WikiLeaks 2.0: How Julian Assange's Partnership with Anonymous Could Change the Landscape of Hacktivism
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Yesterday was a very big day for WikiLeaks. It just released 500 million internal documents stolen from the private intelligence firm Stratfor, allegedly obtained by hacktivist collective Anonymous in December. This is huge; it’s the first time Anonymous has ever cooperated with an aboveground entity, lending an unprecedented amount of political legitimacy to the often inscrutable group. But why? What do these strange bedfellows have to gain from collaboration? With this new collaboration, Anonymous has obtained new credibility, and WikiLeaks has obtained a hugely valuable new source. This potentially powerful alliance could point to the future of the leak economy, and this awkward symbiosis provides each party with exactly what they need to move forward. A new age of transparency activism may have just begun.
In the past, Julian Assange and other spokespeople at WikiLeaks have subtly distanced themselves from Anonymous as though it were an annoying little brother. WikiLeaks at least tries to operate within various global laws and seems to want nothing to do with a brand of hacktivism that’s also responsible for flooding Facebook with violent hardcore pornography, among other unsavory activities.
But this move comes at a good time for WikiLeaks. The organization has been brought to the brink of collapse over the last year due to internal strife and ever-rising legal bills. More broadly, WikiLeaks is a problematic system for acquiring and publishing leaks. It’s vulnerable to attacks from many sides: “patriotic” rival hackers and terrorists, legal attacks from governments, militaries and corporations. Perhaps worst of all, it has promoted the celebrity of its leader, Julian Assange, to the point where the focus of the media is no longer on the leaks themselves, but on the dramatic narrative of the organization’s most famous face.
WikiLeaks’ early success relied not on its ability to disseminate sensitive information, but from the lucky break it got in Bradley Manning, a U.S. military insider who could just as easily have directly leaked his info anonymously from a random Internet cafe. The ostensible value WikiLeaks provided to Manning was legal defense. And has it failed epically on that front. To put it bluntly, WikiLeaks is in crisis, and perhaps the only thing that can save it is a fresh, steady source of new leaks.
Meanwhile, Anonymous has risen from the sludge of geeky Web culture, first conceived as a catch-all term for online trolls who engaged in indiscriminate acts of online harassment, sometimes funny and sometimes horrific. Toward the end of 2007, a few of them realized that their ability to harness the power of thousands of bored geeks from across the globe would be put to better use against a perceived entrenched evil: the Church of Scientology. From there, Anonymous exploded into the mainstream media with physical protests and the now-ubiquitous Guy Fawkes mask. In December 2010, Anonymous targeted PayPal, Visa and Mastercard for refusing to process donations to WikiLeaks, bringing the websites of all three offline during Operation Payback. From there, the list of targets expanded to security contractors, media outlets, video game platforms and more. They’ve successfully attacked dozens of targets, some of which are multinational corporations and government contractors.
Over the last six months, the Anonymous brand has been stretched to cover every possible countercultural endeavor. If it were a commercial brand, analysts would call this process a dilution of brand equity. Given the nebulous nature of Anonymous’ membership and leadership, if one can even use those words to describe the group, Anonymous has come to mean many things to many people. For some, it’s about attacking the Church of Scientology. For others, it’s a tool of the 99 percent. Others still would prefer that the group return to its trollish roots, terrorizing bratty 11-year-old girls on YouTube.