Brendan James

Comparative Media Graduate

05.A06. Technology

We Are Legion – Anonymous: Friend or Foe

Anonymous, Hacktivism, Sharing and the New Morality

Without a doubt we live in confusing times. The old institutions that used to govern or influence our actions and our thoughts are either becoming outdated, collapsing or suffering serious trust issues! Perhaps in reaction to this a new morality is developing?

Often certain sections of the media will have us believe that people (particularly younger people) are becoming either immoral, amoral – or at the very least apathetic. Yet it’s clear that there are a whole range of issues that the X-Y generation are extremely passionate about and would quite likely risk everything to defend.

Perhaps the issue is that the scales by which society measures morality are themselves outmoded. Social research has utterly failed to keep pace with the eclectic society that we all now engender. Part of the problem is that it’s now much more difficult (if not downright impractical or impossible) to categorise people into rigid groups – groups which fairly reliably used to define a person’s morality, political or religious affiliations – and even to some extent their actions and reactions.

It’s been noted that less than half of Generation Y’ers on Facebook (also referred to as Millennials, because they were born after 1980 and came of age around the turn of the millennium), include a religious affiliation on their profile. Some more in-depth studies such as the American 2010 Pew Research Centre report go further, stating that only around 25% of Millennials belong to a particular faith, yet at the same time only 7% would categorize themselves as atheist or even agnostic. A similar reticence is displayed when it comes to political allegiance. Yet, once again, it’s clear that on certain issues the X-Y’ers are plenty vocal. Issues around human rights, race, gender and sexuality, war, corruption, the global economy, and just general fairness in society, repeatedly garner active support amongst these groups in particular.

GRANFALLOON – a proud and meaningless association of human beings (Vonnegut, 1963)

So the general accusation of apathy does not hold water. Just because people don’t want to join official groups and Granfalloons of people to express their opinions and even mobilize dissent, doesn’t mean that they don’t actually care. So if this entire section of society are reluctant to join official groups, how do they get their point across? The answer is that they form their own groups. But not groups in the conventional sense.

These are the networked generations. They’ve grown up with, and on, the internet. It’s very much a part of who they are – so it’s naturally the medium they choose both to express themselves individually and to form themselves in to loose but highly connected formations of people around a chosen issue. Through the internet phenomenon of sharing – what starts out as a few people expressing vitriolic distaste or dissatisfaction, turns into a small tide and then if the issue catches on – into a tsunami of opinion. At this point people start to get creative. Memes appear. The memes are adjusted, adapted and added to. They cross and spread over the myriad of social media available. What start out as simple text based messages on Twitter and the other major social networks soon develop into quite sophisticated packages. These packages may be in a variety of forms including musical or video, and are often of a surprisingly high, professional type standard (even though they are usually produced by amateurs). The issue goes cross platform. Such a level of interest has now been amassed that conventional media gets involved, and the matter is now viral. At this point the wider society becomes aware, and a new topic of the day has been created.

Once this has happened public interest will probably begin to generally trail off. However if the issue is important enough, sometimes – something else occurs. As the topic and its memes and other packages were busily swarming across the internet, connections have been made. I’m speaking here of real connections of real people. They decide more has to be done. What was looking like it was only going to be an online fad, has actually inspired people to take action. Thus a movement is born.

In recent times of course we’ve had the Occupy movement. We’ve also had immense international support for major world occurrences such as the ‘Arab Spring,’ organised over the internet – largely by ordinary people across international borders – and as we shall see, some of this support comes from the most surprising of sources.

Anonymous – Juvenile Pranksters, or The People’s champions?

I expect you’ve heard of Anonymous – and if you have you’ve probably formed quite a strong opinion about them, either one way or the other. To some they are mysterious warriors for justice – to others – just annoying little idiots. With their penchant for posting YouTube announcements of their latest ‘campaigns’ featuring melodramatic music, synthetic computerised narration and iconography lifted wholesale from the V for Vendetta movie, it’s easy to dismiss them as fantasists sitting in their bedrooms dreaming they’re the superheroes that fired their childhood imagination – and indeed that’s how I viewed them for a long time. Their sign off, rallying cry and de facto motto:


– doesn’t exactly do a lot to make you take them seriously either. (See below for Anonymous’ announcement on their recent campaign against the UK Bedroom Tax).

And yes it’s true, Anonymous grew out of groups involved in past hacking pranks; the targets for these pranks have included government agencies and multi-national corporations such as Sony – as well as various private individuals – with Sony claiming that Anonymous inflicted $150m worth of damage. Many of the attacks or ‘raids’ of these groups in the early days amounted to things such as DoS/DDos (Distributed/Denial of Service) attacks in which various methods are used to temporarily bring down the websites of their chosen target.

