Discussion of the political impact of social media has focused on the power of mass protests to topple governments. In fact, social media's real potential lies in supporting civil society and the public sphere -- which will produce change over years and decades, not weeks or months.
A Foreign Affairs discussion on the role of social media and technology in fostering political change.
Up to now, most of Anonymous’ DDoS attacks have been symbolic. When participants join such an attack, they add their computer to a network of computers that simultaneously ask for information from a given Web site; the surging traffic volume temporarily slows down or crashes the site. It causes disruption, not destruction, and the main technique that Anonymous has used requires participants to join self-consciously and publicly, leaving their Internet addresses traceable. By design, these are sit-ins: Participants illegally occupy the space of their target. And they take personal responsibility for the consequences: In 2011, the FBI arrested over 75 people in connection with DDoS attacks. They are a far cry from the kind of attacks on critical infrastructure, such as causing a power outage, that General Alexander's remarks suggested that the U.S. government expected.
Document disclosures, which are intended to embarrass and undermine those whom Anonymous views as having abused their influence, raise more complex questions. Anonymous’ basic idea is that when powerful players such as governments, corporations, and security contractors doubt their ability to keep what they do secret, they will restrain themselves. In recent years, document disclosures have exposed everything from invasions of individual privacy to wasteful expenditures in NATO contracts. In assessing whether such disclosures are justified, the relative power of the observed and the observer is key. How powerful a target is makes all the difference between hacking to promote transparency and hacking to abuse privacy; between what enhances accountability and what undermines personal autonomy.
Many of these cases, however, are ambiguous: Last November, for example, Anonymous activists released the personal details of a police officer who had pepper-sprayed protesters at the University of California, Davis. Similar personal disclosures were a mainstay of the hacks against Arizona law-enforcement officers in 2011. In those cases, there are fewer easy answers to the questions of who is a valid target, what of that target’s information can rightfully be exposed, and who gets to answer these very questions.
We are left, then, with the task of assessing threats in a state of moral ambiguity. In more naïve times, one might naturally prefer a law-bound state deciding which power abuses should be reined in and which information exposed. But these are no longer naïve times. A decade that saw the normalization in U.S. policy of lawless detentions, torture, and targeted assassinations; a persistent refusal to bring those now or formerly in power, in both the public and private sectors, to account for their failures; and a political system that increasingly favors the rich have eroded that certitude. Perhaps that is the greatest challenge that Anonymous poses: It both embodies and expresses a growing doubt that actors with formal authority will make decisions of greater legitimacy than individuals acting collectively in newly powerful networks and guided by their own consciences.
Anonymous demonstrates one of the new core aspects of power in a networked, democratic society: Individuals are vastly more effective and less susceptible to manipulation, control, and suppression by traditional sources of power than they were even a decade ago. At their worst, Anonymous’ practices range from unpleasant pranksterism to nasty hooliganism; they are not part of a vast criminal or cyberterrorist conspiracy. Instead, Anonymous plays the role of the audacious provocateur, straddling the boundaries between destructive, disruptive, and instructive. Any government or company that fails to recognize this will inevitably find itself at odds with some of the most energetic and wired segments of society. Any society that commits itself to eliminating what makes Anonymous possible and powerful risks losing the openness and uncertainty that have made the Internet home to so much innovation, expression, and creativity.
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