Gabriella Coleman is a cultural anthropologist, whose latest book, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous, goes deep into virtual space, to the chatrooms where hackers and hacktivists congregate, and into the real spaces of protest and politics — and prosecution and punishment.
Mary-Charlotte Domandi: It’s not often that a cultural anthropologist writes a book that reads more like a spy novel than an academic text, but Gabriella Coleman has pulled off exactly that with her book Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. Though not a computer hacker herself, Coleman entered the world of underground hackers and activists, gained their trust and gave us a window onto a set of subcultures that most of us would never even be able to find, much less visit, much less be welcome at even if we wanted to. It’s a world where people, mostly young men with incredible skills who like to troll and hack into things for fun, became, as Coleman puts it, a force for good in the world, at least for the most part. Gabriella Coleman is a professor at McGill University in Montreal. Welcome.
Gabriella Coleman: Thanks for having me.
MCD: You are a cultural anthropologist. How did you come across the group that calls itself Anonymous and how did you decide to make them a subject of your study?
GK: It was actually a pretty big accident. I mean, when Anonymous came into being, I was already working on a very different type of computer hacker. Those that write free and open source software like Firefox. The only reason I went to Anonymous was because I also had a kind of secret Scientology project and it was secret because Scientology went after journalists and academics. It was a historical project that looked at some battles that geeks and hackers had against the Church of Scientology in the 1990s and I never really thought it would be anything more than a historical project, but then in 2008, something by the name Anonymous started to attack the Church of Scientology and since I had this prior project on the Church of Scientology and geeks going after it, it just felt like a second chapter to an existing project. So that was really what got me there. This very odd, bizarre project I already had going and then once I dove in they were so weird and enchanting and weirdly fascinating. I just decided to to keep going.
MCD: The whole Scientology project is … I mean, it’s funny in a lot of ways because one of the things they did was they saw this video, which was supposed to have been secret, but it was released and everybody saw it, it basically had Tom Cruise in it talking about how great Scientologists were and they’re the only people who would know what to do if they saw an accident by the side of the road and there was something about the ridiculousness of that that really fired up the sensibility of these guys.
GK: That’s absolutely right. I mean, it’s just such a great video. Years later you can watch it and you’ll still get a big chuckle.
GK: Already, Scientology is this target for a lot of people to make fun of the church and here was this fodder that was hilarious, but it was also tied to a serious issue which is internet censorship. So when Gawker and other publishers posted the video online, the Church of Scientology really did take out their big legal guns and threatened these publishers with lawsuits and they had a historical record of shutting down criticisms of the church through these legal means and so you had the perfect situation, hilarious Tom Cruise video, internet censorship, and then these troll pranksters who already had done a lot of activity prior to this moment and they gathered forces precisely just to really, really troll the heck out of the Church of Scientology and that’s when it all kind of started. But everyone who was watching this campaign never thought that it would be anything more than a kind of what I call drive-by trolling campaign. It would last for a few days, maybe a couple of weeks, and then it would go away. But then it became the basis for Anonymous kind of more earnestly starting to use their tactics for the purpose of political protests.
MCD: Yeah, it’s such an interesting transition because what, at least what I took from your book is that it was kind of a group of teenage boys, young adult males, trolling for fun. Then the Scientology thing happened and it kind of made a transition from just pure trolling to activism, “hacktivism” as it’s called, and it had a moral and political dimension. How would you describe the kind of budding politics at that time?
GK: That’s right. I mean, that’s precisely what happened and initially there were street protest plan against the Church of Scientology, which were done sort of experimentally for fun. A lot of people showed up in part to meet other trolls because where they organized, they were all Anonymous and so what a kind of fun way to actually get to meet some other people that you’d only known by name before. But a couple things happened. First of all, a lot of people showed up and videos and images were shared and the big group to show up first was in Australia because that’s where the day starts, and I think the fact that so many people showed up there and then those images and videos were shared just meant other people in other cities like in London and New York, they started to show up.
