After white nationalists demonstrated in Charlottesville, Virginia in August, the radical hacking group Anonymous announced that its latest campaign target would rid the internet from neo-Nazis. The hacktivist campaign, “operation domestic terrorism,” was framed by an Anonymous Twitter account as a way to protect the “liberty” of the United States.
With over 14,000 followers on Twitter and frequent appearances in the news, Anonymous isn’t just a fringe organization (an Anonymous news Twitter account boasts 109,000 followers). That large support network is, according to a study published in August, a reflection of widespread public dissatisfaction and anger against the systems that control our world.
In the paper, Giovanni Travaglino, Ph.D., the Group Processes and Intergroup Relations paper’s sole author and a lecturer of social and organizational psychology at the University of Kent, explains that people’s support for Anonymous is rooted in their anger at the injustices they perceive in the world. Because of their desire for revenge against a political and social system they feel has wronged them, they are drawn to groups that frame themselves as “Robin Hoods” of the digital age.
This framework is known among psychologists as “Social Banditry Theory,” which suggests that people who feel “voiceless” in an unjust world will support active disruptors of that world.
Travaglino came to this conclusion after he interviewed supporters of Anonymous in the U.S. and the UK and found that they were most likely to be people who felt “angry” and “powerless.”
These people are willing to support Anonymous’ cause, but that’s where they draw the line, Travaglino points out in his analysis. They trust Anonymous to correct those issues in society, but they don’t engage directly in the process of actively righting those wrongs — whether through protests or voting.
These differences in people’s approach to activism has much to do with whether they have an individual-centered outlook on life or a collective view of society, Travaglino says. While collectivists were more likely to enact change themselves by, for example, joining public demonstrations, individualists were more likely to sit back and support Anonymous. What this ultimately suggests is a difference in their intent, argues Travaglino: People who support Anonymous primarily care about getting revenge against the system, whereas people who are more concerned about society as a whole seem more focused on changing the system.
Anonymous and its many fractions have a history of championing causes it sees as a way to stop perceived injustices. It remains to be seen how Operation Domestic Terrorism will play out — and whether or not it will make a difference that will resonate with Anonymous’ supporters.