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How Cyber-Anarchists Became Government Assets
After Russia turned WikiLeaks to its ends, other international powers co-opted the anonymous hacker movement and meme culture.
UPDATE: The Intercept obtained documents in late December 2022 that showed Twitter administrators were allowing the U.S. military to covertly spread U.S. propaganda on the platform, disguised as the comments of anonymous Arab users. The story is a concrete example of many dynamics this article had discussed.
Hackers were once supposed to save the world from tyranny. Since the 1990s, intellectuals have waxed poetic about the potential of the Internet to liberate humanity from the shackles of government control. In the 2010s, the techno-libertarian dream seemed to come true, as “hacktivists” challenged the powerful and social media outrage sparked popular revolutions.
But now the Internet seems to have become just another instrument in the toolbox of power. Politicians spread viral hate propaganda online. Powerful tech companies gather and sell data on millions of users. Disinformation and surveillance are the name of the game. And in a twist of irony, old-fashioned cyber-anarchist circles have become one of the most important venues for government operations.
Hacktivist groups have become a smokescreen for intelligence laundering and cyber-warfare. Citizen-journalists and meme wizards spread state propaganda — often proudly. Powerful actors from Washington to Moscow have learned to turn online rebellion towards their own interests.
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Last week, reports emerged that Russian operatives had breached outgoing British prime minister Liz Truss’s phone. Online personality Kim Dotcom claimed to have seen hacked texts from the phone proving British involvement in recent Nord Stream pipeline explosion. Russian officials quickly cited Dotcom’s claims as evidence of Western perfidy. Dotcom, once a face of the legal battle for Internet freedom, was now acting as a propagandist for a world superpower.
The hacktivists of the early 2000s were seen as an uncontrollable force of anarchy. Internet users organized under the name “Anonymous” to carry out hacking operations and online campaigns, sometimes in support of political causes, sometimes for the sake of pure chaos. WikiLeaks allowed whistleblowers to expose official secrets to the entire world.
An important later development was the rise of “open source intelligence,” or “OSINT.” With ubiquitous cell phone footage and cheap satellite data, citizen-journalists could investigate events thousands of miles away. OSINT muckrakers were crucial in documenting the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war, and Ukraine’s post-2014 conflict.
It seemed like people from around the world could band together to fight all kinds of government power. Perhaps the feeling of solidarity was a bit too optimistic. Sitting in the “digital trenches” with foreign revolutionaries, Western activists could easily forget that they were not locals with skin in the game, and confuse their own interests with those of their pen-pals.
Still, there was a power in online activism and citizen journalism, one that important institutions were starting to recognize.
WikiLeaks partnered with mainstream news outlets to publish the CableGate files, the largest trove of diplomatic documents released outside of official archives. Bellingcat, a website for OSINT enthusiasts, became a respected news outlet with serious institutional backing. The New York Times created its own “visual investigation” team that recruited from the OSINT world and drew on OSINT techniques.
More shadowy institutions also took note. If anonymity allowed dissidents to protect themselves from retaliation, it also allowed powerful actors to hide their role in disseminating information. In fact, organizations with untraceable money and professional intelligence-gathering capabilities were better poised to take advantage of the anonymous information space.
Russia pioneered the use of cyber anarchy for geopolitical ends. During the 2016 U.S. election, Russian intelligence services used WikiLeaks to dump stolen Democratic Party emails. The leak was attributed to “Guccifer 2.0,” an attempt to hide behind the reputation of accomplished citizen-hacker Marcel-Lehel “Guccifer” Lazăr. How much WikiLeaks knew about Russia’s involvement is an open question, with much of the evidence still classified.
Other governments followed suit. When the Israeli-Iranian conflict escalated several years later, both Israel and Iran disguised their cyberattacks as the work of anonymous hacker groups. The culprits of those attacks were quickly unmasked by foreign media, but it is likely that sophisticated actors are using the same tactic with more success.
The Russian-Ukrainian war, for example, has come with a massive deluge of hacks from unknown sources. So has the ongoing uprising in Iran. Distributed Denial of Secrets, a rival platform to WikiLeaks, has begun putting a warning label on files leaked “in the buildup to, in the midst of, or in the aftermath of a cyberwar or hybrid war.”
There was also a shift towards social networks using algorithms to determine what content users saw. With enough money or coordination, factions could artificially boost their message far beyond what old-style message boards allowed. Cambridge Analytica, a company specialized in manipulating the Facebook algorithm, became infamous for helping Republicans win elections in 2014 and 2016.
The post-2016 panic about “disinformation” brought pressure for tech companies to act in line with U.S. political interests. Twitter decided to demote content from “state-affiliated media outlets,” but left U.S. government outlets Radio Liberty and Voice of America untouched. Although the platform occasionally shuts down egregious manipulation by the United States and U.S. client states like Saudi Arabia, fake Saudi content still runs rampant.
Americans, as it turns out, have the same kind of anxieties about unrestricted outside media — sorry, “foreign interference” — as more notorious police states. After the Chinese app TikTok became popular with American youth, the U.S. government strong-armed it into agreeing to host its data on American servers. Some liberals even called for action against pro-Russian statements by Twitter owner Elon Musk.
Online activist culture itself became more tied to nationalist causes. Historically, hacktivist spaces were anarchistic. Citizen-journalists consistently sided with plucky rebels against all forms of state power. With the rise of “great power competition,” many began cheerleading for governments against other governments.
Some of the more voyeuristic OSINT pages have parroted government lines in the guise of edgy war reporting. One popular OSINT blogger turned out to be a paid consultant of the Israeli military. While taking money from the military is particularly compromising, there are other ways for government bodies to co-opt OSINT pages.
Some bloggers have offered “exclusive” scoops on sensitive secrets. (Dotcom’s alleged leak was in line with this trend.) Perhaps this information comes from intelligence sources, or perhaps the OSINT enthusiasts are being taken for a ride. Either way, it shows an openness to laundering information from powerful officials, without the restraints that are supposed to keep traditional journalists honest.
NAFO, an online movement ostensibly founded to counter Russian propaganda, has become the pinnacle of pro-government cyber-anarchism. Its spokespeople include well-connected Washington think-tankers, who combine military jargon with teenage meme culture. NAFO enthusiasts not only mock Russian officials, but also chase shout-outs from Western officials and even fundraise for the Ukrainian state.
The old-style techno-libertarians might have found Ukraine’s resistance a cause worthy of support. The full on cheerleading for Western states, on the other hand, is a new development. NAFO supporters have even begun joking that the CIA does not exist, a far cry from the skeptical and sometimes paranoid vibe that used to pervade hacktivist spaces.
In many ways, the Internet still helps afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Even if the algorithms are manipulated, anonymous social media accounts are often the only way for people in police states to share information. And hacked files can still expose sinister government activities, even if they were leaked by similarly-sinister rival actors.
However, social media is no longer the ungovernable force it once was. Instead, the Internet has become yet another space contested by nation-states and powerful corporations, each of whom jealously guard their zones of control and try to penetrate the others. Some former rebels have become useful idiots or willing dupes for one side or the other.
Welcome to the brave new world. It looks a lot like the old one.