I think first of all, there’s just something powerful about street protests, and pretty quickly people did learn that while maybe it’s just fun to make fun of the Church of Scientology, they are actually perpetrators of some pretty serious human rights abuses and people learned of this. It was powerful to kind of protest them and some political sensibility was awakened in enough of them that they continued to protest the Church of Scientology. Now some of the trolls were really upset that the name Anonymous was used for good at this point and really tried to sully the name Anonymous by doing some really horrific trolling campaigns. But somehow enough people just continued to use the name for political purposes. But it really wasn’t until 2010 and ’11 where that kind of use of the name Anonymous really became firmly, firmly, firmly cemented as something that was about activism and hacktivism.
MCD: The group Anonymous is difficult to describe or define. How do you answer when people say what is Anonymous?
GK: Yeah, I mean I think sometimes it depends on the audience and whether they know a little bit about them or not, whether they’ve seen their iconography, the Guy Fawkes mask, but usually I just explain that Anonymous since about 2008, but especially since 2010 is a general purpose name that different individuals and groups—some of them connected, some of them not connected around the world—have taken in order to organize different genres of collective action. Some of those forms of action are street protest. Other interventions are computer hacking. Others are just bringing awareness to different issues. So it is a little bit tough to explain because there’s not a lot of phenomena like this. In academic terms, there’s something called a multiple use name where you have this general alias that different groups of people will use and Anonymous is not the only example of this, but it’s certainly the most global and far reaching example of a multiple use name.
MCD: Now the concept of LULZ, L-U-L-Z, is always there to a greater or lesser extent in Anonymous. Explain to us what that is, what that means.
GK: So LULZ is a kind of internet slang, a bastardization and pluralization of “laugh out loud,” and trolls came up with this kind of word which is a sort of philosophy of humor to sort of designate that when they prank someone—and pranking could be humorous and it really could be horrendous at times—that they did it for their own enjoyment. They did it for the LULZ. They did it because it produced humor. It made them feel good and the term also kind of had more general currency in different internet worlds to kind of designate something weird and funny, but as Anonymous kind of veered towards this activist territory, that spirit of humor that was front and center for their kind of trolling philosophy carried over to their political campaigns. And while they definitely had to modulate the types of humor they used, because if it was a sort of mean spirited form of humor that doesn’t work as well for activism, nevertheless the kind of more playful, humorous spirit still continued to inform both how the group interacted internally and how they might also continue to use pranking for political purposes.
MCD: Now, not everyone can simply go into those spaces online where they talk. How did you get in and gain their trust and then keep that trust over time? Especially since, I mean this is an ever evolving group with people coming and going all the time and there’s always going to be—and have been—infiltrators, moles and things like that.
GK: So absolutely. I mean, one of the contradictions of Anonymous, especially the node that developed in 2010 and ’11, because those nodes really started to use a computer hacking—which is just full on illegal—as part of their kind of political arsenal. Because they were using illegal tactics, I mean, you can’t just have an open door policy, right? You really have to ensure that it’s only other hackers that are in the secret nooks and there’s a lot of paranoia. So there was quite a bit of secrecy. At the same time, Anonymous was very hungry for attention, and they really liked to land on the front cover of a newspaper or start a news segment, and they were kind of really savvy in terms of trying to get media attention and we’re very open to it. So in that sense they were open to me a bit just because I brought them a little bit more attention because I was just a person that the media could interview and help explain what Anonymous was. So they even had a chat room that was dedicated to reporters and I used to hang out there. And so that was kind of my opening. But certainly it took some time before other people started to trust me and I gained access to some other areas that were not necessarily open to me at first. And that’s just virtue I think of the anthropological method—like if you’re just there for a really, really, really long time and you don’t screw up and you also put some labor into the collective, people start to open up to you and trust you. Then the last kind of element was that people got arrested eventually, and then I learned a lot more once people were able to speak more freely.
MCD: Just out of curiosity, did you adopt a persona at all or did you feel like you could really be yourself in those spaces?
