The Revolution Will Be Distributed: Wikileaks, Anonymous And How Little The Old Guard Realizes What's Going On

from the strike-me-down-and-i-will-become-more-powerful-than-you-could-possibly-imagine dept

Bear with me, as I try to connect a few different thoughts that are coming together in my mind in this particular post. My thought process kicked off with this monumentally clueless opinion piece by former state department official Christian Whiton, complaining that President Obama and Congress have failed us by not killing the folks behind Wikileaks. I’m not kidding. He specifically says that they’ve failed by not “exploring opportunities for the president to designate Wikileaks and its officers as enemy combatants, paving the way for non-judicial actions against them.” It appears to not occur to Mr. Whiton that Wikileaks is whistleblowing, revealing the fact that our government (apparently during the time Whiton worked for them) flat-out lied. That’s a journalistically valuable point, no matter what you think of Wikileaks as an organization itself and its founder Julian Assange, who has come under plenty of criticism lately (some of it seemingly reasonable).

Of course, a few months back, we had noted a similar response from another former government official, Marc Thiessen, who had served as speechwriter to President Bush, and was demanding that the US should effectively declare war on Wikileaks to shut it down. As was pointed out at the time, this is a statement totally clueless about the nature of Wikileaks, and how distributed it is. If you shut down one node, five more would likely pop up overnight, and they’d be harder to track and harder to shut down. Whiton and Thiessen are reacting to Wikileaks as if it were a threat from an individual or a government. In other words, they’re treating it like a threat from decades ago, rather than an open effort to distribute leaked information.

Moving on. A few weeks ago, I pointed out that I thought the denial of service attacks (“Operation Payback”) on various copyright supporters was a dumb idea. While I understand the rationale for it, and that it kicked off targeting organizations and companies that had claimed to support using the same tactics against file sharing sites, it just seemed to be a case of stooping to their level. I stand by that assessment, and I cringe a bit each time I hear about a new attack — even in cases where the attacks revealed useful info, such as in the takedown of ACS:Law or when the results lead to folks like Gene Simmons making ridiculous statements in response to such attacks.

However, even if I disagree with the tactics, I do agree with the site TechnoLlama, which recently asked if it’s time to take “Anonymous” seriously. I’d argue that the time to take the concept of Anonymous seriously came quite some time ago, actually. Even as people dismiss the group as often immature and naive (at times, quite true), what’s impressive about it is that Anonymous is a perfect example of truly distributed, totally anonymous, ad hoc organizations. When the group puts out statements, they’re grandiose and silly, but there’s a real point buried deep within them. What the internet allows is for groups to form and do stuff in a totally anonymous and distributed manner, and there really isn’t any way to prevent that — whether you agree with the activity or not.

Some think that “a few arrests” of folks behind Anonymous would scare off others, but I doubt it. I would imagine that it would just embolden the temporary gathering of folks involved even more. Going back to the beginning of the post, if the US government really was effective in “stopping” Julian Assange, how long do you think it would take for an even more distributed group to pick up the slack? It could be Anonymous itself, who continues on the tradition of Wikileaks, or it could be some other random group of folks who believe in the importance of enabling whistleblowing.

A few years back, Rod Beckstrom (now head of ICANN) wrote a book called The Starfish and The Spider which more or less predicted much of this. It pointed out that the US government and military was designed to fight opposition that was centralized (like a spider), but that it was not at all well-prepared to handle a totally decentralized organization, where cutting off one arm simply leads the organization to grow another (like a starfish). It wasn’t just about the US government, but about general organization philosophies around that concept, and I would think that things like Wikileaks and especially Anonymous would fit well into the book as even better examples than almost all that are in there.

Malcolm Gladwell recently got some attention for a writing a New Yorker piece dumping on Twitter, saying that “real” revolutions come from the strong ties that bind people together, rather than the “weak” ties found on Twitter. But, as many people have already responded, this is totally missing the point. This isn’t just about “Twitter,” either, or about whether a group of folks online were able to change the course of history yet. They haven’t. But, to ignore the rising power (for good or bad) of groups of people who can connect (often anonymously) in a distributed fashion to do things that shake foundations and lead government officials to demand they be killed, suggests something a bit more powerful than just a bunch of folks talking about eating lunch on the internet.

