Operation Payback, Anonymous and Wikileaks: A look at tactics, morality and innovation

Nearly two weeks after my first post on Wikileaks, their diplomatic cables and the resulting fall out continue to make the front page news. The arrest of Assange and attacks on Mastercard, Visa and Paypal by “Operation Payback” have garnered far more attention then the cables themselves. The New York Times quoted one Internet guru comparing Operation Payback to the battle at Lexington that started the Revolutionary war in the United States.

In looking at “Operation Payback” and its denial of service attacks, journalists have begun to focus on Anonymous, which is typically described as the group of hackers behind the attacks. Some portray it as a shadowy cadre of internet vigilantes, meeting somewhere out there in the ether, plotting their next strike. Others paint a heroic picture of activists fighting for free speech against giant corporations and governments. Estimates of the number of people (or computers) involved vary widely.

A little bit of history is useful in understanding Anonymous. I first came became aware of Anonymous through their Project Chanology campaign which focused around opposition to Scientology. In their protests outside Scientology offices, they wore masks modeled on that worn by the main character in V is for Vendetta. Along with demonstrations, their tactics used by Project Chanology were a lot like high school pranks: sometimes silly, sometimes crude, often juvenile and always motivated by a strong sense of righteous indignation. The collective culture of Anonymous was born in the /b/ section 4chan, an internet forum worthy of its own lengthy article. Suffice it to say that 4chan thrives on trolling, griefing, digital bullying and generally offensiveness of all sorts.

The targets of campaigns attributed by Anonymous suggest an eccentric unpredictably similar to the internet board it was born on. Along with the Church of Scientology, previous targets included a white supremacist, an internet predators, Youtube, the government of Iran, a rival discussion forum and the Epilepsy Foundation. See Wikipedia for the whole list.

To understand the history of Anonymous I find it helpful to look at it as a tactic more then a group. That is, when there is a critical mass of outrage in 4chan and related gathering spaces, they pick up the Anonymous banner, dust it off and rally an ad-hoc group to the banner for the latest campaign. Over time, the Anonymous tactic has gained more and more recognition and it’s visibility has made it increasingly useful as a tool for gathering energy, raising visibility and pressuring those it targets.

This interview with a member of Operation Payback is instructive. The first question the journalist asks is about Anonymous as a group, but he jumps right over the question and instead talks about the goals of Operation Payback. This is savvy press handling, but it also reflects the way the existence of Anonymous is inseparable from the individual campaign that is using Anonymous as a tactic. He also responds to the label of cyberwar at minute mark 4:15.

This tactic can adapt itself to fit (or not) others expectations. The huge attention suddenly focused on Anonymous is likely shaping the self-perceptions of those using the tactic. Today’s press release uses the term “internet gathering” ( and “movement” do describe Anonymous. In it they define themselves as an “Internet gathering” and a movement. Another Anonymous related site, WhyWeProtest.net describes Anonymous as “cultural phenomenon.

The press release suggests those involved in Anonymous is attempting to adjust its strategy. The release says, “We are in the process of better communication some core values to the individual atoms that compromise Anonyomous”. Will Anonymous mature and become a new force for good in the digital world? Can a tactic have core values? The announcement of a “Operation Leakspin” suggests an attempt to put the focus back on the content of the diplomatic cables. Some commentators see this as the maturing of Anonymous. While the members of Operation Payback may adapt and refine their tactics, I’m not sure it makes any sense to talk about Anonymous itself becoming more sensible or moral. Would we talk about a boycott or a sit-in maturing? Tactics are created, then refined and perfected over time, but their morality depends on those who use them. In the same way Anonymous is a tactic that has been used in different ways by groups of internet users over the last past few years.

When it comes to morality, looking at Anonymous as a tactic makes the moral reasoning more complex. We can’t just pick out one example of how its been used and make a blanket judgement on every use in the future. But we can notice patterns. For example, it does seems to lend itself to large groups focusing their anger on one entity. Because it is not tied to any physical location it has limited accountability to traditional governing bodies. Indeed, it tends to set up its own governance system for any given operation or project, similar to a strike committee. For more, see this video in which a journalist describes his night sitting in on the IRC chat where Operation Payback decisions are made. It also has clear parallels to traditional vigilante justice, though it is not physically violent.

However the comparison to traditional nonviolence tactics has its limit. As a digital tactic it is connected the anonymity and collective consciousness of the internet culture that spawned it. Many of those shaping this tactic are teenagers who have never known a time without the internet. They take its tools for granted. If Clay Shirky is right they, like the generation born after the printing press, will be the ones who find ways to use these new tools in ways that are disruptive in ways that we can’t predict. In the end, it may be less like Lexington and more like Luther’s 95 thesis: nailed to the door of a 1500 year old institutions, but spread round the European world by the cutting edge technology of the printing press.

Crossposted from As of Yet Untitled