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Anonymous and trolling in context

An interview with Gabriella Coleman

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A member of Anonymous at the Occupy Wall Street protest in New York. Photo by David Shankbone via Wikimedia.
A member of Anonymous at the Occupy Wall Street protest in New York. Photo by David Shankbone via Wikimedia.

In light of Internet hacktivist group Anonymous's recent cybercultural warfare against ISIS through the use of Internet vernacular paralanguages such as rickrolling and oldschool trolling methods such as webpage vandalising, PopAnth speaks to leading expert Dr Gabriella Coleman, author of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous (2014) to provide some context to the culture and community of Anonymous.

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For those of us who know little about Anonymous, could you tell us who or what this is?

Currently, the name Anonymous is used by groups and individuals of activists–some of them know each other, some of them don't–who coordinate various genres of collective action that stretch from street protests to computer hacking to social media campaigns. What's unusual is that the name–which is today so closely identified with dissent–was once used only for a fearsome form of Internet pranking also known as "trolling."

What has changed since then?

It was really a set of events around the Church of Scientology. In 2008, they were quite upset when one of their videos was leaked on the Internet–it was of Tom Cruise being very very enthusiastic about the Church. The video went viral and the Church of Scientology threatened all sorts of news publishers with law suits if they didn't take it down.

Then, Anonymous–which was only trolling at this time–trolled the heck out of the Church of Scientology. I like to refer to it as the "mothership trolling" campaign, in so far as hundreds of churches were sent pizzas and a lot of prank calls were made.

Anonymous also released a video where they declared a war against the Church of Scientology. While this was done as a part of the trolling campaign, it was compelling enough that people started to debate whether they should move from trolling to protesting. Combined with encouragement from people who were actually protesting against the church, Anonymous went ahead and organized a worldwide day of street protests.

The first protests were in Australia, and they were quite big. It got people really excited about these large protests, and this was the moment that opened the possibility for the name "Anonymous" to be used for activism. There were many other events that mattered and occurred afterwards, but this was the one event that changed the course of things.

What can we understand about the practice and use of the term "trolling"?

Trolling is a phenomena as complex as digital activism online. It comes in many formats and genres: Light-hearted quasi-political trolls where a perpetrator abusing a cat or a dog gets trolled and harassed through a sense of justice motivating these actions; campaigns that happen under the banner of GamerGate; or the RIP Facebook trolling genre where the memorial page of a recently deceased is trolled with terrible comments about the person. Most times there is some sense of justice motivating this action.

Trolling often does has negative consequences, whatever the intention is. Nevertheless, it is important to go beyond simple models of individual pathology. While such is the case in some instances, in many others, trolling is a full-blown cultural phenomena that is facilitated by the Internet but driven by other social factors.

Whitney Phillips wrote a wonderful book about the topic, and her main argument is that trolls are often trying to outdo the most sensationalistic parts of the media. It's hard to give just one general statement about trolling, and I do think many of the effects are often sexist, racist, and misogynist, but the sorts and manifestations of trolling genres are very diverse and it is important to understand them.

Anonymous can be used for many various circumstances, and it’s hard to know what the name will be used for next.

What does the Guy Fawkes mask (from the 2006 film V for Vendetta, based on David Lloyd & Alan Moore's 1981 graphic novel) mean to Anonymous and their supporters? Especially since, historically, he wound up being captured, tortured, and executed?

For most people within Anonymous, their reference point is V for Vendetta, the graphic novel and the film. I would say it's become a more important and salient point in the post-Snowden world, where the forms of censorship and fascism that are represented in the film seem to be reality.

Definitely, a lot of people use the mask as a symbol of popular dissent and a revolutionary spirit, but for many others, the sentiment is sort of like they are fighting the government and the powers that be that are steeped in corruption.

It's the film and the graphic novel that most geeks and hackers have watched and read multiple times, and they will cite lines from the movie. Why they took the mask is a little bit more complicated, and there are several contingencies that came into being, but it's part of their cultural atmosphere.

You began researching Anonymous in 2008, before major events such as wikileaks and the Occupy Movements took place. What motivated you to do so?

I had a project on a previous set of battles that the Church of Scientology was facing at the hands of geeks and hackers, sometimes humorously referred to as "The Internet vs. Scientology." During my research on open source software, I encountered a significant number of people who really did not like the Church of Scientology and who even protested them.

I thought it was very interesting but I didn't do much with it until I ended up at the University of Alberta for a year as a postdoc; they have the largest scientology archives in the world, so as I like to joke, Xenu was sending me a message that I should pursue this project.

From an anthropological perspective, the fascinating thing is that scientology is the anti-thesis of the hacker world. Everything that hackers tend to believe in is stuff that scientologists oppose. I was interested in scientology as the "bizarre" version of the hacker world.

I had this project that was just going to focus in on how scientology exists as the polar opposite of the hacker world, but I was secretive because scientology went after academics and journalists at that time. I didn't really talk about the project much, but then in 2008 this thing by the name of Anonymous–which I was then unaware of–trolled the Church of Scientology.

I followed it and was compelled by their transmutation from trolls to activists. I was just floored by that, and that independently got my interest, probably even more so than the scientology focus.

With regards to recent Anonymous trolling tactics, how can we understand practices like rickrolling or replacing banners with Viagra ads on ISIS websites? How are these a form of cyber warfare?

I like these tactics because something like ISIS is seen as a really humourless terrorist organization that is really good at media-making and spectacle, as much as Anonymous is. They are both similar in that way, as media savvy collectives. But I think it's precisely the humorous aspects that differentiate Anonymous.

I like the Viagra ads and the rickrolling because it is offensive for sure, but people didn't want to call out the Muslim religion out rightly, and these were ways to try to poke fun and bring some attention to the event. It wasn't going to do anything substantial, but sometimes it is important to express your dissent and humour is particularly important. This was one very potent manifestation of that.

Are these very gendered forms of trolling?

Trolling is gendered. Period. This is something that folks like Whitney Phillips have really nailed. Not every single troll is necessarily themselves racist or sexist in their daily lives, but they are relying on racism and sexism to troll. So in that sense it is very gendered.

Again, not all of Anonymous's actions are trolling, and that is important to emphasize. Some people like going to very controversial terrain, but not every single element of trolling is sexist, racist, and misogynist. The video Anonymous used to address the Church of Scientology is a beautiful example of a brilliant troll that isn't racist or sexist–that is why it was so compelling, why it went viral, why it could awaken a political sensibility. However, those are the exceptions since most trolling can have a very ugly side; the forums that don't are the most politically compelling to me.

What are your thoughts on Anonymous' approach to ISIS?

The ISIS campaign strikes as very unexpected, but can also be explained through a couple of ways. One of which is the fight against terrorism came after the Charlie Hedbo attack, in which many of the people involved had very strong thoughts on free speech and the press. If that attack had been against a different organization that was not a press–like a pro-refugee group or Christian organization–I'm not sure Anonymous would have gotten involved at the moment.

I really think it mattered at that initial point that it was Charlie Hedbo, and that the attacks were against the free press and free speech. That opened the gate for more military-oriented geeks and hackers to get involved in this type of form of digital direct action. We also soon saw breakaway groups who have a more military-oriented approach.

These sorts of operations get the attention of major press outlets such as CBS and CNN. As one of my grad students put it: "It's like King Kong and Godzilla fighting each other." It was two mysterious shadowy groups, even though I think Anonymous was pitted as the good guy in most places. It shows how Anonymous can be used for many various circumstances, and it's hard to know what the name will be used for next.


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