Archives For cyber vigilantism

anons in the wild

Ars has a longform story on an unlikely cyber warrior, Christopher Doyon, aka Commander X. If you see him out in the wild and think that he’s merely a lanky 50-something panhandler smoking like a chimney in coffee shops while surfing the web, you could certainly be forgiven for making that mistake. Little does anyone know that he’s leading the worldwide fight against fascism and tyranny in Egypt and Syria after having battled persecution and injustice in the U.S. Now, this highly ranked general of the Anonymous armies is a fugitive from the long arm of the law trying to punish him for a DDoS attack against a local government office when it tried to tell people not to randomly sleep in local parks. Except when you read through Doyon’s story and the caveats carefully noted by writer Nate Anderson, you’ll discover that only the last part of all this is really true while the rest is basically a giant ego trip from a homeless conspiracy theorist with a laptop and a cause. Though exactly what that cause is gets very quickly lost in the histrionics…

Basically, the fight being fought by Doyon is against tyranny and oppression although what he’d call tyranny and oppression shows that he’s not familiar with a real authoritarian government and these verbs are usually used to say "’The Man’ isn’t letting me do whatever I want." Were he one of the many victims of authoritarianism, odds are that he would’ve been long sent to do a stretch of very hard time in a prison camp and the arrest he would’ve endured wouldn’t have been very gentle, proper, or brought to a court that released him on moderate bail while they reviewed his case. Even the reason why he fled was egotistic. After he coordinated a DDoS attack on Santa Cruz county, the judge didn’t want him to use social media to organize another one and while the case was being heard, ordered him to stay off Facebook and IRC. Imagining that this was a ploy to prevent the transformative work he was doing around the world over IM, he set off for Canada to seek political asylum. Because apparently, he thinks he’s important enough for that.

For more detail, I certainly recommend checking out the story itself, it’s well worth your time, but what really resonated in it with me was the textbook image of a conspiracy theorist looking for a conspiracy to fight. Doyon the 50+ year old drifter living off $15 a day used on coffee, smokes, and a fast food sandwich, perfectly matches with society’s definition of a bum. While many of his peers were studying, working, and trying to build families and careers, he was dropping acid and hanging out with anarchists who saw everyone who didn’t see eye to eye with them as enemies, sinister sleeper agents of the state, sort of like the Agents in The Matrix. He has nothing to show for his half century on this planet. But Commander X, his alter online ego, is the liberator of the oppressed, the digital Gandhi, King, and Eisenhower, all rolled into one. He commands legions and legions of followers and fierce digital artillery in the form of "ethical botnets" that can muscle giant companies like PayPal off the web. Commander X’s facade of a vagabond is a cover, much like that of a secret agent. Now, doesn’t that seem a lot better and more grandiose?

Too bad that this too is pretty much bullshit. Well known Anons have a real distaste for him as a so-called "leaderfag" who thinks he’s in charge of things he’s not, and whose chest-thumping is effectively worthless. So he talks to a small group of his fans and imagines that he’s fanning the flames of revolution against puppet governments of the New World Order. Like many conspiracy theorists on the far left, he’s ready to jump down anyone’s throat should he hear disagreement, rushing screaming at top speed at various strawmen about supporting The Plutocracy or busy stuffing words into critiques of his absolutist worldview, accusing his detractors of simply taking fascist oppression lying down or being blind to the government’s misdeeds. Whatever legitimate gripe he has, has long been obscured by hyperbole and reflexive categorization of anything an authority figure with which he disagrees does as either a war crime or enslavement of the 99%. I can understand why. He’s lived in cozy far left echo chambers in which being radical was simply not radical enough so nuance and debate are simply not part of his world anymore.

Finally, I can understand that there are plenty of people out there not happy with the way things are and wishing their lives had turned out differently. A lot of people feel the same way, like we got stuck on a treadmill and are going exactly nowhere. I know I’ve written plenty of posts which decry the fact that so much potentially transformative science and education is constantly being given the short end of the stick by visionless, bloviating empty suits we elect to govern us. A lot of these potential programs could make the 9 to 5 cubicle grind unnecessary in the long term as well as give us more options for what to do with our lives. So I get it, we’re not in our utopias yet and I’m sure my version of a perfect would would be someone’s mechanical nightmare. But the way to change the world isn’t to pretend to command hordes of cyber anarchists. It’s a tedious, long process that may involve waiting until the visionless retire or fall out of power. It takes time and sorting through competing ideas. DDoS-ing the shit out of stuff produces a speed bump on the way to something new and to pretend that it makes a real difference leads nowhere.

Once upon a time, I wrote about some of the serious downsides of cyber vigilantism. Yes, it can give a voice to those who suffered an injustice and the system either doesn’t care or doesn’t want to do its job. It can make sure that a wrongdoer gets his or her comeuppance. But it can also incite vicious mob mentality and take it to absurd extremes. While few such cases make a big splash in the U.S., in the most wired country in the world, South Korea, these cyber witch hunts have been accused of driving actresses and singers to suicide, and the incessant fury of the online hordes can splash into the popular media with toxic effects. Take for example the instructive story of Dan Lee, a.k.a Tablo, a rapper whose online harassment became a national news story after he was accused of forging his Stanford degrees and dodging the draft, despite his Canadian citizenship exempting him from compulsory military service. In response, Lee had the media ask Stanford to print out an official transcript for him and the university gladly produced it. Yet, the attacks continue and he is still declared to be a fraud in a style not at all dissimilar from the birther movement. But why was he being harassed?

Leaving aside the various dramas and the cast of rather sketchy characters profiled many times already, one of the key issues here is that in the online world, the mob follows a narrative that motivates it into action, not a set of facts per se. Obviously, not everything you see on the internet is true because after all, the internet hosts the musings of the Time Cube guy and at least a dozen retellings of all the elaborate conspiracy theories that were forcefully crammed into the Illuminatus Trilogy. Ordinarily, that pseudoscience, postmodernist New Age woo, and conspiracy mongering would simply lay there in forgotten or obscure corners of the web because it needs some sort of catalyst to take off and ensnare its followers and prophets. And these things certainly can and do find disciples who are either confused by science they want to understand but can’t quite grasp, or will not accept as valid for whatever reason, those who want to seem scholarly and profound without putting in all that much effort into either, or those eternally paranoid that someone is out to get them. Nasty tales about a celebrity are even easier to embrace, especially in a culture like that of South Korea, where any mediocre high school student shouldn’t end up getting a graduate degree from Stanford with a good GPA then do music.

In fact, most of the rage regarding Lee was about his education and how it should’ve been impossible for him to get good grades at an elite college since by all accounts he was a do-nothing in school. His critics seem to be incapable of considering that he may have demonstrated a talent that was interesting to Stanford and took his studies seriously when he realized that this time, grades are serious business. Getting into elite colleges in the U.S. is not a matter of having the right test score or having the right GPA, or joining enough clubs. But in many people’s minds, that GRE/SAT/GPA/extracurricular digit combination is like some sort of numerological incantation that opens the doors to Ivy League institutions and life-long prosperity. This is why parents will all too often drive themselves and their children crazy with endless study and college prep tests, especially when we’re talking about Asian cultures where the right test score can determine your path in life. For some of Lee’s most outspoken tormentors he either cheated by getting into Stanford, which means that their kids’ admission to an elite school would now be meaningless, or he lied and never went to Stanford which would mean they’re doing everything right with their kids. And so they chose to believe the latter because it required no change on their part and no reevaluation of their priorities or their parental style, just verbally crucifying a rapper.