Horizon CDT Research Highlights

Research Highlights

Can Hacktivism be Understood as the Performance of a Collective Identity?

  William Knight (2012 cohort)

In a December 2014 article written for The Guardian from his prison cell, Jeremy Hammond wrote: “Hackers are a controversial, chaotic and commonly misunderstood bunch” [1]. In 2013 Hammond was been sentenced to ten years in prison and three years of supervised release for participating in a politically-motived computer hack against the private intelligence firm Stratfor in 2011. Hammond participated in this intrusion as part of an operation carried out by the group of activists and hackers called “Anonymous”.

Gabriella Coleman states that Anonymous are “the rude-boys of hacktivism” [2]. They are a loose collective of computer hackers, geeks and activists which formed on a number of websites and forums in the mid-2000s. Before 2008 Anonymous’ main concern was simply to “troll” various individuals and institutions in order to generate “lulz” (a bastardisation of the popular internet acronym “lol” in this context “lulz” simply means mirth, joy and deriving mischievous enjoyment from pranks and jokes) – it was during this time that the Fox News Network ran their now famous “Internet Hate Machine” reel which dubbed Anonymous “Hackers on steroids” to the soundtrack of ominous music and spurious footage of vans exploding.

In the early months of 2008, however, when the church of Scientology attempted to quash the proliferation of an embarrassing video of Tom Cruise gushing over his love of the church by demanding it be removed from various video sharing websites, Anonymous’ turned its collective might to a more politically motivated target. Project Chanology was the “political birth” of the movement and saw its members turn not only their overwhelming computer hacking skills, but also their power to collect and unite thousands of people worldwide, against what they saw as an attempt to limit freedom of speech. Importantly, for what Anonymous would become, this coalescence of the efforts of a worldwide network of thousands of individuals came about seemingly without the direction of a leadership or hierarchy and, whilst many of the protest activities took place online – a great many also bled out into the real world, with protests outside Scientology locations attracting a reported five to eight thousand attendees worldwide. The website set up to support this Project Chanology stated: “this will be a game of mental warfare. It will require our talkers, not our hackers. It will require our dedicated Anon across the world to do their part“.

Since 2008, Anonymous have been involved in online and offline protests against a number of targets - but this message has persevered, one which emphasises a non-hierarchical structure, where participation is the only requirement for membership. They see themselves not just as a group of hackers, cyber terrorists or criminals – but as an activist collective which revels in pranksterism, irreverent humour and a somewhat situationalist-esque brand of culture clash activism which mocks and highlights the hypocrisy and absurdity of its targets through memetic imagery and internet image macros. They are spectacular activists in a society which is saturated by spectacular images, so their brand of activism can, and often must, be brash, shocking and offensive.

Despite coming more into the public eye after the events of “Operation Payback” (a campaign of activism against a number of institutions which withdrew support for the whistleblowing site Wikileaks (Mastercard, PayPal, Amazon etc)), Anonymous are still a relative mystery to many people. Hammond states they are a “misunderstood bunch” and this is mirrored by Coleman who argues that following Operation Payback: “Anonymous was still generally misunderstood, described by news reports alternately as ‘online activists’, ‘global cyberwarriors’ and ‘cyber vigilantes’” [3].

News reports tend to pick out individuals upon which to impose structural norms typical of traditional communities such as leadership (the most famous example being the Lulzsec member Sabu who was reported to be the “architect” and “mastermind” behind many of the Anonymous’ offshoots attacks). Additionally, the group will often be portrayed in a light which focuses heavily upon the “direct action” elements of the community: computer hacking, distributed denial of service or information theft. Both of these portrayals are incongruous with the perception of the community from within.

Using an ethnographic approach, the purpose of this project is to investigate this seeming incongruousness between these two portrayals. So far a long-term observation study of Anonymous related communities both online and offline backed up by two communities driven interview studies have produced some interesting results.

