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Anonymous: Driving Democracy or Anarchy?

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Gemma Joyce, Games Editor, discusses the nature of elusive group ‘Anonymous’ and whether they pose a viable threat to the British government.

“We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us. We are rising. We will occupy everything,” signs off a masked figure with a robotic voice, concluding a chilling message directed at the British Government, vowing to bring an end to the fascist gluttony that currently defines our leadership. The video, apparently produced by Anonymous, has been shared thousands of times across various internet platforms and, at the time of writing, is approaching a quarter of a million views.

Protest against the ACTA bill, in Rouen, France Image credits: zigazou76
Protest against the ACTA bill, in Rouen, France
Image credits: zigazou76

Anonymous, if it can be characterised, is an online gathering of unnamed individuals with “a very loose and decentralized command structure that operates on ideas rather than directives” made famous by a series of ambitious stunts associated with the name, usually in the interests of freedom of information. The group which, by nature, is incredibly hard to pin down operates using a series of online chat forums used to organise mass action, usually in the form of DDoS (Distributive Denial of Service) attacks online or, on occasion, real life demonstrations like the ‘Million Mask March’ of 2013, in which ‘members’ gather wearing stylised Guy Fawkes masks to mark their allegiance to the group.

Despite its claims that it is no longer a minority group, finding out about Anonymous, its aims and actions is incredibly hard: there is a surprising lack of literature on them precisely because of this and, of course, because criticising them is not a good idea if you’d like your website to remain intact. Its distinctive logo and strong visual representation during real-world events mean that Anonymous has a truly unique and prominent presence in the social sphere, but such strong branding does not cover up what is lacking in group solidarity.

Anonymous have been described as freedom fighters, whiny teenagers, expert hackers, trolls, noble activists and even terrorists, and these labels can be justifiably applied to many of the different branches of Anonymous operations. As the Guardian‘s Emer O’Toole describes them, Anonymous’ actions are “a baffling mixture of vital, considered political protest and incomprehensible pubescent wankery.” The Imaginary Book Company invited Anonymous to put together a book to act as a snapshot of the group, describing what they received as “anarchic, chaotic, sensible, deep, shallow, thoughtful, radical, revolutionary and funny.”

Can such an indefinable group be taken seriously as an organised threat against the British Government? Signs show that no chances are being taken in estimations of the threat level. GCHQ have been monitoring Anonymous closely, reportedly even bringing down associated chat rooms in the same way Anonymous has performed DDoS attacks on government websites. Lengthy prison sentences have been dished out to ‘hacktivists’ working with Anonymous or similar freedom of information groups, like the case of Jeremy Hammond who’s involvement in hacking with political motivations landed him ten years in jail, which he claimed was a “vengeful, spiteful act,” making an example of him to put off other hacktivists. Aaron Swartz, Reddit developer, was famously accused of similar crimes to Hammond but took his own life before he was bought to trial, facing 35 years in prison.

Many of the group’s actions have received great praise; as early supporters of the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring, Anonymous is incredibly powerful when it comes to bringing ignored issues into the public eye. The group has also tried its hand at some vigilante justice, pressurising authorities involved in the infamous Steubenville rape case to reconsider evidence and in the end exposing multiple failings in bringing the accused to justice.

However, for every act praised by wider society, there are plenty committed with the intention of causing nothing other than mischief to the target. Anonymous’ name has been associated with various acts of virtual vandalism, like posting flashing images on epilepsy forums, or DDoS attacks on social networking sites like Habbo Hotel with no obvious trigger.

The group has also caused controversy over Twitter, with various Anonymous associated accounts posting racist or anti-semetic messages and attacking several high profile feminist campaigners like Caitlin Moran and Caroline Criado-Perez who were condemned for reporting the offensive tweets. After the ordeal, @YourAnonCentral tweeted “Nobody is ashamed Perez. #RIPAnonCentral” after its linked account @Anon_Central was suspended.

Anonymous’ identity as a nuisance organization has its roots in where it all started. 4chan image boards that allowed users to post random images anonymously under the default name ‘Anonymous’ gave rise to a widespread joke that ‘Anonymous’ was in fact only one person, and thus the loose group found its feet as a united entity. The group exercised its new found powers as a mass through various pranks aimed at the Church of Scientology, bringing down its website and, amusingly, ordering massive amounts of pizza to its headquarters. It’s easy to dismiss Anonymous as a minority group of immature pranksters based on such acts but if, as they have recently reported, they are in fact an organised collective, then it would be a bad idea not to take them seriously as a considerably powerful political entity.

Having been named by TIME Magazine as one of the world’s top 100 most influential people in 2012, Anonymous is increasingly being recognised as having a significant impact on power structures of the contemporary world. So, does Mr Cameron have anything to worry about?

If Anonymous has, as was implied by its recent message, infiltrated the British Government then the Guy Fawkes mask donned by its members becomes a suitable metaphor for the destruction the group intend to cause. With government agencies keeping a close eye on the elusive collective’s activity, there are no chances being taken when it comes to the authenticity of the message. Nevertheless, producing a YouTube video with a guy in a mask, a robotic voice and some accompanying sirens can be done in anyone’s living room, and ascribing the aims of the figure in the video to the entire group would be ridiculous.

Image credits: zigazou76
Image credits: zigazou76

However, a well-spoken critique of a government fast losing the faith of its citizens as austerity measures take their toll and the discourse of mass robbery takes an increasingly prominent place in the mainstream headlines, alongside the promise of emancipating action, is far from an offensive statement to many of those frustrated by their social conditions and looking for an escape route. The 2012 riots that took place across the UK are a prime example of a mass group with anti-authoritarian motives, made anonymous by scarves and hoodies, communicating via online platforms and causing chaos in the streets. No wonder GCHQ are taking Anonymous, an international group with anarchic tendencies, very, very seriously.

Gemma Joyce, Games Editor

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