The New Fourth Estate: Anonymous, Wikileaks, and –archy

“When people talk of the freedom of writing, speaking, or thinking, I cannot choose but laugh. No such thing ever existed. No such thing now exists; but I hope it will exist. But it must be hundreds of years after you and I shall write and speak no more.”

– John Adams



As government and industry collude, the interests of the powerful trample the rights of the multitude. Technology has granted invasive new eyes and ears to government agencies, spurning the right to privacy. Felicitously, the individual has also been empowered with two new tools to check the corporate state: hacktivism and leaks. The press has been captured by a handful of news corporations that are generally uncritical of government and fail to expose corporate injustice. The techno-libertarian culture has birthed the do-it-yourself fourth estate—usurping the illegitimate media and furnishing a viable alternative to the cartelized press. Two entities, Wikileaks and Anonymous, have emerged under this banner. This inquiry seeks to understand their history, methods, and to ascertain whether use of the discrete figurehead is efficacious.


The press is the chief democratic instrument of freedom.”
– Alexis de Tocqueville

The wellspring of liberty runs dry without the free flow of information. The Egyptian government shut down their Internet on January 28, 2011, just after the Associated Press published video of a protestor being shot by riot police. [1] This came as a shock to the global community; censorship of such magnitude is only rivaled by nations like North Korea (where subjects have no internet access). A global trend of authoritarianism is emerging, and the West is not immune (and perhaps even leading the charge).

In Radical Priorities, Noam Chomsky and C.P. Otero wrote:

“The totalitarian system of thought control is far less effective than the democratic one, since the official doctrine parroted by the intellectuals at the service of the state is readily identifiable as pure propaganda, and this helps free the mind.” In contrast, “the democratic system seeks to determine and limit the entire spectrum of thought by leaving the fundamental assumptions unexpressed. They are presupposed but not asserted.”

Noam Chomsky tersely put it this way in in Chronicles of Dissent: “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”

The media cartel is adept at this technique. In 1983 in the US, 50 companies shared 90% of the market. Today, that number is six, with a majority of control in the hands of General Electric, News Corporation, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner and CBS. [2]

In the United States, the Occupy and Tea Party movements agitate for distinct types of social change, yet both rally under the banner of protecting civil liberties in the face of state-corporate intrusion. In the last two years, several such controversial pieces of legislation have been put forward.

Several rounds of Internet censorship (on behalf of the media industry and intelligence agencies) have been subject to public scrutiny, including:

SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, which targets sites that host copywritten material, was defeated by a coalition of web giants, including Wikipedia, Google and Reddit. [3] Nevertheless, a rash of other bills has been proposed, including the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), the Protect IP Act (PIPA), and the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA).

All of these protect intellectual “property” and media industry “earnings.” More threateningly, the bills augment the authority of government intelligence agencies over the formerly free Internet.

Carl Levin and John McCain sponsored, and Obama signed off on, the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). American Civil Liberties Union decried the bill as “an extraordinary expansion and statutory bolstering of authority for the military to pick up and imprison without charge or trial civilians, including American citizens, anywhere in the world.” [4]

The Trespass Bill (H.R. 347) was passed by 388-3, which criminalized First Amendment activity in given proximity to any individual protected by the Secret Service (including Republican Presidential candidates), even if the protestors are unaware that the area is designated off-limits. It is widely speculated that this bill was passed in anticipation of the G8 / NATO Summit in Chicago on May 19, 2012. In light of massive protest mobilization, the NATO meeting has since been moved to Camp David. [5]

President Obama campaigned as an anti-war candidate of the left. Since his election, he has upheld the Bush imperialism protocol. Obama’s trigger-happy drone strikes, refusal to close Guantanamo Bay, crackdown on non-violent protestors and journalists, banking sector bailouts and violation of the War Powers Act in Libya have tarnished his messianic image.

Tireless freedom crusader and civil liberties lawyer Glenn Greenwald wrote:

“One of the most consequential aspects of the Obama legacy is that he has transformed what was once known as ‘right-wing shredding of the Constitution’ into bipartisan consensus. When one of the two major parties supports a certain policy and the other party pretends to oppose it — as happened with these radical War on Terror policies during the Bush years — then public opinion is divisive on the question, sharply split.”

