Luke.Simcoe's blog

Anonymous and LulzSec Betrayed by One of Their Own

lulzsec.jpg

While a number of members of Anonymous woke up to the sounds of an FBI raid yesterday, the rest of us woke up to the news that one of the group's most prominent members was acting as a government informant.

When the dust had settled, Sabu, a prolific hacker associated with LulzSec, Anti-Sec and the broader Anonymous community, was revealed to be a 28-year-old unemployed father of two from New York named Hector Monsegnur. After being arrested secretly last June and threatened with the loss of his children and a possible 124-year prison sentence, Monsegnur agreed to cooperate with law enforcement. The information he provided led to yesterday's arrest of six additional Anonymous members and further charges against those who had already been caught.

Encountering 4chan and Anonymous: Cole Stryker's book 'Epic Win for Anonymous'

So, I finished Cole Stryker's book, Epic Win For Anonymous: How 4chan's Army Conquered the Web. Can't say that I really learned anything, but I doubt that academics who've been studying 4chan for the past two years are his target audience.

The book makes good on its promise to peer into 4chan without succumbing to the "fear, condescension, and hand-waving that dominate mainstream coverage of internet culture", and it's certainly one of the few accounts -- along with Julian Dibbell's work -- of 4chan by someone who "gets" it.

Midterm Report: The Lulz & Authority

In his book, Crypto Anarchy, Cyberstates & Pirate Utopias, philosopher Peter Ludlow imagines “virtual communities as laboratories for conducting experiments in the construction of new societies and governance structures.” In the context of Metaviews' inquiry into the nature and future of authority, I believe it's important to understand how the modes of sociality and organization emerging within lulz-centric communities like 4chan, Anonymous and the now-defunct LulzSec are challenging and modulating our understanding of what authority is and how it is wielded.

4chan

On 4chan, for example, the notion that authority is something that you can collect and carry with you online is being contested. The radical anonymity of 4chan -- 90 per cent of all posts to the site are made without even so much as a pseudonym -- means the things we’re used to in other incarnations of web 2.0, things like followers, social capital, reputation, etc. are made impossible. If you arrive with a clever argument or a particularly humourous piece of content, you may be able to manifest a measure of influence in a given conversation, but you can’t take that authority and port it elsewhere within the community because every conversation starts at zero. It's just one of the many ways in which 4chan functions to draw a line in the sand between the real and the virtual; just because you're authoritative in the real world doesn't necessarily mean you get to take that authority for granted on the internet.

A Lulzy Take on Media Literacy

A heads up before we begin: in case you’re unfamiliar with the lulz, you should check out the Metaviews glossary entry on the term (made by yours truly).

Through a series of clever hacks, the folks at Lulz Security have captured our collective imagination and stolen some of the spotlight from Anonymous. LulzSec first made headlines in May for hacking Sony Pictures, but they’ve since penetrated systems belonging to PBS, Nintendo, Britain’s National Health Service and an FBI affiliate site known as Infragard.

Declaring themselves to be “pirate ninjas”, LulzSec’s hacks often seem more like amusing pranks than serious security breaches. They issue hilarious press releases via twitter or Pastebin, deface websites with internet memes and, in the case of the PBS hack, they spread a false news story claiming deceased rappers Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. were alive and well in New Zealand. Given such a tone, it’s not all that surprising that CBS assumed that LulzSec was behind the recent “Hashbrown Hoax” hack on the Conservative Party of Canada website (in reality, a hacker calling themselves @LulzRaft claimed responsibility, but they seem to be at least inspired by LulzSec).

Encountering 4chan and Anonymous: The Lesson(s) of Anongate

"You can accomplish anything you want in life provided you don’t mind who gets the credit."
-- Harry S. Truman

As you may have heard, a serious case of infighting has broken out within Anonymous. It's already been dubbed a civil war by some spectators, and the twitterverse has already generated an #anongate hashtag.

