Anonymous continues to surprise anthropologist Gabriella Coleman, who has been studying the group since it stopped trolling the Church of Scientology and started to protest
Expert on Anonymous: Gabriella Coleman in the Science Labatory Trinity College. Photograph: Cyril Byrne /The Irish Times Gabriella Coleman at the Science Gallery at Trinity College, Dublin Photograph: Cyril Byrne
On Tuesday, Gabriella Coleman spent the morning in court. She was there for the case of two Irish members of LulzSec – an offshoot of Anonymous, the international network of hactivists – who are charged with causing criminal damage to Fine Gael’s election website in 2011.
“I was so amazed [in the] court,” Coleman says, sitting in a boardroom at the Science Gallery in Dublin. Watching the case, she thought, This feels so light compared to what would happen in the US. The US criminal system is one that really has a heavy hammer; it really comes down hard against forms of political protest and political dissent.
Coleman is an anthropologist and holds the Wolfe chair in scientific and technological literacy, in the department of art history and communication studies, at McGill University in Quebec. An expert on Anonymous, she describes the group as “a protest ensemble, and one which takes root differently in different places, not always direct action; but it’s a kind of protest network that uses different tactics for the sake of political operations.”
Last night, she gave a talk, Anonymous in Context: the Politics and Power Behind the Mask, at the Science Gallery.
Anonymous came to prominence for its online protests against the Church of Scientology, before launching anticopyright attacks on companies it perceived to infringe upon the concept of sharing online, and then against companies who infringed upon Wikileaks’ operations: Amazon, PayPal, MasterCard and Visa, among others.
“I just do classical anthropological stuff, which is spending as much time with people who are involved in whatever it is that you’re studying,” Coleman says. “And so then I do the same with Anonymous, but they’re a bit more challenging to study. A lot more challenging to study.”
Anonymous is everywhere and nowhere. On July 10th, six people, dressed in dark colours and wearing Guy Fawkes masks – the standard uniform of Anons – stood outside Leinster House holding question-mark signs. It is not known whether their presence related to a hack of Youth Defence’s website. The demonstration went largely unnoticed, apart from the blog Soundmigration uploading a video.
Blurring the lines
There is probably no better time to be an anthropologist examining a group such as Anonymous. The social upheaval caused by Wikileaks, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and, most recently, the revelations about the National Security Agency (NSA) by Edward Snowden, has blurred the lines between activism online and off.
Anonymous has no overarching mandate, no singular political philosophy. Coleman describes their “bread and butter” as “civil liberties, censorship and privacy . . . and then the other constant is that they’re irreverent.”
Having been drawn to open-source philosophy in the 1990s, Coleman found herself studying hackers (“I used to joke that we know more about tribes in Papua New Guinea than we do about hackers. Which, you know, is kind of true, I think, on some level”). She gravitated towards Anonymous at a point when they stopped trolling the Church of Scientology and started to protest it, defacing Scientology websites and launching denial-of-service acts in response to the Church calling foul over the copyright of a video of Tom Cruise talking about Scientology being posted online. “I was just floored by that conversion, that metamorphis.”