But once the policy becomes the hallmark of both political parties, then public opinion becomes robust in support of it. That’s because people assume that if both political parties support a certain policy that it must be wise, and because policies that enjoy the status of bipartisan consensus are removed from the realm of mainstream challenge.

That’s what Barack Obama has done to these Bush/Cheney policies: he has shielded and entrenched them as standard U.S. policy for at least a generation, and (by leading his supporters to embrace these policies as their own) has done so with far more success than any GOP President ever could have dreamed of achieving.” [6]

During the Arab Spring and Occupy protests, citizens’ voices were hushed and ignored while their bodies were bludgeoned and imprisoned. When votes are not counted, or do not count, bitterness toward the breached social contract festers. People seek other outlets of expression and political influence. The mainstream media have failed to check both government and the corporation, and another nascent mechanism of accountability has arisen from the ashes.


Founded on the ideal of extreme transparency, and abhorrent of censorship, the hacktivist group Anonymous deftly acquires and exposes private but socially-valuable information online.

Anonymous (or the individual Anon) breaks into websites, databases, email and Twitter accounts (or anything with a username and password). The Anon then vandalizes and/or appropriates private information that they feel should be publicly available. The Anons also organize to collectively to deliberatively target and crash websites offensive to the cause of liberty.

Anonymous is a reversal of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon—instead of a prison with a central omniscient tower, each Hacktivist cell scrutinizes the tower itself. The watchers become the watched; corporate governments do not like this.

Anonymous is a leaderless organization, coordinated online over chat rooms and forums. It started on the image forum 4chan, known also as the “bowels of the internet,” for its exceedingly offensive humor (the verb is “to troll.”)

The primary tool of the trade is the Distributed Denial of Service attack (DDoS), where computer users request large amounts of data from a website simultaneously, overwhelming it and causing it to crash. If caught, DDoS attacks have a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail.

Anonymous has developed a piece of open-source software called the Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC), which any Anon can download and contribute to the operation without any requisite hacking savvy whatsoever. The name is derived from a weapon proposal from Nikola Tesla, for a “death ray” device that fires ionized particles. [7]

The LOIC allows Anons to volunteer their bandwidth to DDoS without even being at the computer, uniting with others in an automated “bot-net.” This devastating collective weapon explains Anonymous’ ability to incapacitate heavily fortified government websites.

“Anonymous is the first internet-based, anarchic super-consciousness. Anonymous is a group, in the sense that a flock of birds is a group. How do you know they’re a group? Because they’re travelling in the same direction. At any given moment, more birds could join, leave, and peel off in another direction entirely.”  – Chris Landers [8]


Inside the Internet Hate Machine

 “Fox News had in 2007 dubbed 4chan the ‘Internet hate machine’—a barb embraced, if ironically, by Anonymous, which responded with a grim parody video claiming to be ‘the face of chaos,’ ‘harbingers of judgment’ those who ‘laugh at the face of tragedy.’” [9]

According to anthropologist, NYU professor and Anonymous liaison Gabriella Coleman, the demographic of Anonymous is rather hard to verify. She embarked on a study of the group in 2008 (when it came onto the international scene) by spending time on 4chan and interviewing them in their Internet Relay Chatrooms (IRC). She found that the group is largely composed of liberal anarchists, vigilante libertarians, geeks, activists, bored teenagers and professional computer scientists with a unifying commitment to freedom of information.

“The group’s organizing principle—anonymity—makes it impossible to tell how many people are involved. Participation is fluid, and Anonymous includes hard-core hackers as well as people who contribute by editing videos, penning manifestos, or publicizing actions. Then there are myriad sympathizers who may not spend hours in chat rooms but will heed commands to join DDoS attacks and repost messages sent by Anonymous Twitter accounts, acting as both mercenary army and street team.” [10]

The group has a strong anti-ego and anti-celebrity ethic, chastising those who speak on behalf of the organization or seek too much time in the spotlight. They use deliberative consensus and polling within their chat-rooms and forums. The size waxes and wanes, but one forum alone has over 30,000 users, and they’re mostly concentrated in North America, Australia and Latin America and Europe.

