World War Anonymous: The Great War With No Name
Behind this mask, there is more than just flesh. Behind this mask there is an idea. And ideas are bulletproof. – V
Since “V for Vendetta” came out in 2005, thousands of men and women have been inspired to don the mask of a single comic book character and perform his persona. They’ve taken to the Interwebs, the “real world,” and the rest of the planet, sweeping both social and news media with protests against online censorship and surveillance, always in support of a more free Internet. And, of course, the lulz.
Anonymous, the now infamous hacker group, has been associated with over one hundred coordinated cyberattacks since its inception. That’s an average of nearly ten hacks per year, and those are only the ones they publicize. Many of these hacks include high-profile targets such as the Church of Scientology, big-name credit card companies like Visa, PayPal, and MasterCard, as well as governmental and non-governmental organizations: the CIA, the Vatican, the KKK, and Daesh.
In 2011, hacks against the Church of Scientology, the credit card companies, and other public and private organizations caused NATO to label cyber attacks an “act of war.” That same year, a Verizon study found over 100 million users had their data stolen by hacktivists, causing the media to brand 2011 “The Year of Anonymous.”
Since then, Anonymous has turned the other cheek (tongue in, as always) to embrace the label of “act of war,” even going so far as to “declare war” openly when publicizing targets like the KKK, Daesh, and most recently, Donald Trump.
Regardless of what historians and journalists end up branding what amounts to this 35-year-long conflict in the Middle East, we must admit that casualties in the millions, mass displacement in the millions, a hesitant U.S. president, and attacks on French soil all sound uncannily like Europe in the nineteen-teens and nineteen-thirties. Call it what you want, but for those living in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, or Russia, it already looks and sounds like a world war.
And here’s why already it is. Not only are Russia, three of the G7, the EU, and the Arab League invested politically and financially in changing the outcome of two civil wars whose terror groups’ steadfast devotion can be traced back to U.S. intervention in Iraq, but Internet-based groups like Anonymous and Daesh are well on their way to becoming world powers.
Of course we don’t call them “world powers” because they don’t fit our textbook definition: sovereign nations amassing trillions of dollars in GDP, a military-industrial complex, and more high-paid bureaucrats than you can count.
Even so, Anonymous collects enough revenue to hire freelance creatives, maintain websites, publish content, organize hacks against governments and large corporations, as well as financially sustain itself for nearly ten years. Like Daesh, they maintain a massive online presence, using the Internet (and specifically Tor, or the Darknet) as both a war machine and source of diplomacy.
Meanwhile Daesh, with its assets in oil, stolen antiquities, human trafficking in addition to donations from independently wealthy sympathizers and Bitcoin, has been valued at $2 billion collected from revenue streams that amount to $3 million per day. With a funding scheme like this, it has climbed the ladder of worth per adult, amassing an estimated 31,500 fighters, making each of its followers worth over $95,000 in 2014. For perspective, that’s higher than 2015’s average worth per adult in China, Korea, Greece, Portugal, or Saudi Arabia.
Still, Anonymous’s and Daesh’s diplomacy is a far cry from the nation-state’s. Neither organization has diplomats by the rest of the world’s standards, or ambassadors who are paid to appeal to and persuade other groups to be their allies. But they do use online content to cultivate a global following made possible by dispersing links to instruction manuals, videos, and websites via several thousand social media accounts. Most recently, Anonymous has used its own sizable presence to combat Daesh’s with some measured success.
With distinct online presences such as these, the groups put forth oppositional but concurrent voices to two very different yet highly dedicated follower bases, both with the potential to reach an audience of over 3 billion people.
As we’ve seen with protests across six continents and hundreds of large-scale hacks by Anonymous, as well as Paris and San Bernadino attacks by Daesh, this reach has global consequences, as we now say, “in real life.” Such consequences spell transnational growth for non-state entities, who are changing the face of a long war with no name. What was once a faceless struggle between the world and terrorism has become a masked Information War for the Age of Mass Information.
The best part of this movement? It reminds us that the Internet, as a network of ideas, is bulletproof—that battles of wits and information have the potential to avoid casualties of life, limb, and infrastructure.
Which is why we’d do best to approach this conflict, with its multifaceted global parties, as a spyglass pointed toward World War in the 21st century: not a “Global War on Terror,“ but a war of words, a war of ideas, a war for the Internet, which could become the “atomic bomb” of the 21st century.
After all, as a tool that can be used to both silence and give voice to viral ideology around the world, it is the ultimate propaganda machine.
So no matter how much we resist the notion of an ideological war, we’re in one.
Since 2003 the U.S. has involved itself in at least two wars at once, a pattern that has continued unabated for the past twelve years, nine of which involved three wars simultaneously.
Rhetorically, every one of these conflicts has targeted two perceived ideological threats to the West: authoritarian regimes and terrorism. From the Western side of the world, these wars often sound logical and distinct, rarely ideological. The war in Afghanistan was against Bin Laden and the Taliban because of 9 /11. The war in Iraq was against Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda because Saddam was harboring weapons of mass destruction. The war in Syria is against Bashar al-Assad and Daesh because Assad went Stalin and murdered his own people.
But taken ideologically, they are the same essential conflict. Taking “The War on Terror” off the table and anonymizing the conflict does not hide the fact our targets represent ideas to us in the same way that we represent ideas to our targets.
And how do you fight ideas? With careful research, logical reasoning, and a massive online following.
At the very least, we should treat the anonymous conflict honestly as a war between world powers. It will be a step in the right direction of treating powers in the Middle East as allies and equals; countries that probably never needed our “democracy” to achieve peace, and might have been better off without our intervention.
At the very most, we should treat this Long War in the Middle East as the end of post-WWII’s Long Peace. Doing so recognizes the grave fact that nations are not the only world powers in the 21st century. To confine our definition of “world power” to sovereign states that tend to have GDPs above $1 trillion, giant metal war machines, and oligarchic diplomats fails to see that groups like Anonymous and ISIS are ascending the ladder of great prowess, and that their ability to affect global change has made them transnational forces to be reckoned with on a transnational level.
Expect more like them.