A review of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: the Many Faces of Anonymous, by Gabriella Coleman. First published at TeleSUR English.

On December 17, independent journalist Barrett Brown, who has been in jail for two years without trial, had his first sentencing hearing (see the report by The Intercept). Barrett Brown was threatened with one hundred years in prison for analyzing documents that were hacked from private security companies HBGary and Stratfor. Brown never hacked anything – he received the documents and was reporting on them.

Interesting points emerge from a posting by Julian Assange of Wikileaks, who reacted to the sentencing hearing. Assange pointed out that the charges against Brown were of two kinds: the first, pertaining to his reporting on the Stratfor documents, which should be protected under free expression. The other, pertaining to things he said when the FBI threatened to charge his mother unless he turned over his source material. The worst thing Brown said about the FBI agent was a tweet that read, “illegally shoot the son of a bitch”. Assange pointed out that this tweet was Brown quoting Fox News’s Bob Beckel, who called for Assange’s assassination. (Assange posted this link as proof.) Beckel has faced no FBI investigation, no legal consequences, no arrests. Barrett Brown, who quoted him, has been in jail for two years and is threatened with many more. Brown and his lawyers have gag orders against them – the prosecution told the court that Brown has shown “intent to continue to manipulate the public through press and social media comments,” thus undermining the enormously powerful government’s right to a fair chance of obtaining a harsh conviction against this independent journalist.

The Stratfor emails got into Barrett Brown’s possession by way of Jeremy Hammond, a hacker who is now serving a 10-year sentence for stealing the secrets of the private intelligence company. Stratfor is a part of a $350 billion security industry that seamlessly links government, police, and private intelligence networks. The Stratfor emails provided, in Gabriella Coleman’s words, “solid nuggets of proof that Stratfor profited from morally dubious practices, such as corporate propaganda dressed as public relations and the monitoring of activists.” One of Stratfor’s founders, Ronald Duchin, devised the “Duchin formula” for attacking movements, published by journalist Steve Horn and quoted in Coleman’s book: “isolate the radicals, ‘cultivate’ the idealists and ‘educate’ them into becoming realists. Then co-opt the realists in agreeing with industry.”

Government and corporate intelligence agencies are extraordinarily non-transparent. What the public knows about them is known almost entirely because of hackers like Hammond and Assange, independent journalists like Brown (and Poitras and Greenwald), and whistleblowers like Manning and Snowden. People like Hammond, Snowden, and Manning took tremendous risks to get these materials to the public, and Hammond and Manning and Brown, among others, are suffering greatly for it.

Neither Hammond nor Manning were caught because they made technical mistakes, even though both of them obtained their data through some technically sophisticated means. Manning’s mistake was befriending someone named Adrian Lamo, who informed on her to the FBI. Hammond was a part of Anonymous, and interacted throughout the hacks with Hector Monsegur, aka “Sabu”, who helped entrap Hammond and many other hackers when Sabu became an FBI informant.

But the arrests and jail terms were not the end of Anonymous. Anonymous’s main twitter feed, @YourAnonNews, has 1.36 million followers. Having maintained a media presence for years, Anonymous is now a powerful media organization in its own right. In addition to the Stratfor hacks, Anonymous can claim credit for exposing abusive police during Occupy, for exposing rapists and rape culture in Canada and the US, and for participating in the Arab Spring in operations against Tunisia’s dictatorship. They are currently highly active against murderous police in the US, in Ferguson and NYC. They have an uncanny ability to land on the side of the oppressed, even where many progressives flounder – as in Israel’s recent massacre of Palestinians in Gaza.

As the arrests and jail sentences show, Anonymous is just as subject to vengeance by the powerful as any other group of activists in history. And yet, Anonymous’s mystique is hard to resist: the Guy Fawkes masks, the idea of some huge number of people everywhere, with extraordinary technical skills, able to frighten the powerful, avenge wrongs, and get away with it. How could anyone begin to understand such a phenomenon?

The starting point would be to do what Gabriella Coleman did for her book, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: the Many Faces of Anonymous: spending time in the Anonymous’s IRC chat rooms, getting to know them, studying what they do and how they do it. Coleman’s methods are anthropological, the same methods she used in her previous book, Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. In Hacker, Hoaxer, Coleman helps her readers make sense of the bewildering array of actions, statements, and reprisals that have occurred in this relatively new field of activism and the unique group that has brought it so much attention.

