On agonistic democracy and Anonymous

Members of the hacktivist group Anonymous wear masks based on the film
V for Vendetta‘s character V, who had been influenced by Guy Fawkes.
This mask appears at a 2012 protest in Montreal. Source: Wikipedia.

Assistant professor of media and screen studies at Northeastern University

November was a busy month for Anonymous. On November 5, the hacktivist group released the names and social media information of hundreds of presumed Klu Klux Klan affiliates. In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks of November 13, Anonymous began revealing thousands of presumed ISIS sympathizers’ Twitter accounts and shutting them down through a distributed-denial-of-service attack conducted by means of a botnet. Whereas #opKKK #hoodsoff has come under scrutiny for the publication of an inaccurate list of politicians with alleged connections to the Klan, #opParis has been openly criticized because many of the pro-ISIS Twitter accounts have nothing to do with the Islamic State or even Islamic fundamentalism.

This is certainly not the first time that Anonymous comes under scrutiny for publishing inaccurate information or for denying freedom of speech to its opponents. Additionally, Anonymous is often criticized for exposing while refusing to be exposed, and for pointing the finger without taking responsibility for its actions.

But is it really true that anonymity is incompatible with accountability?

To begin with, as Gabriella Coleman has recently pointed out, Anonymous activists meet on public chat channels and entertain ongoing relationships with the press. This exposes them to a certain degree of accountability, as (good) journalists will tend to verify the accuracy of leaks as well as the leakers’ identity and motivations. Second, Coleman argues that the name of Anonymous is itself associated with a certain degree of fallibility, that is, the public does not expect from Anonymous the same level of objectivity it expects from a reputable news organization.

This fallibility reminds us that those who band behind the name of Anonymous are first and foremost activists. These activists employ powerful imagery and clever stratagems to affect the media discourse even when the information they disclose or the actions they undertake are questionable. In this sense, following Foucault, we could think of Anonymous as a temporary breakdown in the order of the discourse—a suspension of the invisible discursive structures that regulate both the kind of enunciations and the speakers that are allowed in the public sphere of communication. If the outcomes of Anonymous’ operations are questionable, why do they keep getting so much media attention? How is it possible that individuals who evade accountability are nevertheless able to get their message across? Have journalists abdicated their professional standards?

There are many reasons for why Anonymous, after a decade of existence, is still newsworthy. Many of these reasons have less to do with Anonymous itself than with an ever-accelerating news cycle, which leaves journalists with very little time for fact-checking. Yet there is also a subjective reason for why this collective of enunciation that keeps troubling the ordered count of a community’s parts—as Jacques Rancière would put it—is still able to attract so much media attention.

As I argue in my book Improper Names, I believe that, similar to other shared pseudonyms that have preceded it, Anonymous is a form of symbolic power that is constructed outside of the boundaries of an institutional practice. Whereas politicians, magistrates, and military and religious leaders derive their authority from the institutions that invest them with certain powers, Anonymous’ symbolic power is inseparable from the actual uses of the moniker. In other words, each use of the name affects the public perception of Anonymous, and therefore its subsequent uses. This does not mean that such uses are spontaneous and unregulated. Rather, there is always an authorizing context within which the mode of disposition and usage of a shared pseudonym is regulated.

The main authorizing context of Anonymous is the Internet Relay Chat. It is in this sprawling network of text-based chats that the hacktivists plan and coordinate—both in public and invite-only channels—their operations. It is also here that dissent over the actions of specific individuals is voiced and expressed. And it is in IRC that tight-knit hacker groups, which often collaborate or clash with Anonymous on specific operations, coalesce and compete for attention. In this sense, we could say that Anonymous’ symbolic power emerges through a series of agonistic challenges over the use of this open reputation. It is no accident that many journalistic accounts of Anonymous report and emphasize these tensions—often as a sign of weakness and scarce reliability.

Rather than seeing these conflicts as flaws, I believe that Anonymous’ internal strife has been propelling the group through a series of transition phases since its inception in 2005-06. Because there are no institutional mechanisms to prevent someone from making use of the pseudonym, the only way for affiliates to affirm their proposed course of action is to multiply their efforts in the name of Anonymous. Indeed, the fact that there are no formal procedures for expelling someone from Anonymous does not mean that the users of the moniker have not developed ethical guidelines to regulate the uses of the name. In this sense, the real challenge for the various factions that make up Anonymous is how to manage this symbolic power so as to allow for a series of adversarial uses of the pseudonym.

As political theorist Chantal Mouffe reminds us, whereas enemies do not have a common symbolic space, adversaries acknowledge each other but also recognize that they want to organize such space in different ways. Thus rather than asking whether Anonymous is reliable or accountable to the general public perhaps we should ask whether Anonymous has developed a catalogue of practices–concerning for example the power of IRC administrators and operators, the use of botnets, and the ethical implications of doxxing—that allow Anons to be accountable to one other. Whereas there are plenty of indications that this is certainly the case within specific operations, the question remains of how such knowledge circulates and is handed down across different geographical areas and different generations of Anons. In other words, the capacity of Anonymous to evolve into a more mature—and why not, organized—movement depends on its capacity to systematize a pragmatic knowledge that can be handed down from one generation of hacktivists to the next. If to formalize such knowledge would entail a step towards institutionalization it would also provide a powerful shield against the recurring infantilization of the movement.


Marco Deseriis is author of Improper Names: Collective Pseudonyms from the Luddites to Anonymous. He is assistant professor of media and screen studies at Northeastern University.

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