stringent opsec requirements needed to protect themselves from informants. But since their heyday, other hacktivists, notably Phineas Fisher, have heeded the lesson that you can hack, funnel out information for journalists, and execute the hack-leak combo with such good security you evade capture.

As to the other question: because the name, idea, and iconography characterizing Anonymous are free to take, some non-progressive groups have adopted the name. For instance, in Germany there is a popular Fascist group who call themselves Anonymous with a considerably large their Facebook following. Other German Anonymous groups, embarrassed by this neo-reactionary group, have tried to stamp them out of existence, but have failed to do so. There have been some conservative actors who carried out right-wing acts—like defacing an abortion clinic website—but they failed when they tried to use the name Anonymous. Why is this any different than the Facebook group? This is largely so, because unlike the German Fascist example above, these were lone wolf attacks lacking any critical mass of support. So for the appropriation, if we even want to call it that, to work successfully, it usually has to be at minimum a collective effort. It’s just the case that so far in history and across the globe the great majority of Anonymous efforts are aligned with liberal, progressive, or left-radical endeavors but whether this will be the case in the future is an open question.

At the end of your book on Anonymous there is a short note on sources in which you suggest that for a lot of double checking on your sources and information you relied on court documents and trial acts. Does this mean that that for your research project you needed the investigative ability of the intelligence and police apparatus? Is it true that you were asked to lecture for them? How would you characterize your relationship with the repressive investigation on Anonymous?

Had people not been arrested, I would have had to tell the story of Anonymous a bit differently. After all, I recount the organization and impetus behind a handful of illegal operations in considerable detail, and I would not have risked retelling them, had the participants not been outed (nor would I have been given the details in the first place). Still, had the state failed in its pursuit of capturing hackers, there was plenty of material to work with for a book, so my project as a whole was not entirely indebted to these arrests.

Law enforcement generally stayed away from me, even when I tried to reach them. At the behest of my editor, I even tried to get the FBI to comment on their star informant Sabu, and they refused. But some sectors of the intelligence community displayed interest in my  research, and I always declined to talk to them, except once. I accepted an invitation by the Canadian intelligence service, CSIS, to give a talk at their headquarters. I was just too curious to say no, and wondered what they thought of Anonymous. I accepted the invitation and resolved to write about my visit. It was so fascinating that I opened my book with the tale of my CSIS talk; I’d say more but then I would spoil the story.

I was well aware of the risk that comes with talking to intelligence officials, but if you are willing to share what you learned about them—which will pretty much bar any future invitations (and yes, it has)—I believe there is something to gain. I have no idea if I provided anything all that  illuminating, but one of the best articles on the power of language, for instance, is based on deep research with defense intellectuals. So long as there is no obvious risk, more researchers should, if they can, dive into areas like the military or intelligence groups that some of us tend to avoid.

Finally, as per my relationship with law enforcement or the intelligence world: there is no relationship to speak of. Sure I am certain that the FBI officials in the cybercrime units have read my book, if they can stomach it. And I mean this with complete seriousness: if you are tasked with hunting down these hackers in the hopes of arresting them and in the US, throwing them in jail for a long time, a book that makes Anonymous out to be politically vital (and fun), is not going to make for a pleasurable read.

Then, there is the fact that my book makes it harder that much harder for law enforcement to make Anonymous out to be nefarious, evil cybercriminals. I’ve had 13 year old readers (and lots of teenagers) write me singing praises about my book and Anonymous. That alone, that the book has done well, and that it has cemented Anonymous as an iconoclastic breed of activists has likely irked the law enforcement community. And in the end it was one of the major reasons I decided to even write the book in the first place. It was important to have a historical record of a movement that did not belittle or demonize their actions and have a narrative counter to the one the government might spin.

A recent debate on the nettime-l mailing list, a debate which is still ongoing, discussed the potential connection of the alt-right movement and Anonymous because of their common origins in the so-called Chans”. You seem to propose that their differences are more significant than their similarities. Can you summarize the terms of the debate and your position?

I’ve written about it elsewhere: :)