This is a quite extraordinary book about an intriguing subject – and one that is perhaps even more important now than when the Anonymous network burst on to the scene a few years ago. Drawing on more than half a decade of research on – and what may be uniquely close access to – this loosely connected international network of digital activists, pranksters and hacktivists, US anthropologist Gabriella Coleman has produced something that anyone interested in the internet, and many others, should read.
In Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, Coleman provides intense, compelling insights into the people and activities of Anonymous and its various related groups. The book’s language is engaging, entertaining and often surprising. It is a rare academic book indeed that opts to describe its primary subject as a “wily hydra”, its activities as “ultracoordinated motherfuckery” and its tactic of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks as a “moral pretzel”; that deploys terms like “snorlaxed”; and that refers in passing to the “mephitic, durian-like rot of the city”. But make no mistake about it; this is very much an academic book, treating both its subject and its readers with seriousness and erudition. What is more, the language is entirely appropriate; without it, any view of Anonymous would be incomplete. The level of technicality – or rather geekery – is intense at times, but fitting for both the subject matter and the book’s likely readership.
Coleman’s inside stories of Anonymous’ operations are captivating. Her account of its role in the ousting of the Tunisian government in the Arab Spring is particularly fascinating, but she covers other events equally well, from its takedown of the Church of Scientology to the humiliation of security firm Stratfor and the uncovering of the truth in the horrific Steubenville rape scandal in the Midwest. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy is a salient reminder of quite how many dramatic and diverse events Anonymous and its many connected and splinter groups have been involved in.
The story – and this book reads like an epic saga at times – culminates with revelations of treachery and betrayal by one of the best-known of Anonymous-affiliated hackers, Sabu, who was recruited as an informant by the FBI. The sense of tragedy is palpable, and it points to the best-kept secret of Anonymous. Far from being a computerised, automated, amorphous mass disconnected from the offline world, Anonymous is distinctly human and distinctly real. Coleman paints her subject warts and all – and the warts are mighty ugly. Nonetheless, Anonymous’ members are clearly and unmistakably human – far more so than the likes of Google and Facebook, let alone the FBI and the National Security Agency in the US and the Government Communications Headquarters in the UK. Humans are ugly, humans are imperfect, humans do things for good reasons and for bad – and humans refuse to be pigeonholed. Anonymous, as presented here, has an unquestionably human mixture of naivety, cynicism, pragmatism and idealism. Its members defy stereotypes and constantly surprise. As Coleman puts it: “Anonymous is not the white, middle-class, American boys’ club of everyone’s default imagination…those Anons I have met and those unmasked by arrests are a motley bunch.”
For British readers, Coleman’s revelations that among the key Anons are a teenager from the Shetland Islands and an Iraqi refugee from South London might help them see this even more clearly. Anonymous is amorphous, without the standardised structures – or the leadership systems – that many people expect. She observes: “Maybe Anonymous could have achieved more had it had a leader or a static hierarchy…But it is equally probable that Anonymous achieved so much precisely because there was no boss pointing to a fixed destination.”
The different sides of Anonymous are still with us, with attacks late last year on both the Ku Klux Klan and the Supreme Court of Canada making headlines. Anonymous still matters – perhaps more than ever. “What began as a network of trolls has become, for the most part, a force for good in the world,” Coleman argues. “The emergence of Anonymous from one of the seediest places in the Internet is a tale of wonder, of hope, and of playful illusions.”
In our increasingly authoritarian age, we are seeing aggressive attempts to demonise and attack what is variously called the “dark” or “deep” web. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy reminds us that from those dark depths wonderful things can and do emerge. Cleansing these depths – if it is even possible – could have consequences far beyond what GCHQ and the Metropolitan Police might imagine.
Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous
By Gabriella Coleman
Verso Books, 464pp, £16.99
ISBN 9781781685839 and 5846 (e-book)
Published 4 November 2014