Tracking back on KOW commenter Chris Cox, aka ‘Chris C’, I came across this fascinating post ‘Anonymous Reboot‘ on his blog Campaign Reboot. The gist of Cox’s point is that an Internet meme/group/collective/rabble (one hesitates to say what exactly it is) called ‘Anonymous’ is an example of a new civilian Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) type. I have problems with 4GW theory, but that’s neither here nor there at the moment because I agree with Chris C that Anonymous represents something very interesting whatever it is. Here’s Cox:
Anonymous emerged from a range of sources, the primary one being 4Chan, the internet messageboard where users can post pictures anonymously. All posts are marked with the username as anonymous, and it was only a matter of time until users began to talk about anonymous as an entity separate from the users themselves.
Over time the group began to evolve, moving beyond its roots and becoming a full-fledged entity in its own right, supported by a variety of sources. Identifying when Anonymous became an organisation is hard, since although co-ordinated activity had been organised through 4Chan and other places, it had not yet reached the critical mass which it now has.
Anonymous was, to me at least, born through an organised global protest against Scientology. In 2008 Tom Cruise did an interview about Scientology in which he seemed, to put it mildly, batshit mental. This video was supposed to be private and leaked, so the Church had it removed from Youtube. The internet was not amused by this, and Anonymous decided to go to war with Scientology, calling it Project Chanology.
Members of Anonymous prepared this message to Scientology. The most public face of this was a series of organised protests, which were held simultaneously in around 90 cities in 2008. Followed by a second round later the same year.
That was the public froth. The fun part.
Throughout 2008 members of Anonymous launched what can only be described as a concerted cyber conflict against the Church of Scientology. They shut down websites, and are alleged to have stolen information about the internal workings of the organisation.
Anonymous has organised a variety of other attacks, some for the purposes of mischief, others with more serious intentions. The latest is an organised and ongoing assault on the various legal, lobbying and corporate organisations who are trying to find ways of shutting down illegal filesharing. Called Operation Payback.
Now, it would be quite easy to scoff at the pretence of Anonymous as it is self-described in this Encyclopedia Dramatica entry on it to which Cox links, to imagine it as a bunch of pimply middle-class kids pissed off at infringement of their perceived right to download and share Lady Gaga (or whoever) tracks for free whenever they want–after all that is probably not far from the truth. But I suspect Anonymous is also something else: a harbinger. For better or worse we are becoming a ‘Network Society’, more and more of our time is spent on-line, for entertainment, education, friendship, work, for all kinds of things. In other words, we invest a great deal of value in our digital selves, as individuals and as organizations; and anything that we value can be threatened as a means of coercion.
Anonymous is actually threatening, if you believe the Church of Scientology; you may not like Hubbardism, personally I think it’s pretty atrocious; and you may reckon that Anonymous now is kind of goofy, which it is—case in point, the incessant Fight Club quotes; but consider how things might look 5 or 10 years further down the ‘Information Superhighway’.
If, as I think we have already done and will continue to do at an accelerating rate, you have created (i.e., invested value) things in cyberspace worth attacking, and there have been developed means of doing so, then you have the elements of conflict. Naturally much attention has been paid to the likelihood, in fact the apparent reality with Stuxnet, of states adding such means to their arsenal such that conflicts between states will inevitably have a cyber dimension. I still think that state use of cyber is likely to be the most significant thing because only they will be able to combine them effectively and to fullest extent with other instruments of power (which if you really want to compel another state to do your will is the way to do it).
That said, I think that we should spare some time thinking about emergent web-based threats now while they still look kind of goofy. Here’s Anonymous talking about itself again:
Starting as an in-joke itself, ‘Anonymous’ is the name assigned to a poster who does not enter text in the [Name] field on chan imageboards. Anonymous is not a single person, but rather, represents the collective whole of the internet.
As individuals, they can be intelligent, rational, emotional and empathetic. As a mass, a group, they are devoid of humanity and mercy. Never before in the history of humanity has there once been such a morass, a terrible network of the peer-pressure that forces people to become one, become evil. Welcome to the soulless mass of blunt immorality known only as the Internet.
There has been quite a lot of guff about the ‘Wisdom of Crowds‘ and ‘Crowdsourcing‘ in recent years. Having applauded the (abbreviated and ambiguously fruitful, as it turned out) attempts of the Ministry of Defence to crowdsource the Green Paper on Defence on this very site, we here at KOW are clearly to some extent fans of the notion. And yet what is given with one hand may be taken with the other. The other side of the coin is the collectivization of the worst instincts of individuals into the malevolence of the crowd.
What happens if you, for whatever reason, your company, civil society group, state, are targeted by something like Anonymous? Who do you threaten back if you choose that route? Who do you negotiate with if you choose another? For that matter what do you do it with? In cyberspace do you need an army or an exorcist?