Anonymous got a lot of attention with its first appearance in public protests against Scientology in 2008. Years later, OpTunisia marked a critical turning point in the history of Anonymous in pulling the strings together between idealistic hacktivism and political activism. But how “unexpected” was this transformation really?
Anonymous as unexpected allies?
The Tunisian protest movement found a powerful supporter in the first days of the protests. The internet collective Anonymous started to attack Government websites taking down at least eight websites immediately, including the stock exchange. Gabriella Coleman argues that OpTunisia, as the intervention was called by Anonymous, dramatically changed the path of the collective. For the first time in the short history of Anonymous it branched out of its ideological issues. OpTunisia was the point where Anonymous got political. Where the collective mostly addressed issues connected to internet freedom and privacy the agenda changed significantly with the intervention in Tunisia. But what needs to be said is that originally Anonymous came across the protests in Tunis not because of the support for democracy movements in Tunisia but because of the case of WikiLeaks. As one Anon puts it: “The thing that did it for us, was initially their censoring of WikiLeaks, when WikiLeaks reports on .tn came out”. Another Anon said that they “did initially take an interest in Tunisia because of WikiLeaks, but as more Tunisians have joined they care more about the general internet censorship there, so that’s what it has become”. The initial cause was the blocking of WikiLeaks by the Tunisian government after cables were released on the platform that reported corrupt activities of President Ben Ali. So the origin of OpTunisia goes further back and lies in the activities connected to WikiLeaks and the arrest of Julian Assange. Therefore the happenings that lead to the support of the protest movement are much more a social process and less a radical change in Anonymous’ ideological agenda. This issue is also a complicated discourse to address since the whole concept of Anonymous is not having something as homogenous as a political agenda or a hierarchical structure. One Anon puts it very vividly in an interview on Al-Jazeera, saying that Anonymous is not a defined structure but “more like a franchise name”. The media picked up on Anonymous because of its pretentious videos, for example Operation Tunisia – A Press Release and Operation Tunisia – A Message from Anonymous. But there is much more to it than just a big PR-strategy. Although the latter is rather effective Anonymous combines a large variety of very different skill sets. The transition to a more political agenda helped to get support of people with probably less technical but social competence. This, on the other hand, creates a lot of controversy within the movement. A political agenda includes political ideologies and the complexity of including them into a movement that is supposed to have a common idea of what it is fighting for.
But there is a certain kind of common ground within the collective itself. Besides the famous Guy Fawkes mask their main concerns are primarily related to internet freedom, online privacy issues and data collection processes that lead to possible surveillance. So Anonymous´ agenda is pretty much the opposite of what social media stands for. But are these topics really that different from the social demands during the Arab uprising in Tunis? And, to argue with a question of causality: Were Anonymous really unexpected allies, as described in the early days Al-Jazeera article?
In a country like Tunisia civic disobedience usually brought the risk of censorship, persecution or even imprisonment. When the individualized concept of social media is used within the frame of an authoritarian regime dissemination of critical utterances can be a dangerous venture. Virtual social media accounts are usually linked to real people with families and friends. As soon as public dissent leads back to its authors it can be addressed by those who know the identity of that author. This does not necessarily mean a single individual may be threatened merely by the authorities. Any force can use this identifying information against its opponent, be it a different group of protesters, militias or even a single person. Social media hardly have ethical constraints in their systematic functions.
What Anonymous brought into that equation is not much more than the concept of democracy without identity. For example a software called Tor can be used to anonymize communication channels and is one of the main tools for Anonymous to cover up their IP-addresses and other identifying information. IRC-channels allow anyone to participate in chatroom-like environments without having to register or give away any personal information. By using these sophisticated methods to provide a widely anonymous communication infrastructure Anonymous acted in a similar way in Tunisia than in other operations before. They also provided a digital care package with scripts and tutorials to show ordinary people how to secure their communication channels. But that has not much to do with traditional forms of hacktivism. Most of what is included in Anonymous´ forms of digital disobedience is not primarily related to hacking.
In Tunis Anonymous functioned as a supportive entity, as part of a solution to a problem. While citizens were struggling with the ubiquity of governmental surveillance Anonymous provided techniques that were not new but hardly used on such a big scale. Reasons for that lie mostly in the inconvenience that can be caused by the complexity of the software or the constraints it brings when used with services that depend on tracking mechanisms. For example there is no point in anonymizing one´s internet connection on a smartphone when using a navigation system on Google Maps with GPS. Tor is incredibly slow for surfing due to its technical infrastructure and Google sometimes detects usage of Tor and rejects search queries. That is also the answer to the question why not using anonymizing software in daily life to solve all this problems: It´s inconvenient. A certain kind of information is needed by a service in order to function properly (see the example with Google Maps above). The question is where and how to draw the line of anonymity versus convenience. Anonymous, over the last years, made a few of these techniques available for the ordinary citizen without much technical knowledge about the insights. Group members developed scripts and programs that are easy to use and don’t depend on much more than just a computer.
Internet activists had to learn over some time what can be achieved with software that has been developed in the back room of the internet for decades but which has always stayed off the grid. The reason for that is also, next to the technical complexity mentioned above, that this kind of software was ahead of its time. There was not that much of a threat for the most of “the citizens of the world”, as Anonymous calls them. The internet was already there in the early 2000s but its usage was more limited to specific tasks rather than using it for all kinds of communication. As more everyday conversation shifted towards the internet the more it became important to cover up some of these activities, for different reasons such as privacy or security.
Anonymous provided technical support for citizens in times where the need for methods of disguise was most apparent. Protest movements are a vivid example for the necessity of techniques that are substantial to a collective like Anonymous. But the need for anonymity, created mostly by social media individualism, goes much further than the emergence of a movement like Anonymous. It defines how the group is formed, organized and ultimately how it is ruled or, for a better description, how it rules itself. The inner structure is non-hierarchical and bottom-up, which reminds pretty much of the moment when a protest movement is emerging. Also the basic ideologies of Anonymous are not that different from the Tunisian protesters. The internet might be a different sphere but ultimately both movements are fighting for freedom of expression. So the ally in the protests is probably not as unexpected as it seemed to. A question raised by this assumption was already asked by Gabriella Coleman: What is the consequence of such a movement?
Is Anonymous more a subculture with a franchise name than a hacktivist-movement? And then there is the problem of identity: what is an action of Anonymous and what not? What qualifies for an operation and how is something like success defined?
As a conclusion, it is argued here that Anonymous is to some extent the antithesis of social media individualism. Anonymous emerged out of a causal consequence to technological ubiquity, for better or worse. It incarnates everything that needs to be hidden, as well as what needs to be publicized, in disguise behind a Guy Fawkes mask.