The Return of Anonymous and the Future of Online Activism: An Interview with Dr. Gabriella Coleman

The Anonymous collective was an enigma of the 2010s, dominating both traditional media and the online sphere. The decentralized “hacktivist” collective was well known for its cyber-attacks on multiple institutions, ranging from the Church of Scientology to the FBI. Pairing political activism, technological skills, and very liberal use of Guy Fawkes mask, the collective’s unique branding and distorted, menacing videos seemed to capture public consciousness. However, despite this rapid success and attention, Anonymous quickly started to fade from public consciousness around 2016. Until recently, it seemed as if Anonymous had only been existing as a ghost of its former self.

In the wake of the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, Anonymous seems to have reemerged, opposing the brutality, lack of accountability, and racism by the Minneapolis police department, as well as engaging in multiple hacks against police departments across America. The return gained practically unprecedented media attention and support online, with longstanding Anonymous twitter accounts gaining massive support. To understand the timing of their return and its implications for activism, MIR’s Triumph Kerins sat down with Dr. Gabriella Coleman to discuss Anonymous and online security, all framed in the backdrop of the worldwide protests against police brutality. 


Triumph Kerins: In the 2010s, the Anonymous collective seemed to be everywhere in popular culture. It seems that since about 2016, the movement has slowly disappeared. Why do you think this was the case?

Dr. Gabriella Coleman: The waning of Anonymous activity was due to a number of factors. One had to do with the fact that a number of the hackers had been arrested. While Anonymous, as a movement, exceeded hacking and, in part, became so global because they were open to anybody, the hackers were the ones who helped generate the events that drove Anonymous to the media. This gave them visibility which was the mechanism to gain new recruits. So, once the hackers were cut off, activity waned. Another reason was that a lot of the social movements of 2011 to 2013, such as Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, also withered from public consciousness. There was a symbiosis between them and Anonymous. With them gone, Anonymous went away. Finally, there was a period post-2016, during which there was an explosion of conservative, far-right political culture online, and it took root in places such as the image boards where Anonymous had originated. All of a sudden, the far-right grew visible in popular culture, and Anonymous faded from online consciousness.

TK: In the wake of the recent protests against police brutality, it seems that Anonymous has returned, declaring war on U.S. police overreach. Anonymous seems to have experienced massive, unprecedented support online. I know there is a lot of debate around the legitimacy of the new activity and accounts. Where  do you stand in this debate? Do you believe this new wave of massive support for Anonymous is legitimate or manufactured?

GC: It’s a mix. They are indeed good at using a botnet and buying followers, but, thanks to that, they also started gaining more legitimate followers. Then, they use this platform to broadcast the protests and find information to leak. My research has so far indicated that the current dramatic increase in numbers in long standing Anonymous twitter accounts is a mix of manufactured and authentic support.  

We usually need more time to verify these things, but that is what I have learnt so far. There is also a feedback loop: if you get more followers and start trending, then a lot of people see you and follow you. A large part of the base that has supported Anonymous is part of the Korean Pop network, which is huge, and has often gotten involved in politics. They’re really in support of Black Lives Matter, and a number of authentic K-Pop accounts have been boosting the Anonymous profile, and vice-versa.

TK: So, the return of Anonymous is exciting, but given the splintering of the movement after the arrests of original members, do you believe there are enough hacktivists to credibly back up their goals?

GC: There are certainly enough people with the technical capacity, but we have yet to see whether or not they are willing to take the risk of hacktivist work. The activity of hacking, leaking, and flooding a network with so much traffic that it is inaccessible has always happened sporadically.

The recruitment question is a very interesting one. When Anonymous was quite big in 2010-2011, they would trend on Twitter, and then they would funnel people to chat rooms, which became an important way to recruit people. They aren’t doing this anymore because of security issues that didn’t exist in 2010. Twitter isn’t good for recruitment — it’s good for broadcasting, cheerleading, and gaining active supporters. In order to get real participants, they need new recruitment strategies, and I don’t see that those exist right now. That being said, their visibility is so prominent, that it alone could potentially spark the desire to engage in that type of activity.

TK: A big part of your research is trying to pin down the constantly morphing moral system of the Anonymous Collective. What do you believe it says about the ongoing protest movement that Anonymous has chosen this time to return?

GC: Politically, the name Anonymous was historically used for a variety of liberal and left-leaning causes. It attracted many activists, who either had been involved in activism for a long time, or formed their political identity based on Anonymous.

What’s important in relation to the present is this: while Anonymous had no united political vision, and they didn’t believe in the purity of politics, the vast majority of the causes they supported were progressive-liberal causes. This set up a path dependence and a pattern that stuck. Currently, where there are protests against police brutality and racism, it doesn’t surprise me that they are supporting those causes.

Anonymous has long been involved with Black Lives Matter and fighting against police brutality. With the protests in Ferguson in 2014, Anonymous was one of the first groups to really use their platform to publicize it. When Erica Gardner, the daughter of Eric Garner, who was killed by the NYPD, passed away, whoever was fielding her Twitter account paid homage to Anonymous, thanking them for always helping around Black Lives Matter issues and the Eric Garner case. There is a very strong historical connection between Anonymous and BLM. It’s recent enough that it was activated and transitioned over to the present moment. It seems like this path dependency is still playing out, even if it doesn’t guarantee that Anonymous will follow down the same left-wing path in the future.