GK: I mean, I felt like I could be myself and by the time I was doing research on Anonymous, I was really comfortable with the different spaces that hackers tend to congregate on, and chat rooms is one of them. And while not every single hacker, while they don’t all use these chat rooms and certainly many, many, many hackers didn’t even like Anonymous and we’re not there, I was comfortable in the space and also with the kind of technical lingo and comfortable and could understand what they were doing. So I had the kind of cultural and technical proficiency to feel pretty comfortable. It was insanely active for a period of time in 2011 where there were just so many different operations in so many different parts of the world and so many different chat rooms that my attention was stretched, and it was very hard to follow, but thankfully I wasn’t teaching at the time. I had a fellowship, and so I could spend all this time online because I did need it in order just to kind of follow even the baseline activity. There was a lot more that I couldn’t even follow.
MCD: In 2010, Wiki Leaks made public some very important and sensitive information including videos that were leaked by Bradley Manning, now Chelsea Manning, showing airstrikes on civilians and as a result of that, the government asked PayPal, Amazon, Mastercard, and other companies to stop doing business with Wiki Leaks. Anonymous responded. What did they do and why?
GK: Yeah, this was really a pivotal moment and one of these big shifts where Anonymous decided to lend support to Wiki Leaks. Initially they were just going to provide a mirror of Wiki Leaks because again, with Amazon pulling the services, Wiki Leaks was kind of taken offline, and so different technical organizations and technical people are like, “Well, we’ll put you online,” and that’s what they were going to do. But Anonymous at this time was also famous for launching what’s called “distributed denial of service” attacks or campaigns. It’s a convoluted name, DDoS, that really is quite simple: It’s just a website which is hosted on a server, receives too much traffic, the server can’t take the load and the page is inaccessible. It’s called—it crashes and Anonymous was quite comfortable with using different techniques and tools and harnessing also just individuals to contribute to these DDoS campaigns. So then there was a kind of call to DDoS Mastercard and PayPal because they had contributed to this blockade. What happened next was fascinating. So many people showed up on their chat room channels, it was insane, it was like 7,000 people in one room, which is very unusual. Usually have 10, a couple of hundred people at the most. This was really a high number of people, and so I think they really tapped into the outrage that people felt because whatever your feelings were about Wiki Leaks at the time, they hadn’t officially been charged with anything. A lot of people actually stood by those leaks. So people were outraged that the government could just all of a sudden force companies to pull the plug on them. And so Anonymous, in engaging this huge DDoS campaign, and huge in so far as the number of participants. Because actually, the downtime for these websites that resulted from the DDoS attack was actually kind of insignificant—maybe 20 minutes here, 10 minutes there and then you could access it. Nevertheless, it gained massive media attention and this is when a much larger percent of the internet world certainly, and the wider world learned of Anonymous, it kind of emboldened them. And after that period, it was like the floodgates had opened, and soon after, they got even more involved in very different forms of political activity, especially when they got involved in social movements in different parts of the world soon after that.
MCD: One of the things you write about in the book is that media accounts of Anonymous’ actions have called the group amoral, but you’ve seen so many moral discussions and arguments in these chat rooms where they congregated. What were those like? Describe that to us a little bit.
GK: I think from the outside, if you’re not privy to the conversations, understandably it looks just like chaos, and it’s not clear why people are doing what they’re doing. But the second you start reading both their manifestos and their press releases, which are often very well crafted, and then the discussions that happen in the chat rooms, it’s clear that a lot of people arguing this for politically principled reasons. And for many people who showed up, they were very concerned that again, the government had this power to essentially shut down an aspect of the internet through these corporate intermediaries. And a DDoS campaign, people felt, was an appropriate response because you could then bring attention to the situation, that it was unfair, and register your dissent.
Again, people had different opinions, and the hacker community and even Anonymous is a little bit divided as to whether shutting down a website is a legitimate form of protest, especially among a community that believes in free speech. And so you’re shutting down someone’s ability to speak. But other people say, well, PayPal and MasterCard, they always have the ability to speak. They have direct access to the big media conglomerates. We the little people are able to gain a voice by staging this virtual sit-in. And so people do have philosophies, they do know what they’re doing. And for those that don’t, because they’re entering for the first time, like “this is kind of interesting, and it seems to fit with some sort of rage I’m feeling,” maybe are going to be exposed to these political philosophies for the first time. So it was at once a gateway for some newcomers, and then there were seasoned political activists who were there because they felt something had transpired that was wrong, and they wanted to register their dissent.