The hacktivists communicate with the public in their characteristic video style, featuring dramatic oratory often filtered through an anonymizing computer voice over video of “V” from the film “V for Vendetta.” This formulaic call-to-arms has been recycled by many involved in the Occupy movement.

As a rhetorical sample, a partial transcript of the poetic and incisive Anonymous video, “The Bankers Are The Problem

“The bankers manufacture recessions and depressions to exert a greater control over social and political structures. The bankers create and finance the wars on both sides of the conflict. The bankers control the policies and control the media and the education system that is operated to maintain ignorance in the public, so that they can be shorn like sheep. The bankers launder the drug money, and ensure that drugs remain illegal. The bankers are the problem.”

The Crusade

Anonymous’ first unifying incident began as an attack on the Church of Scientology, in “Project Chanology.” The Guy Fawkes mask that is iconographic of Occupy actually began with this action. (This uniform mask of anonymity is not new—the Guerilla Girls of the 1980s pioneered the technique). [11] Hotly debated at first, Anonymous ultimately decided to manifest in person at Scientology headquarters around the world. The largest demonstration took place on February 10, 2008, involving over 7,000 people in 100 cities. [12]

Along with the Church’s controversial financial practices, this demonstration was precipitated in January 2008, when the organization attempted to remove from the web an insider-only motivational video of Tom Cruise blathering manically. This process of scandalous overreaction has come to be known as the Streisand Effect (after Barbara Streisand attempted to censor internet photos of her lavish estate and unwittingly made it a bigger deal than it would have been otherwise).

Anonymous and Scientology have had strained relations ever since the hacktivist collective was declared a “cyberterrorist group,” that was perpetrating “religious hate crimes” against the Church. Anonymous has resolved to “expel the church from the Internet,” and has called into question the legitimacy of its tax-exempt status. [13] Disturbingly, Germany is considering banning the religion entirely. [14] In an “epic troll” in 2009, a group of Anons executed Operation Slickpubes, in which a streaker slathered in Vaseline and pubic hair terrorized the New York City headquarters of the Church of Scientology.

This animosity toward Scientology is hardly political, almost a form of scapegoating, but it fortified the cohesion within Anonymous and created the capacity to mobilize in the real world.

Fomenting Revolution

Anonymous was instrumental in inciting and supporting the Arab Spring. In the town of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, 190 miles south of Tunis, a twenty-six year old vegetable cart peddler named Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself ablaze.

Bouazizi was responding to an incident of police misconduct, where an officer confiscated his cart, fined him, slapped him and insulted his deceased father. He appealed to the local court but was not given an audience. This acute incident, coupled with structural economic disenfranchisement drove him over the edge. On December 17, 2010, Bouazizi stood outside the provincial headquarters of Sidi Bouzid and unceremoniously immolated himself.

The Internet exploded with #SidiBouzid and anti-Ben Ali rhetoric. [15] The Tunisian government responded by deleting dissenters’ Facebook accounts. This time, another hashtag suffused through Tunisian social media: #Anonymous.

The collective launched #OpTunisia and organized to bring down seven of the Tunisian government’s official websites, including those of the Ministry of Industry and stock exchange.[16] The entity also published a “cyber war survival guide,” sharing information from Wikileaks about Ben Ali’s corruption, and how to outsmart riot police and access proxy cites for Facebook and Twitter.

The Ali government responded with “phishing” operations to steal passwords of dissenters in order to spy on them. This Orwellian tactic backfired, and the tweets kept coming. The Ali regime crumbled when protest reached a critical mass and pressure from the international community mounted. He stepped down on January 14, 2011. Egypt, standing in solidarity with the Tunisians, began a movement of their own (which also involved Anonymous). [17]

Anonymous is extremely active, partially because affinity groups are autonomous and not bogged down in bureaucratic sludge.

The leading Anonymous scholar Gabriella Coleman writes:

“Political operations often come together haphazardly. Often lacking an overarching strategy, Anonymous operates tactically, along the lines proposed by the French Jesuit thinker Michel de Certeau. ‘Because it does not have a place, a tactic depends on time—it is always on the watch for opportunities that must be seized ‘on the wing,’’ he writes in The Practice of Everyday Life (1980). ‘Whatever it wins, it does not keep. It must constantly manipulate events in order to turn them into ‘opportunities.’ The weak must continually turn to their own ends forces alien to them.”