There’s no doubt that the various distributed groups either found on Twitter or that make up Wikileaks or Anonymous are prone to statements that appear to exaggerate the power of what they’ve done or what they’re doing. But it’s a mistake to think that such groups can’t have a pretty serious impact on issues on a global basis — as we’re beginning to see with Wikileaks. The key to understanding how and why that might happen is to certainly get beyond thinking of them in the purely traditional “organizational” sense of a group where if you “take out” its leaders, it goes away. There’s something quite powerful about the concepts behind both Wikileaks and Anonymous (again, whether or not you agree with what either is doing), but to think that they either can’t impact the world enough, or that the way to stop such impacts is to simply cut down a few key people, seems like a pretty serious folly of folks who don’t quite understand the nature of distributed, ad hoc power.

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Comments on “The Revolution Will Be Distributed: Wikileaks, Anonymous And How Little The Old Guard Realizes What's Going On”

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Jay (profile) says:

Seems obvious...

Really, how can any centralized structure understand Wikileaks, terrorist organizations, or anonymous people that act in a decentralized manner?

Once you’ve gone through all of the rules and structure, you’re basically a product of that environment. It’s just like you discuss big businesses fail to see the new opportunities that could become the next big thing (ie Google when Yahoo was a giant).

In the end, it’s the same concept just applied to the world of politics rather than the economic world.

rabbit wise (profile) says:

Has there been another time in history when there is a real possibility that the powers-that-be could actually be overthrown relatively easily?

Is the problem that the governments and moguls do not understand that while the world appears to still be spinning around the who-has-the-most-money game, the reality of the masses rising up is practical and has nothing to do with money (for the most part)?

Not taking it to the WarGames level but considering:
1. The historical revolutions – taking out a government (even a section of one)
2. Today – actually taking down a government agency

It is both inspiring and horrifying at the same time.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

“Bringing down a few websites does not even remotely mean that some people will be able to overthrow the powers-that-be easily.”

Imagine if you will a group of anon types doing what china does and trojaning via USB data stick, PDF, 0 Day exploit, etc. a cigarette companies, or RIAA, the banks involved in the US financial melt down, or some other bane of society. Now think of the harm that could be done by dumping all their e-mails, legal documents, documents relating to lobbying, payments to politicians, etc.

Joe Masks says:

The future will be distributed

Great think piece. I can very much see the future being populated with many groups like this: The Good, Bad, and Ugly all running around using the internet to act as one in the public sphere while remaining largely anonymous IRL.

I’m sure there’s a plenty of people who find this scary, espcially in the hands of the criminal, but I think this stands to be a good thing in the long haul, espcially for groups seeking peaceful ways of organizing and fighting power. In the end it will be about people having the general wisdom to know the truly benign from the truly malicious.

Ima Fish (profile) says:

if the US government really was effective in “stopping” Julian Assange, how long do you think it would take for an even more distributed group to pick up the slack?

A short history lesson. IRC begat Napster, which began WinMX, which begat Bitorrent.

In other words, even when you plug one leak on the net, a stronger one will develop.

opit (profile) says:

Re: Re: time for the country known as 'internet' to be recognized

“one where you can drown out those that disagree with you or otherwise disappear them”
If you ever followed an internal board where disussion of ‘disappearance’ of members/blogs,etc. is discussed the idea of being silenced might not seem so outrageous. This from a guy who went from a blog with a Technorati reading of 207 to gonzo…shortly after Scholars & Rogues moved to their own site to prevent any such possibility.
And the 101st Fighting Keyboarders have been spamming discussions for years. Check back on issues of Political Animal at Washington Monthly a few years back.
They had to assign an employee as moderator !

Linguiniman says:

The web has allowed anyone to make an impact on the world. Look at how Charlie and his older brother are known all over the world because of a simple 1 minute video. Just do a google search of- Charlie Bit my Finger Again, and there’s over 230 Million views! Another place where people are speaking-out is at Ripoff Report. People are posting songs and poems at that site. I just sang the most recent song at the ‘Bank of America’ page of that site. The web is still in its infancy. The people are speaking and singing all over the web.

