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How Anonymous have become digital culture’s protest heroes

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The hacktivist collective’s justice campaign for internet bullying victim Rehtaeh Parsons, shows how they’ve made online protest mainstream

In 2007, the hacktivist collective Anonymous was dubbed the “internet hate machine” by Fox News for their trolling campaigns. Six years later, they are the white knights of the digital realm, seeking justice for the now deceased 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons, an alleged gang rape victim who killed herself after bullying by her Nova Scotian classmates. This is just one of the collective’s high profile causes in the past week, but in terms of good PR and an agency for change, it compares to their actions on Steubenville.

They call it #OpJustice4Rehtaeh on Twitter, and all types of people – from journalists and teens to women who normally wouldn’t associate with Anonymous – have been spreading Anonymous’ related material in the name of Parsons since Tuesday, after news of her mother turning off her daughter’s life support made global headlines.

The concerned non-Canadians and feminists in faraway places that joined in the online protest don’t consider themselves “hacktivists”, nor are they afraid of the FBI or their peers labeling them as terrorist sympathisers. The spooky criminal portrayal of Anonymous has melted from the public consciousness, to be replaced with an image of strangers in pale masks passionate about improving society, one cause at a time. Since Anonymous causes are varied and inspired by current events, jumping on this form of vigilante-motivated activism – or what some would call clicktivism – has never been more popular. Or as in Parsons’ case, as effective.

The goal of #OpJustice4Rehtaeh was to seek justice primarily by getting the Canadian justice and police department to review her case. None of the four teen assailants were convicted despite capturing, and then spreading photographic evidence of their alleged crime at Parsons’ school.

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A Change.org petition by Parsons’ mother was heavily circulated, and it hit 100,000 signatures within days. “For the love of God do something”, wrote Parsons’ father on Wednesday in a personal blogpost addressing the justice minister of Nova Scotia. His words validated #OpJustice4Rehtaeh, launched the day before.

Anonymous’ successful leveraging of the press and social media helped them identify the four rapists in just a few hours, which they then threatened to disclose unless their demands were met. No hacking was involved as this time, Anonymous was apparently a friendly tip line.

They were able to get this information so quickly, wrote an Anon on Pastebin, because “dozens of emails were sent to us by kids and adults alike, most of whom had personal relationships with the alleged rapists. Many recalled public confessions made blatantly by these boys in public where they detailed the rape of an inebriated 15-year-old girl.” Why this same information was not sent to the police at the time of the investigation over a year ago is not apparent, though Anonymous hinted it sent this information to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in a more recent release.

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Despite a Canadian minister previously telling the media the case was closed and would not be reopened, by Thursday the tune had changed, proving the collective’s efforts were not in vain. In addition to submitting new evidence to the RCMP and putting pressure on the Canadian Department of Justice, Anonymous organised a rally outside the Halifax police department on Sunday. Roughly 100 people attended, including Parsons’ mother. Speaking on her behalf as her partner, Jason Barnes told Canada’s Herald News in an interview, “Leah’s been… very happy with the things that Anonymous has done for us and really stepped forward and made this a large enough issue to make people think, and see it.” Out of all the operations recently carried out by Anonymous, #OpJustice4Rehtaeh has had an incredibly high “effect real change” rate of just a few days.

Before you scoff at Anonymous expertly using PR and social media to change the world, consider this: Obama’s technical team for his re-election campaign in 2012 took measures to DDoS-proof their websites as well as avoid Anonymous’ attention at all costs. Anonymous expert and author Gabriella Coleman shared with me a forthcoming report for the Centre for International Governance Innovation which states:

“Anonymous was treated as (potentially) even more of a nuisance than, say, the foreign state hackers who infiltrated the McCain and Obama campaigns in 2008. Had Anonymous successfully accessed servers or DDoS the campaign website, it would likely have ignited colossal media attention and potentially battered the campaign’s reputation. Although this alone would likely not put Obama’s chances for re-election at risk (the team was confident there was no controversial information to leak), a visit from Anonymous was treated as a real possibility and liability.”

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Anonymous’ core strength lies in its PR tactics, not its boots-on-the-ground protests or actual hacking skills. Besides #OpJustice4Rehtaeh, in the last week Anonymous attacked North Korean social media accounts, then Israeli websites in solidarity with the Palestinians. While both operations apparently caused no substantial impact (North Korea is still a dictatorship, and Israel hasn’t changed its stance on Palestine), they were both highly publicised, which is enough of a win for the group now primarily concerned with mobilising activists through the spread of information. If fact, Anonymous has been making headlines on an almost weekly basis for over a year now.

Australian security expert Stilgherrian calls this adoption of multiple causes, going beyond Anonymous’s initial defence of internet freedoms, as proof they have become the “Hello Kitty of activism,” but Coleman likens Anonymous’s current, accepting form to something more organic: a fungus. “They refuse to die and they seem to bud in new places and situations,” she explains. “They spore and spread” around the globe because clicktivism is easy and fitting with our already established digital habits.

There isn’t enough bleach on the internet to kill the spread, but it looks like we web citizens wouldn’t want to even if we had enough chemicals. We’ve all been infected in one way or another now, and our participation, however small, has evolved the fungus into something more manageable. Regarding the Parsons case, Anonymous is now withholding the names of the minors involved “out of respect for Rehtaeh’s mother.” The internet’s love machine is a more fitting nickname.

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© Guardian News and Media 2013


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