MCD: In 1971, long before the internet, some activists broke into an FBI building and stole documents that revealed Cointelpro, the counter-intelligence program. And that was all about these attempts to not only spy on, but really attack lawful and peaceful activists and activist groups, including Martin Luther King. Now it’s impossible to break into the FBI, into any building pretty much. But similar break-ins happen using hacking tools, and Anonymous has been involved in some of those. One of them that was really striking was the HBGary hack in 2011. Tell us about that.
GK: Yeah. And I’m really glad you put it in terms of the Cointelpro break-in, which was so extraordinary, and so extraordinary that we ever learned about this government program to systematically dismantle all sorts of radical, liberal political groups in the United States. And precisely, it’s impossible to break into brick and mortar places today are very, very difficult; it’s a lot easier to break into establishments by hacking them. And the HBGary hack was so fascinating because on the one hand, initially, the only reason why Anonymous hacked into a security company was simply because one of the employees, Aaron Barr, had boasted to a journalist that he had infiltrated Anonymous, that he had discovered the real names of the hackers, and was going to go to the FBI with these names. And that was then a story that was published in the Financial Times on a Friday morning. And the hackers felt like they needed to protect themselves. In fact many of the names were, actually, all of the names were wrong. But nevertheless, they wanted to teach Aaron Barr a lesson. And so one evening, a group of hackers managed to make their way into the company servers, and they basically destroyed everything except the emails, which they took and they put on the Pirate Bay. And for them, that’s what they thought they were going to do, a revenge hack. But indeed, what they found in the emails was that HBGary was proposing something that was in the spirit of Cointelpro: They were proposing to Bank of America through a kind of intermediary, that they would discredit both the organization of Wiki Leaks, but more crucially the journalists, like Glen Greenwald, who supported Wiki Leaks. And so they planned on planting misinformation, or fake documents to Wiki Leaks that Wiki Leaks would publish. And then once it was revealed it was fake, the organization wouldn’t be trusted. And then they planned on smearing the reputations of Glen Greenwald, who they noted in a Power Point presentation would pick their professional career over supporting Wiki Leaks.
And this was astounding, because here was a private security company proposing to do Cointelpro-like tactics to a law firm that was working on behalf of Bank of America—the bank being concerned that Wiki Leaks might have a leak on them. And this was fascinating because there were rumors that this sort of activity maybe occurred, but this was a really solid piece of proof that indeed some security firms would be willing to do this. And then they also kind of emboldened the hackers to start using this kind of tactic of, let me break into a company and search for dirty laundry. And I think this is one of the most important legacies of Anonymous, which I don’t really get into in the book, but I’ve since written about, which is, prior to Anonymous, hackers hacked a lot into companies for all sorts of reasons: just for fun, exploration, to steal things, to deface their websites. But they didn’t really search for politically damning information that then they would leak to the world or give to journalists. And now, that’s a tactic that’s used by hacktivists. It’s also maybe a tactic used by nation states like Russia. But Anonymous helped to bring into being that tactic, again somewhat accidentally. But once they did against HBGary and a few other places, it went from a kind of prototype to paradigm that others could use.
MCD: It really brings up some very troubling realities. I mean, aside from the fact that it’s like history repeating itself, so much like Cointelpro—now it’s gone down in history, isn’t it terrible that the government was spying on Martin Luther King and trying to discredit him and all that. At the time, there was the same kind of negative reaction to the activists that there was to Anonymous. But it brings up also, this crazy reality that there are all these private surveillance industries, companies, that are out there doing what our intelligence services used to do. So they’re not only attacking private citizens and activist groups as these other people used to do 50 years ago, but there’s even less accountability, and no transparency because they’re private companies.
GK: That’s precisely right. It is really frightening to think about the logical conclusion, or the consequences of the fact that it could potentially be hundreds of different types of companies around the world who are doing this kind of small-scale forms of surveillance, and meddling into legitimate activist campaigns that is so hard to track precisely, because it’s happening in this decentralized and distributed fashion. And then it becomes very difficult to gain a total picture. And as horrifying as the FBI program was, nevertheless there was a kind of beast with a head, you know?
