I’ve been following Anonymous — a loosely connected group of internet hackers — for a few months now. I first heard about them this past November when they infamously launched a cyber-attack on the Ku Klux Klan, hacking its websites and Twitter accounts and releasing personal information about its members. At its best, the actions of Anonymous constitute a muddled attempt at bullying an equally unfriendly group through annoying cyber harassment. At its worst, this event was a deliberate and coordinated attack against civil liberties and the right to free speech. A quick browse of Anonymous’s Facebook page reveals a hodgepodge of images and posts supporting a wide variety of issues with very little in common save a serious mistrust of authority or organizational structure. It reads more like a desperate call to anarchy than a coherent message or value system. Of course, the KKK hack was not a standalone incident. Past targets of Anonymous in the past have varied widely, including the U.S. government, corporations such as Sony and Visaand religious groups like the Church of Scientology. Their recent campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, however, is a different story entirely.
Following the attacks on Charlie Hebdo last month, a Belgian branch of Anonymous released a chilling video on their YouTube account declaring war on the “terrorists.” Sporting the distinctive Guy Fawkes mask, a lone individual states in a menacingly distorted voice that Anonymous “will track you down to the last one and will kill you.” Frightening messages like this one make it difficult to determine who the real terrorists are in the first place. Moral equivalencies aside, this is no way for societies to police themselves or other societies. A select, ungoverned few should never hold the power to decide right from wrong or to carry out due punishment. As much as our culture values superheroes and vigilantism in Hollywood, Batman does not and should never exist. Such a force has the potential for serious consequences. It’s easy to imagine multiple scenarios by which this campaign, or any of Anonymous’s campaigns for that matter, can go disastrously wrong.
A key aspect of this loosely connected network of computer hackers is the unstructured, disjointed nature of their organization. While the group clearly consists of many intelligent and talented individuals, oversight is nonexistent, and the group is held together by nothing more than an unclear and tenuous motive. This is a precariously dangerous organizational structure given the capabilities that Anonymous has demonstrated in the past. The potential consequences are numerous. For one, this is the perfect stage for extremists to latch onto these intentionally ambiguous and unguided motives to justify their malicious and hateful cyber-attacks on innocent people. Anonymous has created a flaming echo chamber for anarchistic, anti-religious sentiments among people with the skills to act on these beliefs.
I doubt most Anonymous hackers are so unhinged. They are, however, human, subject to the very same emotional biases that organized justice is meant to protect against. Their video declaring war on ISIS has clear undertones of anger and vengeance. Blinded by anger from witnessing the loss of innocent lives, it becomes disturbingly easy to allow emotions to clout judgment and turn attacks against innocent bystanders. This form of vigilante justice is only a few steps away from indiscriminately attacking innocent Muslims in blind rage for the heinous actions taken by a select minority. Lacking any formal rules or oversight, there is little to stop this powerful organization from trampling over the lives of innocent people.
Assuming these completely unknown individuals possess the mental fortitude to act as unbiased judges, by what standards do they judge guilt? What criterion decides the fate of those who have come into the crosshairs of this untamed and formidable arbitrator? Surely, Anonymous only takes action against those judged to be unequivocally guilty. Determining guilt, however, is never that simple. This is precisely why we have a justice system so heavily predicated on the paradigm “innocent until proven guilty.” A slight oversight, an overzealous hacker and suddenly an innocent man has been identified as a member of the KKK or ISIS, his life now undeniably in peril.
Most of Anonymous’s targets are a far cry from murderous extremist groups and deserve due course and protection from the law. However, no group, not even ISIS, necessitates the existence of ungoverned vigilantism. Certainly, defense of the vile actions of ISIS or its affiliated groups is not the proper side to take in any debate. Sickening as their actions have been, we cannot allow anger and fear to give rise to lynch-mob-style justice. Wanting justice and retribution is innately human, but long have humans recognized that these emotions are counterproductive to determining truth and achieving fair justice. As unsatisfying as it can be to watch President Obama meander around the issues as thousands are murdered in the Middle East, or to watch the KKK spew bigotry and hatred, or see criminals slip through the widening cracks of our convoluted justice system, it is important to remember that justice is an intentionally stagnant process. Too often we forget that laws and regulations exist to protect us as much as they do to punish wrongdoing. Anonymous, as well-intentioned and talented as it is, spits in the face of this principle.
ChristianWawrzonek is a computer science major from Pittsburgh, Pa. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.