The details are still murky, but it seems that a rogue network operator named "Ryan" has hacked the domains associated with the AnonOps wing of Anonymous, taking down the various IRC channels that the group uses to communicate in the process. For those unfamiliar, AnonOps is a splinter group of Anonymous that formed in the wake of Operation Payback last year. Since then, they've established a reputation as the more "moral" arm of Anonymous, eschewing juvenile pranks in favour of more principled actions in places like Egypt and Tunisia. AnonOps generated a lot of attention towards Anonymous, and represented an entry point into the group for those who might not want to lurk on the various -- and variously profane -- message boards more commonly associated with the collective.

Although dissensus is the norm within Anonymous, these latest events are a fairly spectacular example. It's also a great illustration of what myself and others have been calling the "anti-ego" ethic of Anonymous. Whether you're involved in an Anonymous raid, or just posting pictures of cats on 4chan, any attempt to accrue personal status or differentiate from the collective whole is considered bad form. On message boards, it'll likely to just get you mocked, but within the more serious ranks of Anonymous, it could earn you a cyber-beatdown.

Geert Lovink at the Infoscape Lab


On Wednesday, April 27 Dutch media theorist, internet critic and activist Geert Lovink was in Toronto to participate in a panel discussion about the Wikileaks phenomenon. Prior to the event, he stopped by Ryerson University's Infoscape Research Lab to discuss what he's been up to in his role as the director of the Institute of Network Cultures.

Since the advent of the internet, Dr. Lovink has been at the forefront of theorizing both the significance and the potential of networked technologies. He's organized countless conferences, exhibits and symposiums all over the world aimed at generating critical discourse about the internet, and in 1995 he co-founded Nettime, a highly influential mailing list that counts figures such as Bruce Sterling and John Perry Barlow among its subscribers.

Although Lovink's lecture on Wednesday covered a lot of ground, his thesis was fairly simple: our critical perspective on network culture is lagging behind the pace of technological and social change on the internet. There remains an emphasis on discussing emerged -- as opposed to emerging -- phenomena and the pace of academic publishing (a PhD dissertation can take four years to prepare and write) is glacial compared to that of the web. For example, until recently it was still common to see critical scholarly articles centred around Myspace.

According to Lovink, this failure to "play catch up" means that we're not properly analyzing a profound shift towards decentralization in network culture, and the bulk of his presentation consisted of examples of the ways in which this trend is manifesting in social networking, e-commerce and online activism.

Is Viral Marketing an Oxymoron?

I'm just going to come out and say it: I really don't like viral marketing. I don't like the term and I certainly don't like the practice. And I'm not alone.

Yesterday, a video purporting to show a young woman folding a Starburst wrapper into an origami paper crane using her tongue went "viral" online. After an initial viewing, I wasn't surprised that users were suggesting the video was either a fraud at best, or a poorly concealed ad for Starburst (which, by the way, is a division of Mars Inc., the fifth largest privately held company in America) at worst. "Obvious viral marketing is obvious. Srsly GTFO the internet if you think this might be real" wrote one Tumblr user, while others commented on the surreptitious camerawork or the conspicuous use of product placement.

I'll leave you to judge for yourself, but I'm certain that this video was cooked up in the pretentiously furnished lounge of some ad agency. How can you tell? Aside from the fact that oral origami is probably impossible, there's two things that led me to my conclusion.

Encountering 4chan and Anonymous: The Drama of Encyclopedia Dramatica

“inb4 shitstorm”

If you ever encounter this phrase on 4chan, it means that someone has predicted that a certain post, statement or event is going to cause a significant uproar in the community. And that’s precisely what happened yesterday when countless trolls, /b/tards and Anons discovered that their online storehouse of institutional memory -- a wiki known as Encyclopedia Dramatica -- had vanished from the web.

Launched in 2004, Encyclopedia Dramatica -- or ED to its friends -- was what Wikipedia would look like if you put it through some kind of inversion machine. Whereas Jimmy Wales and company forged a community around ideals like “neutral point of view” and “don’t be a dick”, ED threw objectivity out the window and prided itself on packing as much offensiveness as possible into every entry. Not surprisingly, those behind ED cited Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary as an inspiration.