MCD: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
GK: That you could kind of identify, that was accountable, who we could point to. Whereas, potentially this system is just a bunch of potentially corporations working with security firms to engage in this sort of activity. And since we do have more information that the proposal that was in the HBGary documents has been carried out by different companies who hire third parties to spy on activists, and we find out in a couple different ways: one is hacking, sometimes there’s court cases where documents are procured. So we find out, for example, that Greenpeace has been spied on by certain corporations. But it’s very, very difficult to find that information out today precisely because it’s so distributed.
MCD: Now, Anonymous, as you were saying before with respect to the Scientology Church demonstrations, they also got out on the streets in all kind of different ways: they were known for their mask wearing and theatrical presence in demonstrations, they were connected to the Occupy Wall Street, the Occupy movements. Describe to us their kind of street protest and their understanding of the importance of spectacle.
GK: Yeah, the birth of Anonymous was indebted to showing up on the streets at some level, and they took on the Guy Fawkes mask initially simply to kind of protect themselves against the prying eye of Scientologists who would be taking high-definition photos of these protesters. But I think that there was something very powerful about that imagery that was on the one hand very familiar because of the film and graphic novel, V for Vendetta, that was, as you noted, very performative. It’s a mask that’s often what actors use for theater, and it has a kind of larger-than-life presence. And then they were pretty good at using other techniques to grab people’s attention. And it could be a flashy video, some pretty good artwork, or sometimes they would do something a little bit more extreme. One example I like to give, and I believe it’s in the book, it’s a little bit gross, but to protest the church and really defile the church, in New York City, one of the protesters decided to streak inside the church naked, which alone would’ve garnered attention. But he also slathered himself in Vaseline, and put his pubic hair all over himself, and then went into the church. And so it’s on one hand kind of juvenile, but kind of hilarious, and they knew that they would get a lot of attention as result.
Other nodes of Anonymous also achieved this through different means. Another example that I really like, which is bit more clever, maybe a little less juvenile is, when a PBS documentary about Chelsea Manning came out, and some members of Anonymous were upset at the documentary because it felt like she was not really treated with respect and she was infantilized a little bit. And so they broke into PBS and changed the front page with a fake news story, and the news story was that Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls were in fact, not dead, but found in a small town in New Zealand escaping celebrity. And it was a very well-written story; the person who wrote it, “Topiary,” Jake Davis is an amazing writer. And it was so funny, it was so well written, and it was almost believable sort of. Like wow, yeah, maybe Tupac and Biggie really did stage their death to escape celebrity. And the final irony is that Anonymous while being very famous, had very strong anti-celebrity ethic where you never did anything for personal fame. So there was just so much going on in that, and every major news establishment, from the BBC to CNN reported on this. It really just captured the mass media’s attention at that point. So they were really good at, yeah, staging these spectacles, whether it involved pubic hair or Tupac Shakur, and stuff in between, to do that.
MCD: You know, I have to say it’s very much of a kind of young man’s sensibility, and it’s very much of a male space. I mean, I don’t know how many women, you described one amazing woman from Nevada in the book. But most of them, almost all of them were guys. What’s going on with that?
GK: Right. So all the hackers definitely were guys. And that both mirrors the gender makeup of that world, and then if you add the element of law-breaking, you have even less women than you might have in legal hacker worlds. Actually, it’s hard to get precise numbers, precisely because people were masked. But there definitely were core women who were involved in the collective, both in terms of the Church of Scientology protest—I went to the street protests and participated on the boards, and there again, I can’t give exact numbers, but it had so many more females and really, really important ones as well. Then definitely in the hacker spaces it was very male, with the non-hacker spaces having, if I were to put a number, something like 20% females or something, some of whom were pretty important in the large Twitter accounts. It is the case that the types of humor can often be construed as very kind of male-oriented and even sometimes juvenile. I do think elements can be very playful and open to many different types of gender and I think appeal to some of my own sensibilities as well. But certainly the hacker spaces where particularly male. Then if you add on top of that the Guy Fawkes mask, which is a very male figure, right, it strikes is a very male world.
