Anonymity may encourage antisocial behavior, such as trolling, but we can also identify a noble political imperative behind the mask.
“It’s time to end anonymous comments sections,” implored Kevin Wallsten and Melinda Tarsi in the Washington Post this August. In the U.K., a parliamentary committee has even argued for a “cultural shift” against treating pseudonymous comments as trustworthy. This assault is matched by pervasive practices of monitoring and surveillance, channeled through a stunning variety of mechanisms—from CCTV cameras to the constant harvesting of digital data.
But just as anonymity’s value has sunk to a new low in the eyes of some, a protest movement in favor of concealment has appeared. The hacker collective Anonymous is most famous for its controversial crusades against the likes of dictators, corporations, and pseudo-religions like Scientology. But the group is also the embodiment of this new spirit.
Anonymous may strike a reader as unique, but its efforts represent just the latest in experimentation with anonymous speech as a conduit for political expression. Anonymous expression has been foundational to our political culture, characterizing monumental declarations like the Federalist Papers, and the Supreme Court has repeatedly granted anonymous speech First Amendment protection.
The actions of this group are also important because anonymity remains important to us all. Universally enforcing disclosure of real identities online would limit the possibilities for whistle-blowing and voicing unpopular beliefs—processes essential to any vibrant democracy. And just as anonymity can engender disruptive and antisocial behavior such as trolling, it can provide a means of pushing back against increased surveillance.
By performing a role increasingly unavailable to most Internet users as they participate in social networks and other gated communities requiring real names, Anonymous dramatizes the existence of other possibilities. Its members symbolically incarnate struggles against the constant, blanket government surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden and many before him.
As an anthropologist who has spent half a dozen years studying Anonymous, I’ve have had the unique opportunity to witness and experience just how these activists conceive of and enact obfuscation. It is far from being implemented mindlessly. Indeed, there are important ethical lessons that we can draw from their successes and failures.
Often Anonymous activists, or “Anons,” interact online under the cover of pseudo-anonymity. Typically, this takes the form of a persistent nickname, otherwise known as a handle, around which a reputation necessarily accrues. Among the small fraction of law-breaking Anons, pseudo-anonymity is but one among a roster of tactics for achieving operational security. These include both technical solutions, such as encryption and anonymizing software, and cultivation of the restraint necessary to prevent the disclosure of personal information.
The great majority of Anonymous participants are neither hackers nor lawbreakers but must nonetheless remain circumspect in what they reveal about themselves and others. Sometimes, ignorance is the easiest way to ensure protection. A participant who helped build up one of the larger Anonymous accounts erected a self-imposed fortress between herself and the often-private Internet Relay Chat channels where law-breaking Anons cavorted and planned actions. It was a “wall,” as she put it, which she sought never to breach.
During the course of my research, I eschewed anonymity and mitigated risk by erecting the same wall, making sure not to climb over it. But some organizers were more intrepid. Since they associated with lawbreakers or even witnessed planning of illegal activity on IRC, they chose to cloak themselves for self-protection.
Regardless of the reasons for maintaining anonymity, it shaped many of the ethical norms and mores of the group. The source of this ethic is partly indebted to 4chan, a hugely popular, and deeply subversive, image board that enforced the name “Anonymous” for all users, thus hatching the idea’s potential (see “Radical Opacity”). One activist Anon explained the crucial role of 4chan in cementing what he designates as “the primary ideal of Anonymous”:
“The posts on 4chan have no names or any identifiable markers attached to them. The only thing you are able to judge a post by is its content and nothing else. This elimination of the persona, and by extension everything associated with it, such as leadership, representation, and status, is the primary ideal of Anonymous.”
While many Anons got their start on 4chan, as its activist elements developed most participants gravitated into chat rooms better suited to planning and strategizing. Handles were adopted, and the state of pure anonymity came to an end. But while anonymity and its effects ceased to be a default imposed by the technical parameters of a site, it lived on as an ethical and self-conscious imperative that had to be actively practiced and negotiated.
To this day, Anonymous functions as a social laboratory where participants experiment with the power, threat, and promise of anonymity itself. While anonymous political acts are often portrayed as cowardly, we can just as easily observe a noble imperative: anonymity displaces attention from the messenger to the message.