The Malevolence of Crowds

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?


21 thoughts on “The Malevolence of Crowds

  1. Madhu says:

    So, my copy of Counterinsurgency (the Kilcullen one – and yes, I am capable of making serious comments some of the time) says only a network can fight a network….


    Great. We’ll all have to belong to one to have some kind of individual power. Heavy, man.

    I bet you see future movements of people that will try and “unplug.” Call it a computer version of the Arts and Crafts movement or something.

  2. Formerly Grant says:

    Admittedly online groups aren’t my specialty but there is a possibility that there is a misunderstanding. When using sites like 4chan (as was mentioned in the post) everyone who does not give a username (like Formerly Grant for example) automatically gets one of ‘Anonymous’.
    With that in mind I find it unlikely that the group is anywhere nearly so large as it is made out to be so much as a large number of ‘posers’ and a very small number of actual would-be hackers. Indeed considering exactly how most would go about an attack (probably hijacking computers and using them to make DDOS attacks probably) I don’t think it’s likely to become widespread.

    I do however admit to a lack of interest in groups like that and so if evidence of large scale efforts can be provided I would accept it as such.

    On another note, even if this is as large as it is said to be I don’t see how it’s really that different from groups prior to the spread of the internet. To be sure the internet makes it easier to coordinate distant events but groups don’t seem to really be that different from perhaps twenty or fifty or one hundred years ago.

  3. MR. X says:

    “What happens if you, for whatever reason, your company, civil society group, state, are targeted by something like Anonymous?”

    You just ignore them, unless your group, or company has something to hide like the Cult of Scientology. One thing you have to understand is that groups like Anonymous get bored easily, and lose interest quickly. So if you antagonize them you’re only making the problem worst.

    “Who do you threaten back if you choose that route?”

    That is the exact problem that Scientology is having. There were two other groups of Scientology critics before Anonymous. One was called The Lisa McPherson Trust, and the other was called Cult Awareness Network (CAN). In both cases Scientology had a target to attack. Scientology litigated CAN into bankruptcy, and then bought CAN’s assets off the auctioning block.

    The Lisa McPherson Trust, and it’s founder Bob Minton experienced the same type of abuse, and harassment, and they eventually disbanded in 2001.

    “Who do you negotiate with if you choose another? For that matter what do you do it with?”

    The only thing you can do is to ignore it. You can’t control information once it gets on the Internet. The harder you fight back the more that information will propagate. If you ignore it then people will get bored and move on to the next scandal. Eventually people will forget about it.

  4. Ed says:

    The other side of the coin is the collectivization of the worst instincts of individuals into the malevolence of the crowd.

    I think the more apposite word here is “mob”.

  5. MR. X says:

    Scientology’s problems aren’t with Anonymous, or the Internet. Scientology’s problem is that people are starting to look and focusing their attention on their cult. Scientology can’t cope with that. They don’t like the scrutiny. They’d rather operate from the shadows.

    Scientology was a group that until now had control over their public image, and inside information. No one would dared criticism them, and if they did they would face Scientology’s wrath.

    It’s true that Anonymous is probably the main engine that’s pushing the focus on Scientology. What is wrong with that? If Scientology had nothing to hide they’d welcome the investigation as an opportunity to prove their credibility, and disprove their critics. If Scientology would just be honest for once, and open up all this attention could go away.

    However their reaction to the scrutiny has been very telling. Instead Scientology has refused to address their problems, and has chosen to attack their critics by any means necessary.

    Scientology’s real problem is not with Anonymous, their problems go much deeper.

    • Ed says:

      I think you may be missing what I see as the point of the discussion. Anonymous v Scientology is an example. The rights and wrongs of Scientology aren’t really relevant.

    • MR. X says:

      I thought you’d say that, and I see your point. However Scientology is one of those rare things that a lot of people are equally outraged about.

      For example if an Anonymous type group decided to target another religious group, or whatever else, I don’t think there’d be a consensus. I for one wouldn’t be interested. Anonymous is not as much of a mob as you think. They’re a group of individuals, no one can tell them what to do. They’re not someones private army.

      It’s true though, I don’t think anyone denies that they can cause mischief. They can be malicious, but a lot of their pranks are harmless, and some are even funny.

      Also for the reasons that I’ve stated above if Anonymous were to attack a legitimate organization, Anonymous wouldn’t be a threat to that group. Not enough people would be interested, and their opponent could either ignore them, or easily dispel the rumors. The same thing goes for pranks and cyber attacks, which usually end with someone being prosecuted.

