If you’re involved in activist circles, or spend any amount of time reading up on “hacking” news, chances are you’re already familiar with Anonymous. If not, the whole thing can be a little hard to get your head around. There’s no real structure or boundaries of the group, no leaders or official sites or the usual trappings of a real organization. That lack of structure is at once Anonymous’ greatest weakness and strength: no one can control it, for good or ill.
That’s all well and good for “theory of hactivism 101” but you’ve got things to do. Anonymous is a brand that’s available to anyone for any cause. When you’re considering how to take on a new cause, or planning to change tactics on a cause near and dear to your heart, how do you decide whether to take the plunge and put on the mask?
Anonymous Gets the Media Excited
There is no arguing that the sight of all those plastic masks at an event makes for a striking image. Anonymous’ flare for the dramatic – between hyperbolic threats and video diatribes and the occasional act of “cyber vandalism” – attracts attention from all quarters. The simple fact is that even after seven years, the news media has no idea what to make of the group, and what they don’t know fascinates and terrifies them.
Anonymous has also had many experienced media handlers (including our own Gregg Housh) who may take your cause’s raw statements and clarify them for confused reporters. It’s an unfortunate fact that having someone “trustworthy” to interpret events does make a difference for what is covered by the mainstream media and how.
All that attention might be great, but remember that you won’t be in control of all of it. Making your cause Anonymous means that any Anon (which really means “anyone”) can talk authoritatively about what you stand for and what you intend to do – even people who might be completely ignorant on the subject. If you launch with a weak premise, or aren’t forward enough with resources for the media to use, things might slip out from under you in a matter of days or hours. It’s a powerful tool, but all power tools have the potential to be dangerous.
Anonymous is Better at Tearing Things Down Than Building Them Up
This is true of many groups and modes of protest, but especially true of the folks who decided to spam epilepsy forums with strobe-light gifs for giggles. The kinds of people you will attract if you publicize your campaign as Anonymous are somewhat different than folks who might answer a different call to action, and if you aren’t aware of that it could bite you in the ass.
Anonymous includes the absurdly idealistic, the naïve, the politically uninformed, the bored, the vulgar, and the nihilistic. It also includes very informed and experienced hackers, protesters, activists, and so much more. This collection of such varying skills and ideals is powerful, and hard to predict. You can herd those cats to a certain extent, but ultimately it is easiest to point them at a target and say “go.”
Societal attitudes aren’t a coherent target. Racism doesn’t live in a building you can yell at. Disenfranchisement of the poor isn’t on a server somewhere waiting to be hacked. You can’t kick “the patriarchy” in the balls. If, however, there is a specific bill or public figure supporting that thing you hate, Anons could potentially be rallied to the cause.
Anonymous is the Final Boss of the Internet
Does your cause have something to do with the Internet? If not, you may have a harder time using Anonymous to deal with it. These days everything has an online presence somewhere, and even a fight with a local florist over pesticide use could turn into DDoS attacks and website vandalism. Truly “online” issues, though, will always be easier to rally Anons to. Net Neutrality, government censorship of the Internet, corporate snooping of private data – these are the kinds of issues that Anonymous was born to fight. There is a bizarre kind of patriotism among self identified Anons, not for their nations but for “the Internet” as their home and native land. If your cause speaks to this, you may find Anonymous showing up to support you regardless of your own choice to mask up.
Anonymous Should Be Your Last Resort
Is there a group already dealing with your issues? Go to them first. Is there an existing model of protest that you can emulate in your area? Do that thing. Anonymous is a powerful toolbox, but it is not always the most effective way to get the job done.
For example: there is no shortage of existing environmental advocacy groups. Some of them are lazier or have been co-opted by other interests, but they exist. If you are planning on diverting an oil platform with a kayak flotilla, there’s people already doing that! You can even get training and advice from people who have experience in the kayak flotilla field. No need to get masks involved.