This approach could easily devolve into unfocused operations that dissipate the group’s collective strength. But acting “on the wing” leverages Anonymous’s fluid structure, giving Anons an advantage, however temporary, over traditional institutions—corporations, states, political parties—that function according to unified plans. De Certeau pointedly distinguishes this as strategy, which ‘postulates a place that can be delimited as its own and serve as the base from which relations with an exteriority composed of targets or threats … can be managed.’ Anonymous is not bound to any such place, and therefore does not harbor what de Certeau calls ‘a Cartesian attitude.’”

This superfluidity has proved fertile ground for collective action, including: hacking the Vatican Website (twice), #OpEgypt (where they helped people get back on the internet using the “dark net” and third party proxies), outing members of child porn rings, and BART cell phone retaliation. They also hacked Ayatollah Khameini’s official website, hacked Monsanto in the name of environmental protection and food rights, and they provided hacking tutorials and secure drop boxes during the Syrian revolts where protestors deposited information anonymously.

Anonymous has mirrored peer-to-peer websites like The Pirate Bay, and they regularly unlock software like Norton Antivirus and upload it for free. Anonymous shut down the website of “Americans for Prosperity,” the PAC funded by the infamous Koch Brothers, in support of striking workers in Wisconsin during what they called Operation KochBlock. [18]

Avenge Assange

Beginning on February 2010, Julian Assange came under fire for publishing a trove of 250,000 secret United States diplomatic cables dating back to 1966. On December 2, Bank of America, Amazon, PayPal, Visa, MasterCard and the Swiss bank PostFinance froze Wikileaks’ donation accounts. Wikileaks was crippled.

On December 8, MasterCard and Visa’s websites were taken offline with a coordinated DDoS attack, orchestrated by Anonymous in ‘Operation Avenge Assange.” This began the fruitful relationship between WikiLeaks and Anonymous.

Next came Operation HBGary. Coleman writes:

“In February Aaron Barr, CEO of the HBGary security firm, claimed to have ‘pwned’ Anonymous, discovering the real identities of top operatives. In response, Anons commandeered Barr’s Twitter account and used it to spew 140-character racial slurs while following the accounts of Justin Bieber, Gay Pride, and Hitler. They hacked HBGary servers and downloaded 70,000 emails and deleted files, wiped out Barr’s iPhone and iPad, then published the company’s data alongside Barr’s private communications for good measure.”

Most remarkably, Anonymous unearthed a document entitled ‘The WikiLeaks Threat,’ which outlined how HBGary Federal (a subsidiary dealing with federal contracts) and other security companies might undermine WikiLeaks by submitting fake documents to the site. There was also evidence of plans to ruin the careers of WikiLeaks supporters, among them Salon.com writer Glenn Greenwald.

A small crew of AnonOps hackers had started with retaliatory trolling and had ended up exposing what seemed to be a conspiracy so damning that members of Congress called for an investigative committee to be established. Given that these were private firms, the evidence obtained by AnonOps could never have been procured through legal channels such as a Freedom of Information Act request.” [19]

Anonymous had entered the major league. Since then, governments have persecuted Anonymous, beginning in December 2010 when Dutch police arrested a 16-year old for cyber-attacks against Visa, MasterCard and Paypal. [20] In January 2011, British authorities arrested five males aged between 15 and 26 on suspicion of participating in Anonymous DDOS attacks. [21]

On June 13, 2011, Turkish officials arrested 32 individuals that were allegedly involved in DDoS attacks on Turkish government websites. This attack was in response to a new Turkish mandate on Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to implement a system of filters that was seen as censorship. [22]

The two most recent rashes of arrests are also the most egregious. In July 2011, over twenty Anonymous suspects had their homes raided were arrested in a coordinated action by the US, UK, and Netherlands. [23]

On February 28, 2012, Interpol released 25 warrants for the arrest of Anonymous suspects. The suspects, ages 17 to 40, were all arrested. [24] These arrests have had little effect on the collective, though, which temporarily took down the websites of the CIA, Department of Justice, FBI, NASA, and MI6 on April 15 of 2012. [25]

Legal persecution of hacktivists is nuanced and without precedent. Advocates of Anonymous, like attorney Jay Leiderman, argue that DDoS attacks are protected speech, or “digital sit-ins”:

“There’s no such thing as a DDoS attack. A DDoS is a protest, it’s a digital sit-it. It is no different than physically occupying a space. It’s not a crime, it’s speech. Nothing was malicious, there was no malware, no Trojans. This was merely a digital sit-in. It is no different from occupying the Woolworth’s lunch counter in the civil rights era.” [26]


“In an age of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.”

