I Discuss the Difference Between Big-A and Little-a Anonymous in a Previous Section, or, inb4 DEFINE YR TERMS

September 22, 2011 § 1 Comment

(I guess this is somewhat related to Guardian stuff, though who knows due to it’s been a long week and I’m sleepy. Case studies for this here chapter officially done and done, the next few days = framing and tweaking the things I haven’t shared. Finish tomorrow prolly, right on schedule like a BOSS.)

Although each side gives as good as it gets, the relationship between trolls and the media is rarely described symbiotically. Instead, trolls are the bad guys, simultaneously portrayed as criminally insane cybervillains and pathetic, basement-dwelling neckbeards. However dismissively and/or diabolically they are portrayed, the march towards moral panic follows precisely the blueprint as established by Stanley Cohen: there is aberration (trolling); there is reaction to the aberration (the media takes a stand); there is further reactionary aberration (trolls take a stand against the media’s stand); there is reaction to the reactionary aberration (the media takes a stand against the trolls’ stand against the media’s stand), and so on, thus creating what Cohen describes as “circular and amplifying” cycles of disturbance (11; 15-19).

Consider the relationship between /b/ and Fox News, beginning with an examination of Fox 11’s infamous segment on little-a Anonymous. The report, which first aired on July 26, 2007, was uploaded onto YouTube that same day and immediately began making the rounds on /b/; twenty seconds into the clip, it’s not hard to see why. “They call themselves Anonymous,” anchor John Beard gravely begins. “They are hackers on steroids, treating the web like a real-life video game…sacking websites and invading Myspace accounts, disrupting innocent peoples’ lives…and if you fight back, watch out.” Beard passes to reporter Phil Shuman, who describes Anonymous as a “hacker gang” and “internet hate machine” hell-bent on destruction. “I’ve had seven different passwords and they’ve got ‘em all so far,” one interviewee alleges. “I believe they’re domestic terrorists,” insists another, a proclamation followed by stock-footage of an exploding service van.

The report goes on to explain that Anonymous operates under cover of darkness, hurling missives from the shadows and ruining as many lives as possible. One woman, a mother, faced constant telephone harassment and was forced to get a dog; a boy named David was dumped by his girlfriend when hackers posted “gay sex pictures” to his Myspace wall; several sports stadiums received bomb threats, the coordination of which is now believed to be, as Shuman admits, “a hoax” (an apparently unimportant detail). Later in the report, as dramatic music blares in the background, a former member of Anonymous—whose face and voice have been obscured, presumably for his own protection—accuses the alleged hacker gang of threatening to rape and kill him. In the following scene, the mother whose family was targeted, and whose identity is also obscured, pulls closed a pair of window curtains and offers a grim conclusion. “Would [the FBI] do something about it if one of us ended up dead?” she asks. “Probably” (“Hackers”).

To date, Fox’s report has received nearly two million hits and has amassed over twenty thousand viewer comments. A post made by DancingJesus94 captures the spirit of these responses: “Wow,” he or she writes. “Fox just fed the trolls, and did so in the lulziest way possible. I mean, what’s a bigger ego boost than for Anon to be branded dangerous criminals who can hack your computer by closing their eyes and merely thinking about it” (2010). In this way, the media fashioned a series of existing—though disproportionately sensationalized—behaviors into a tidy nominative package. Anonymous was a menace to society, something to fear, something from which to hide your children and dogs. The resulting “circular and amplifying” cycles of disturbance created and subsequently reinforced an image of troll-as-social-deviant, which the trolls were happy to embrace and even play up—an impulse chronicled by Douglas Thomas in his study of hacker culture, particularly the “new school” hackers of the early 90s. As Thomas explains, “The media, as well as the public…learned to expect the worst from hackers, and as a result, hackers usually offer that image in return, even if their own exploits are no more than harmless pranks” (37). In short, the “branding” of the fringe element—both in the marketing and hot iron sense—was for hackers, and remains for trolls, a mutual, and mutually-reinforcing, undertaking.

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