How has Anonymous avoided being labeled as a terrorist group? That is a serious question that was proposed by an anthropologist during the eleventh Hackers on Planet Earth (HOPE) Conference in New York City on Friday. During a session Gabriella Coleman discussed the close series of events that helped the hacktivist group avoid the fate of other activist groups and leaders.
Nelson Mandela, the Tarnac 9, and BlackLivesMatter have all at one time been accused of terrorist activities. Many of the tactics used by Anonymous have run the risk of setting the group up for a similar fate, including the use of Guy Fawkes masks as a protest symbol.
For much of U.K. history, Guy Fawkes was “sort of an equivalent to an Osama bin Laden figure,” said Coleman, a professor at McGill University who has published two books that explore hacker ethics and the Anonymous movement.
The considerable exception of the hacktivist group is due in part to the proliferation of hacker culture and Anonymous into popular culture. The number of popular works of fiction in which Anonymous appears “is staggering,” Coleman said. Hacker culture have been portrayed in an overall positive light in several TV series, including “House of Cards” and “The Good Wife” – and high culture. The Royal Court Theater produced a play called “Teh (stet) Internet is Serious Business.”
As a comparison, Coleman asked the audience, “What was the last movie you saw that portrayed animal rights activists in a positive light?” to which one audience member shouted out in response, “Charlotte's Web!”
The exceptional fate of Anonymous has a complex racial history. Hacktivists are often perceived as harmless partially due to a stereotype of hackers as “nerdy white kids,” Coleman said.
Finally, Coleman mentioned that culture and arts “really matter,” despite often being dismissed as ‘soft power.' “If you don't have people's hearts and minds, then they will not be motivated to change public policy,” she said.