Gabriella Coleman and the Many Faces of Anonymous

November 3, 2014

By Tom Adams 

Gabriella Coleman

On Thursday 30 October, an excited crowd packed the Frontline Club for an insight with Gabriella Coleman, currently the Wolfe Chair in scientific and technological literacy at McGill University, where she researches, writes about and teaches on computer hackers and digital activism.

In her latest publication, Coleman provides a unique insight into the mysterious group Anonymous. Ben Hammersley, presenter of the new BBC World News series ‘Cybercrime with Ben Hammersley’, which begins on Saturday 1 November, had the enviable task of discussing Coleman‘s new book, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous.

On the supposedly simple matter of who Anonymous are, Coleman had this to say:

“Currently, Anonymous can be described as a protest ensemble and there are different groups and individuals who have taken the name to organise very different types of collective action. This sort of stretches from street protests to computer hacking to distributed denial service attacks. . . .

“It’s an incredibly confusing entity that has been shrouded in considerable secrecy and mystery, so I spent quite a number of years in a very exciting but very frustrating maze trying to figure out who Anonymous is. I think I give a pretty good answer in the book but it also feels really incomplete only because it is really difficult, kind of, to map the entire geography that Anonymous has built up over the last number of years.”

After hearing about the ‘genesis moment’ of Anonymous and its infamous attacks on Tom Cruise and the Church of Scientology, Hammersley turned his questioning toward the real world protests that Anonymous had organised surrounding the same issue. Coleman replied saying:

“Right, and this was the pivotal moment because at first Anonymous was just trolling, but then they made this wonderful video: ‘Hello Leaders of Scientology. We are Anonymous’ and they declared war on the church for their own enjoyment and to systematically dismantle the church. It was done as a joke but it actually got people to debate – ‘Y’know, maybe we should earnestly protest the church’ – and indeed they decided to go ahead and organise a worldwide day of protest, February 10 2008, where over 7,000 individuals in 127 cities, the biggest one was here in London, protested. And this was interesting because this was the moment where they pivoted . . . and started to engage in activism.”

During the rest of the interview, Hammersley and Coleman touched on issues such as the structure of the Anonymous movement, their demographic makeup and the incredible story of their role in the Arab Spring uprisings and how Anonymous became almost a ‘major geopolitical actor’. One very interesting question focused on combating Anonymous and how authorities were so ‘freaked out’ at the organisation. Coleman said:

“I think there [were] two elements that fed into the fear. One is that kind of mystery, ‘Who are they?’ They, kind of, would pop up in different places and it was very difficult because you didn’t know whether it was 15 people or five or 25 . . . and even I, who got to know them very well, often found myself confused as to how much I really knew. . . .

“We live in a day and age where there’s predictive behaviour analysis based on data mining . . . and then here’s this entity which kind of defies all of that and that’s interesting, that’s scary for those who are trying to defy them.

“The other element is their unpredictability. I don’t like to say that Anonymous is random. They’re not random. They rise up very forcefully for civil liberties . . . but it’s really hard to predict when they’re going to rise up in a lot of ways. . . . If you had asked me when I started studying them in 2008, ‘Will it ever go beyond a protest movement against Scientology?’ I would have said ‘No, absolutely not.’ That unpredictability is what makes them threatening.”

When the discussion was opened up to the audience, questions ranged from the importance of anonymity, the relationship between fear and anonymity, and also onto the fascinating tale of informants who worked within Anonymous for law enforcement organisations.

One audience member, the mother of an Anonymous activist, drew comparisons between the anonymity of activists and of law enforcement organisations. Coleman replied:

“As an entity, Anonymous tends not to be powerful, though they have had powerful effects and anonymity is particularly important for the powerless. Again, because of the technical skills that they wield, their media savvy skills they do have power, right? But it’s incomparable to the institutions like GCHQ and NSA where anonymity really becomes a weapon in a lot of ways.”

You can order a copy of Gabriella Coleman’s book Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymoushere.

You can watch and listen to the talk here:



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