The results as detailed below are the output of nine months of ethnographic observation and two interview studies. They are, naturally, a work in progress, and what is shown here is only a very brief overview – yet they have still produced some interesting and useful conclusions to work upon and explore further in more interview projects.

Conclusions drawn from the observations taken from Anonymous communities online shows that whilst DDoS attacks might be more widely covered by the media, the vast majority of the daily activity of a typical Anon is related to information collection, sharing and critique. Participants have highlighted the importance of “DOX” - i.e., documentation, data and information as the lifeblood of Anonymous. One participant explains it as:

“The culture here is to question all and blindly follow no one, thus encouraging faith in one's own judgement while briskly questioning it for validity, thus elevating everyone.” (WWP, 2014)

The upshot is that whilst the news media might like to focus on the actions of Anonymous as being centred solely around the practical effects of the DDoS attacks, in fact there is a significant amount of actions which are not for practical effect, but for the symbolic effect of building an identity which emphasises emancipation though critical thinking and information freedom. They often achieve this aim through spectacular acts of defiance; Gabriella Coleman states that though the political effect of many of Anonymous’ actions may be limited, their true power lies in the spectacle of their actions [4]. It is a “brand” of activism which captures the attention and imagination of many thousands of individuals across the globe.

Perhaps the most important conclusion drawn so far is one which has implications for the nature of the approach to the community. Originally, the concept of a collective identity (one built upon adopting a group-performance) was central to the aims of the project - but all the data gathered so far points towards Anonymous not as a cohesive whole, but as a collection of disparate and conflicting communities. There does appear to be some agreed upon consensus for approach in places (leaderless, anonymity, anti-establishment) but in terms of the number of issues supported and the approach to protest, the variance in community presentation is incredibly varied. The specific community interviewed in the first study rejected most illegal activity as counteractive to their cause, for example, and even they described themselves as “a tiny zit on the ass of anonymous” whereas the subjects in the second study had a wide range of interests and viewpoints on the legitimacy of such methods.

Far from being a group which is solely concerned with just “digital rights” issues such as censorship, privacy and surveillance, in fact, since 2008 they have expanded their horizons to encompass a whole array of subjects. Observation across a number of sites have found discussion related, but not limited, to: the middle east, the NSA hacking scandal, the Ukraine/Russia protests, and even individual cases of injustice such as a case of police brutality against a US college student and the alleged rape of a young girl in Steubenville Ohio.

The project has begun to evolve as these new pieces of data have emerged. Originally, the concept of “identity” was going to be the paradigm through which to understand the actions of the group: using Goffman’s idea of a “group performance” to understand the actions of Anonymous in a dramaturgical sense. However, having discovered that Anonymous are far more varied and conflicting than originally thought – other paradigms have been brought in to more appropriately understand them. The concept of “Social Movements” has proven to be a useful paradigm through which to view Anonymous, though many of the frameworks which are suggested for traditional social movements would require some updating in order to encompass what Anonymous has become - examining the ways in which these frameworks can be updated to include this new and dynamic phenomenon is proving to be an interesting and challenging project.


  1. Hammond, J. I'm an Anonymous hacker in prison, and I am not a crook. I'm an activist, The Guardian Website, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/dec/18/anonymous-hacker-prison-jeremy-hammond-hacktivism, Accessed 15/01/15 (2014)
  2. Coleman, G. in Knapperberger, B. We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, Luminant Media (2012)
  3. Coleman, G. Our Weirdness is Free, Triple Canopy (2012)
  4. Coleman, G. Everything you know about Anonymous is Wrong, Aljazeera.com, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/05/201255152158991826.html, Accessed 13/01/15 (2012)

This author is supported by the Horizon Centre for Doctoral Training at the University of Nottingham (RCUK Grant No. EP/G037574/1) and by the RCUK’s Horizon Digital Economy Research Institute (RCUK Grant No. EP/G065802/1).