Guardians of the Republic: How social media inspired a generation

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The tides of journalism are changing drastically from print media to online, and the journalists themselves must turn with them, or sink. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected via the internet, anyone can become a pseudo-famous journalist, literally overnight, simply by being at the right place at the right time and making the quick decision to capture it on a camera phone and upload it to the internet. This has lead to the decline and even collapse of once major print media companies, where the internet has become the largest source of where people obtain their news (Pew). Only the biggest and best sources can survive, assuming that they find an efficient way to transfer their traditional print style into an online source. While by its very definition, journalism is still the driving force to promote social change, the game has changed, and so have its players. The birth of anonymous online journalism is quickly becoming the most powerful and socially interconnected force in the world directly playing huge rolls in conflicts as diverse as the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa and the Occupy Wall Street Movement.

There are two realms of the internet world that most people navigate through, and the largest is the social realm. Website conglomerates such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are sites in which one may impose their personal life into electronic form. The internet “you” then becomes an online representation of your life. Another, less mainstream but equally notable realm of internet is the realm of anonymity. In this realm, there is “no rules and no risk of failure” like one would find in the “real” world. This makes the anonymous realm of the internet “raw, unfiltered, disgusting, chaotic, offensive, anarchic and utterly beautiful” (Poole). This realm is dying, as social networking sites are tending to take over (Poole). Though websites that are built on anonymity are few, those that remain are the driving force of the internet. The internet culture they are shaping is beginning to creep its way into a culture that is defining a generation and erasing the line drawn between “real” life and “online” life.

The most notable of these websites is the infamous 4chan, a popular image board that has been attributed as a “meme factory,” and by its owner Christopher “Moot” Poole, the “dark heart” of the internet (Poole). 4chan is based on a style of image board originally adopted from Japanese Manga and Anime image boards, in which a user posts a picture and others comment; literally one of the oldest forms of internet communication as we know it today (Alexa). What makes 4chan special is that every user is completely anonymous, apart from a few moderators that are rarely seen (Poole). When a user posts a picture, they start what is called a “thread,” and the way threads stay on top of the board, is by how often they are replied to. There is eight threads a page, and fifteen pages. When a thread is not replied to for a few minutes, it is deleted from the server, and never to be seen again. There are numerous, interest specific, boards on 4chan, such as “/a/” which is a board for anime and manga, or /fit/ for fitness, but by far the overwhelming amount of traffic comes from the /b/ board, or “random.”

In its infancy, /b/ was truly random, though over time popular themes began to arise. Almost all of them being morbid beyond what is accepted in any culture, such as excessive gore, blatant racism, and even at times child pornography. 4chan, and especially the /b/ board, have received an immense amount of scrutiny from all types of media, and even the FBI, for some of the awful and illegal things that are known to be in excess there. Among other outcomes, including multiple arrests, one of the biggest consequence’s of this scrutiny was an increase in traffic: /b/ became immensely powerful.

And as the website began to grow, it’s themes began to change; and some of the largest concerns orbiting the board were regarding social change, and world politics. /b/ began to form coalitions of thousands of people from across the world who were all loosely agreed on one common goal, and would come together to achieve whatever outcome they randomly decided on, for nothing else than entertainment (We Are Legion). This quickly coined the term “raiding,” and one of the first notable “raids” took place on a (at the time) popular game called “Habbo Hotel,” where players created an avatar and walked around a virtual hotel meeting other players. /b/ decided they would make their own avatar, and everyone dressed up like a black man, in a suit with a huge afro. Using 4chan as their basis for communication, rather than the in-game chat, they were able to coordinate their in-game movements, without anyone else seeing; a tactic that would soon be used to save lives, and instigate wars in the real world. All the hundreds of players dresses as this black man in the suit, formed a giant swastika in front of the virtual pool, achieving absolutely nothing, apart from frustrating a few hundred people for about an hour (We Are Legion).

Strangely, this night had global ramifications. The rest of the world of course recognized nothing about the incident, but the anonymous users of /b/ began to realize the things they could achieve when working together in mass. Eventually this lead to the forming of the group Anonymous, derived from the anonymous posting that takes place mainly on 4chan, and other sites like it. In Anonymous, there are a few central figures, made pseudo-famous mainly from internet and hacking culture, but there is no central leader calling the shots (Encyclopedia Dramatica). There is no initiation, it is not a club, however there is a strict set of rules, that are for the most part, loosely followed, if at all, called the “Rules of the Internet” (Encyclopedia Dramatica).