A protester holding a sign, calling for the defunding of police departments in response to the racism and lack of accountability in the institution. These recent protest movements are largely organized online, which leaves protesters vulnerable to online surveillance by police. “Defund the Police” by Taymaz Valley is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

TK: A key feature of the ongoing protests is the use of social media for organization and solidarity. It seems to have worked, by mobilizing massive amounts of activists. However, I assume that the online nature of the organization of these protests could also lead to the potential vulnerability of protestors’ online security, especially given the current crackdown on the ongoing protests in the U.S. Is that an accurate statement?

GC: That’s very accurate. It can take form in police departments using images that have been called from the Internet or Facebook — through companies like ClearView, a facial recognition and surveillance AI company recently in the news for working with law enforcement — in order to provide images of people to identify them at protests. Adding to that, the Minnesota government is going to use contact tracing apps to identity protesters. 

With Trump seeking to label ANTIFA as a terrorist organization, despite many of the protesters not identifying with that label, you have the perfect storm for law enforcement to indiscriminately identify people at protests to either arrest them or begin to surveil them over time, under the justification of suspicion of terrorist activity. Unfortunately, digital media is kind of a double-edged sword. It does facilitate the organization of protests, it helps catalyze things, it helps get people out there, but it also makes it easier for law enforcement to use it as a tool against protesters. 

Luckily today there are more options than there were in the recent past for communicating securely. Signal, for example, is a great program for texting and phone calls that are end-to-end encrypted. It is good not to take your phone to protests, because the location data can be used against you later. There are some mechanisms to protect yourself, but I would say it is not in the hands of the masses yet and is still very much a problem.

TK: To what degree do you believe government surveillance is being used against protesters?

GC: I don’t have any definitive proof of anything, but judging from recent and less recent history, they will use anything and everything at their disposal. They will do so in ways that are legal, illegal, and on the fence. It usually takes an enormous amount of work after the fact to find out exactly what was used and how it was used. Regardless, we have to assume that it is happening. From drones being put out, to facial recognition software, they’ll also have relatively new tools at their disposal. Although some technology companies are less likely to give out location data, as they have been exposed in the past for doing so, it nevertheless remains an important source of data. There are also tools law enforcement can use themselves in order to capture cell phone data, such as IMSI captures. There’s a lot. Again, they won’t catch or surveil everyone, but they have put enough of a net out there to create fear, which is a well worn tactic and they are very good at it. 

TK: What do you believe open source software’s role is in terms of activism and personal privacy?

GC: That’s a very important question. When you look at the commercial technologies of the present, many of them are geared towards domination and violating your privacy, because there is money to be made in that. Protecting privacy, on the other hand, is not something where there is much money to be made. There is a consumer market to some degree, but generally if we are going to provide deep privacy enhancing technologies, it won’t be backed by a company who is looking for a return on their investment. So, a lot of the tools that exist come from the open source world. This doesn’t mean they are all non-profits or totally free. Some have companies behind them, but generally these projects come from grassroots domains, like Tor. It takes a lot of work and effort to fund the development of these projects, and having them be open-source can help in terms of building a community and having many people audit code. 

TK: There seems to exist a popular belief that if a person has nothing to hide, lack of online anonymity or privacy isn’t an issue. Furthermore, people seem to believe that people who seek online privacy are often up to nefarious or even criminal means. How do you feel about this assessment?

 GC: Anonymity in particular, which allows you to act and speak publicly undercover tends to have negative associations with nefariousness, criminality and bad behaviour. In part, that is because anonymity provides the conditions for that sort of behaviour. At the same time, it is very valuable and necessary to speak freely and organize politically. One of the big challenges has been not to simply find the financial support for privacy enhancing technological projects, but also to advocate for them and disassociate them from these negative connotations. 

I actually believe that it is getting easier, and it’s taken a lot of work, but it is precisely the fact of having a company like ClearView, which has ties to the fascist world, that helped us realize that being surveilled all the time is bad. I think that you must always explain why the protection of privacy is a good thing, and it takes a lot of education, work, and concrete examples in order to get people to come to understand it. They might not really need privacy politically, but if you get them to see that lawyers, human rights advocates, and protesters need it, then they embrace it and they are securing a whole ecosystem.  

TK: Would you say you are pessimistic or optimistic about the future of online privacy and rights, and what role do you believe hacktivism has to play, if any, in protecting those rights?

 GC: I would say I’m neither wholly optimistic or pessimistic, but, compared to something like climate change — which feels very overwhelming and is difficult to intervene in without massive government and corporate coordination — groups such as computer hackers and public interest technologists can provide at least enough tools to protect the most vulnerable. They can intervene in a way that is very meaningful. I’d say I’m slightly optimistic, if in a contained way.


Dr. Gabriella Coleman is a professor and holder of the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University. Her research examines the politics, cultures, and ethics of hacking and online activism. Specifically, she focuses on the implications of the free software movement and the Anonymous collective. She is also the founder of Hack_Curio, a video database which explains the global phenomenon of hacking. Her book, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous, dives further into the history, ethics, and the Anonymous phenomenon. She will be teaching COMS 490 in Fall 2020, and COMS 501 in Winter 2021, and both seminars will be focused on  topics similar to those discussed in this interview.


Edited by Justine Coutu

The featured image “Anonymous #38 by Jacob Davis is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0