Anonymous: activism in a new media environment
08-04-2011 mag 3 /

article/

Anonymous: activism in a new media environment

Abstract: 

The article focuses on the tension between institutionalized media users and a growing amount of hacker genres that claim the “media environment” as “a venue for participation, speech, interaction and creativity”. Van Schellebeek uses the net-activism of Anonymous as a case to elaborate on Lievrouw’s analysis of the hacker communities and her division of the hacker’s media environment in different genres of oppositional media.

There is a growing tension, then, between a traditional view of the media environment, including new media and information technologies, as sites for the production, distribution, and consumption of media products, and an alternative view that sees the environment primarily as a venue for participation, speech, interaction, and creativity. The first perspective understands media technologies and content in terms of property and gatekeeping” (Lievrouw 115).

Accordingly, I argue that the cause of conflict between Anonymous, the American government and targeted corporations resulting in Operation Payback, can be partially found in the tension as described above by Leah Lievrouw. As a result of this tension, Lievrouw mentions genres of oppositional media: alternative computing, mediated mobilization and culture jamming. Do any of these activist genres apply to Anonymous in the case of Operation Payback?

Alternative computing
The first of activist genres as described by Lievrouw is alternative computing: “[A]lternative computing is the province of computer professionals who object to political or commercial restraints on access to information and information technology. (…) It includes critical, but constructive activities, such as the creation and distribution of free or open source software” (Lievrouw 118). This genre of activism accommodates hacker culture, in other words hacktivism. According to Lievrouw this culture ‘combines technological mastery and elitism with libertarian, utopian visions of a more open society’ (Lievrouw 118). As written by Kahn and Kellner in their 2005 article; “Hacktivists have involved themselves in creating open source software programs that can be used freely to circumvent attempts by government and corporations to control the Internet experience” (Kahn & Kellner 85).  In supporting WikiLeaks and advocating free use, the ideology of Anonymous seems to meet this description. So far, we could argue that in the case of Operation Payback, Anonymous is indeed hacktivist. However, I argue that the concept of alternative computing does not suffice for describing Operation Payback. The reason is twofold:

First, “[h]acks are typically intended to demonstrate the skill of the programmer rather than to damage or disrupt systems per se” (Lievrouw 118). Operation Payback intended to block and disrupt the systems of several financial corporations.

Second, for the majority of participants the methods used in Operation Payback had nothing to do with hacking. With the use of JavaLOIC, derived from the open source and freely available LOIC (Low Orbit Ion Canon), a program was created to ease up participation by computer dummies.

Mediated mobilization
The second of activist genres as described by Lievrouw “uses new media technologies as sites for sociality, participation, and coordinated action. (…) [A]s the ‘mass’ view of society has given way to a more complex, dynamic view of social structure as constantly-reorganizing, interrelated networks of nodes, links and flows, new media technologies are better suited for helping people seek, find and assess information and each other than for the wholesale distribution of massages to mass audiences” (Lievrouw 119). She argues that technology enables people with similar interests – this includes counter publics – to interact. To Anonymous platforms such as 4chan and insurgen.cc are essential to (anonymously) communicate. However, the networked mediated mobilization of people via social software is not very specific; it could hold for commercial platforms such as the social network site (SNS) Facebook.

Culture jamming
The third of activist genres as described by Lievrouw is culture jamming. As previously stated in the ‘alternative computing’ section of this article, Operation Payback was not a collective hack. It was a DDoS attack, something we could call temporary jamming of corporate life:

"The term “culture jamming” is based on the CB slang word “jamming” in which one disrupts existing transmissions. It usually implies an interruption, a sabotage, hoax, prank, banditry, or blockage of what are seen as the monolithic power structures governing cultural life" (Harold 192).

In a similar veil, Lievrouw argues that the concept might be best described as “media hacking, information warfare, terror-art, and guerrilla semiotics, all in one” (Lievrouw 117). Now we seem to have found our answer; the genre of online activism applying to Anonymous’ Operation Payback is culture jamming. Or is it not?

Lievrouw continues: “[it] captures and subverts the images and ideas of the mainstream media to make a critical point. (…) Ultimately, culture jamming is a technique that ‘mines’ mainstream media culture to criticize it” (Lievrouw 117). Essentially, in using and /or reconstructing existing media texts, culture jamming makes use of the postmodern bricolage technique. Not a word on interrupting or blocking transmissions. Since there is no sign of the reworking of existing elements, I expect Lievrouw to argue that culture jamming does not necessarily apply to Operation Payback.

To conclude, all genres of oppositional media seem to apply to Operation Payback. But, at the same time they do not suffice.
[S]ocial movements must be understood in their own terms: namely, they are what they say they are. Their practices (…) are their self-definition (Castells 73).

Literature:
Harold, C. “Pranking Rhetoric: “Culture Jamming” as Media Activism.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 21.3. Routledge (2004): 189-211.
Kahn & Kellner “Oppositional Politics and the Internet: A Critical /Reconstructive Approach” Cultural Politics 1.1 (2005): 75–100.

Lievrouw, Leah A. “Oppositional and Activist New Media: Remediation, Reconfiguration, Participation.” Proceedings of the Ninth Participatory Design Conference 2006. New York: ACM Press (2006) 115-124.

Castells, M. The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture Volume II: The Power of Identity. West-Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 73.

Kerner, S.M. “Wikileaks DDOS powered by open source tools?“ Internetnews.com. Decmeber 9, 2010. March 17 2011. http://blog.internetnews.com/skerner/2010/12/wikileaks-ddos-powered-by-o....
 

Anonymous: activism in a new media environment