Coleman shows how Anonymous emerged from what she calls some of the most “abject forms of trolling”, in which people anonymously did bizarre and malicious things on the internet, just for the lulz (a variation of “lols”, or “laughs out loud”). She explains the idea of the lulz the way an anthropologist would: in terms of a universal trickster figure present in most human cultures. The internet trolling done by the precursors of Anonymous, like that done in stories of mythological stories of tricksters, is mischievous, malicious, and not obviously done for any gain by the trickster (or troll). But when the lulz-seeking behaviour was turned against the powerful, what emerged was something very interesting indeed.

It started, as Coleman documents, with a campaign against the church of Scientology – a lulzy campaign that got more serious as Anons learned more about Scientology’s outrages. Anonymous’s Tunisia operations were the next big step, and Coleman immortalizes the IRC chat log of the decision to attack the Tunisian dictatorship’s servers:

: why are we hitting up tunisia?

: Because they’e just passed a law which says the media can’t say what they want and banned them from mentioning wikileaks

: K-rad, thank you! time to own tunisia then

Coleman follows Anonymous through the Tunisia operations, through the formation of specialized hacker groups LulzSec and AntiSec (because not all Anons are hackers), through to the FBI attacks on Anonymous and the arrests of many of its members, much of which was due to entrapment by the FBI informant Sabu.

In addition to the lulzy, trickster aspect of Anonymous, Coleman describes and explains several other fascinating aspects of the Anons. One of the most powerful aspects is the way the Anons eschew celebrity culture and apply severe social pressure to those who try to use Anonymous to become famous or build their own names. This built-in disavowal of celebrity culture, I believe, helps explain Anonymous’s credibility and, despite some of its more “abject trolling”, it also helps explain how a group of tricksters and hackers can somehow become a moral voice on a chaotic, celebrity-obsessed, and increasingly proprietary internet. Exerting effort to be anonymous on the internet is also good privacy and security practice, another issue that Anonymous has brought to light (as have activist collectives like Riseup and non-anonymous people like Lawrence Lessig, Bruce Schneier, and Richard Stallman).

In all of these respects – mischief and trickery directed at the right targets; eschewing celebrity culture; fighting for freedom and for anonymity on the internet – Anonymous shows us all, and especially leftists, things we can learn.

And in this context, Helen Lewis’s review of Hacker, Hoaxer for the New Statesman misses the point. There is much more to Anonymous, and much more to Coleman’s book, than the fact that the Anons don’t know one another, and much more to their exploits than what happened with Sabu and the FBI. Counterposing Anonymous with the “strong ties” cited by Malcolm Gladwell in a New Yorker essay about the civil rights movement, as Lewis does, doesn’t make sense. There have been very strong ties indeed (up to and including marriages, Coleman cites) made in Anonymous. And the FBI has destroyed movements based on personal relationships and strong ties using the same methods they used against the Anons: infiltration, entrapment, suborning people and turning them into informants. Finally, the civil rights movement was a different era. As Lawrence Lessig argued in his lecture about Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide when he faced 35 years for taking journal articles from a university server because he wanted to make scientific research universally accessible (transcript here):

“Compare: Martin Luther King, the civil disobedient, was arrested on scores of misdemeanors. He was only ever charged with two felonies and acquitted by an all-white jury of those two felonies because the basis for the claims were so outrageous. He did jail time, scores of days in jail. Compare him with Aaron, charged with 13 felonies, giving a federal judge the right to sentence him to up to 35 years in jail.”

Given the shocking prosecutorial zealotry in cases against hackers, it is hard to fault Anonymous (or Assange or Snowden) for not wanting to get caught trying to make the world a better place. And, as Coleman points out, even after Sabu and the FBI raids, quite a few Anons never did get caught, and are still out there.

Coleman’s book helps us understand Anonymous by revealing it to be another form of political activism: people coming together to try to fight for a better world, using, in this case, their computers and direct action, sometimes illegally (as people who do civil disobedience do). Their fights – for free expression in a world of suppression, for privacy in a world of universal surveillance, for the non-alienated use of technology in a world of corporate control, against the abuse of power in a world of police and corporate impunity – are not going away. Neither will the system, which depends on people to run it, ever be completely invulnerable against people who develop skills within it and hold on to some semblance of their conscience. There will be a need for Anonymous for the foreseeable future. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, can show you where it came from.

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.