Contemporary life exists in the real and the digital. Social media represents the digital existence, and a group called Anonymous uses digital anarchy as a false narrative of protest.
In the midst of the unrest after the death of George Floyd, while the media brought images of anarchists burning the police precinct in Minneapolis, there were also reports of the Minneapolis Police Department Website being shut down by social media Hacktivists called the Anonymous. Both acts are equally destructive. While the media offers a good coverage of the real life anarchists, it is equally important to understand the strategy of hackers as they use media to do their digital anarchy.
They have a two part strategy: 1) create a false digitally mediated protest narrative based on dubious data, and 2) rely on the traditional media to gain credibility.
On May 31 a false protest narrative was produced by circulating dubious data as authentic information on a social media platform – Twitter. As a result, the initial announcement from Anonymous produced about 2,232,000 tweets which were circulated within three hours on May 31. This created a narrative that Anonymous had access to sensitive and secret data that they had made public. Twitter users went into a frenzy about the ‘data,’ afraid that it would suddenly disappear.
In the meantime outlets like News 18 ended up endorsing the false narrative by saying that Anonymous has promised, “’proof’ against everything the Internet has asked – Donald Trump, Jeffery Epistein, Princess Diana’s death, the Royal Family, Bill Gates, Naomi Campbell’s involvement, and many, many, more.”
The data that was served as the ‘proof’ was nothing special; it was made up of four year old documents available through Scribd. This aspect of the narrative remained unquestioned because the Hacktivists utilized another known media principle – people want the media to offer narratives that align with their beliefs.
The “fan base” circulated the narrative on social media rapidly; for example on May 31 my preliminary analysis of tweets showed some of the tweets were retweeted nearly 65,000 times within a minute. This is how the narrative took hold of social media and millions began to see ‘proof’ of what they already believed.
Once the protest narrative had been circulated through social media, the next part of the strategy was to produce credibility. Anonymous was inadvertently supported in this by the traditional media.
Consider for instance how on June 1, BBC described the group as: “activists, taking aim at those they accuse of misusing power. They do so in very public ways, such as hijacking websites or forcing them offline.” In a similar tone Zee News headlined on June 1: “hacker group Anonymous’ message to Minneapolis Police takes over the internet.”
Other major outlets offered a glorious image of Anonymous with reports like the one in Bloomberg Law which described the group as the front line of social mediated protest; in another case, on June 1 by The Independent stated that Anonymous “expresses sympathy with the protesters and suggests that supporters will pursue publicity campaigns to release further information.” Such reports not only offered the credibility these groups seek, but elevated the groups to a heroic status based on their activities.
Consider, for instance, the report on May 31 in The Week that described Anonymous as: “The decentralized hacktivist collective known for their operations against the Church of Scientology, ISIS and during the Arab Spring.” This granted the group a heroic status, fighting enemies such as the ISIS. This sentiment is duplicated in the May 31 report in Metro where the group is glorified in stating: “Hacktivist group Anonymous have returned with a video which pledges to expose Minneapolis Police Department’s many crimes to the world following the killing of George Floyd.” Terms such as “pledge” and “expose” are linguistic markers of something bold.
Yet, what is actually done is not particularly heroic – good number of technologists with appropriate training can bring down a Website. Yet this act becomes an indicator of credibility for Anonymous as circulated by the traditional media narrative.
What disappears in these traditional and social media narratives is the reality that Hacktivists are merely hackers who are able to steal data and do data-based disruption. They are not some digital wizards but are closer to petty thieves as reported by Reuters in 2012 describing the arrest of six members of Anonymous who: “took credit for a range of hacking attacks on government and private sector websites.” This narrative often disappears from sight.
In the end, it is important to recognize that hackers like Anonymous create digitally mediated false protest narratives via social media using dubious data and technological parlor tricks. Their actions are usually not based on any deep seated moral argument about real inequities. Just as looters vilify true protest, hackers give protest within social media a bad name.