Digital activism – Who are Anonymous?


Who Are Anonymous

Last night the Frontline Club hosted a discussion with Gabriella Coleman about her new book ‘Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy’. Her book focuses on the study of Anonymous, which began six years ago, before the group had become as notorious as it is today. During this time, Anonymous has gone from a group of so-called internet trolls to activists to even having an influence on geopolitical matters. How did this happen and who are Anonymous?

How did this happen?

Anonymous started in Coleman’s words as  group that was a mixture of a protest ensemble and Internet trolls, who used internet harassment tactics against those they opposed. During their campaign against the Church of Scientology the group in Coleman’s view,  went through a radical shift from a digital to a physical presence.

In 2008 the church of Scientology tried to legally remove a highly publicised interview of Tom Cruise discussing Scientology. Anonymous acted against this act of Internet censorship by leaking the interview, attacking Scientology websites and releasing their message to Scientology and call to action videos on YouTube. These videos were according to Coleman originally meant to be a joke, however it started a debate that resulted in a series of global non-violent protests outside centers of the Church of Scientology. This action became their first taste of activism and step into real world protests that changed the group. Activism started to become important.

In 2011 at the time of the Arab spring, a group of Anonymous hackers ventured into the geopolitical in support of wiki leaks by;  developing a counter script to detect when Tunisian activists password’s were being hacked, attacking the Tunisian government’s website and helping to get activist’s footage outside Tunisia. Other targets of Anonymous hacktivism have included, U.S and Israeli governmental agencies and corporations such as PayPal, Visa and Sony.


Coleman’s book, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy.

Who are the individuals of  Anonymous?

Coleman describes the members of Anonymous as ‘diverse in every sense other than gender’, with the hacking element of the group being completely male. The option to remain anonymous enables anyone who is interested to join, so you end up with what Coleman refers to as a ‘motley crew of members’. High profile members whose identities have been exposed include a 16-year-old British-Iraqi boy known as T-Flow and his splinter cell leader, turned FBI informant Sabu.

Colman outlines the general nature of Anonymous as:

  • Anti institutional
  • Unpredictable but not random
  • Anonymous is not unanimous
  • Break off cells exist such as Lulzsec and AntiSec
  • Large portion of the group embrace activism, however old guard are against it
  • There have been government informers within the group (Sabu)
  • There is a consensus that small teams are better to get things done
  • The group lacks an overall good control mechanism
  • They use a small range of symbols-masks, headless suits.

What is the Anonymous code of conduct?

  • Protecting freedom of speech
  • To not attack the media
  • No unitary position
  • Strong ethics for anonymity
  • No visible leadership
  • Requiring some sort of group consensus for operations.

Are Anonymous activist?

Anonymous as a group have been called a hacktivist collective, but are they an activist group? Anonymous tend to falter at being a collective, and this is part of their weakness, they are a large and diverse group that possess many different ideologies. An activist group needs a set of values and objectives for individuals to join, as there is self legitimacy in joining something that is consistent. For anyone who chooses to join Anonymous will they know what they are representing, what goals they are working towards? Anonymous appears on occasion, to react out of  vengeance rather then taking a lead. The attacks on Paypal and Visa were in response towards their block on wiki leaks funding, and attacks on sony were part of ‘Operation Payback’. The combination of anonymity and a lack of collective goals, makes it difficult to comprehend the group let alone define them. An activist essentially needs to be someone who is acting for something, anonymous don’t quite have their ‘something’ yet. They act when they disagree with someones’ conduct, but they do not have a conduct of their own. Inconsistency is their weakness, power is their anonymity. At this present time it is difficult to define anonymous as activists, you can define what they do, hack, but it’s hard to define what they are.

Ending notes

Gabriella Coleman’s six-year study of Anonymous provides insight into a group that has gone from internet trolling to having an geopolitical influence. It’s also important to note that Anonymous exists in a time where individual anonymity and freedom of speech are under threat. Despite all their actions, Anonymous as an entity is not powerful in comparison to the institutions it seeks to dismantle. Ultimately their power lies in their ability to remain anonymous.

Click here to watch Gabriella Coleman’s complete interview at the FrontLine club.


Exhibition – Disobedient Objects

disobedient objects

Disobedient Objects is an exhibition at the V&A running until February 2015 which showcases various objects used by activists as a form of protest and resistance. The objects displayed range from the late 1970’s to the present, involving a variety of different movements. Unlike other exhibits, Disobedient Objects is not just a display of activist art but rather a collection of objects used as the physical tools of protest (direct action), making it the first ever major exhibition to focus on this.

