Vigilante Hacktivism: Is Anonymous A Virtual Robin Hood?

In today’s digital world, few groups have successfully blended activism and viral vigilante justice as successfully as Anonymous. The collective group of hackers was born out of the website 4chan in 2003, where the group focused largely on mass pranks and trolling. The group has evolved since then, and Anonymous has styled itself as the champion of the downtrodden with organized efforts to bring awareness to and action on injustice.

But with heavy reliance on threats to public institutions and a lack of accountability, is Anonymous truly the Robin Hood of the Internet? The group’s egalitarian philosophy makes it easy for the Anonymous “brand” to be co-opted, while legitimacy is nearly impossible to verify. In some cases, members of the group have turned against each other, challenging the united front Anonymous relies on to effectively rally behind issues. Anonymous may be adept at using the Internet to put pressure on those in power, but the effectiveness of the group depends on the willingness of targets to participate in what amounts to a public shaming. When targets refuse to engage with the threats, Anonymous’ attempts to bandwagon on the successes of other groups drives home the lack of true power the collective has.

Anonymous is not an organization in the traditional sense of the word. Rather, the group is a loose network that spans the globe, a collective of hackers and activists that bring the Anonymous model to countries around the world. Using the Guy Fawkes mask as a symbol, the group and its supporters can be seen at any and all mass protests. Targeting everything from child pornography to police brutality, and lending support to the Arab Spring protests and Wikileaks, Anonymous is an anarchic and widely engaged Internet force.

Although not the only hacking group in the United States, Anonymous is unique in the use of hacking as a threat designed to impact the behavior of groups or organizations. The group will often pull unreleased information, such as police records or personal information, and threaten the release of those files unless demands are met. Anonymous will also take down websites or replace content with their own videos and statements. The vigilante image Anonymous employs is supported by the digital media, which widely reports on Anonymous’ statements and videos.

Much like the Internet that spawned it, Anonymous is a mixed bag of good intentions and blatant grabs for attention. When the group is able to leverage their platform to bring the public together, such as their operations for victims of floods or the homeless during winter, the potential for change becomes clear. But all too often Anonymous favors grand statements over substance, and the still-skeptical public rightly refuses to give the group the support it needs to succeed.

Perhaps the greatest case for Anonymous’ model is the 2012–2013 Operation RollRedRoll, which drew public attention and outrage to the rape of a teenage girl in Steubenville, Ohio. Anonymous exposed a cover-up in the case and released damning information about the investigation. The group was able to rally large protests in the small town, and eventually leverage public outrage to put pressure on authorities to investigate the case and take it to trial. Although the sentences handed down left many feeling that justice had not been served, the operation showed the potential Anonymous has for influencing both the public and institutions.

If Steubenville showed the power of Anonymous, the ongoing crisis on Ferguson, Mo., has showed the limits of hacktivism. Following the use of tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters in the St. Louis suburb, Anonymous released a video demanding the authorities abandon militarized tactics and arrest the officer who shot and killed teen Michael Brown. The text-to-voice narration and floating Guy Fawkes mask in the video lent it a menacing vigilante feel, and media outlets reported that Anonymous was now “on the case.”

But the group wasn’t able to make good on their threats of releasing the officer in question’s name, publishing a name the Ferguson PD claimed was not only false, but belonged to no one on the force. The release of police dispatch tapes drew little public attention. Anonymous then attempted to co-opt the National Moment of Silence vigils on Aug. 14 by calling the events part of a National Day of Rage. Although the group took some practical action, like widely sharing information on dealing with tear gas, the public has widely refused to support Anonymous’ Operation Ferguson.

Anonymous exists at the nebulous intersection of protest and hacking, with no true competition. But the group has not yet learned how to properly yield its small power to create consistent change. Playing both the villain and the hero, Anonymous vacillates between moral policeman of the Internet and prank-pulling trickster. Although the group fancies itself the watchdog of those in power, it is more often a paper tiger that comes apart without public outrage to hold it together. Until Anonymous finds an effective way to translate online rhetoric to real-world impact, the power of the group will remain limited.

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