Can Anonymous be destroyed with enough arrests and punitive sentences?

An Anon films with a video camera

Anonymous-scholar Gabriella Coleman argues that the hacktivist movement is rhizomatic and cannot ever be treated as a single entity.

The government seems terrified of Anonymous and online activists. There have been harsh crackdowns on anyone exercising the limits of free speech through the Internet, from the charges used to threaten Aaron Swartz before his death to the jail time Weev and John Kiriakou are serving. Actual Anons like Jeremy Hammond face corrupt courts and even more devastating sentences.

What both the government and mainstream media have trouble grasping is that Anonymous cannot be approached as a single entity. Instead, Anthropologist Gabriella Coleman insists that Anonymous is rhizomatic. Though it all stems from the same roots, it is not subject to any specific leadership but shifts direction based on collective will.

Perhaps the government does understand on some level, and that’s why they’ve acted so violently to oppose this concept. Yet Anonymous as a collective taps into roots in historic anonymity that suggest it won’t be easily squashed. Two panels at South by Southwest Interactive 2013 laid out this history from the printing press into modern times.

A Brief History of Anonymity

Nabiha Syed and Katie Engelhart

First Amendment lawyer Nabiha Syed and historian Katie Engelhart discuss this history of anonymity at SXSW 2013.

First Amendment lawyer Nabiha Syed and historian Katie Engelhart led a panel on anonymity through history.  Much of the earliest literature was published anonymously or pseudonymously. Women of course used masculine pseudonyms or published anonymously, but men also chose to publish anonymously or as women for many reasons. This fluid idea of identity and authorship was the source of benign entertainment, as the literati of the 18th century gathered in coffee shops to debate authorship.

Being anonymous was sometimes celebrated; some like Milton chose dip in and out of public identity from publication to publication as he pleased. But attitudes toward anonymity change with the times. During wartime, sedition laws and other restrictions tried to enforce clear authorship of every work, yet the penalties for treasonous speech increased the desire to go unnamed.

Engelhart and Syed compared this shift to the evolution of anonymity on the modern Internet. In the early days of Usenet and IRC chatrooms, anonymity and pseudonymity were respected — a persons real identity could remain unknown, but they could gain a great deal of social clout for their invented identity over time. Forces both technological and social have combined to endanger this namelessness — from the ease of identity services like Facebook passport and the pervasive transactional tracking of the Web on the one hand to the increasing paranoia of perpetual war on the other.

True anonymity is becoming more difficult and less accessible. Products like TOR and Ghostery (both present at the #SXSW Trade Show) help users regain some control, but we may enter a virtual arms race between tools for privacy and the push for pervasive trackable identity.

Anonymous Unleashes the Power of Crowds

Finn Brunton, Gabriella Coleman, Quinn Norton at SXSW 2013

Finn Brunton, Gabriella Coleman and Quinn Norton share a history of Anonymous at SXSW 2013.

Another panel at the conference drew from this history but focused on the modern collective known as Anonymous. Finn Brunton, Assistant Professor of Information at University of Michigan School of Information, anthropologist and noted Anonymous-scholar Gabriella Coleman, and author and journalist Quinn Norton traced Anonymous from its origins in environments like /b/ and 4chan, lawless and tactless forums that eschew any kind of permanent identity through its politicization in opposing the Church of Scientology to its current incarnation as distributed online activists.

The behavior of crowds has been feared by governments and the powerful since at least Ancient Rome. We can easily see the destructive nature of anonymous crowds just by looking at the latest round of sports riots. But the creative potential of crowds can be just as potent. What began as a series of pranks grew increasingly serious as the pranksters got caught up in their work and realized its importance. While the work was simply for the ‘lulz’ in the beginning, the playful nature of Anonymous continues to bind subgroups together. The very confusion and fear its nature arouses is part of its power.

Anonymous is diverse, drawing people of all genders, orientations, locations, class and racial backgrounds together. By creating environments which are deliberately unpolitically correct, the collective actually smooths over many cultural differences because everyone is equally offended. As the founder of Japan’s 2Channel said, ”People can only truly discuss something when they don’t know each other.” This is also a strength of Anonymous in action, bringing people together with diverse skillsets who might never have spoken in conventional settings.

The power of Anonymous is that we are all Anonymous. Quinn Norton warned that, much like trying to remain aloof in the midst of a riotous real world crowd, you can’t report on Anonymous without becoming part of Anonymous — recent conspiracy charges against former Reuters employee Matthew Keys give another cautionary example. And the social pressures to identify appear again among the Anons — Gabriella Coleman spoke eloquently of the pain some feel at not being able to share more personal details with their AnonFamily, and of course this urge has been the undoing of many.

Anonymous reached new heights of activity as much of it was absorbed into Occupy Wall Street, struggled in the wake of arrests and broken encampments, only to rise again and again. From the mask-wearing members of the Polish Parliament to the heroes of Steubenville, Anonymous is a potent force that’s pushed deep into human culture.

Much more than a group, not a unified movement, Anonymous is a banner, an idea, and a way of acting. Anonymous can only die if the people abandon it. While the popularity of the mask may someday wane, this new twist on that historic force, collective anonymous action, will prove harder to eradicate.

Three Anons

Three German Anons at the recent International Day of Privacy.

More: Tweets from #Anonymity Then & Now and Creativity & #Mayhem: Anonymous Communities At Work

Anonymous media portrait by Garry Knight, released under a Creative Commons license. Anonymous Trio by Joachim S. Müller released under a Creative Commons Share Alike license. Panel photos by Kit O’Connell, released under a Creative Commons license.