Shortly after the loose formation of Anonymous, it decided to repeat the “raid” on Habbo Hotel, in the real world, and their target was The Church of Scientology. There is no single reason why Anonymous decided to attack The Church of Scientology, other than as a form of protest against their ideology and forms of practice (Jacobsen). It started with minor hacking attacks which shut down their main website. More, petty, attacks were also carried out when the personal information of Scientology founders was released, resulting in the ordering of hundreds pizzas to their homes, prank calls and signing them up for Craigslist personals ads, among other pranks. This went on for a few days before the protest was deemed “Project Chanology” and took to the streets (Jacobsen). The Church of Scientology is known for their aggressive legal retaliation against those who protest them, so Anonymous decided that if they were to take to the streets in rebellion, they would need to mask their identity. This gave birth to the Guy Fawkes mask as a symbol for Anonymous; otherwise known as the “V for Vendetta” mask. Half of the reason was to mask their identity, the other half was used as a metaphoric statement to the nature of being “anonymous” (We Are Legion).

Anonymous engaged in what has been referred to as cyber-guerrilla tactics against The Church of Scientology, and gave rise to the popular term “cyber-terrorism”(McLetchie and Prichard et. al.) In the “real world” protest, over 170 protests were held outside of Scientology centers in major cities around the world on February 2, 2008, and on the first day of protests reached over 7,000 people, and yielded 4,000 related search results on Google when one searched for “scientology,” or even the word “protest” (Jacobsen) The Google search results were later attributed to an Anonymous hacking forum, Lulz Sec that wished to bring more attention to the situation (We Are Legion). The Anonymous protests against The Church of Scientology were important for the group, in that the common mentality among its “members” was that together they were strong: in their words “We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget.” Simply, they were a force to be reckoned with (McLaughlin).

Following the protests against The Church of Scientology, there were a number of smaller, less organized protests taking place constantly. Anonymous as a collective however, took the momentum built up around the Scientology protests, and when revolution broke out in The Middle East in late 2010, Anonymous was the first on the scene, and was even attributed to helping instigate the initial unrest. While the Egyptian revolution is often accepted as the first major step in Arab Spring, the first set of protests actually took place in Tunisia, in which Anonymous played a direct role (Preston).

While unrest was boiling in the Middle East, PayPal, Mastercard and Amazon pulled services for WikiLeaks, so that people were no longer able to make donations. Members of Anonymous raised the issue on 4chan, where users found numerous Neo Nazi groups where donations could be made by PayPal, Mastercard, Visa and Amazon. “There was a sense that WikiLeaks was exposing lies told by the government, that the government was trying desperately not to expose” (We Are Legion). Anonymous used the same tactics they used against The Church of Scientology, using different modes of hacking to shut down PayPal, and block related transactions with Mastercard, eventually disabling the international websites for both companies. Adding insult to injury, WikiLeaks was then blocked in Tunisia (Assange). An already fragile country was then opened to the anger of Anonymous, and Anonymous struck back.

“OPTunisia,” as it is formally called by Anonymous, was the first real “non internet social movement that Anonymous was involved in” that ended up having world impact (We Are Legion). The Tunisian government began blocking websites, censoring risky Wikipedia posts, and literally stole Facebook passwords to delete posts, and replace them with false, pro-government posts. Tunisian members of the hacker sect of Anonymous came to American hackers, who still had access to the sites, and presented valuable personal, and incriminating information regarding the dictator of Tunisa, Mohamed Bouazizi. The American hackers helped Tunisian hacker groups extract valuable information, and then released it to WikiLeaks (Assange). It is important to note that while these revolutions were facilitated by internet websites like Facebook, Twitter, WikiLeaks, the revolution was “not caused by it: fifty years of dictatorship caused the Arab Spring” (We Are Legion). When Mohamed Bouazizi stepped down from his post, a few YouTube videos reached well over 25,000 views, collectively, of a protest in Tunis, Tunisia, where Tunisian rebels are seen holding a Guy Fawkes mask in the air and explicitly thanking Anonymous for helping with their revolution. “You were the only ones who stood by our side,” they said, “we want you to know that you have found new allies.” The Tunisian rebels continued to explain how the internet culture fueled their end result of freedom (AnonOps via YouTube).

While the revolution in Tunisia was far from over, the work Anonymous was capable of doing was finished and as a group, they turned their attention towards Egypt (We Are Legion). “In the lead up to the Egyptian Revolution they would Tweet on people’s behalf,” by taking messages from people in Egypt who were unable to access Twitter on their own, Anonymous would set of faux accounts to post the Tweets, pictures and videos coming directly from Egypt, and post them all over the internet to raise awareness, and gain momentum for those fighting for freedom in Egypt (We Are Legion). The “journalist” in Egypt quickly moved from a traditional sense, to a person who simply was “there” and happened to get the incident on film, whatever it was that was taking place. According to Anonymous figurehead and “master hacker,” Commander X, “the thing about Egypt is that it was personal. It broke us emotionally. Watching in real time, with live feed, we helped the world see Egyptians get massacred with machine guns. It was different. Never in my life of cyber-activism have I wept like that. Never has anything touched me, the way Egypt touched me” (We Are Legion).