ED quickly attracted the attention and interest of the nascent Anonymous subculture, and the wiki became, in the words of Wired, the place “where the vast parallel universe of Anonymous in-jokes, catchphrases, and obsessions is lovingly annotated”. Shifts in the culture, notable raids -- ranging from small attacks on other online communities to organized campaigns like Project Chanology -- and other ephemera were all carefully documented and presented in what can only be termed as Anonymous’ unique editorial voice.

However, those that went seeking that voice as of yesterday were redirected to a site called Oh Internet. Almost overnight, those behind ED had demolished the site and replaced it with a sanitized version boasting “toned down content style and a streamlined design”. Sherrod Grippo, one of ED’s founders, explained the move by saying “shock for shock’s sake is old at this point.”

Encountering 4chan and Anonymous: Moot and Canv.as


He started one of the web’s most dynamic communities when he was just 15. He was a TIME man of the year before Zuckerberg. He testified as an expert witness during the trial of the young man who broke into Sarah Palin’s email account. He’s the liaison between Lerer Ventures and the burgeoning New York hacker community. To some, he’s “the supreme overlord of the Internet” (link NSFW). To others, he’s just an elaborate hoax. However, to at least a few of the internet’s previous generation of innovators -- including one of founders of the Huffington Post and the guy who started del.icio.us -- his ideas are worth over a half a million dollars.

His name is Christopher Poole, but he’s better known by his online handle: “moot”. He’s the brainchild behind 4chan, and the president of what will likely be one of the most intriguing start-ups of 2011: canv.as.

Anonymity vs. Pseudonymity


Well, a quick post today, but one that I hope is thought provoking.

In researching 4chan, it's difficult not to come back to the recurring theme of anonymity. The concept is at the core of what the site and its community (known as Anonymous) represent, and the thousands of unidentifiable users cloaked in a shroud of namelessness are what make 4chan simultaneously one of the most creative and vibrant places on the internet and also one of the most disturbing.

Regardless of your view on the pros and cons of anonymity, I'd like to suggest that the term is somewhat misused. Type it into a dictionary and you'll usually get two definitions: something along the lines of "lacking attribution," as in an anonymous author, but also something akin to "lacking individuality, unique character, or distinction."

The former definition is how we typically conceive of online anonymity, typified by the angry commenter on newspaper websites starting flamewars while hiding behind a username. And for the most part, this is how anonymity functions on the internet.

Encountering 4chan & Anonymous: The legality of DDoS attacks


Some outlets are reporting that Operation Payback, Anonymous' two-month campaign against the forces of copyright, has concluded, while the homepage for the raid claims that the group has simply decided to change tactics in an attempt to legitimize itself.

Either way, it seems like the wave of denial-of-service attacks against targets like the RIAA, Gene Simmons and the U.S. copyright office have come to an end -- at least for now.

As part of my research, I lurked on a number of forums associated with Operation Payback -- I hung out on various IRC channels, and watched threads about the raid on 4chan -- and made some fascinating discoveries: the chat forums were populated by people from all over the world, the attacks consisted mainly of people using various flooding programs (such as the Low Orbit Ion Cannon pictured above) but some anons claimed to be using botnets as well, the sites and servers used by the group were just as likely to be the targets of DoS attacks as they were to wage them, there is no consensus within the community that Operation Payback is the right thing to do, and many users claimed that the raids were their first forays into the world of electronic (civil) disobedience.

However, it's not those findings that I want to talk about today. At the moment, I'm more interested in interrogating the role of DoS attacks in the contemporary political landscape of the internet.

Anonymous has no shortage of detractors. Some claim the group's antics inflame moral panics about online security and lend credence to arguments for tighter control of the internet. Others point out the hypocrisy of advocating free speech while simultaneously taking down a musician's website because of statements he made regarding piracy.

Encountering 4chan & Anonymous: Some thoughts on trolls

I'd thought I'd begin today's post with a quote from Gustave Flaubert:

"Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work."

