Anonymous: Headless, Herd Mentality, or Convergence Theory Driven Entity?
In my last couple of posts I took a look at what has been going on with Anonymous and HBGary Federal. Within those posts, I began musing on just how decentralised Anonymous really is. By looking at the overall picture of how Anonymous seems to work on the face of it, you might think that they are just a fluctuating group of online personae who sign up for certain operations that they desire to devote time to. However, no matter how many times I look at the big picture, I still see an underlying structure(s) that potentially have more static features that can be analysed and thus, allows for the potential of there being pseudo-anonymity.
Now, this may rankle some within the anonymous camp and likely will cause some comments here but, this is something that interests me as well as really is an academic thought experiment as opposed to Aaron’s little projects. So, you anon’s out there, take this post and my musings as food for thought as you go on about your anonymous lulz. I am not searching you all out to “out” you, just looking at an interesting problem.
With that said, lets move on to my theories.
Motivations, Drivers, Flocking, Herding, and Convergence Theory:
Before I go into the infrastructure of Anonymous as I see it, let me first go into the psychology behind the human side of Anonymous. This bears directly on the infrastructure due to the fact that humans online comprise the entity known as Anonymous. It is the psychology behind that human element, that give rise to the means by which they are carried out in a social media format. (i.e. the internet/IRC/Social media)
Human motivations can and are myriad, however, there are some basic desires that are fulfilled by action as a cohesive group. These desires or goals take shape in differing ways. In the case of Anonymous, they have aligned themselves with a “swarm” mentality, and I ascribed to that at first, but, after thinking about it quite a bit, I have come to the conclusion that a swarm does not really fit the patterns of behaviour exhibited by Anonymous. A swarm implies lack of thought and instead just reaction. The examples used before of bee’s or ants are good ones to use to show in fact, Anonymous does not resemble them. Instead, the Anon’s all have motivations as a whole and on their own individually that motivate them to act as they are. In this simple fact, the aspect of having self awareness and motives, shows that the allusion to swarming is a fallacy.
Instead, I propose that since humans are behind the actions of anonymous, and comprise its ranks, that other theories apply to them that come from a more humanistic approach, much of it being from psychology. The following theories apply as I see it.
Herd behavior in human societies
The philosophers Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche were among the first to critique what they referred to as “the crowd” (Kierkegaard) and “herd morality” and the “herd instinct” (Nietzsche) in human society. Modern psychological and economic research has identified herd behavior in humans to explain the phenomena of large numbers of people acting in the same way at the same time. The British surgeon Wilfred Trotter popularized the “herd behavior” phrase in his book, Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War (1914). In The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen explained economic behavior in terms of social influences such as “emulation,” where some members of a group mimic other members of higher status. In “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903), early sociologist George Simmel referred to the “impulse to sociability in man”, and sought to describe “the forms of association by which a mere sum of separate individuals are made into a ‘society’ “. Other social scientists explored behaviors related to herding, such as Freud (crowd psychology), Carl Jung (collective unconscious), and Gustave Le Bon (the popular mind). Swarm theory observed in non-human societies is a related concept and is being explored as it occurs in human society.
An information (or informational) cascade occurs when people observe the actions of others and then make the same choice that the others have made, independently of their own private information signals. Because it is usually sensible to do what other people are doing, the phenomenon is assumed to be the result of rational choice. Nevertheless, information cascades can sometimes lead to arbitrary or even erroneous decisions. The concept of information cascades is based on observational learning theory and was formally introduced in a 1992 article by Sushil Bikhchandani, David Hirshleifer, and Ivo Welch. A less technical article was released by the authors in 1998.
There are two key conditions in an information cascade model:
1. Sequential decisions with subsequent actors observing decisions (not information) of previous actors.
2. A limited action space (e.g. an adopt/reject decision).[6
The main idea of Sigmund Freud’s crowd behavior theory is that people who are in a crowd act differently towards people from those who are thinking individually. The minds of the group would merge to form a way of thinking. Each member’s enthusiasm would be increased as a result, and one becomes less aware of the true nature of one’s actions.
Le Bon’s idea that crowds foster anonymity and sometimes generate emotion has become something of a cliché. Yet it has been contested by some critics, such as Clark McPhail who points out that some studies show that “the madding crowd” does not take on a life of its own, apart from the thoughts and intentions of members. Norris Johnson, after investigating a panic at a 1979 Who concert concluded that the crowd was composed of many small groups of people mostly trying to help each other. However, ultimately, leaders themselves identify themselves to an idea.
Theodor Adorno criticized the belief in a spontaneity of the masses: according to him, the masses were an artificial product of “administrated” modern life. The Ego of the bourgeois subject dissolved itself, giving way to the Id and the “de-psychologized” subject. Furthermore, the bond linking the masses to the leader through the spectacle, as fascism displayed in its public representations, is feigned:
“When the leaders become conscious of mass psychology and take it into their own hands, it ceases to exist in a certain sense. […] Just as little as people believe in the depth of their hearts that the Jews are the devil, do they completely believe in their leader. They do not really identify themselves with him but act this identification, perform their own enthusiasm, and thus participate in their leader’s performance. […] It is probably the suspicion of this fictitiousness of their own ‘group psychology’ which makes fascist crowds so merciless and unapproachable. If they would stop to reason for a second, the whole performance would go to pieces, and they would be left to panic.”
Edward Bernays (1891–1995), nephew of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, was considered the father of the field of public relations. Bernays was one of the first to attempt to manipulate public opinion using the psychology of the subconscious. He felt this manipulation was necessary in society, which he felt was irrational and dangerous.