-George Orwell

An Australian computer programmer named Julian Assange founded WikiLeaks in 2006. The organization publishes insider leaks and original source material, serving as an historical record and journalistic resource.  It has been described as “an uncensorable system for untraceable mass document leaking.” [27] Assange has received numerous civil libertarian and journalistic awards, and was even nominated for the Nobel Peace prize. [28]

WikiLeaks is best known for its Collateral Murder video leak, thanks to U.S. Army private Bradley Manning. The video depicted an Apache helicopter mowing down suspected insurgents, journalists, and two children. One officer was heard saying that the unarmed victim “shouldn’t have brought his kids to a battle.” The footage illustrated how the use of drones and long-range weapons dissociates the solider from the horror of war.

Several of Wikileaks’ more notable disclosures took place in 2010. That year saw the release of 400,000 documents mostly relating to the Iraq War, what the Pentagon called “the largest leak of classified documents in history.”[29] These included a deliberate Bush administration policy of ignoring human rights violations by the Iraqi police, thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths that the Pentagon suppressed, Hilary Clinton’s 2009 authorization of spying activities on United Nations diplomats, and the joint efforts of Obama administration and GOP leaders to kill the investigative probe into Bush administration and C.I.A. torture practices. WikiLeaks also exposed a communiqué from Yemen’s president assuring US officials that Yemen would continue telling its citizens that U.S. military airstrikes were being carried out by Yemen. [30]

On April 25, 2011, the Guantánamo Bay Files were released. These 779 secret documents revealed that over 150 probably innocent Afghans and Pakistanis, including farmers and chefs are being held without charge. The oldest detainee is 98-year-old Mohammed Sadiq, and the youngest is 14-year-old Naqib Ullah. [31]

Also uncovered was a post-waterboard interview with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who allegedly stated that if Osama Bin Laden were to be captured or killed, an al-Qaeda sleeper cell would detonate a weapon of mass destruction in Europe, promising a “nuclear hellstorm.” He had been waterboarded 183 times—in retrospect, perhaps his Intel was corrupted by the lack of oxygen. [32]

On February 27, 2012, Wikileaks released five million emails from Texas-headquartered private intelligence company Stratfor. This was Wikileaks’ first attack on what political scientist Stacy Herbert terms the “DIC: Data Industrial Complex,” the pseudo-private system of global espionage. The leak revealed Stratfor’s close government ties, questionable interview methods (bribery, blackmail, seduction), and over 4,000 emails concerning Julian Assange himself. [33]

As an insurance policy, a 1.4 GB password-protected file has been uploaded to Wikileaks. Assange called it a “thermonuclear weapon.” The decryption password is to be released should Assange be harmed. The Swedish company Banhof hosts Wikileaks’ data in a former nuclear bunker, under the aegis of the country’s liberal free speech laws. Even still, leakers are strongly encouraged to use the Tor, an application popular among Arab Spring journalists, which routes signals such that the user is anonymized.

Storm clouds

“The people don’t want war, but they can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and for exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.”

 – Hermann Goering

The mainstream media, government officials, and conservative political commentators have denounced Wikileaks as a “cyberterrorist” organization. Some even recommend that Assange and Bradley Manning be tried for treason and executed. [34]

On March 16, 2009, the Australian government placed Wikileaks on a blacklist of websites to be censored (it was later removed from the list in November 2011). [35]

In December 2010, the White House Office of Management and Budget sent a memo forbidding all unauthorized federal government employees and contractors from accessing the classified documents made publicly available on WikiLeaks. [36]

Diane Feinstein incited the Espionage Act in the persecution of Assange, a “threat to national security,” potentially leaking vital information to the “enemy” (there is a problem when the enemy is the “voting” public). Joe Biden assessed that Wikileaks had put American lives in danger. [37] Thomas Friedman declared Wikileaks one of the two majo

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