Some of the objects in the exhibition were just everyday objects used in protest, and the action of being used provided them with their symbolic meaning.The suffragettes used everyday objects such as tea sets marked with the suffragette ‘angel of freedom’ motif, using them as ‘propaganda tools to promote the movement, most elegantly, in a bid to convert their ‘anti’ neighbours’.


Other objects already possessed a historical context associated with resistance, and the use of these in modern day protest was to connect that event with the past. An example of this was an exhibit featuring dented cooking pots from a protest in Argentina in 2012,  the dents being the result of protesters banging on the pots like drums. Pot banging protests are symbolic in Argentina as it is reminiscent of protest tactics used during the 2001-2002 economic and political crisis.

argentina pots

The exhibition also features artistic objects that were created to represent a specific movement and designed to displayed. One such display item was the Tiki Love Truck, created by mosaic artist Carrie Reichardt. The Tiki Love Truck is a colourful memorial to John Joe Amador who was executed by the state of Texas. Reichardt, with the help of John’s family and friends made a death mask soon after his execution placing it on the center of the Tiki Love Truck. The Truck later toured around Britain to protest against the death penalty.


Other items featured at the V&A’s Disobedient Objects include props that were designed for performance at protests, such as the inflatables cubes seen below.

inflatable cobblestone at general strike 29.03.2012

The co-curator Gaven Grindon says that the exhibition was designed “to show the collective power these domestic objects can have when grabbed and re-purposed with political intent.”

diso objects

Although the people behind each of the protest movements featured at the exhibition have their motives and history, I found that what ultimately unites them all is a need to channel feelings of resistance and objection into objects/symbols of art and expression. As Jeanette Winters states, “Art is a continuum, passed down from hand to hand, lost, rediscovered, found in objects as proof of a living spirit that defies the orthodoxy of materialism. If war flattened London tomorrow, someone would start to make an installation out of the rubble.”

You can still see disobedient objects at the V&A until February 2015

Approach with caution: using celebrities in social media campaigns

‘In Every Society are to be found persons who, in the eyes of other members of the collectivity, are especially remarkable and who attract universal attention'(Alberoni, 108)…

Throughout the history of campaigning celebrities participation has been used to generate visibility and awareness, but is it true that there’s no such thing as bad publicity when it comes to using celebrities in campaigns for social change?

Firstly what is a celebrity? A celebrity can simply refer to someone of popular fame, however this understanding of celebrity can run the risk of over simplifying their position within society. Alberoni defined celebrities as a ‘powerless elite’, occupying a privileged social position derived from public attention rather then institutionally based power.


What sort of benefits can a celebrity bring as participant, ambassador or endorser of a campaign?…

  • Help to mobilise activists
  • Gain access to political decision makers
  • Raise funds
  • Use of the celebrity’s brand
  • Access to media resources.

Using a celebrity allows you to reach out to a new audience that may not have any previous interest in social movements, people may watch a video or read an article simply because a celebrities name is mentioned. The attendance of a celebrity at event associated with a particular campaign can also make it newsworthy. In short it’s mass media attention, in which the level of media intensity depends on the type of celebrity used.

Examples of positive celebrity endorsement in social change campaigns; Russell Brand’s work with Avaaz  and focus 12  for the decriminalisation of drugs took the discussion to the house of commons in a televised debate that received over a million views to date, on YouTube alone. This campaign has since achieved their 100,000 signatures required for the debate to go to parliament.


Angelia Jolie, a special envoy for UN refugee agency, has previously co -chaired  UK Foreign Sectary William Hague at the Prevention of Sexual Violence in Conflict initiative, resulting in securing a range of agreements from 145 countries to end sexual violence.


You only have to view the list of celebrities associated with charities here to realise how common this practice is, and furthermore campaigns don’t seem to be limited to the use of just one celebrity.

Important things to consider. The type of constructed image the celebrity has is important. How are they well like, do they have a connection with the context of the campaign, who is their audience?

From all these positives it may appear as the Guardian writes, that celebrity endorsement is a ‘super- weapon’ of modern social change, with 75% of Britain’s 30 largest charities (excluding housing and care trusts) employing full-time celebrity liaison managers’, although there are of course negatives.

The negatives….

  • Their notoriety can take focus away from a campaign’s key objectives.
  • Contradictions, either behavioral or vocal, can damage the integrity of the campaigns they represent.
  • They aren’t always taken seriously.
  • A celebrity’s authenticity matters.

Celebrities are human after all and may follow their own interests above that of the campaign when needs be,  or just simply make mistakes. Campaigners struggle to control celebrities in an relationship when often or not the celebrity feels like their doing the campaign a favor by lending their brand.

