Behind the mask: New CIGI paper gives context to Anonymous’ activities, power and politics

News Release

September 30, 2013

Anonymous, with its unpredictability and mystery, has garnered geopolitical clout among admirers and skeptics alike. Its ability to “unmask corruption, hypocrisy, state and corporate secrecy,” is the focus of a new paper issued by The Centre for International Governance Innovation.

In Anonymous in Context: The Politics and Power behind the Mask, Gabriella Coleman argues that contrary to media reports, Anonymous has core features — the main one being its unpredictability — and is not “random, shadowy or chaotic.”  Charting its formation and evolution from 2005 to present, Coleman argues that there are key intersecting elements that contribute to Anonymous’ contemporary geopolitical power:

  • Its ability to land media attention;
  • Its bold and recognizable aesthetics;
  • Its participatory openness; and
  • The misinformation that surrounds it.

By specializing in acts of disobedience, defiance and protest, Anonymous is part of a “wellspring of hackers and geeks taking political matters in their own hands to make their voices heard, to orchestrate protests over a range of issues, in particular civil liberties, and to transform policy and law,” Coleman writes. Such online protest is not surprising, she explains, given international waves of discontent over sharp economic inequalities and concerns over eroding privacy and government surveillance.

Anonymous is rarely random and tend to be reactive in its actions, Coleman says. She explains the importance of “mutability and dynamism” continuing to be “a staple of Anonymous’ activism and historical development,” which makes it hard to predict when new nodes, campaigns and strikes will appear. Nevertheless, Anonymous has been creating political engagement among citizens who would otherwise by politically passive, while at the same time continuing to generate misinformation over its structure, membership and activities, which only serves to strengthen intrigue and its geopolitical power.

Anonymous in Context: The Politics and Power behind the Mask is paper No. 3 in the Internet Governance Papers series, part of CIGI’s global security project “Organized Chaos: Reimagining the Internet.” The opinions expressed in the report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI. To access a free copy of this report, please visit:


Gabriella Coleman is the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University. Trained as an anthropologist, she teaches, writes, and researches on the ethics of computer hacking with a focus on open source software and the protest ensemble Anonymous. She is the author of Coding Freedom: the Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking published in 2012 with Princeton University Press and is currently working on a second book on the digital protest ensemble Anonymous.

Kevin Dias, Communications Specialist, CIGI
Tel: 519.885.2444, ext. 7238, Email: [email protected]

The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) is an independent, non-partisan think tank on international governance. Led by experienced practitioners and distinguished academics, CIGI supports research, forms networks, advances policy debate and generates ideas for multilateral governance improvements. Conducting an active agenda of research, events and publications, CIGI’s interdisciplinary work includes collaboration with policy, business and academic communities around the world. CIGI was founded in 2001 by Jim Balsillie, then co-CEO of Research In Motion (BlackBerry), and collaborates with and gratefully acknowledges support from a number of strategic partners, in particular the Government of Canada and the Government of Ontario. For more information, please visit

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.