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Felix Stalder, "Enter the Swarm: Anonymous and the Global Protest Movements"

"Enter the Swarm: Anonymous and the Global Protest Movements"
Felix Stalder

In the course of just one year, using the identity “Anonymous,” highly
efficient digital attacks have been carried out against global
corporations and national governments. All in the name of freedom
of speech and social justice. The media coverage has done little
to clarify the events, rather, contradictory characterizations of
Anonymous have been espoused, ranging from an elite hacker conspiracy,
to a loose network of ignorant teenagers, from a major cyber-terrorist
threat to a mere nuisance driven by sophomoric humor. None of these
characterizations is entirely incorrect, because each captures some
fragments of the phenomenon, but they all miss the central element of
Anonymous, namely that it is not one, but many, and that it is not a
group or a network, but a swarm, or to be correct, multiple swarms
that feed off each other.

Anonymous might be an extreme case, but in important ways it is
typical for the wider protest movements spreading across the
crisis regions of the Middle East, Europe and the US. It is in
the contrasting organizational forms that the chasm between these
movements and their political systems is most manifest. On the
one side are hierarchical organizations based on the principle of
representation, where leaders are formally legitimized through
procedures of delegation, usually based on voting, to speak and
act on behalf of their constituencies. Corruption, favoritism and
institutional capture, however, have weakened this legitimacy. On the
other side are self-consciously leaderless organizations which reject
the principle of representation in favor of direct participation in
concrete projects. Their diversity enables decision-making through
rough, ad-hoc consensus, rather than through formal majorities. From
the point of view of established political institutions, these new
forms of organizations are nearly unintelligible, hence the often
voiced astonishment that the protest movements do not articulate any
concrete demands that those in power could engage with.

Social swarms

A social swarm consists of independent individuals who are using
simple tools and rules to coordinate themselves horizontally into
a collective effort. As Rick Falkvinge, the founder of the Swedish
Pirate Party, points out “the complexity comes with the meritocracy
that makes up how the Swarm operates and decides on courses of action
as an organism. As all the people in the Swarm are volunteers — they
are there because they think the Swarm can be a vehicle for change
in an area they care about — the only way to lead is by inspiring
others through action.”1 Thus, the strength of the swarm comes from
the number of people who join it and the focus it brings to their
distributed, independent efforts. A swarm always starts in the same
way. A call for action and the availability of some resources to start
acting right away. Social media pundit Clay Shirky identified three
main requirements that must come together for such loosely organized
cooperation to emerge: promise, tool, and bargain.2 The promise is the
call for action. It needs not only to be relevant to a critical number
of people but also credibly attainable. The tools are the resources
and strategies available to work towards the promise. Today, tools to
coordinate the efforts of volunteers are readily available online and
different tools, such as online forums, wikis, or chats, are capable
of sustaining different social dynamics on all scales. The bargain
points to conditions one has to accept when entering the collective
space of action. Only when the three dimensions match for a large
number of people – the promise being attractive, the tools available,
and the bargain not too onerous – cooperation gets underway. Over
time, each of the three dimensions can change, and the swarm can grow,
change direction, or fall apart. For such swarms not to be random
and short-lived affairs, there needs to a fourth elements, a common
horizon, which, as cultural critic Brian Holmes explains, “allows the
scattered members of a network to recognize each other as existing
within a shared referential and imaginary universe.”3

Anonymous is a series of swarms, each organized around a particular
call for action, focusing individual efforts towards that common goal.
Each swarm is independent of the others in the sense that each must
attract its own contributors based on its individual combination of
promise, tool, and bargain. But they are united in the sense that
they feed off each other by operating under the same open identity,
consisting of a few relatively generic slogans, graphic elements
and cultural reference points. Anyone can wear this identity like a
mask, but it only make sense to be Anonymous if it resonates with the
particular culture of twisted humor, anti-authoritarianism and free
speech accumulated through its history.

The dark corners of the Internet

Despite all efforts to “civilize the internet”, most recently
re-affirmed by Nicolas Sarkozy during the eG8 meeting in Paris last
May, dark corners where anythings goes have continued to exist. Of
particular relevance to Anonymous is a site called 4chan.org, a
technologically simple, but massively popular web forum, founded in
2003, where people can post images and texts without registration,
thus appearing as “anonymous” online. The site not only encourages
anonymous postings, but its most active section, the forum /b/-Random,
explicitly has no rules as to what can be posted. The site also has
no memory, that is, all postings that do not generate responses
will automatically move down the queue and eventually be deleted.
This usually happens within a few minutes. No records are kept.4
The only memory is in the minds of the users, thus, everything that
is not easily remembered and repeated vanishes. To avoid quick
disappearance, hundreds of posts per day are framed as calls for
action, such as a proposal to vandalize an article on Wikipedia with,
say, the 67th suggested article being chosen. If that entices enough
people, a small swarm descends on the article. Just for the fun of
it. Because of the need to keep things alive through repetition
and involvement, over time, a collective culture emerged that was
stripped of individuality and origins and was reduced to a few
easily available elements that can be assembled and transformed by
anyone with basic internet skills. Around such calls, or operations,
a culture emerged of “ultra-coordinated motherfuckary”, as one
participant told Biella Coleman, an anthropologist of geek culture.5
Over the course of half a decade, anonymous turned into Anonymous, a
simple technical placeholder into a collective identity. Because of
the anonymity-induced culture of outrageousness the common horizon
of this identity grew from a strong, even extreme commitment to free
speech and a deep distrust against any kind of authority that tries to
regulate speech based on what are perceived hypocritical lies.