I do think what’s interesting about the hacker groups was, aside from gender, there was a little bit more diversity along class and ethnic lines than I had expected. So one breakaway group was called LulzSec and they had six very, very active hackers and out of the six, two of the men were people of color—Puerto Rican and an Iraqi—with two Irish participants, one who had a pretty extensive political background. Then you also had a number of people who definitely, definitely we’re not wealthy—they weren’t even middle class, they didn’t have jobs. So I found that kind of diversity a little bit of a surprise and I tried to talk a little bit about that in the book.
MCD: Yeah. Now a lot of what Anonymous has done over the years was legal. Some of it was, as you say, illegal. There were arrests and convictions. Some of the sentences were very harsh. Do you consider the people who were convicted and served prison time, are they political prisoners?
GK: It’s a really good question. I mean, in the British context, I think that the sentences were a lot less severe and possibly even fair, insofar as even though some of the hacks I personally really support, it is illegal and there should be some consequence to that, right? So serving three months or serving maybe even up to a year for a lot of hacking seemed somewhat reasonable, especially if there’s no big fine afterwards and your life is not ruined as a result of it, and that’s precisely what happened with all the British arrests. People either did no jail time because they were too young, or did minimal jail time, or reasonable jail time and, they’ve gone on with their lives. Then future people can look up to them and go, “Okay, maybe I won’t do what they did because they went to jail, or maybe I will because that’s a kind of fair exchange.”
In the context of the United States, it’s a very different story. We had one figure, Barrett Brown, who was a very lively character in Anonymous in part because he’s one of the few people who chose not to be Anonymous. And he ended up doing five years in jail and has a very large fine right now and he never did any hacking whatsoever. He just wanted to get the emails that Anonymous took. And that is outrageous. That’s completely outrageous for him to have spent that time in jail simply for trying to acquire emails that other journalists reported on. And so that’s completely out of proportion. The other person who’s been doing a very long jail sentence does Jeremy Hammond, and again, I don’t think, given what he did, no jail sentence makes sense; but 10 years is way, way too long. He will be serving out more jail time than Chelsea Manning, for example. So yeah, in the context of the US, it’s usually kind of too extreme and the United States is very exceptional in that regard. No other hacker in different parts of the world got those severe punishments like it happens here.
MCD: We’re left with some very big issues like is there a right to privacy in this country? How has the government responded to people who are trying to put in place, for example, encryption technologies that would keep them from spying on us? What does that picture look like to you right now?
GK: Yeah. It’s a fascinating to me because on the one hand when Anonymous was very active and they’re involved in all sorts of tangible operations, but as an anthropologist I was intrigued by their symbolism. They were Anonymous or called Anonymous. They believed in anonymity and I was like, Oh, okay. That’s like basically they’re the funeral for anonymity because, guess what, we really can’t be Anonymous anymore. It’s just too difficult precisely given all the technologies that are being used by both governments and corporations to actively surveil activists and dissidents, but also just to amass all sorts of information about consumers in such a way that just makes privacy really difficult.
But I would say even though I think the conditions for anonymity and privacy are really unfavorable still, incredibly unfavorable, in a post-Snowden world where he really reenergized this question because of his own leaks and really reenergized the hacker community to redouble their efforts to create good pieces of technology that journalists and human rights activists and lawyers can use to provide a measure of technological protection for anonymous interaction, there are kind of these small pockets for the possibility for anonymity today. And it’s a battle. It’s a battle, and I’m not sure it’s a war that will be won, but nevertheless there is at least a battle that’s ongoing and I have seen these tools that you can use, go from being virtually unusable to pretty usable.
So something like Signal, which is an app for texting and phone calls and it’s end to end encrypted and really solid, it’s a total snap to use. The Tor browser, which allows you to be a little bit more anonymous online—I would encourage people to do their homework because it’s no single tools usually foolproof—but I’ve seen that tool go from virtually unusable to quite usable. So I wouldn’t say I’m really optimistic, but I do think that there’s a battle, and I’m willing to contribute to that battle in the hopes that we have enough tools so that those who really need anonymity—like the journalists and their sources, like the dissidents—can use those tools in the future.
