The New Face of Activism: A Review of Gabriella Coleman’s Hacker Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy and Todd Wolfson’s Digital Rebellion

By Ali A. Olomi

To read Tom Boellstorff’s introduction to this book reviews series, head over to The Book Review as Conversation.

From the urban sprawl of Cairo and New York City to the cyber realms of 4Chan and the hidden pathways of the internet, a revolution is taking place. One of the questions scholars of the cyber are asking is, “What does activism look like in the digital age?” We live in a time of WikiLeaks, hackers, and social justice on Twitter. Scholars like Gabriella Coleman and Todd Wolfson investigate the motives, origins, and evolution of social and political movements inextricably tied to the nebulous space that we call the digital. Gabriella Coleman studies the amorphous and mysterious group called Anonymous in her book Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, while Todd Wolfson traces the origins and history of the Cyber Left in his book Digital Rebellion. They differ in topics and even in their methods, differences that represent the vastness of the emerging studies on the digital world, but both provide incisive insights and an important investigation into how activism looks in the digital age, makes use of or is shaped by technology, and has evolved over time. Most importantly, they place each of these movements within their social and historical context, providing the reader with insight into the cultural logic that inspires the activism in question.

“We are legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. We are Anonymous.” Recited in a monotone, computerized voice, by a faceless visage in an austere suit, this statement has catapulted Anonymous onto the global scene as one of the new faces of activism in the digital age—an irony that captures the spirit of the faceless group. Gabriella Coleman employs her training as a cultural anthropologist to give the reader an insider’s look at this secret group. Chatting with members in the hidden alleys of the internet, her insightful ethnographic work traces the origins of the group and its evolution. She gives the reader a nuanced perspective that challenges the reductive binary that casts Anonymous as either basement-living teens or dangerous criminals. To Gabriella Coleman, this group represents something more. She says, “It is not difficult to imagine the troll and Anonymous as contemporary trickster figures.”[1] This trickster is best understood by looking at its history. Coleman traces the origins of Anonymous to the troll and 4Chan. She begins her book with a genealogy of trolling, of the “subversive hackers who thrived in the 1980s and 1990s, seeking out forbidden knowledge by rummaging around, uninvited, in other people’s computers.”[2] These early pranksters formed a transgressive subculture that eventually found a home in the bowels of the internet known as 4Chan. 4Chan is an image board with what Coleman calls, “extreme permissibility” when it comes to matters of free speech and it was here that Coleman says, “the collective idea and identity of Anonymous emerged.”[3] The spirit of 4Chan, with its “lulz,” trolling, and its culture of extreme permissibility, is essential to understanding the movement that eventually became Anonymous.

Coleman’s ability to trace Anonymous back to the early subculture that birthed it is one of the strongest parts of her book. While she goes on to chronicle the evolution of Anonymous and its various activities, struggles, and twists and turns as the group tries to define itself, the subculture of the early community of 4Chan and trolling endures through all they do. The idea of anonymity and Anonymous’ relationship with it is a striking example of this endurance. According to Coleman, anonymity is not only essential for 4Chan and Anonymous, but it is also the “dominant cultural aspect—a core principle inherited by Anonymous, even in its pseudonymous material extension as hordes of Guy Fawkes-mask wearers.”[4] Being anonymous is essential for the group both in its iconic representation and also in order to carry out its activities. Anonymous relies upon both legal and illegal methods to carry out its objectives and so being faceless is an essential form of protection against the forces they target.

Anonymous, Creative Commons, Wikipedia

Anonymous, Creative Commons, Wikipedia

Anonymous’ reliance on illegal methods reminds Coleman of the social bandits of Hobsbawm, who were a group of outlaws, thugs, and other early resistance groups that nurtured a revolutionary spirit even if there was no stated political ideology or aim. Building on the comparison, Coleman says that the group’s methods are inspired by understanding “the forces of creative destruction and consciously deploying them.”[5] What Coleman calls “creative destruction” often involves Anonymous shutting down websites, issuing cyber threats, hacking private information, and releasing that information. These methods are aimed at causing havoc, and while they can be deployed for political aims, one of the issues with Anonymous is that their aims are never quite clear. Their actions can fall on the wrong side of the law, so maintaining anonymity is the equivalent of the bandit’s mask. Of course it could be argued that a “hacktivist” would have to employ illegal means to fight the institutional forces. After all, the assistance they gave the Tunisian rebels during the Arab Spring would have been deemed illegal by Tunisian government standards, but was instrumental in helping a revolution that overturned a corrupt government. But those same methods can and are deployed against individuals.