      Personally I’d describe Anonymous as the Internet personified. I personally don’t see Anonymous as a problem that needs to be dealt with. They do good things occasionally especially when they focus their power on a legitimate cause.

      Anyways that’s all, thank you for being fair.

    • Ed says:

      “The Internet” can’t be personified. It’s a collection of IP networks. You might mean Anonymous is a collection of typical IT enthusiasts, but that doesn’t sound as sexy.

  6. The Faceless Bureaucrat says:

    I want to pick up on something Dave cited in this very interesting OP. “Anonymous is not a single person, but rather, represents the collective whole of the internet.”

    This raises an interesting point about representation. How does a default setting represent the entire internet? And do I, through carelessness or thoughtlessness, somehow become a representative when I post anonymously?

    Who is representing whom, for what, and why? Anonymous is what individuals make of it.

  7. First of all, thanks to David for the critique of my piece on Anonymous.

    I think the key word here is “harbinger”. In its current form Anonymous is not some sort of doomsday weapon, but rather a first example of something which is likely to be more common in the future.

    No one claims that there are huge hordes of people taking part on their campaigns. In fact it is probably only a few thousand ‘core’ members getting involved directly. But consider the case of Scientology. Anonymous’s attacks cost them some money to be sure, just in terms of having to shift their web infrastructure about. But it also drove significant amounts of secondary public attention to the Church and brought some of its more unsavoury activities into the public domain.

    Zero cost attacks mean that any victory comes relatively complete. Even if the only outcome is that a few thousand Anonymous members get to have fun for an afternoon, that is a victory. If they get to steal the incriminating emails of an entire company, as with ACS Law recently, well thats a quite a bit better for them. Once again, it drives a public discussion and might, over time, help shift the debate on copyright infringement. That’s the factor I find most fascinating, this is a volunteer army, you dont have to pay them, in fact simply being a member is enough of a reward for members.

    Extrapolate out. How many causes have a few thousand motivated followers? What happens when they decide to copy the model and take it further? Anonymous has always been mischevous, rather than truly aggressive. Their attacks are unskilled and relatively short term. Other groups may not be limited by these factors. They may also choose not to limit their attacks almost entirely online.

    Networked communities are the future. Global reach means that any cause, no matter how strange, will gather a membership. Tools grow more powerful over time and evolve as an exceptionally rapid rate, possibly faster than countermeasures.

    Anonymous is just an example of what a few thousand people can choose to achieve with the publically avaliable tools online. Using outlets like 4chan they have changed popular culture with the creation of memes like lolcats (which are hardly high art, but undeniably amusing to many), been integral to changing public debate on Scientology, and personally inconvenienced corporations and extremely powerful individuals.

    Zero cost, low skill, growing impact and effectiveness. Its not about what is happening this minute. Its about what happens when the model is taken, improved, refined and takes on a strategic element, moving beyond the short term tactics which are typical of Anonymous, to longer term campaigns.

    My piece might be somewhat fanciful, and the evolution may never come to pass. But I think there is a need to have a debate about where this trend takes us, and I want to thank David for taking the time to add his viewpoint.

  8. Frances says:

    It appears to be first cousin to the “Borg” of Star Trek fame with the scary exception the “Anonymous” choose to become a part of the collective rather than assimilation by force.

  9. Tom Wein says:

    Isn’t it fair to assume that as the Internet matures, the damage done by such campaigns will become better understood, and the various tactics will be categorized according to their level of ‘violence’, or damage done.

    So a high level of electronic violence would be assigned to shutting down a website, and a lower level to sending annoying spam. These might be viewed as analogous to (respectively) destroying a bank branch and shouting at an employee of that bank.

    Then, the strength of the cause comes into play. If it is widely believed that the cause is just, then a larger and more motivated crowd will gather to protest, and they will agree on more violent actions. Just as they do in real-life political movements.

    Now the costs and skill required to commit even quite violent electronic acts are presently fairly low (although certainly not zero – everything takes time and some skill). These can be raised as security provisions improve – analogous again to our bank hiring a security guard.

    There will also be law-enforcement improvements, once questions of jurisdiction are settled. Rising penalties for these violent acts will act as a deterrent, thereby intensifying the process of creating a system of Internet morals.

    The problem at the moment is that there is a disconnect between the protesters (who are younger, as protesters often are), who understand the power they wield, and the forces of the establishment, who don’t. Once the forces of the establishment (by which portentous phrase I mean police, companies, politicians and parents) understand this power, they will put equivalent efforts into defending themselves, crucially through establishing norms for online behaviour.

