Notes taken at HOPE XI.
Gabriella Coleman, Anthropologist, Professor, McGill University
Biella spent several years studying Anonymous. Found them “confusing, enchanting, controversial, irreverent, interesting, unpredictable, frustrating, stupid, and really stupid.” She expected to have to convince people they weren’t terrorists, but that didn’t happen.
The media usually refers to Anonymous as activists, hacktivists, or vigilantes, rather than terrorists. Pop culture has taken up Anonymous, which has helped inoculate them from the terrorism level.
The label can be used in the media to political ends, example: Nelson Mandela being labeled a terrorist. In France, the Tarnac 9 were arrested as terrorists for stopping trains, but the change was changed. In Spain, puppeteers were arrested for “inciting terrorism” and placed in jail for five days, but the case was thrown out. Common privacy tools like TOR and riseup can lead to suspicions of terrorism. Police and others in the US have tried to get Black Lives Matter designated as a terrorist organization.
Biella cites “Green is the New Red.” Since September 11, terrorism has been redefined to suit political whims, often impacting radical activists such as animal rights activists. What was once “monkey wrenching” or “sabotage” is now considered “terrorism.” A group called the SHAC7 were convicted under the Animal Enterprise Act for running a website that advocated for animal liberation. Many received multi-year jail sentences.
Focusing on technology, the language of terrorism has often been used to describe hacking. Biella was concerned she’d be targeted by the FBI for studying Anonymous. Targets of Anonymous described them as terrorists in the media. The hacktivist Jeremy Hammond was found to be on the FBI terrorism watch list, but because he was an environmental activist, not because he was a hacktivist. GCHQ described Anonymous and LulzSec as bad actors comparable to pedophiles and state-sponsored hackers. In the US, Anonymous was used as a primary example during Congressional hearings on cyberterrorism. The Wall Street Journal published a claim by the NSA that Anonymous could develop the ability to disable part of the US electricity grid.
Timing influenced how the public received these claims. The government compared Wiki-Leaks to Al-Quaeda, and compelled Visa and PayPal to freeze their accounts. These actions were seen as extreme by the public, and Anonymous launched Operation Payback, a DDoS of the PayPal blog, to protest. The media framed the event as a political act of civil disobedience. A month later, Anonymous contributed to social revolutions in the Middle-East and Span, and in Occupy. Anonymous has been described as incoherent for being involved in many different things, but this flexibility has helped inoculate them against the terrorist label. Anonymous is a “Multiple Use Name,” as described by Marco Deseriis.
The Guy Fawkes mask has played an important role. While the use of the mask was largely an accident, but carries connotations of resistance. These connotations were historically negative, but became positive with Alan Moore’s “V for Vendetta” and its film adaptation. There’s a feedback cycle between reality and fiction about resistance to totalitarian states. There’s an astounding amount of media about hackers. Biella’s favorite is called “Who Am I.” There’s even a ballet based on the story of Anonymous. RuPaul discussed with John Waters as a type of youthful rebellion. In contrast, animal rights activists are often portrayed as dangerous and unlikable.
ISIS uses social tactics similar to Anonymous. The difference between the two groups has created a contrast, amplified by Anonymous declaring war on ISIS.
In 2012, the Anti-Counterfeit Trade Agreement was under debate. The Polish population protested ACTA. Anonymous got involved with Operation ANTI-ACTA in support of Polish citizens. A number of Polish members of parliament wore Guy Fawkes masks to show disapproval for ACTA. The gesture helped to legitimate Anonymous and its tactics.
Tides can change very quickly. An infrastructure attack tied to hacktivists could turn the public against Anonymous. Art and culture really matter. Sometimes the world of law and policy sees art and culture as “soft power,” but Biella argues this is a false dichotomy. She appeals to people who work in the arts to continue, perhaps writing children’s books about hackers.
Phineas Fisher created a brilliant media hack on Vice News. Vice arranged an interview with Fisher, who requested to be represented by a puppet.