While the anonymity fostered in 4Chan became an essential cultural endurance for Anonymous and its activities, the lack of anonymity became a weapon to be deployed against its targets. “Doxing” or the releasing of private information like social security numbers, IDs, and home addresses is used by Anonymous against their opponents. For example, AntiSec, an Anonymous vanguard, released the private information of New York police chiefs as part of their attacks against law enforcement.[6] The interplay between anonymity and lack of anonymity for the group of hacktivist is a place of fascinating ambiguity and is representative of their own amorphous political goals. To borrow the metaphor of the masked bandit, Anonymous uses a faceless visage while exposing their targets. Who they choose to direct their ire towards does not always follow a structured plan with an end goal, but rather is often reactionary. They respond to provocation and act against those who catch their attention. According to Coleman, the reactionary spirit of Anonymous is birthed in its early successes against Scientology.[7] Their political goals though remain as obfuscated as their identities.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly what the end goal of Anonymous is, but they do have stated principles that they uphold, such as freedom of speech and transparency of government.[8] Surveillance of citizens by the government and right to privacy are both points of resistance for Anonymous, but their own methods involve the use of stripping their targets of privacy through doxing. Their seemingly paradoxical approach contributes to an outside perception of Anonymous’ ambiguous aims and opens them up to criticism from the media which Coleman pushes back against. By situating Anonymous as a socio-political reactionary movement that sprang out of 4Chan and the initial trolling of Scientology, Coleman argues that the ambiguity that we see in Anonymous and their methods and aims is not the result of them being a group of white teenagers living in a basement, or them being criminal thugs, but rather an essential part of their makeup as contemporary tricksters employing creative destruction and havoc to upset institutional order. Their actions are subversive activism. It is a cultural logic of irreverence born in the underbelly of the internet and taken to the streets of the city.

Gabriella Coleman’s Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy is deliberately written for popular consumption. The book is structured chronologically, tracing the origins and evolution of Anonymous while only hinting lightly at the theoretical framework behind her work. This makes the book easy to read for non-experts in the field. By tailoring her book for popular consumption, Coleman consciously adopts geek humor, which effectively engages the reader in the type of humor and language of the internet itself. When she describes Scientology’s Xenu as “being the dastardly evil alien overlord of the galaxy,” the reader is seeing a glimpse of the contemptuous humor of the troll.[9] Her prose makes the book itself a representation of the language and culture of Anonymous. Given that she is studying a group she sees as populist and grassroots, this is quite fitting. Her background as a cultural anthropologist is apparent throughout the book as she draws upon theoretical frameworks, but never bogs down the book to the point of making it inaccessible to the lay person.

Throughout her book you get a sense that Coleman truly identifies and sympathizes with the people of her study. She is quite taken with the group of internet tricksters and hacktivists and a great deal of her own personal thoughts, feelings, and experiences make their way into the book. We find anecdotes that personalize the journey and study of Anonymous, but we also see her identifying with the group. All writing is produced by a writer and informed by that writer’s own experiences and ideas, so her transparency in that respect is refreshing. It is however a point that is worthy of note and questioning. This sympathy and political alignment is also apparent in the work of Todd Wolfson.

Digital Rebellion The Birth of the Cyber LeftThe activism studied by Todd Wolfson presents a very different image than the faceless visage of Anonymous. Like Gabriella Coleman’s book, Wolfson’s Digital Rebellion provides a history of activism in the digital age. As a socio-cultural anthropologist, he uses the methods of history to trace the origins of the Cyber Left. He links the activism of what he calls the “Cyber Left” ideologically to the preceding movements of the Old and New Left. He argues that the Cyber Left was in “constant, though sometimes hidden, dialogue” with the “history of resistance that preceded it.”[10] By placing the Cyber Left into a history of resistance, Wolfson provides a much needed history of digital activism, but also illuminates the ways in which this new form of activism varied from preceding forms of resistance.

Todd Wolfson uses the term “cyber” deliberately to mean the communicative tools that have influenced activism and created “new possibilities for organizational structure, democratic governance, and media strategy.”[11] His commitment to historical materialism is apparent when he argues that the Cyber Left’s activism is “engendered by new technologies and in turn have enabled new possibilities for the scale, strategy, structure, and governance of social movement.”[12] For Todd Wolfson, the material reality of the technology has shaped the capabilities of the Cyber Left and enabled the scale of their socio-political aims while simultaneously having an impact on what those aims are. This technological reality made possible the type of mass movement that we see globally in the activism of the Occupy Movement or even the Arab Spring. According to Wolfson, the cyber enabled the grass-roots, populist, and even nation-wide activism to go global.

Communicative technology becomes a binding agent in movements that are both global in scale and global in their aims. Unlike Anonymous, however, the Cyber Left is not born from the internet or digital world, but from an ideological dialogue with the political activism of previous resistance movements and the politics of the Left. That is not to say that Wolfson falls into the binary of URL vs IRL with its false implications of not real vs real. Rather, he studies a type of activism transformed by technological materialism, rather than born by it. The place of protests and marches on the ground is apparent throughout his work, but cyber technology also makes possible the means to challenge capitalist media in the formation of Indymedia. In other words, the cyber is not just a tool of the digital rebellion, but an essential constitutive element of its activism.