  10. David Betz says:

    Thanks everyone for your comments. Theres’ a lot of food for thought here.

    @Madhu, yes, I too think ‘We’ll all have to belong to one to have some kind of individual power.’ I am just not really clear on what that power might be. I’m getting into the habit of referring to sci-fi novels on this blog, which possibly paints a warped picture of my actual reading habits, but the truth is that on this issue it’s one of the best places to go for inspiration on this subject. Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age has been on my mind lately. In it he describes a ‘placeless’ (in the sense geographers use the term to describe one place being more or less like any other) world mediated largely through digital communications. In this world society is organized in ‘phyles’ or ‘septs’ (can’t remember what he calls it actually), essentially large tribes which coalesce around some identity marker for protection, production, pleasure. States still exist in this world (as I recall) but in most significant respects have been superseded by other forms of social organization which perform essential roles more effectively.

    @Chris C, no thank you for pointing it out in the first place. as you say the thing here is extrapolation. ‘Anonymous’ now is not all that sophisticated, large or worrying. But what it represents as the beginning of a trend is potentially very significant. I’m not sure if we should in fact be ‘worrying’ about it either. I mean one of the approaches to cyberspace has been to approach it from an epidemiological angle–you know, viruses, worms etc, the whole metaphor of infection and contagion. Now we have a digital system, cyberspace, and quite clearly we have afflicting that system a number of ailments–viruses, spam, phishing, all sorts of crime and espionage, as well as increasingly sophisticated forms of ‘cybertage’. My question: is ‘Anonymous’ virus or antibody? Just as natural systems evolved immune systems to handle all the microbial baddies out there is it not possible that things like ‘Anonymous’ are actually the beginnings of digital society’s attempt to defend itself? Actually, Madhu, you’re a doctor, yes? Isn’t there a theory that white blood cells are captured parasites? Anyway, just because society based upon the nation-state defended itself with certain characteristically state institutions–navies, armies, air and space forces–that is no reason to think that a society based upon something else would defend itself in the same way.

    • Ed says:

      In “Diamond Age”, the geographical states still (more or less) monopolise the use of force. (Yes, Wikipedia reminds me that you’re right, it’s “phyles”) I believe that in the digital age, geographical states will seek to do the same thing in the “cyber” (that word still reminds me of ignorant journalists’ droolings in the late 80s) dimension. Therefore, the lead role is likely to be taken by the state, at least at the level of coordination. In any case, a state agency will have to exist that has responsibility for information security and infrastructure. Who better than GCHQ? (Genuine question, no axe to grind)

    • Thats a really interesting point and I wonder whether there is actually a decent metaphor for it, or whether we’re at risk of trying to neatly label something in a way which doesnt really fit.

      The problem is that Anonymous does go after some big targets, e.g. Scientology or the copyright industry. However there are plenty of occasions were targets are just one person, whose lives are comprehensively ripped apart by the mass. In fact, these sorts of attacks are far far more common and pretty brutual. I think overall, it will be a force for good, highlighting the worst abuses of the internet, whether corporate or individual. And it will act as a model for more activist groups with positive goals to undertake their own activity.

      One way to look at cyberspace is not to take a medical analogy, but one that reflects communal spaces. Its avaliable here: Anonymous actually gets a mention as a “city” within the larger “country”.

      I’m now going to spend the afternoon trying to decide on the ultimate medical analogy for Anonymous!

    • Madhu says:

      Isn’t there a theory that white blood cells are captured parasites?

      I’m not aware of such a theory. WBCs arise from stem cells in the marrow.

      The medical term I might use to create a rough analogy to all this discussion of cyberdefense is “microenvironment.” Like tumor microenvironments:

      The normal cells, molecules, and blood vessels that surround and feed a tumor cell. A tumor can change its microenvironment, and the microenvironment can affect how a tumor grows and spreads.

    • Slack says:

      If networks must fight networks, then I presume we start with the assumption that any node on any network is self-directed and free to choose/change sides. The ability to draw folks to YOUR network is reliant upon your having the moral high ground. Scientology looks bad against Anonymous, not because of the faith per se, but because the openly hostile treatment of any critic of the church. If you do not hold the moral high ground, as other nodes pick their side, it will likely be against you. Networked warfare forces your behaviour to be congruent with your strategy.

      N.B. First ever comment on this blog. I’m not an academic – strictly a dilettante in these matters.

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