Sunday, November 22, 2015

Rick-rolling ISIS: what could possibly go wrong?

The online semi-activist collective know as Anonymous is going to war against ISIS. It is dong so by taking down twitter accounts used by ISIS members (supposedly) and by spamming the extremists on social media in order to undercut their use of hashtags and the like to communicate and recruit. And apparently the spam of choice is "Rickrolling," a somewhat older technique that originated on 4chan in 2007 or so. For a detailed history of the phenomenon, read this.

This kind of "action" isn't a new thing for Anonymous in the least, as it launched a similar attack against ISIS following the Charlie Hebdo shootings early this year, though perhaps on a lesser scale (how "big" this action will turn out to be remains an open question). Most of its other actions, however, have generally had specific and more limited targets. Waging an online "war" with a group of terrorists who are also operating as a real-world armed insurgency is something new for Anonymous.

Of course, it's a war without guns, bombs, tanks, or the like. It's a war that is supposedly taking place in cyberspace and will be nothing but trouble for ISIS, while not endangering anyone else, whatsoever.

That's the theory, anyway. And it's a war that has lots of people openly cheering for Anonymous, or at least grinning wickedly based on the assumption that ISIS is going to regret pissing off this particular internet collective. Maybe that's how things will go down, maybe this action by Anonymous will throw a huge monkey wrench into the online operations of ISIS and help limit recruitment and communication to the extent that ISIS suffers in a meaningful, tangible way, that it begins to fall apart. And if that is how things go down, I guess the free world would be in debt to the hacktivists of Anonymous.

Color me doubtful.

It's easy enough to take potshots at Anon, who they are, their extra-legal methodology, and their lack of meaningful successes on any sort of grand scale (along with their fair number of outright mistakes), but that's not really my issue with the group and this particular kind of action.

First and foremost, let me be clear about something: I get Anonymous, insofar as I understand that I don't really get Anonymous at all. I do understand that it's not an organized group, that it doesn't have an established hierarchy (it does have a practical hierarchy, however), that anyone might claim membership, but that no one can absolutely be said be a member. Membership is wholly about self-identification. And I understand that actions taken under the Anonymous umbrella can vary greatly in nature and range, from takedowns of private entities just to show it can be done, to the specific targeting of individuals or groups because of their perceived unjust activities.

That's one of the problems when dealing with Anonymous: it's movement from a subversive pain-in-the-ass to a vehicle for righting wrongs and seeking justice. It's easy enough to cheer the rebellious bad boy who stands up to "the man" when "the man" is acting badly, is taking advantage of others, but a bit harder to rationalize that same bad boy's actions when those actions are self-serving, destructive, and/or hurtful to others who have done nothing wrong. In fact, even actions that seem to be about justice can have collateral damage.

I guess the question becomes the same one that can be asked of government actions, of all sorts (military, economic, etc.): is the action justified, regardless of the potential for collateral damage?

The difference is, governments can at least pay lip service to the idea that they are acting with the authority of their citizenship and can—on occasion—even be held to account for the choices made in this regard by the people in charge, whether through a forced change of leadership (at the ballot box or otherwise) or through courts of justice, whether national or international.

Anonymous as a whole, by definition, is not subject to these sorts of controls. And since its membership is fluid, individual members who might run afoul of the authorities and end up in jail cannot even be said to represent the collective, itself.

This troubles me. The cheering for Anonymous that I witness on the 'net, on social media and messageboards, strikes me as cheering simply for potential deus ex machina moments. The theoretical action by Anon against the theoretical big bad meanie is an action that no real person actually takes, it is sloughed off as a moment of cosmic justice.

The problem is, this isn't the reality. Deus ex machina devices are roundly criticized—and rightfully so, in my opinion—in movies and novels for being cheap ways out of sticky and difficult problems, because they remove the actual responsibility for solving things from the actual characters in the story. The overused line from Spiderman remains apropos: "with great power comes great responsibility." Anonymous has great power, it would seem, yet no responsibility. And even if we might be happy with some of the results that come from exercising that power, we shouldn't be happy with the inherent lack of responsibility in my opinion. That's not something to cheer for, it's something to worry about.

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