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Turmoil
04/05/2012

Internal Fighting Splits AnonAustria

After a spectacular April fool’s joke of the Austrian Anonymous spin off, activists seem to be at odds within their own groups. While responsible heads of „OpPitdog“ called it a successful campaign, others criticise the approach and are saddened about the credibility of AnonAustria. Also the public shows a divided reaction. The question remains; what could one expect from such an anonymous collective at all.

von Claudia Zettel

Prior to April 1st AnonAustria announced that thousands of emails from politicians would be published which would shatter the republic’s foundation – in the end it turned out to be a more or less successful April fool’s joke that had been eagerly expected to uncover information through AnonAustria. From the start everything was only fictional and meant to put media attention on the topic of data preservation, so the twitter statement of @AnonNewsAut said.

If you read the message that was published on Saturday night and another „apology” on Sunday afternoon, it becomes clear how split the group is – in as far as you can gather from one group – after that operation. This second, more detailed statement is entitled “Information about #OpFAP and #OpPitdog from the point of view of @AnonNewsAUT and other committed Anons.” Authors distance themselves slightly from @AnonAustria, known as the official Twitter Account in public.

One of the points criticised is that this account, different to other Anonymous accounts, is only used by one person. Most probably, the account owner is “The Dude” who remains wanted by the police. He is thought to be one of the leading heads of AnonAustria and his authority is more and more questioned within the group.

Two Camps
He is said to be essentially responsible for the misleading announcement published in the e-mail and has only divulged this to a few people from the beginning.  This is at least suggested by the IRC-Chatlog that was handed over to futurezone at the weekend with documents of some internal disputes. If you believe the chat protocol to be authentic, then the explanation that AnonAustria wanted to bring attention to the subject of data preservation comes into some question. The Dude writes for example: “The reason was to bring home to them how sensationalist they are” – which fits to the Twitter-message from Sunday.

In the chat the assumed Leader of AnonAustria shows disappointment about official statements of other members and pretends to be an adult who has to deal with a group of children who have no idea of what they are doing. “An apology is proof of weakness and is absolutely not necessary. Everything has turned worse because of the authors”, The Dude states. AnonAustria should not take care about its own perception in media and public, as no apologies have been made for other actions (police data, GIS, etc.) Furthermore, the Dude criticises that such statements would bring too many internal matters to the public and this would be proof that there is no unity within the group.

Some chatters agreed with The Dude during the conversation, the ones who made the statement explained that they tried to limit damage or raise a doubt about the whole operation.

As Spoken from the Pulpit
That there is discord in such a loose group is obvious. Also, at the international level there are always fights and power struggles. This was clearly demonstrated when the breakaway group “Lulzsec” drew attention to themselves. Again and again single actions cause illogical juxtapositions, which quite often lead to serious fights between Anonymous-members where they try to make the opponent’s identity public.

„AnonAustria, as a hacktivistic splinter group of Anonymous in Austria, is probably not organised as heterogeneously as promised by the idea of Anonymous being a leaderless collective – one of the facts that speaks against that is that all the actions have been announced as from the pulpit over the Twitter-account @AnonAustria which can not be used by all members”, media scientist and Anonymous-expert Jana Herwig says. “Therefore, I do not see occasions like operation Pitdog as a drawback related to missing leadership, but as a proof that a few can hardly act in the sense of a broad consensus“, Herwig goes on.

A Question for Trustworthiness
According to some AnonAustria representatives who question their own trustworthiness, media representatives and citizens will do the same after this action at the weekend. The public was used to relying on announcements and actions from the hackers, but in what way should someone expect something like that from an anonymous collective.

„It seems remarkable to me that people assume AnonAustria to be trustworthy”, Herwig says. “After all it is a non-nameable collective, which has decided whose identity is worth being protected and whose not. Just think about the leak of personal data of police officers in September 2011”

The incidents at the weekend have unveiled two things according to the media scientist: „On the one hand the political class has a massive problem with its trustworthiness if the announcement of an e-mail leak through an anonymous collective causes such an echo”, Herwig says. On the other hand there is this wishful thinking: „Don’t mess with our privacy, otherwise you will get punched on the nose by AnonAustria”. Hackers get stylized to the new revengers of the disinherited, and in the same moment they are supposed to have noble motives such as Robin Hood. “If they do not fulfil that expectation - disappointment is huge.”

Protester’s Label versus Power Gestures
In principle, Herwig says, the Anonymous-movement has two components. “One the one side, it is a protest-label that comes into action especially on subjects like freedom of information or fundamental rights in the internet and can be used by anyone.” Also on the weekend people use Anonymous-masks to protest against physical data preservation.

“On the other side there are hacktivistic, more closed groups within Anonymous, like AnonAustria which manage to draw media attention to them, often unquestioned”, Herwig says. Which one of these components is more trustworthy to set an example against data preservation, is difficult to evaluate. “Both contribute to the general impression of Anonymous; on the one side the presence in the physical environment, on the other side the gestures of power of AnonAustria which contribute to the general impression of the omnipotence of Anonymous.

Distrust Everywhere
After the April fool’s joke of AnonAustria, the media as well as the public will show more careful reactions to exaggerated announcements. Documents like the chatlog can only be read with the awareness that everything could be staged. Even participants in the chat bring up thoughts that this is a deliberated fight which should be brought to the media, whereas others suggest the debate should be carried forward “elsewhere”, such as in private chats. How the internal fight for power at AnonAustria will end and with which actions the internet activists will produce headlines in the future, remains to be seen. It is clear that even a per se non-hierarchical movement can not get around debates about leadership and structure.