For many geeks, Anonymous is the gateway drug to political and social activism

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman with The World. You’ve heard of the group Anonymous, right? They’re the online hacker-activists, or hacktivists for short. They operate all over the globe, anonymously of course, but if you really want to know more about them, Gabriella Coleman can fill you in. Her new book is called "Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous." Coleman is a professor at McGill University in Montreal and I asked her to explain just who or what anonymous is.


Gabriella Coleman: The great majority of individuals who are attracted, who join, are geeks or hackers. Hackers are those who are computer aficionados with deep technical skills. Geeks may have less technical skills, but they really identify with the internet, they kind of consider it their homeland. If you weren’t a geek when you joined, you certainly become one when you participate in anonymous. It’s a world that’s really attached culturally and technically to the internet.


Werman: Can geeks get political skills just by living online? Doesn’t that need to happen out in the streets?


Coleman: There is something very interesting about the internet -- I think because many geeks and hackers do consider it a kind of homeland, a physical space that’s attached or identified with certain values, such as free speech and privacy, a lot of the actions that Anonymous gets involved in has to do with defending those values that are often identified with the internet. I think that’s a legitimate form of politics and an important one. On the other hand, there’s limits to both protesting online or fighting for privacy and censorship online. Many of the Anonymous operations definitely spill into the offline world. For example, many individuals who are currently involved in Operation Ferguson in Missouri are going to Ferguson to help with livestreaming.


Werman: Your history traces a group that began with roots in a world slightly more advanced than prank phone calls. The technology has advanced, but do you think the people involved have also advanced?


Coleman: They definitely diversified the tactics that they use, although there are a core number of them, which include creating videos to help spread their message, releasing manifestos; there’s computer hacking where you infiltrate into a corporation or government either for website defacement or you’re searching for information to leak to the world at large. So, that’s the kind of repertoire of tactics that they use. I think the surprising part was when anonymous turned to activism in 2008, they really were concentrated on internet issues or censorship, and today they seem to get involved in any number of political causes, from supporting fights against rape to police brutality, and that was a big surprise.


Werman: It kind of sounds like Anonymous itself hasn’t even made up its mind yet about what way forward. Is that what you’re saying?


Coleman: That’s absolutely right, in part because they’re often in an experimental and reactive mode. So, while some of their actions are proactive and it’s really a small category having to do with computer hacking when you’re searching for information that reveals corruption, the grand majority of their actions are reactive to world events. In that sense, there really is no direction, except for the fact that they’re reacting to social injustices that are occurring around the world.


Werman: A lot of the hacktivists, Anonymous, it seems like one of the tactics is to bring total transparency to companies and government offices that offend them, kind of like Todo pulling the curtain back for all the world to see this crazy wizard. But they also assiduously defend their own privacy. Doesn’t that contradiction weaken their own position? How can they be taken seriously with that as the fact?


Coleman: You’re right -- on the one hand, they demand transparency from corporations and governments and they, on the other hand, are cloaked. I do think it’s actually interesting, and I’m an anthropologist and one of the ways I approach Anonymous is at a symbolic level. I do think at this very moment where we’re living in the high age of surveillance, there’s government and corporate surveillance at the same time, Anonymous is important because it kind of symbolically asserts the fact that we should have some privacy and anonymity. I think that while there may be some problems with accountability when it comes to anonymous politics, it’s also important that there’s spaces for anonymous organizing as well. There’s also a long political tradition of anonymous political actions, he Supreme Court has validated anonymous speech as a valid form of political speech.


Werman: With all these issues, it seems things get a little sticky once you start asking what concrete political impact Anonymous has had as an activist group. What direction is their moral compass pointed?


Coleman: There is no direction. In a lot of ways, their operations have to be judged on a case by case basis. In some instances, for example, there is this wonderful video for Operation Guantanamo, which was calling on the president to make due on his promise to close it down. The only effect of the video is to send chills down your spine. It’s an incredible video, it has no effect -- Guantanamo is still open. But I think it’s still very important that people are registering their dissent against the president. In other instances, for example, with some of the rape cases in Halifax and Steubenville in Missouri --


Werman: And Ohio, the famous one from a couple of years ago.


Coleman: Exactly. It really did bring a lot of attention to these cases. The one here in Canada, where I’m based, Rehtaeh Parsons, the RCMP, who are the police here, never opened the case, never moved forward. After Anonymous got involved, they did, and there’s been some folks who have been prosecuted for child porn. Rehtaeh Parsons’ mother said “I think Anonymous made a difference.” So, case by case, it depends. There’s been some effect in certain ones and no effect in others. Perhaps in some, it’s actually been a disaster as well.


Werman: That kind of effectiveness seems rare with Anonymous. The group stands firmly by the belief that Anonymous is a leaderless movement, even though we know that all good activist movements have and need leaders, and Anonymous has been called out for being fair weather activists. So, they’ll support Wikileaks one day, assist Occupy Wall Street the next, and move on to a rape case in Ohio the day after that. What is the real political activist impact of Anonymous that you can see?


Coleman: I think one of the impacts has to do with the fact that Anonymous, as I like to say, is a wonderful gateway drug into activism for a lot of young people today. I interviewed many, many participants, met many who have been arrested for their actions, and quite a number of them don’t solely concentrate on Anonymous. They’re also engaging in other forms of activism and, in some ways, Anonymous was what kind of opened the door to these other arenas, and I think that’s important. Anyone who is an activist usually has to get there by a certain path, and for many of these kind of young geeks, this was the path.


Werman: Gabriella Coleman, the author of "Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous." Thank you for your time.


Coleman: You’re welcome, my pleasure.


Werman: Coming up after the news, we’ll introduce you to a computer geek whose path led him to the world of cybersecurity. It’s all part of our new SAFEMODE coverage, where we’re looking at international security through the eyes of a new generation. Hashtag SAFEMODE and we want you involved in our reporting. You can even help out just by using your cell phone. Text the word “SAFEMODE” to 69866. Or Tweet us using #SAFEMODE.