Examples of the negative effects to a campaign, following a celebrities involvement;

Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford  wearing fur after shortly appearing in PETA ‘I’d rather go naked then wear fur’ campaign. Campbell’s defense for posing in fur was to criticise PETA by branding the group as ‘too aggressive’.Crawford responded though her publicist, saying that she had never really supported Peta’s stand against fur but was instead being “really nice” to the organisation by joining their campaign.Cindy_Crawford

Scarlett Johansson recently stepped down from her role as Oxfam ambassador after being criticised by the media for her affiliation with the Israeli company SodaStream, who operate in an illegal colony in the occupied West Bank. A statement later released by the actress confirmed her support for SodaStream’s policies in contrast to Oxfam who responded, ‘Oxfam is opposed to all trade from Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law’. This statement has since been removed from their website.


From these examples it appears that major risk campaigners take when choosing a celebrity to represent their movements, is in allowing a public figure to represent their campaign who may not share their core values.

Despite the negatives it is also important to understand that social movement activists and their opponents struggle to frame their claims and activities in a variety of venues, including the mass media. This is an issue that a movement faces even without using a celebrity. Most movements operate at a distinct disadvantage competing first for attention altogether, and second for their preferred images of self and claims.

Celebrities may direct our attention towards campaign, but do we really take them seriously? Meyer argues that it’s ‘extremely difficult for celebrities to lodge credible claims for structural reform’ (Meyer, 1993) as they sit in very advantaged positions and the visibility of this undermines their intent.

Finally.. celebrities may have the potential to greatly influence a campaign, but it’s important to note that ‘even when a celebrity participates in a movement, such participation is invisible unless the movement itself generates some threshold of political activity (meyer 1993). Furthermore celebrity involvement may certainly bring extra media and public attention, but can they help change behavior and leave a lasting legacy?

Issues that have motivated me

A bit of a cheesy title, but it’s important to reflect upon what has motivated us to strive for change. Here’s a selection of videos that have motivated me.

As a child my view of the world was extremely limited, I wasn’t aware of social, political or economical issues but I was definitely aware of animals. Like most children I watched animals on TV and had animal toys littered around my room, so if there was a place to start then animals would definitely be it.

The video below may not be what I saw in the 1990’s, but all the same emotional pulls are there. Cute animals seem to bring out a parental side in people in which we want to protect this a seemly fragile animal. I remember seeing an advertisement by WWF in the 90’s asking for donations to help save the seal pups, I was instantly sold. There began at the age of 8, my yearly donations to WWF

Animal conservation and protection is an issue I will always be passionate about, and cute animals will always tug on my heart strings, however as you get older your opinions change and you are quite likely to find something else that you feel passionately about.

The Israel and Palestinian conflict is an issue I feel very strongly about, but does it motivate me? I could say that it once did. The framing of this conflict, aside from picking sides, is that it is an issue that cannot be solved. Even the Amnesty international video detailed below does not provide me with a ‘call to action’ on how to influence or make a difference, I am just made aware.  There are aid organisations that you can donate for medical, food supplies etc, however due to the political situation and Israeli blockade that aid might never reach the West bank or Gaza strip. You need to feel positive that change can be achieved to be motivated, I do still believe that change can be achieved. Perhaps it’s just a matter of time for that optimistic movement, where the human rights of the Palestinians can be protected

In 2009 I saw the global climate call wake up video by Avaaz. What I love about this campaign video is how it feels fun and creative. You could do what ever you wanted but you need to do something. Feeling part of a global community and having a call to action, is what I find really motivates me in this video.

The Media’s guiding of issues

This blog has covered a lot of issues concerning the influence and power of the media has upon campaigning. The desire of campaigners to win media attention is of great importance as the media provides access to their largest audience, not just those who are interested in campaigning or the issue at hand. When the objective of a campaigner is to gain media attention, they can fall into the trap of only selecting campaign issues that the media will be interested in. Big organisations such as Avaaz will focus on issues that will get media attention but what about issues that don’t, are they less important?

Perhaps the key to answering this question is to understand what attracts media attention and what doesn’t. This seems like a fair discussion for campaigning techniques, but choosing your issue based on media attention doesn’t feel very ethical. Choosing your campaign based on it’s whether it can achieve it’s objectives is a different matter, as it doesn’t have to limit what issue you select, just maybe your goals.

The International NGO Training and Resource Center states that the media are attracted by the campaigns messages and activities and provide extra publicity. If this the case then surely all campaigns could achieve this? Unfortunately not. What attracts media attention is not just messages and activities it’s also; selection bias, location, issue type, news routines and timing.

Ultimately there is no objective answer for what issues are more or less important, but there is more of an answer for what makes an issue more important to the media. Therefore the decision of big organisations to select attention grabbing campaigns, tells of the significances that they place on the mass media.