Where Anonymous does shine, however, is when sane options have failed and there is no path to follow. If previous groups have tried and failed to make an impact, the narrative of “calling in the cavalry” is a strong one that can re-energize existing protesters and catch the interest of Anons who could potentially become allies. And of course, having a good story means more media attention.
Anonymous is Somewhat Volatile
Criticizing Anonymous — or taking actions that a significant fraction of the community find objectionable — will often result in some very angry Anons. That anger can be backed up with relentless internet trolling and may even result in your personal information being made public (a method called doxing). Though this defensive attitude is frowned upon by some factions of the community, it’s important to keep in mind as you are making the decision to mask up.
The flip side of this, of course, is that the collective’s relentless energy and remarkable online skills can be very useful against your targets. There have been many instances of Anons assisting other activist groups by uncovering the identities of members of law enforcement harassing or abusing the public. The skills that go into uncovering identities can also be used to sift through court documents, data leaks, and lend muscle to significant research projects that you might not be able to undertake on your own.
It’s also extremely important to note that if you use the Anonymous brand for your cause, there is a chance that some Anons might take actions under your banner that you do not approve of. There is significant debate within the group as to whether hacking and DDoS attacks help or hurt the causes they are purportedly in support of. By inviting Anonymous to your party, you have to accept the risk that some less-than-legal actions may end up associated with your campaign.
Anonymous is the Gateway Drug for Activism
Many young people that started their activism by means of Anonymous now work in IT security, journalism and many other jobs related to their adventures with the collective. Often you will find people on chat networks exchanging their knowledge resulting in the improvement of press releases in terms of writing, but also in terms of video editing, hacks on a larger scale and improved security to hide themselves from the government.
The upshot of this is that many of the people you recruit may be current or former Anons themselves, even if you don’t use the brand to promote your cause. It also means that Anonymous is a great way to draw in young, inexperienced activists, who you can help guide towards positive actions.
Anonymous Gets the Attention of Law Enforcement
Most protests get at least a little attention from the police. If you go with Anonymous, you can expect to see a much higher degree of scrutiny from law enforcement. Some cities have restrictions on face coverings, others may have police departments that have been victims of previous Anonymous hacks. There are also several “outed” Anons who have gone to trial, some of whom have been convicted and are serving their sentences as we speak. Law enforcement has even more trouble than the media when it comes to understanding how Anonymous works, and so you may find yourself being unfairly branded as a troublemaker or even a potential terrorist for your association with the group!
Not all of this attention is unwarranted, either. While you may have no intention of hacking anything, that doesn’t mean all of the Anons who join up will have the same ideas. You also have no way of knowing whether the Guy Fawkes mask next to you is on a squeaky clean law-abiding citizen or someone who’s broken into NASA’s servers in the past. The best way to manage this risk is to develop a strong relationship with local law enforcement and to encourage everyone to limit their demonstrations to what the law allows. While many Anons will play up the importance of remaining as anonymous as possible, the Snowden files have taught us it’s close to impossible to be anonymous on the internet.
Anonymous is International
Did you know that Brazil has a large and active community of Anons? What about Hong Kong and Malaysia? The fact is that there have been Anonymous actions on every continent — two Anons even posed with anti-Scientology signs in Antarctica! Anons have assisted movements in other nations by providing translation services, engaging international media outlets, and circumventing local Internet censorship. Anonymous got its start in irl activism with a massive global protest spanning 143 cities in 42 countries. This experience coordinating across national boundaries and working around local or national problems can be invaluable for your cause.
Anonymous is What You Make It
Ultimately, no one can tell you what is and isn’t “appropriate” for Anonymous. The people who identified as Anons ten years ago wouldn’t recognize what it has become today, and it shows no signs of slowing its messy evolution. All these points we’ve raised aren’t hard and fast rules, but just ideas to help you make up your own mind. Whatever you decide for your next action, it’s good to know about the resources available.