In his Millennium trilogy, Stieg Larsson sets up Lisbeth Salander as an interesting antiheroine—flawed but fearless, bucking the system almost compulsively, and wanted by Swedish authorities. The similarity to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange grew stronger when nameless hackers coordinated attacks on the websites of organizations persecuting him— exactly as Salander’s hacker friends, led by the mysterious Plague, do in Larsson’s novels.
Over the last couple of weeks, our real-world hackers, known collectively as Anonymous, have launched Operation Payback, attacking the web sites of Visa, MasterCard and PayPal, which had stopped offering their financial services to WikiLeaks. The Swedish prosecutor’s web site was brought down briefly too. Whether they achieved anything tangible or not, these attacks were immediately hailed as part of the larger WikiLeaks narrative —that of the distributed, unregulated Internet emerging as a weapon against the old-world authoritarianism of corporations and governments. The US colloquialism of “sticking it to the man” no doubt ran through some of these hackers’ minds.
Any narrative of rebellion, however, grows quickly complex. Anonymous recently also attacked the gossip website, Gawker, because its founder Nick Denton had criticized 4chan, an online message board apparently much beloved within the hacker community. This particular attack gave the lie to a mission statement appearing on one of Anonymous’ manifestos: “The free exchange of ideas and information, no matter how inconvenient, is never illegal.” Denton’s free speech, it seems, was not only inconvenient but worthy of revenge—not upon him personally, but upon more than a million Gawker users whose email addresses and passwords were made public.
If the hacking community’s biggest strength is its lack of central leadership, the allied lack of cogency could easily become its biggest weakness, undermining its crusading ambitions. A New York University academic named Gabriella Coleman, who has studied Anonymous for a while now, examined its members’ chat transcripts and wrote: “It may be impossible to gauge the intent and motive of thousands of participants… [s]urely not everyone participates…for noble causes.” As with Assange and his rape charges, we must be careful of offering our blind, unqualified support to Anonymous.
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