According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “Anonymous” is defined as something which is “made or done by someone whose name is not known or not made public”. This couldn’t be more apt in describing the activities of the hacktivist group currently terrorising anyone who is anyone (yes, that includes Yeezus himself, Kanye West). Their activities have peaked the interest of social media-wielding “citizen journalists”- particularly when one of the biggest mediums in the world was nearly brought to its knees by hackers. These activities were in the news again only days ago, when members of the hacking collective, with help from GhostSec and Ctrlsec, released a list of 9,200 Twitter accounts tied to members and supporters of ISIS to help suspend them. The list is being promoted in hopes that it will force the social media site to immediately remove ISIS sympathisers from its webpage.
This is not the first time Anonymous has targeted ISIS. The hacking collective launched #OpISIS last year and claims to have disrupted thousands of websites affiliated with the terrorist group. Anonymous also launched #OpCharlieHebdo after the attacks in Paris earlier this year. A member of Anonymous was even quoted as saying, “This is historic amongst the digital world as it’s the first time these groups have come together for something this large. Usually they are closed off and not willing to work outside of their circles but this has become such a problem they’re willing to form an alliance for what is seen as a greater good. The outcome of hundreds of hackers across all three major groups is the largest compiled and verified list ever to be released to the public.” Members assert that the organisation is not a group but a loose collective working to advance similar ideals, but sometimes contradictory ones. While Anonymous espouses privacy, its members also use the release of others’ personal information as a tactic in cases where they believe the authorities are not acting in the public interest, or the news media has not released pertinent information. They are quick to condemn any individual who claims to speak for the entire collective, and dissent and infighting are common.
Opinion is certainly divided. Many Anonymous members consider themselves ‘crusaders for justice’, and in launching these campaigns, demonstrate just how purposeful, if sometimes misguided, they can be. More than once, they have posed as underage girls in order to entrap paedophiles, whose personal information they later sent on to the police. Publicly, Anonymous persists in claiming to be non-hierarchical, despite there being four or five individuals touted as the ‘true leader’ of the movement. Yet personal identity and the individual remain subordinate to a focus on the “epic win”. Anonymous might just be the most powerful, non-governmental hacking collective in the world. Even so, it has never demonstrated an ability or desire to damage any key elements of public infrastructure. To some cybersecurity experts, the dire warnings about Anonymous sound almost like fearmongering. The actions taken in Ferguson, for example, at the way in which they dealt with the affiliated member who misidentified the killer of Michael Brown.
Phone lines at Ferguson’s City Hall were cut and their website brought down. The personal details of the daughter of the senior officer in charge, Jon Belmar, being touted by the group, as something of an incentive to reveal the name of the police officer alleged to have shot Mr Brown. Belmar held his nerve, prompting taunts from the account threating his own wellbeing, before making the crucial mistake – accusing a civilian of committing the crime. Big mistake. Within hours, Twitter had shut down the account, something which was barely contested by other hacktivists. The baiting of Mr Belmar was the work of an ‘Anonym’ who was, apparently, “acting against the advice of others”, according to fellow members. Yet how can the group retain any credibility when individual members are seen to be breaking away from the pack? Isn’t that basically the aim of groups like this? Evoke the social media masses into some kind of frenzy against society and its many flaws? Anonymous attracts people who are willing to ‘push the boundaries’, in terms of what those they represent are willing to take. The big question then for me is this: is this vigilantism justifiable?
Well, in short, no. Not to me anyway. Vigilantism is simply a bad idea. The vigilante is a person, or in this case a group, driven by emotion, or even rage at times. This group doesn’t have the law’s resources, or even interest, in finding out the person he deems guilty is actually indeed guilty. The anger and vengeance is focused on a person or group that seems guilty to them, even if they doesn’t have any solid evidence, which comes against every precept of the law. Also, in other cases, the vigilante doesn’t care that much who ends up in the cross fire when he enacts his vengeance. Sure, vigilantism applies to the extent where, say, a criminal is running down the street, evading police, and you were to tackle them to the ground. That’s as far as it should really go. Leave everything else to individuals who are trained and equipped for the job. That is a rather benign example perhaps, certainly when compared to the kind of rough justice being dished out by groups like Anonymous. How much good can actually come from this? Even ISIS experts have previously said that taking down accounts does little to hit the actual core of activity. And such campaigns have occasionally had counter-productive effects — taking down users that aren’t affiliated with ISIS at all, for instance. Twitter doesn’t even prohibit what it calls “direct threats of violence”- is a better platform for vigilantism available? I doubt it.
The vigilante cannot be held responsible should they make a mistake, as no one knows who they are. Their only use is in societies where the law itself is more of a guideline, like the Old West, where gunslingers dished out revenge with bullets and manly stares – not with tweets and tirades of abuse. Anonymous may stay just that, but should they continue, then their actions will have greater, negative ramifications than they could possibly have imagined.