On January 27, 2011, the Mubarak regime shut down the entire internet in Egypt.  “First Twitter was flooded and then suddenly, everything was quiet” (We are Legion and Zhuo et. al.) As a repercussion to this, like Tunisia, Egyptian members of the hacker sect of Anonymous turned to American Anonymous, and asked for their help. Anonymous kindly obliged by working with other activist groups such as Telecomix to set up one page PDF files that could be easily distributed via the internet and fax (for those in Egypt with no internet connection). The files detailed instructions on how to create dial-up connections using a ham radio and small network connections (Zhuo et. al.). By rewriting SSL keys and encryption logs, a few central players in the Egyptian revolution were able to once again access forms of the internet, in which they used specific IP addresses to relay crucial information to Anonymous in the United States and Europe, which those members would use to continue hosting Egyptian internet outside of Egypt, rendering the technological blockade placed by Mubarak, useless (We Are Legion and Zhuo et. al.). Along with these specific instructions, groups like Telecomix released what they called a “care package,” which firstly included PDF files on how to access the internet in a blocked state, and also included single page info-graphics on how to treat exposure to tear gas, instructions for basic medical treatment, as well as tips for effectively engaging in other forms of resistance against riot police tactics (Skinner). Before sending the “care packages” to Egypt, Telecomix sent the information to other countries in the Middle East, where other factions of Anonymous translated the information into Arabic, and eventually escorted the valuable information to Egypt. When the internet in Egypt had successfully bypassed the government initiated block, the only Egyptian website that continued to stay down, was the government website of president Mubarak, which was attributed to the will of the US hacker sect of Anonymous (Encyclopedia Dramatica). When president Mubarak stepped down from power, Egyptians held the same respect for Anonymous as was seen previously in Tunisa, and they thanked Anonymous for the work they did in helping them achieve their goals. Anonymous replied “look, you guys just get our back if stuff goes down here” (We Are Legion). And not shortly afterwords, it did.

Sparked by numerous causes, such as momentum form the Arab Spring, a failing economy, a striking rise in unemployment and a new peak in cyber consciousness, the Occupy Wall Street movements took the US by storm in late 2011.These few ingredients cooked into what is now considered the biggest protest movement since the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s (Obama). The Occupy Movements began on Wall Street, on September 16, 2011, when then only hundreds of protestors flooded Zuccotti park, and dubbed it “Liberty Park.” The organization of the initial demonstration is credited to a webzine called Adbusters, and groups working with Anonymous, whose “one simple demand” was “a presidential commission to separate money from politics” in order to “set the agenda for a new America” (Adbusters). According to the Washington Post, by October 9, 2011, similar “occupy” demonstrations had been held in seventy major U.S. cities, 700 communities, and over 900 cities worldwide (Washington Post Oct. 15, 2011). It was this movement that brought Anonymous out of the realm of simply working side by side with journalists, to making them a valuable news source in themselves.

Anonymous became tied into the Occupy movements almost naturally. Apart from having a few committees to organize events, and a few influential public speakers, the movement is for the most part leaderless. Protestors argue though, that while this is misinterpreted as a weakness, it is indeed not only a strength, but the essence of the movement altogether. Protestors generally argue that having a leader would be detrimental to the movement as a whole, because the protests are designed to speak out for the voice of the people as a whole. To quote another anonymous picket sign, “we do not want people leading us anymore”. Leadership influences false representation, and that is one of the main things the Occupy movement, and Anonymous are trying to abolish.

For the first notable time in US history, an important “journalist” was no longer someone who worked with news organizations, and followed stories, but it could be anyone who had a cell phone camera, happened to catch an incident on tape, and had to courage to post it to YouTube. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter worked with the Occupy movements in the same way that Anonymous used them to shine light on instances of injustice in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria.

When the Occupy movements turned to Oakland, they became violent. Occupy Oakland’s violence first started with the standard riot control procedure of tear gas. Of course, this being the first act of newsworthy violence against protestors, it gained global attention instantly as members of Anonymous pushed to video into a synthetic viral stage. Protestors from other movements responded. Protesters from Tarhir Square in Egypt sent their regards in the form of instructions for a do-it-yourself gasmask, and posted the information on a popular website called whyweprotest.net, with the closing words “God speed” (Skinner). Also, Scott Olsen, a United States Marine veteran, was shot in the head with a tear gas canister, by police, which fractured his skull, and left him in critical condition in the hospital. When protestors ran over to save him, they were hit point blank with a flash grenade, which is considered a non lethal weapon, but can still rupture ear drums at a point blank range. Some protestors acted out against the police, and retaliated by instigating random acts of vandalism throughout the streets, but were stopped by fellow protestors in every case; a promising outcome that shows that the movement  still maintained a peaceful note.