Anonymous Coward says:

The future won't be distributed.

The future won’t be distributed.

But here’s a theory. The future will be filled with fat unemployed fucking losers with nothing better to do with their time than sit in their bedroom, reading inconsequential, un-spell-checked shit fabricated by other fat fucking unemployed losers who can’t create due to an inefficient patent system and the Corporate interests that control it.

I think I’m right.

Anonymous Coward says:

Mr. Assange is just a face he will fade but the real people behind it will not.

I firmly believe that the future will be about “cellular cooperation”, where a lot of tiny cells will make up something bigger just like giant manufacturer’s are doing away with big assembly lines, you see the problem is that when something breaks in the middle the whole thing stops, while in a cellular production line only that cell stops the other keep going.

That is also why I laugh when I hear about “power grid threats” why don’t make it distributed it is resilient and robust to handle everything and it can be easily interrupted.

That is also why I don’t understand why people don’t turn their houses into mini recycling centers and purification stations like living organisms do. I can see a toilet that has a kind of intestine attached to it that transform what comes out of you into gas and fertilizer.

But those people have no idea how the future could be.

Refrigerator sized box that are little veggie gardens.

Well I agree the future will be distributed, but it won’t be initiated by the government they will fight against it because they think they know better. The government ended every program that brought knowledge to people to be more independent is like they don’t won’t people to have quality of life without them being the ones that provide that.

Joe says:

define irony

Considering the distributed design of the internet was done by the US military as that was the most robust defence against external attack. Direct point to point connections would have been more… well, direct, but easier to break in an attack. It’s truly ironic that they are not appreciating the strengths of a system that they were the primary architects of.

Anonymous Coward says:

A random set of relevant quotes

We are Anonymous.
We are Legion.
We do not forgive.
We do not forget.
Expect us.

— Anonymous

You may stop this individual, but you can’t stop us all… after all, we’re all alike.

— The Mentor

There’s no flesh or blood within this cloak to kill. There’s only an idea. Ideas are bulletproof.

— V

The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.

— Leia Organa

Drake says:


The only way to cripple or destroy an organization such as Wikileaks is through sabotage. As anonymous as these groups are, there are usually a small group of influential people who are an integral part of the team. If an enemy of Wikileaks is able to infiltrate them and gain their trust, they might become influential enough to cause dissension.

An organized decentralized organization would be able to defend against sabotage by sharing as much information as possible with several people, so that even if one or two becomes compromised or discredited, it would not bring down the whole organization. I think Wikileaks is organized and sophisticated enough to survive these types of attacks.

Joe Masks says:

Re: Re: Anonycracy

“Decentralized organization” is probably close to what the Founding Fathers had in mind.

The Democratic-Republicans definitely liked the idea of keeping the US a relatively loose union. Then again if it weren’t for the union becoming stronger and tighter in nature, many of the states could have failed due to the debts racked up through the revolution.

A strong union has had some positives for the US, but I can definitely see that the scales are becoming unbalanced in a way that hasn’t been good for its citizens.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: if wikileaks was gone..

“I wonder how much stuff wikileaks ‘kindly’ removed that might have endangered lives, during the delay before final release”

This is such establishment rhetoric; that agents/troops will be endangered by the release of sensitive info. The real danger to the troops is that they’re fighting in this illegal war of aggression in the first place, which is what the info exposes, i guess.

RandomGuy (profile) says:

Excellent article.

This also goes a long way to explain why the powers that be are in such a rush to implement policies to curtail the potentially disruptive powers of instant, mass organisation afforded by the internet. Examples such as net neutrality, censorship and IP enforcement spring to mind.

Those attempts will ultimately fail. Cue analogies to hydras, starfish and such, and throw in a quote about the internet perceiving censorship as damage and routing around it, and let’s call it a day.

All the more power to the Wikileaks and the Bit Torrents of the world. The establishment is running scared. I approve.

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