The Final Boss of the Internet

Anonymous like to call themselves “The final boss of the internet,” and among other things have been referred to as “The Rude Boys of Activism,” and as “…Individual, young nameless faceless hoaxers – having geo-political impact.” (BBC, 2012). It’s exceedingly difficult to define Anonymous due to their disparate connections and lack of any hierarchy. Having been formed by people active in groups such as 4chan and LulzSec, perhaps the best description is that given by former Anonymous activist Barrett Brown in the documentary How Hackers Changed the World – We Are Legion, (part of the BBC Storyville documentary strand);

“Anonymous is a series of relationships. Hundreds and hundreds of people who are very active in it – who have varying skillsets, and who have varying issues they want to advance – these people are collaborating in different ways each day.”

If you’re after a more cogent definition than that you’ll be left wanting I’m afraid. It seems that this determination to avoid any kind of cohesive structure or hierarchy, is the very thing that gives Anonymous their strength and power in the first place; ‘The ability for Anonymous to be anything and everything is its power.’ (Greg Housh, internet activist associated with Anonymous).

Rude Boys of Activism

You could perhaps think of Anonymous (and other similar or associated groups) as memes themselves rather than groups. The very process by which they were formed resembles the same process as that by which memes are formed – various groups and individuals interacting together, borrowing and adding to the sum total until almost by accident a meme – or in this case a group – emerges. And just as pre-existent groups gave birth to Anonymous, so in turn subsequent groups emerged from Anonymous and the general collective of which they are part.

“Telecomix is an ad hoc cluster of volunteer net activists who have spent much of last year trying to keep the internet running in the Middle East.” (Peter Fein, Anonymous/Telecomix)

Telecomix and The Arab Spring

Pete Fein describes himself as an Internaut and a Hacktivist. A member of both Anonymous and Telecomix – most of his time of late has been taken up with fighting internet censorship and providing other vital support, for people caught up in the turmoil of the recent uprisings in the Middle East – known as The Arab Spring.

In the early days of the uprising in Egypt, President Mubarak effectively shut down the internet across the nation. Resulting in the now famous graph image of internet traffic in Egypt across the 27th – 28th January, 2011.


In the early days of the 2011 suppression of uprisings in Egypt, the government embarked on a process of internet censorship – beginning with the State Security Investigations Service (Amn El Dawla) ordering Twitter to be blocked on the 25th January. Facebook was shut down the following day. Telecomix decided to mobilise support by providing a proxy tweeting service – effectively retweeting on behalf of Egyptian activists who were getting the message out via other websites and services that were still available.

After the full Egyptian internet shutdown on the 28th Jan, Telecomix, Anonymous and other groups realised that they’re support had to be extended. They began providing technical advice on getting dial-up modem based internet connections going, and on encryption – helping Egyptians to try and circumvent the shutdown of the web.

However the support that these groups provided didn’t just stop there. They began Googling treatments for tear gas victims and other much needed medical advice, found people to translate these into Arabic – and then began faxing or sending these off in easily printable PDF files to where they were most needed.

Anonymous, and the people on the internet, stood up and said “Go Fuck Yourself!” You wanna shut down their internet? Fine! The people on the internet will show them how to turn it back on!

Anonymous, Telecomix and ‘the people on the internet’ put together a total care package that consisted of the above mentioned assistance as well as vital comms support utilising phone, fax, ham radio – and crucially they coordinated and ran over 500 dial-up modem lines.

The net effect of all this – was that the word got out!


These merry pranksters – losers sitting in their mum’s basements, or however else you might like to think of them – had actually been instrumental in combatting the efforts of an entire government system to supress a revolt of its own people. Without the activities of these groups, Egypt and the other uprisings that followed might all just have added to the sum total of countless revolutions suppressed by totalitarian governments throughout history.

So you see, there is my point. The X-Y’ers are seriously anything but apathetic! Perhaps the difference is that they prefer to only act if they feel they can make a real difference – or in spur of the moment reaction to breaking events. No hippie sit-ins for this lot. None of the hollow gestures of solidarity characteristic of other generations’ protest movements. Not even any specific allegiance to the group (Anonymous members are free to partake or not, in any given campaign, no questions asked). Yet their commitment to the causes they do choose to participate on is not in question – with many prepared to go to prison for their activities, such as Brian Mettenbrink, sentenced to 12 months imprisonment for his part in a DDoS attack on The Church of Scientology. And no one could argue on the level of commitment in the Telecomix/Anonymous activities described above.

Even as I write this an email notification pops up. All the email contains is a link. No words other than ‘Link is safe.’ It’s from somebody I know well – who happens to belong to that millennial generation. I click on the link and I’m taken to a video of a 12 minute report by a German filmmaker that I think may have been featured on channel 4 news recently. The report details the truly horrific experiences of the residents of Aleppo, Syria (Anonymous also declared cyber war on the Syrian government on 30/11/2012 after they too, shut down the internet there). The email has been sent to me and several other people, some of whom I know, some I don’t. So, we have again, that simple act of the internet share. Sharing is not a hollow pointless act.

So parents, fear not – your kids are not sitting in their rooms ONLY sharing the latest X-factor vid or clips of some hapless skateboarder coming a cropper. They’re also sharing things that they care about. They’re sharing knowledge and awareness. We know that mighty oaks from little acorns grow. Among the Millennials, the internet share is that little acorn that might just change the world.

Featured Image © liryon


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