While the flame of the Occupy movements themselves has dimmed, and may seem over, the internet mentality of Anonymous asks simply where to go from here. Daily operations that hold the same themes as to why Anonymous decided to help in Tunisia, Egypt or Occupy, are still raging. The most recent took place this November, when Anonymous declared cyber-war on Israel with what they deemed “OPIsrael”, a project that is part of a larger, ongoing operation called “OPPalestine”. According to The Telegraph, a member of Anyonymous wrote “[When] the government of Israel publicly threatened to sever all Internet and other telecommunications into and out of Gaza they crossed a line in the sand.” Much like what took place when Mubarak tried to shut down the internet in Egypt, Anonymous intends on using much of the same tactics to help those in Gaza get their voices heard. As a response to this, a form of the Jewish Defense Force, called the JIDF, or Jewish Internet Defense Force, “dispatched 20,000 pro-Israel supporters to social networking sites to manage public perception”. The JIDF even attempted to penetrate 4chan, the nest of Anonymous, and deemed that “open boards, as 4chan that promote anonymous posting of content are a dangerous tool. Go to the boards Random (/b/), or Weapons (/k/) and talk about pro-Israel topics” (thejidf.org).

Anonymous continues to promote one thing above all else though, and that is the freedom and importance of the individual. Anonymous is in no way a criminal organization, and likewise, they are not heros. They will not stand up to all the bad things in the world simply because they are bad. They only intervene in full force when the individual’s freedoms are threatened, and even then, they only work as a driving force to promote that a voice can be heard, regardless of what that voice is saying. For example, numerous ideas have been lobbied at launching more attacks against the Westboro Baptist Church, but they are ultimately shot down because the general idea is that the Westboro Baptist Church speaks its mind, and despite how disgusting those words may be, the important part is that they can say what they want.

As for if Anonymous as a group will always retain their status as “defenders of the republic,” I cannot say. But one thing is for certain: the freedom of the individual is indeed a God given right, and will be fought for so long as there are those who which to oppress it, wether in cyberspace, on the battlefield, or both. As journalists continue to be the worlds driving force for social change, the common journalist is turning from a trade, to the hands of the individual. And just as how capturing a story is becoming the responsibility of the common person, so the wheels of change are turning, and the rise of the anonymous individual is gaining momentum.

Works Cited

Skinner, Julia. (2011). “Social Media and Revolution: The Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement as Seen through Three Information Studies Paradigms,” . Sprouts: Working Papers on Information Systems, 11(169). http://sprouts.aisnet.org/11-169

Preston, Jennifer. “Movement Began With Outrage and a Facebook Page That Gave It an Outlet.” Www.unf.edu. N.p., 5 Feb. 2011. Web. 27 Nov. 2012.

McLetchie, Patti. “Activism and Emerging Media” – Patti McLetchie.” Why We Protest. Media Reports, 4 Dec. 2011. Web. 12 Dec. 2012.

McLaughlin, Victoria. “Anonymous: What Do We Have to Fear from Hacktivism, the Lulz, and the Hive Mind?” Program in Political and Social Thought at the University of Virginia, 2 Apr. 2012. Web. 14 Dec. 2012.

Saporito, Bill. “Hack Attack.” Time. CNN, 23 June 2011. Web. 14 Dec. 2012.

Prichard, Janet J., and Laurie E. Laurie. “Cyber Terrorism: A Study of the Extent of Coverage in Computer Security Textbooks.” Journal of Information Technology Education. Bryant University, n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2012.

Zhuo, Xiaolin, Barry Wellman, and Justine Yu. “Egypt: The First Internet Revolt?” Peace Magazine, July-Aug. 2011. Web. 13 Dec. 2012.

Assange, Julian. Cypherpunks – Freedom and the Future of the Internet. [S.l.]: Or, 2012. Print.

Longbottom, Will. “Obama’s Backing for Greed Protesters: ‘MLK Would Want Us to Challenge Excesses of Wall Street’”. Daily Mail, October 18, 2011. Web. November 25, 2012.

Adam, Karla. “Occupy Wall Street Protests Go Global”. The Washington Post, October 15, 2011. Web. November 27, 2012.

We Are Legion. Dir. Brian Knappenberger. FilmBuff, 2012. DVD.

Pew Center for Research. “Infographic | State of the Media.” Infographic | State of the Media. Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2012. Web. 17 Dec. 2012.

Christopher “moot” Poole: The Case for Anonymity Online. Perf. Christopher Poole. TED, 2010. Online.

“4chan.org.” Site Info. Alexa: The Web Information Company, n.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2012.

Anonymous. “Main Page.” – Encyclopedia Dramatica. Anonymous, 10 Dec. 2004. Web. 14 Dec. 2012.

“Jewish Internet Defense Force.” Jewish Internet Defense Force. Independant, 2009. Web. 15 Dec. 2012.

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