Convergence theory holds that crowd behavior is not a product of the crowd itself, but is carried into the crowd by particular individuals. Thus, crowds amount to a convergence of like-minded individuals. In other words, while contagion theory states that crowds cause people to act in a certain way, convergence theory says the opposite: that people who wish to act in a certain way come together to form crowds. An example of convergence theory states that there is no homogeneous activity within a repetitive practice, sometimes observed when an immigrant population becomes common in a previously homogeneous area, and members of the existing community (apparently spontaneously) band together to threaten those trying to move into their neighborhoods. In such cases, convergence theorists contend, the crowd itself does not generate racial hatred or violence; rather, the hostility has been simmering for some time among many local people. A crowd then arises from convergence of people who oppose the presence of these neighbors. Convergence theory claims that crowd behavior as such is not irrational; rather, people in crowds express existing beliefs and values so that the mob reaction is the rational product of widespread popular feeling.
My money though is on Convergence Theory. While herd mentality works in many respects, the herd seems less actively motivating the outcome as it is reacting to external stimuli or a certain single entity moving them to “herd” in a specific direction. In Convergence Theory however, we have a more nuanced approach to understanding that like minded individuals congregate together socially and then as a crowd, act out on their collective consciousness. I believe that all of these behaviours and observations play a role in the macro-verse of Anonymous.
I also believe that at times, there are leaders who take up the issue that they feel needs redress and then start that herd moving toward a goal by beating the drum. Thus you have the chats and the boards where people take their digital soap boxes out and speak on the target, the reasons, and the method of attack. If the idea gets enough traction vis a vis the oration of the de facto leader at that time, then, a movement begins. Which brings me to the next topic.
Cells vs Spontaneous Headless Entities:
Anonymous has said many times and rather vociferously, that they are a headless organisation. I have always been of the opinion that no matter how many times they make that claim, it is functionally impossible. There will always be a core group of individuals that will be leading an operation. It is also the case that Anonymous is predicated on infrastructure that must be maintained. The IRC rooms, the servers, the web servers etc, all have people who operate them and manage them. In this respect, those persons would be the holders of the keys to the kingdom would they not? If a person in charge of such functions were to turn (or be turned) on the organisation, they could do massive damage to the org by being in charge of key assets.
I would further like to posit that for each “raiding party” as they may be called, would also have de facto leaders. An incidence of this can be seen in the WBC debacle in the response to WBC that claims 20 people had worked on the document. Those twenty people would nominally be leaders of that cell or operation by my accounts. So, to extend this further, for every operation there must be a division of roles and responsibilities doled out to function, it is just our nature to do this. If Anonymous were truly a chaotic system, nothing would get done effectively.
Cells however, also fit as an modus operandi for Anonymous. When I say cells I mean this from the perspective of cells in terrorism. Al Qaeda, as a functional operation has been winnowed down to the point of only being a titular entity in the jihadi movement. Due to the war on terror, AQ has shifted their operations from being rather linear to a cell mentality. All of the cells out there are pretty much self formed at present. The cells consist of like minded people who get subtle and not so subtle information/mandates from the AQ HQ via things like “Inspire Magazine” or the jihadist boards. The same can be applied to the structure of Anonymous. There are still those people who are making suggestions and or are outright perceived leaders, that can be singled out as targets of interest. This may not be the case every time, but, by using the information above on motivations and crowds, you can infer that it is the case more times than not.
Nick Re-Use as De-Anonymization:
Now, once you consider the motivations and the structures that are created or used, one must then consider how would someone go about trying to determine targets of interest. In the case of Anonymous this allusion had been made (poorly) by Aaron Barr. He went after certain parties that he claimed were in fact the core leaders of Anonymous. I can’t say that any of those names were in fact core leaders, however, I will say that the nicknames themselves could have been used to gain intelligence on said users and indeed prove their affiliation.
My premise is this;
1) The more unique a nick is the easier it is to track
2) Nickname re-use on other sites in tandem with uniqueness makes tracking and expanding on social connections easier
3) With the right foot-printing, one can potentially get enough information not only to see affiliations and actions, but also real names of individuals
So, if you are on the Anon boards and you re-use your nick, AND it is unique enough, I know that you can be tracked. Add to this the notion that you use your nick as an email address, then you are adding even more context for someone to search on and cogently put together patterns for recognition. So, the more data points, the more coherence to the picture if you see what I mean. By using tools like Maltego or even Palantir correctly, one can make those connections. In the hands of a trained analyst, the data can really show a person’s online personae and lead to enough data being revealed to have law enforcement breathing down your neck with warrants.
In looking at the Anon sites, one can see regular names turning up. Using Maltego on some of those names have also given returns that would be a good start on locating those people because the used the same nickname for other uses that are inherently insecure. Which is ironic as Anonymous is supposed to be just that. In fact, one can log onto their IRC session just as “anonymous18457” etc. I would do this every time I wanted to go onto their servers so as not to have too much residual data for someone to mine.
Aaron was right in that people are inherently lazy at times. We as a species are also ill equipped to delineate long term threats as opposed to near term. In most cases though, many of the Anon’s are in fact young and likely inured to the idea that the Internet is in fact an anonymous space.
It isn’t, unless you take pains to make it so.
So there you have it. I have been pondering this for a little while now. I am sure there will be more as I think about it a bit. Aaron was a fool, but let me tell you, there are others out there in spook country who aren’t. These techniques are no secret nor are the theories of behaviour. These are common ideas that are used within the psyops realm and you, “anonymous” legions must take that into account. If the authorities cannot get the core members, they will eventually get round to going after the low hanging fruit.
However, with these techniques, even someone diligent about their anonymity can be defeated. Everyone makes mistakes…
Keep your wits about you.