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.