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22. Notes on the 2nd digital ethnography reading (Coleman 2014)

August 20, 2015

This is the twenty-second post in the Freedom technologists series.

by Victor Lasa
PhD candidate
RMIT University, Melbourne

See other posts under digital ethnography reading group

In this second session of the monthly Digital Ethnography Reading Group meetings at RMIT we discussed the Introduction and Chapter 5 of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. Gabriella Coleman. Brooklyn, NY: Verso Books, 2014. 464 pp.

In attendance were Will Balmford (digital gaming), Kate Cawley (digital gaming), Andrew Glover (sociology of consumption), Allister Hill (organisational ethnography), Victor Lasa (radical transparency), John Postill (internet activism), Jolynna Sinanan (digital ethnography), Katya Tokareva (Russian internet) and Ge Zhang (digital gaming).

This was a productive and thought-provoking meeting. The group read and discussed Gabriela Coleman’s (2014) fascinating analysis of Anonymous: from the informal beginnings to their intriguing role in contemporary global socio-politics, focusing on the case of Anonymous’ intervention in the 2010 Tunisian revolution (Chapter 5). Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous is a daring and unique attempt at deciphering the origins, structure, internal dynamics, motivations and strategies of Anonymous, the cryptic global hacking group.

Perhaps because of its complexity, some participants found the reading somewhat undefined, as if the general goal of the book wasn’t clear. Bearing in mind it is a work of popular scholarship rather than an academic text, the aim is not clearly spelled out until the book’s conclusion. In fact, the book’s structure seems to mirror Anonymous’ operational behaviour, since many of their missions remain a mystery until the end.

One issue we discussed was the ethnographic challenge of doing research on a collective like Anonymous. By immersing herself in the collective as participant observer, Coleman was able to go beyond the popular stereotype of Anons as unsocial ‘white boys’ out to wreak havoc. Instead she highlights their heterogeneity, inspired adhocery and team-based politicisation over time. In exploring the complexity of Anonymous’ morphology, Coleman also shows that sometimes it only took the leadership of one or two people to drive significant missions, as was the case with the Tunisian uprising in 2010-2011.

Despite a growing political nature in its actions, Anonymous still conserves an important element of mischief and havoc, or ‘motherfuckery’ as they call it themselves. There is a factor of having fun, doing ‘cool’ things by selecting challenging missions that will have a strong impact. However, some reading group members questioned the real impact of Anonymous’ actions in situations like the Tunisian revolution. The question of how serious Anonymous really got in Tunisia and how strong their political motivation was seems to remain unanswered in the book.

At any rate,  Tunisia was Anonymous’ first major foray into international politics. It was no more just about ‘internety’ issues, as Coleman point out. They seemed to realize their own power, becoming one of the pioneers in the new information geopolitics. In fact, their actions provoked envy in other non-state agents that were aiming to become geopolitically significant, like Al-Qaeda. More recently, the Islamic State seem to have learned about the potential of the internet to create action collectives and maximize the impact of its operations.

Anonymous’ turn into a political player can be partly explained by the actions of authorities on them, like the FBI, which hit their structure and provoked anger. The innovative and baffling nature of the organization made authorities nervous in many countries and led to repressive actions. A desire of revenge or reaffirmation might have driven the organization towards more political actions against institutions. However, participants realized that the tension between acting just for the ‘lulz’ of it or for political reasons still exists and has probably not been resolved. Part of the same debate is the legality versus legitimacy discussion, with Anonymous members justifying illegal actions for the sake of justice. Others believe that that kind of actions, i.e. distributed denials of service (DoDS), are counterproductive. Meanwhile, Pirate-style political parties have tried to get the movement to work through political institutions. Participants recognized this as a classical tension within activist groups.

The discussion then moved on to other examples of ‘freedom technologists’ moving towards conventional politics, like the citizen movements in Spain, now governing in big cities like Madrid and Barcelona or the Bernie Sanders campaign in the US. A representative of ‘nerd-friendly’ politics in Australia would be Scott Ludlam, Federal Senator for the Greens. John Postill 3MP theory the forging and spread of post-Global Financial Crisis (GFC) social uprisings is a useful framework to explain the transition from freedom technologist activism to social movements and conventional politics. The theory exposes the instrumental role of ‘nerds’ and specialized journalists and lawyers in this transition. Interestingly, the presence of anthropologists has not been that strong in these environments.

Back to Freedom technologists series…

See other posts under digital ethnography reading group

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