Ryan Bateman linked to a funny news story. It’s really short, so go read it for yourself, but the gist of it is that a North Korean propaganda twitter account was hacked. The funny part is that the account follows only three people, one of whom is a some American guy who has no idea why North Korea is following him. But that isn’t what caught my attention. It’s this line: “
AAP could not immediately verify if Anonymous was behind the attack.”
This seems to build on a very big and very common misunderstanding. Let’s review the facts surrounding this account hacking, or act of “cyber warfare”, as the Associated Press chooses to label it. The messages left on the account include phrases associated with Anonymous, as well as a link to the icon and chief symbol of Anonymous, the Guy Fawkes mask. Can there really be any doubt that this is Anonymous?
Yet AP can’t verify that it is. That’s because AP does what traditional media always does, which is treat Anonymous like a group, an underground network, a “cyber-terrorist cell.” Now, something like the hacker group LulzSec, which executed a series of high-profile attacks in the summer of 2011 and then broke up/got caught/went underground, is a group. It consisted of a relatively small, fixed group of members who were in communication with each other, shared an ideology, and collaborated on various political/criminal actions. But Anonymous is not a group. Anonymous is not a network. Anonymous is not a cell, terrorist or otherwise. Anonymous is a meme, or a series of inter-related memes, an abstract entity, a loosely defined complex of ideas and ideology and symbols and modes of operation—and it can be embodied by anyone.
The word “meme” was coined by the biologist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. Also in that book, he defends the gene-centric view of evolution. This perspective asserts the primacy of the gene over the individual. It says that genes don’t exist in order to ensure the replication and propagation of individuals, but that individuals exist to ensure the replication and propagation of genes. The selfish meme, as a cultural analog to the selfish gene, uses individuals the same way. Memes and genes are abstract, not sentient beings, and so incapable of forming intentions and carrying them out, but on this view— the gene- or meme-centric view of biological or cultural evolution—they operate as if they had such selfish intentions.
The meme, then, is a self-replicating idea that uses susceptible individuals to further propagate itself. It’s like a virus, another not entirely biological kind of entity that (metaphorically) uses biological entities for its own purposes. And that’s the kind of thing Anonymous is. Anonymous has no social structure, not even a flat, anarchic structure. There is no such thing as membership in Anonymous, not even the kind of tenuous “membership” which defines human social circles. Just like there’s nothing like “membership” in a gene complex. At any given time, an individual either expresses a set of genes or it doesn’t. If the DNA’s there, the genes are there. You confirm the existence of the abstract concept of the “gene” in a particular case by confirming its physical manifestation in that case. In programming parlance, genes are “duck typed.” If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s a duck.
The same thing applies to memes. You confirm the expression of the memes, you confirm that you’ve got an instance of that meme complex. In this case, all the classic Anonymous memes are there—the lowercase anonymity, the Guy Fawkes mask as symbol, the parlance. Therefore, since Anonymous is not a group but an abstract group of self-replicating ideas, this is a clear case of Anonymous. There can be no doubt; there is no need or even possibility of confirming whether “Anonymous is responsible” for this twitter account hack beyond the obvious.
Now suppose that it turns out the attack had actually been planned and executed by members of the actual hacker group LulzSec, employing Anonymous-complex memes to hide their tracks. Would that not mean that Anonymous wasn’t responsible? And if that’s a possibility, wouldn’t that imply that AP was right to insist that they couldn’t confirm whether Anonymous was responsible?
No. That would be analogous to the following case: suppose a new disease breaks out. The disease is caused by mutant gene X. But as it turns out, a secret cabal of government officials have used sinister genetic engineering methods to introduce gene X into the population. On the level of actual intention, the government conspiracy group is responsible. But the gene would still be the material cause and, in the only sense that it makes sense to speak of the “intentions” of genes, the metaphorical sense which Dawkins employs when he speaks of selfish memes, gene X would still be responsible. In the analogous case where LulzSec carried out a hack and “blamed it” on Anonymous, it would still be the case that Anonymous was responsible for the hack, in the same sense that the gene X was responsible for the disease.
Traditional media continues to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of internet movements. Another way to look at Anonymous would be as a kind of loosely defined ideology. On one level, Socialism was responsible for the Russian Revolution. Of course, on quite another, a specific group of people carrying out socialist-inspired actions were responsible. These are two different perspectives on the same event, two different levels of abstraction. But in the case of Anonymous, they’re frequently muddled. On one level, the Russian Revolution was caused by a selfish meme-complex. This meme-complex infected a number of people for the ultimate “purpose” of replicating itself. In that sense, the Russian Revolution of 1917 was a very successful move by the socialist meme complex. A decade or two after the Revolution, socialist memes pervaded all of Russian society, at all levels. What had once been a niche political idea became the dominant social reality. But on a different level, as mentioned, the Russian Revolution was a move executed by concrete individuals in a concrete section of space-time. Traditional media keep looking for the corresponding group of concrete individuals responsible for Anonymous. But this group doesn’t exist.
There is no “Anonymous” as such. Or if there is, and they’re reading this and laughing, it’s so secret that the general population and the mass media have no idea about its existence, and if so, it is not identical with the meme complex also called Anonymous.
Al Qaeda is a terrorist group. Anyone could in principle carry out a terrorist action and claim to be Al Qaeda, but that doesn’t make it so. Unless you’re part of the core group of Al Qaeda, you aren’t Al Qaeda. But anyone can carry out an Anonymous action, employ the usual Anonymous symbols and memes, and that in itself makes the action an Anonymous action.
The internet accelerates the spread of memes to the point where social upheaval on the order of the Russian Revolution can happen with no central leadership, no secret group of conspirators—by a series of individual actions only “organized” on the level of the meme, only intentionally willed in the same sense that a gene “intentionally” wills its own replication. The Arab Spring was the first glimpse of that, although it still contained within it the usual elements of traditional revolutions.
One day, perhaps in the near future, a complex of memes spread on the internet may be solely responsible (on the appropriate level of abstraction) for an actual, real-world social upheaval on the order of a revolution. At that point, the traditional mass media will be caught with their pants down. They won’t see it coming, because as usual, they’re completely clueless when it comes to the nature of new media. At that point, the revolution absolutely will be tweeted, or it will be [verbed] in the latest internet fashion, whatever that happens to be at the time.