Benkler on Anonymous and why the ‘threat’ frame fails

Yochai Benkler, the legal and political scholar of the internet best known for writing The Wealth of Networks, offers a refreshing view of Anonymous, the group organization movement… well, I’ll let Benkler describe it:

Anonymous is not an organization. It is an idea, a zeitgeist, coupled with a set of social and technical practices. Diffuse and leaderless, its driving force is “lulz” — irreverence, playfulness, and spectacle. It is also a protest movement, inspiring action both on and off the Internet, that seeks to contest the abuse of power by governments and corporations and promote transparency in politics and business. Just as the antiwar movement had its bomb-throwing radicals, online hacktivists organizing under the banner of Anonymous sometimes cross the boundaries of legitimate protest. But a fearful overreaction to Anonymous poses a greater threat to freedom of expression, creativity, and innovation than any threat posed by the disruptions themselves.

Benkler argues that the view from parts of the U.S. government that Anonymous is a threat, and the tendency of journalists and others to use the language of extremists or terrorists in describing it, presents a misleading frame.

‘Seeing Anonymous primarily as a cybersecurity threat is like analyzing the breadth of the antiwar movement and 1960s counterculture by focusing only on the Weathermen.’

Instead, he argues, Anonymous should be understood in the context of protest: against online regulations that threaten an open internet (such as ACTA), against authoritarian regimes under attack in the “Arab Spring,” and just recently against more stable authoritarian governments such as that of the People’s Republic of China.

Seen as a protest phenomenon, Anonymous then needs to be assessed in the view of the yet undecided limits of legitimate protest online. Benkler notes what Charles Tilly et al. might call a repertoire of contention:

Four techniques constitute the bulk of its direct actions:

  • distributed denial of service attacks;
  • document disclosures;
  • defacement of Web sites;
  • and non-cyber action, ranging from pranks, such as sending targets unwanted pizza deliveries, to street protests.

This is a fairly novel collection of tactics from the perspective of the study of contentious politics, but then Anonymous (neither an organization nor really a movement, etc.) doesn’t nicely fit the popular models of a contentious actor. Perhaps individual incidents have somewhat coherent actors with specific claims against governments or other powers, but the thing we call Anonymous is not discrete, well bounded, or persistent.

I’m not sure what Benkler would think of this tie to contention, but these activities have a lot in common with contention, which raises several questions:

Political scientists and sociologists who study contention often spend a lot of time analyzing trust among people engaging in protest or contention together. Anonymous, with its distributed, decentralized, and indeed largely anonymous mode of practice would seem to present a puzzle. How do people gain each other’s trust to collaborate? How do they calm fears of infiltration by government authorities (who often treat the group as a high-priority criminal network)?

Perhaps my biggest question is: What if anything of substance have people working under the Anonymous banner gained in terms of desired change in government or corporate action? Even asking this question raises the question of what the people concerned wish to accomplish, and I’m not sure there’s an answer. But if Anonymous is imagined as part of a distributed, uncoordinated contentious action, it can contribute to a variety of causes—even potentially opposing ones. Especially with data disclosures, Anonymous can help fuel other forms of contention: documents they release can be used to make claims and demand change, whether in agreement or disagreement with the original hackers.

If the contentious politics framework offers anything, it’s a non-threat narrative that allows governments and others to view Anonymous as opposed to some government action but not in the same way as terrorists.

Read Benkler’s full article at Foreign Affairs.

One response to “Benkler on Anonymous and why the ‘threat’ frame fails

  1. Pingback: Blogs on the left and right use different tech, study says | Graham Webster

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