Non-hierarchical social movements
The documentary film We Are Legion tells the story of the rise of one of the most heavily publicised global protest movements ever known – Anonymous. Although the film appears to be presented from a very sympathetic point of view towards the group and its actions, it tells a very interesting story of how the internet and social media can be utilised by protest movements and allow for their non-hierarchical structure and lack of centralised leadership. I have often held the opinion that, despite agreeing with the principle of some of their actions, I do not feel comfortable with what I saw as childish arrogance and pretension in their methods and communications. We Are Legion provides an interesting insight into how the group formed, it’s structure and how it operates but left me even more unsure of whether or not I support the group and its actions.
Anonymous began in response to what some popular online communities saw as increasing censorship and the suppression of freedoms online. Online communities such as 4chan; where the limits of democracy and freedom of speech were commonly being tested; anger began to brew in response to the censorship behaviour of groups such as PayPal and the Church of Scientology. What I find particularly interesting is how much of an importance the internet has in the group’s existence – physical protests have been held around the world in the name of anonymous but the internet has been fundamental to their formation, their organisational structure and their activism.
Perhaps its most fascinating feature is its complete lack of hierarchical organisational structure. As with other contemporary socio-political movements, many of Anonymous’ actions challenge established structures of power and authority, suggesting new forms of governance (or a lack of) can be established in its place.
‘This non-hierarchy in itself challenges the way in which the State, and especially the Law, see cybercrime. Because according to Anonymous you’re already helping them if you’ve ever blogged against a corporation or tweeted a link to an anonymizing tool. Instead of responsibility being cut and dried (you either did it or you didn’t) Anonymous blurs the lines’ (Anonymous: can a non hierarchical structure work for hacktivists?, 2013).
As such, the organisation itself has no hierarchical structure of power and command with no recognised central leadership. While this may perplex outsiders and potentially cause problems for Anonymous, it also brings many benefits to the effectiveness of their actions.
As there is no formal structure within the organisation, no member list and no form of enrolment, it is virtually impossible to know the true scale of Anonymous and extremely difficult to know who the activists actually are. While legal action can and has been taken against individuals carrying out actions under the group’s name, the anonymity around the members of the organisation mean that anyone caught is not at risk of revealing exactly who belongs to anonymous as they themselves will not know.
With no central leadership and media platform, Anonymous cannot be held accountable to media and press statements.
The very structure represents the collective beliefs of anonymous and, as such, the legitimately practice what they preach.
The lack of formal structure and enrolment procedure essentially means there is no distinction of what a member of anonymous is or isn’t. Anybody can carry out action in the group’s name and the group have no way to prevent this or denounce the culprits. As such, negative actions that damage the group can be carried out by anybody in it’s name.
A similar problem exists with the group’s media use. With no centralised media centre, the group is at risk of people making damaging media statements on their behalf.
Another fascinating effect of its leaderless structure, as with other social movements such as the global Occupy movement, is the group’s method of forming ideology and taking action. With no recognised hierarchy of command, any ‘member’ of the group can take a leading role at any time, pushing the group’s activity or discourse in a certain direction before another takes over.
I find it particularly interesting that this actually reflects behaviour normally associated with the animal kingdom and robotics; ‘murmurations’ as in the constantly flowing and ebbing structure of a flock of birds and ‘swarm intelligence’.
Anonymous: can a non hierarchical structure work for hacktivists?. (2013). [Blog] Slutocracy. Available at: https://slutocracy.wordpress.com/2013/02/25/anonymous-can-a-non-hierarchical-structure-work-for-hacktivists/ [Accessed 31 Oct. 2015].
Bertram, S. (2015). Authority and Hierarchy within Anonymous Internet Relay Chat Networks. Journal of Terrorism Research, 6(3), p.15.
Dorigo, M. and Birattari, M. (2007). Swarm intelligence. Scholarpedia, 2(9), p.1462.