This full, extended interview is available as a Spark Plus podcast. An edited version will air on an upcoming episode of Spark.
Anonymous has been in the news a lot, from the group's support of Occupy Wall Street to their hack of the CIA website. But who are they? Why do they do what they do? And, if they're supposed to be anonymous, how do they organize, strategize and execute complicated hacks and protests? That's what Gabriella Coleman is trying to find out. The Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University has been studying Anonymous and is currently writing a book about the group.
Anonymous is an "internet meme" that originally originated in 2003 on the popular forum 4chan. Originally focused on entertainment, the group moved towards "hactivism" in 2008, and is considered by many, including CNN, to be a successor to Wikileaks. Their focus has shifted in the recent decade from entertainment to politics and activism.
Coleman admits that it's not easy to explain what Anonymous is or what they do. "They are very difficult to define," she told Spark host Nora Young. "It is the case that it's a name, a banner that is taken by different individuals and groups to co-ordinate different political operations and these range from digital ones to offline forms of street demonstrations." However, Coleman has noticed some key trends that point to "sort of consistency with the kinds of actions or issues they tend to engage in," such as resisting censorship.
While many call Anonymous a group of "hactivists," Coleman isn't so sure. For Coleman, hactivism is a "very directed forms of technological activism" and Anonymous's activities are too broad in scope to fit under this singular umbrella. "There's many different operations within Anonymous that don't necessarily have to do with technology assistance or hacking into computers," she pointed out. "[Calling it hactivism] distorts the image of what Anonymous entails."
In recent years, Anonymous was involved in the Arab Spring, attacked Koch Industries, hacked the Bank of America, attacked Sony's websites, campaigned against child pornography, worked with the People's Liberation Front in Nigeria, and hacked the websites of Interpol and the CIA and more. Anonymous has shown "enormous variability in both the kinds of participants and the operations they engage in."
Now that Anonymous has established itself as an influential force in humanitarian campaigns, political activism and more, where does the group go from here? Coleman isn't sure. "In some ways only time will tell whether they can survive the types of chilling effects that come from legal crack downs," she said. "Then of course there's a question of whether they can survive being a loose collective that never quite gets organized."