Into the limelight

It is not a coincidence, then, that in winter 2008, some people
began to use this identity to start a campaign against the Church
of Scientology. There has been decade old battle between hackers
and Scientology. The hackers would facilitate the leaking of
damaging insider information exposing fraud and manipulation and
the church would ruthlessly use its considerable means to suppress
such information and destroy the personal reputation of its critics.
Anonymous got involved after the church tried to suppress the
circulation of a motivational video in which the actor Tom Cruise, a
high-ranking church member, comes across as particularly unhinged.
As a response to the usual threads of legal action, a semi-serious
video was released in which Anonymous announced the destruction of the
church. After a period heated debated inside various chat channels
– an important part of the infrastructure of spontaneous, real-time
coordination – a particular combination of promise, tool and bargain
was hashed out and a common horizon established. Not only were online
actions against the website coordinated, but also a global day of
action was planned and executed. On February 18, 2008 protests in more
than 90 cities in North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand
were held. Many of the participants were wearing the now famous Guy
Fawkes masks to protect themselves against the likely revenge of the
church. Their sheer presence and irreverence made up for the lack of
political demands, as they pierced an important myth that the church
could crush anyone who dared to criticize it. For the first time,
some swarms of Anonymous had congregated outside the Internet and had
coordinated themselves with more established political activists. The
fun turned serious. These protests continued to be the main political
focus of Anonymous over the next two years. In September 2010, another
Anonymous swarm emerged around the Operation Payback, which began as
an attack against Aiplex Software, an Indian Company hired to disrupt
file sharing sites such as The Pirate Bay.6 It quickly spread to
attacks on the website of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of
America) and many other pro-copyright organizations. The operation's
rallying cry resonated strongly within its larger environment: “They
call it piracy, we call it freedom.”

In the course of these actions, the political identity and
technological / tactical sophistication of Anonymous as a set of
politically oriented swarms expanded. In December 2010, after
WikiLeaks was cut off from receiving donations Operation Payback
refocused once again and disrupted the websites of MasterCard, Visa,
PayPal, and Bank of America. In January 2011, Anonymous refocused
again, attacking the websites of the Tunisian government. This
provided the bloggers in Tunisia with some sense of global solidarity
and, thanks to media attention Anonymous was focusing, also helped
to turn the international spotlight onto the beginnings of the Arab
uprisings.7

Throughout 2011, the Anonymous swarms multiplied and innumerable calls
for action have been issued, some of them by attention seekers and
others hoping to profit from media frenzy. But this has not stopped
other swarms to attract people. On August 23, 2011 Anonymous released
a video calling for the occupation of Wall Street, taking up an idea
that the Canadian Adbusters Foundation had been promoting for a
couple of weeks.8 The involvement of Anonymous considerably raised
the profile of this idea and helped to move the dynamics towards the
tipping point where numerous independent initiative coalesced around
the proposed action, starting an open-ended occupation of Wall Street
on September 17, 2011.

Reaching the limits?

The outrageousness and flamboyance of Anonymous enables it us issue
slogans that are common sense to many -- like the aforementioned
equation of media piracy with freedom -- yet too radical anyone who
tries to be regarded as serious by the dominant powers, particularly
well-funded NGOs. This radicality galvanizes very significant, yet
latent energies where more measured – and “reasonable” – statements
would receive lukewarm responses at best. This is contributing to
expanding again the scope of what can be debated in public, after
decades in which mainstream political discourse has narrowed to such a
degree that to even mention social inequality was viewed as in equal
measures old fashioned and outrageous.

Yet, for all the power of large scale, spontaneity this form of
organization cannot engage with the institutional world in any other
than destructive ways. At the moment, it cannot, and does not aim
at, building alternative institutions. It is, however, contributing
to the forging of a common, oppositional horizon that could make it
easier to coordinate further action. It has already hacked cracks
into many seemingly solid walls. To turn these cracks into something
constructive will be the tasks of others. But for now, Anonymous has
succeeded to expanded the space of the possible.

Notes.

[1] Falkvinge, Rik. Swarmwise: What is a Swarm? (08.01.2011)
http://falkvinge.net/2011/08/01/swarmwise-what-is-a-swarm/

[2] Shirky, Clay (2008). Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing
Without Organizations. New York, Penguin Press

[3] Holmes, Brian. Swarmachine. Continental Drift Blog (21.07.2007)
http://brianholmes.wordpress.com/2007/07/21/swarmachine/

[4] Coleman, Gabriella. Anonymous – From the Lulz to
Collective Action. The New Significance. (09.05.2011)
http://www.thenewsignificance.com/2011/05/09/gabriella-coleman-anonymo
us-from-the-lulz-to-collective-action/

[5]
http://torrentfreak.com/4chan-ddos-takes-down-mpaa-and-anti-piracy-web
sites-100918/

[6] Ben Mhenni, Lina Tunisian girl, la bloggeuse de la révolution.
Indigene Paris, 2011

[7]
http://www.vancourier.com/Adbusters+sparks+Wall+Street+protest/5466332
/story.html

http://felix.openflows.com ----------------------- books out now:
*|Deep Search. The Politics of Searching Beyond Google. Studien. 2009
*|Mediale Kunst/Media Arts Zurich.13 Positions.Scheidegger&Spiess2008
*|Manuel Castells and the Theory of the Network Society. Polity, 2006
*|Open Cultures and the Nature of Networks. Ed. Futura/Revolver, 2005