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Social activism the Anonymous way

Shortly after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the group Anonymous declared cyberwar on Russia. The announcement caused a sensation, but it remains difficult to understand how this group, which was born in the mid-2000s, functions and to assess its impact.

Francis Fortin, a researcher in the School of Criminology at the Université de Montréal, analyzed the group’s actions on social media to better understand who its members are and how they act. In particular, the project focused on the role of Anonymous during the 2012 Maple Spring in Québec. At the time, the group claimed responsibility for cyber attacks on several websites, including those of the National Assembly, the Public Security department, and the Québec Liberal Party.

An analysis of interventions on social media such as Facebook and Twitter shows that Anonymous does not have the hierarchical structure found in most criminal groups. It also differs from hacker groups, which bring together highly skilled programmers to carry out cyber attacks. Anonymous appears to be an ideological collective made up of autonomous subgroups.

Certainly, a core group of its members carry out hacking activities. But anyone who shares the movement’s ideas— which include defending freedom of expression, preserving the environment, and fighting authoritarianism — can participate. Individuals who identify with Anonymous are much more engaged in social debate and online politics than in direct action, such as hacking websites.

The strength of Anonymous lies in its impact online and in the mainstream media. Some spectacular actions serve to draw attention to its ideas. However, its subgroups behave much more like other online communities that take positions on political and social issues than like a criminal organization.