One of the most striking features of the Cyber Left is its scale. Thanks to the communicative strategies made possible by technology, Wolfson is able to trace the history of the Cyber Left from the Zapatistas to the Global Justice Movement. It is in questions of scale and organization that Wolfson’s account intersects with Gabriella Coleman’s study on Anonymous. They both present very different representations of activism in the digital age. Wolfson’s form of activism takes place with the Cyber Left, a political successor of leftist ideology employing new technology which transforms its strategies, scale, and organization. Coleman’s activist is the hacktivist, a reactionary and irreverent internet prankster birthed in the bowels of cyberspace. But despite their stark differences, they intersect in significant ways.

Both Anonymous and the Cyber Left represent global scale movements. Thanks to the tools of technology, Anonymous’ hacktivists could work from the United States or the United Kingdom to provide support to protestors in Tunisia. Wolfson’s Cyber Left participated in the worldwide Global Justice Movement protesting corporate globalization. Yet, questions of scale also present structural concerns. Both Anonymous and the Cyber Left struggled to find a balance between the local, or small group activism, and global aspirations. Structurally, each strove for horizontal, democratic participation without hierarchy or strong central leadership.[13] Though the lack of leadership and commitment to horizontal democratic participation embodied the spirit of both of these groups, it also presented a serious challenge. Decentralized and without structural governance, both Anonymous and the Cyber Left had to contend with the reality that such groups splinter, dissent, and are hard to sustain. While networking through technology produced mass mobilization, keeping the momentum going and keeping it focused on its aim was a different story. In the case of Anonymous, this led to sectarianism with competing factions with different agendas and even different methods.[14] In the case of the Cyber Left, the horizontal and open-access nature of the movement eventually led to it being co-opted by white, middle-class males and its lack of organization subsequently led to a disintegration of its collective power.

Gabriella Coleman and Todd Wolfson provide the reader with a glimpse into forms of activism taking place in our digital age. Their approaches and their topic of study produce contrasting images. Coleman’s book traces the origins of the hacktivist group Anonymous and places it into the history of internet pranking, free-speech, and reactionary subversive activity. To Coleman, Anonymous is the modern day trickster, employing the creative destruction of social banditry. She provides insight into how the dominant cultural values of the internet subculture inform and endure in the evolution of Anonymous with its amorphous aims and ambiguous methods. This history and insight into the origins of Anonymous highlights some of the difficulties that both outsiders and Anonymous itself have in defining the group. As a reactionary movement with less than clear political aims, their anonymity becomes both their identifying characteristic as well as the weapon they deploy against their targets.

Wolfson chronicles the history of the Cyber Left, arguing that only by unearthing the constant dialogue taking place with the preceding activism of the political left can we understand the cultural logic of the Cyber Left. He takes us on a journey into the optimism and excitement of the Cyber Left as their movement is simultaneously transformed and deploying novel technological methods in their strategy. While Anonymous is a modern day trickster figure employing subversive tactics, the Cyber Left is the inheritor of the historical political left. The technology of the Cyber Left is novel, but the political logic informing their activism is based in the familiar leftist tradition of addressing the social and political conditions of the era. Though it is tempting to see these as competing representations of activism, I instead choose to see how the historical roots and technological materialism of each social movement produce the cultural logic of each group and how understanding that history provides us insight into the wider history of resistance and activism. By understanding the historical origins of both forms of activism and there connection with technology, we see how activism evolved and continues to evolve in the digital age.

 

“Ali A. Olomi is a historian of the Middle East and he studies questions revolving around empire and colonialism, gender and sexuality, religion and Islam, and digital technology. He graduated with a BA in history from UCLA and is currently a Ph.D student at the University of California, Irvine. He blogs over at http://aliolomi.com and frequently publishes opinion pieces about foreign policy with the desire to put current events in historical context. His twitter handle is @aaolomi.” 

 

[1] Gabriella Coleman. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous (New York: Verso, 2014), 34.

[2] Ibid., 35.

[3] Ibid., 41.

[4] Ibid., 45.

[5] Ibid., 71.

[6] Ibid., 300.

[7] Ibid.,

[8] Ibid., 131

[9] Ibid., 57.

[10] Todd Wolfson. Digital Rebellion: The Birth of the Cyber Left. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2014), 3.

[11] Ibid., 4

[12] Ibid.,

[13] See Coleman Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, 156 and Wolfson, Digital Rebellion, 135.

[14] Coleman, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, 238.

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About Emma Louise Backe

MA in Medical Anthropology and Global Gender Policy from George Washington University, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

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