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Research: Vigilante Media

News Story

Professor Adam Klein examines the news media’s response and characterization of the vigilante hacktivist group Anonymous.

“There’s something a little dangerous about a group that can do something that is essentially the same as throwing a brick through a storefront window and running away,” says Dyson Professor of Communication Studies Adam Klein, PhD, “Should what they do be treated as a legitimate protest?”

In recent years, Anonymous, an informally associated group of unidentified, online activists called “hacktivists,” have garnered attention in the global media for publicity stunts; online raids; and distributed denial-of-service attacks on government, religious, and corporate websites—essentially making the targeted websites unavailable to their intended users. While some view Anonymous as a form of digital activism no different than groups in the ’60s or the more recent Occupy movement, others view Anonymous as belonging to the same vein as WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, the controversial figure at the center of the recent NSA surveillance scandal. For Klein, the question surrounding Anonymous is: What is the nature of the group’s acts—is it journalism, is it whistleblowing, or is it just inflammatory disruption?

“They leave messages in the wake of a crash,” Klein says of Anonymous, “We collect the messages and use them to determine if the crash was political or simply malicious, then we have to weigh it against how the media chose to frame the event, which doesn’t always match with Anonymous’ message about what they were actually trying to accomplish.”

Klein examined 200 news media articles from 10 countries where 56 Anonymous hacks have occurred. Of the hacks—which ranged from extreme (e.g., crashing a website and rendering it useless), to stealing information from one website to publish it elsewhere online, to lighthearted pranks (e.g., using Burger King’s Twitter account to share the news of a major sale to McDonald’s)—only a very few were done just for the sake of doing it.

“Ninety-five percent of the hacks I looked at were done for stated political reasons, in defense of free speech, or anti-government surveillance,” explains Klein, “In juxtaposition to that, the other main finding of my research is that, regardless of the hack’s stated purpose, the news media use language in their reporting that treats the group as pranksters and vandals, more so than anything else.”

Klein has categorized the news media’s characterization of Anonymous into four main archetypes: legitimate activists, global threats, vigilante heroes, and malicious pranksters. Of his selection of 200 articles, descriptive words like “vandals,” “anarchists,” or “Robin Hood” were turned into numbers that determined how they were characterized and how frequently each characterization appeared in the articles. Of these four archetypes, Anonymous is most often characterized as malicious pranksters, followed by being depicted as global threats.

The negative depiction of Anonymous in the news media, Klein believes, is due in large part to the fear felt by individuals and governments—a valid fear of Anonymous’ ability to disrupt larger mechanisms within society.

“They are all for free speech, and yet at the same time, they deny the free speech of those who they target by taking down their websites or stopping them from functioning,” he says, “I think there’s an irony in what Anonymous does.”