I think Flaubert's words are as good a place as any to start a discussion of internet trolls. After all, according to Matthias Schwartz, a troll is "a normal person who does insane things on the internet."

Seeing as 4chan is widely regarded as one of the internet's net exporters of trolling activities, I've been doing a lot of reading on the subject. I've encountered excellent work by Burcu Bakioglu on trolls (also known as griefers) in Second Life, as well as the always-insightful Biella Coleman, whose ongoing study of trolls compares them to hackers, phreakers and mythological tricksters.

Rethinking Video Games

America's Army

My colleague Daniel Joseph is a burgeoning video game scholar. The two of us had a really interesting conversation after class the other day that I think is worth sharing with you MetaViewers.

Throughout much of the 20th century, art (paintings, cinema, music, theatre, etc.) was regarded as not only an aesthetic object, but also a possible tool for nation building, cultural cohesion and even propaganda. There's no shortage of historical analysis highlighting the centrality of arts and culture to places like Hitler's Germany, or Stalin's Russia, and on a brighter note, Canada -- at least since the Massey Commission -- has acknowledged the role of art in creating a shared Canadian identity.

This legacy persists today, and manifests itself in numerous ways, not the least of which are Canadian content laws, or cultural exemptions in free trade agreements.

In contrast, video games -- despite their capacity to function as art, narrative or the basis for cultural formation -- have always been treated as purely commercial products. Regulation of video games consists of either consumer protections (ie. rating systems like "T for Teen!") or economic incentives like those present in Canada's recently unveiled Digital Economy Strategy. At the level of policy -- and even popular culture -- video games are seldom talked about as if imbued with the same powers as other cultural products.

Dan thinks this is because notions of cultural identity and nationhood are throwbacks to the Keynesian post-war era of the welfare state. Video games came of age in a time when Reagan and Thatcher were ushering in deregulation and neoliberalism, and thus the aura of art was not able to glom onto new and emerging cultural forms.

Network Politics Conference Wrap-up


I've been away from the blog for a few days, but only because I was attending the latest Network Politics conference at Ryerson University. The two-day event was part of a series of discussions organized jointly by the Infoscape Research Lab here in Toronto and the Research Centre in Digital Culture at Anglia Ruskin University in the UK.

The event was an excellent and inspiring (especially so for a young researcher such as myself) meditation on how networks -- both in a technological and cultural sense -- can be discussed in political terms. It was most certainly an academic event, but I'm going to spill some virtual ink here as a shout-out to those whose papers I enjoyed and as a way to try and distill their ideas for a wider audience. If I'm successful in piquing your interest, I'd urge you to check out the recorded presentations on UStream.

Object-Oriented Politics?

Encountering 4chan & Anonymous


What attracted me to 4chan and Anonymous in the first place was the absurdity of it all. I had entered my MA program intending to study the impact of Canadian NGOs on on normative understandings of journalism in Africa, and somehow, the idea that I could write a thesis about LOLcats, m00t and Operation Slickpubes (NSFW) was too joyfully subversive to pass up.

However, like anyone who has spent some time among the trolls, I quickly realized how significant the community -- and the processes by which the community constitutes itself -- is. You can dismiss 4chan and its users as a peurile "internet hate machine" if you want, but it's becoming increasingly more difficult to do so. 4chan is the 285th most visited website in America (remember, there is something like 2 billion websites on the net), and the most active internet forum in the entire English-speaking world. The site receives over 11 million unique visitors per month and generates nearly one million posts per day. Not even YouTube musters that kind of user input.

Meanwhile, Anonymous -- shorthand for the subculture of internet users who frequent a series of online image and message boards, of which 4chan is simply the most well-known -- has been responsible for all kinds of crowdsourced antics ranging from a protracted protest against The Church of Scientology to flashmobbing an aging veteran with gifts on his birthday. At the moment, they're engaged in a battle with the anti-piracy lobby, having succesfully DDoS'd everyone from the MPAA to Gene Simmons.