MCD: You show in your book some of the discussions and there’s some transcripts of the kinds of discussions that were happening in these online spaces and arguments and all these kinds of different back and forth, and I found myself wondering if you think their work represents a kind of emergent collective intelligence that has a life of its own that’s more than the sum of its parts. I mean it seems like almost a kind of, I don’t know, like intelligent organism.
GK: Yeah. I think that’s a really nice way of phrasing it, because for sure people have used different technologies to connect with each other over long distances prior to the internet age, but the internet has really facilitated new forms of human connection and organization. And prior to Anonymous, there are some really interesting important examples of large scale collaborations between people who are situated in very different parts of the world. I’ve worked on some of those projects before. But I do think that there is something really fascinating, both with Anonymous and unfortunately today with the far right or the alt- right, who in some ways have inherited, not so much their hacking tactics, but are quite good at getting together online to spin out spectacle and propaganda.
It’s amazing to see really dispersed groups of people, many who don’t know each other, who just come together and are able to effect change in terms of changing the conversation around certain issues and do so in this very, very kind of organic way. Now, I think organizations that don’t learn how to transform that organic experimental grassroots energy into something that can be somewhat harnessed and controlled can suffer the fate of dissipating, and I think that’s what has happened a little bit with Anonymous in part also because people got arrested. But nevertheless there is a kind of weird borg-like quality, especially in so far as there were so many different tentacles to Anonymous as well. I think that’s what made it very powerful as well. It’s just like, what’s going on, how can we stop it, but also in some ways is what helped to lead not to its demise because it hasn’t completely gone away, but it’s certainly not the force that it once was.
MCD: You as an anthropologist, whatever you’re studying, you come into the situation, you get immersed, you build relationships because that’s part of the work. There’s a kind of sweet moment in the book where one of the Anonymous guys said that you were really making an important contribution to them even as they let you in for your study purposes. What do you think the contribution was that you made and then what was it like to leave?
GK: Yeah, so I think in this project, and in my last project as well, a number of people, I think rightly so, are a little bit skeptical, like, “Oh, what can a person who’s not necessarily really part of things—sort of in there but sort of outside—contribute?” And it’s really handy, I actually just figured out like we’re kind of like a glorified note-taker, really following what’s going on and writing it down and thinking about it. And that’s really, really handy because if you’re caught up in the moment, you can’t necessarily collect all that information and kind of think about like, “What’s going on here?” It’s really helpful to have that because otherwise a lot will be lost historically. And that’s especially the case with Anonymous, where a lot of the material they produced was ephemeral and a lot did get lost. I mean I really probably only have kept a portion of what they produced, a very small portion.
Then I think another element that was really, really important to me is that, while again I’m not here to tell the world that they should stand by this collective, they were put in a position where they could have been very easily overly demonized and maligned to the extent that they could have been framed as cyber terrorists—and I don’t think that they are even remotely, and this is actually going to be the topic of my talk is how Anonymous could have been framed and pinned and straightjacketed as cyber terrorists, but in fact that never happened. While there’s many explanations, most of which have nothing to do with me, definitely I was motivated in part to write my book, to be like, “Look, they are activists. They do have a moral compass. You may not agree with it, but this isn’t just a free-for-all.” In many ways that’s what I could contribute.
Then in terms of leaving, there is always this kind of mixed feelings. On the one hand you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I have my life back. That’s amazing.” But on the other hand, it is hard. It’s hard because you’ve invested so much into something and then you really don’t have the time to follow something similar or keep the same level of deep connections that you had. And while you continue to talk to people and in some of the people who were arrested, I count as friends and I see them if I’m in Berlin or in London and I write to Jeremy Hammond, it’s a lot less intense, the relationships, than then they were and that’s just a little bit sad sometimes, but yeah, that’s generally how it goes with anthropology.
MCD: Gabriella Coleman, thank you so much for being with us.
GK: Oh my pleasure. Thanks for having me.