Wherever there's a fight, hacktivist movement Anonymous is there. Wherever someone is abusing the power of the state, Anonymous is there. Wherever someone is trying to hurt internet, Anonymous is there. Sometimes that's a great thing. Sometimes they shine light on situations that might otherwise be lost in a constantly churning news cycle. Sometimes a website just gets DDOSed and it's all a bit useless, really. But sometimes, Anonymous' shotgun approach to activism ends up hitting the very people it's supposed to be defending. So far, the protests in Ferguson, MO are one of those cases.
Early this morning, one of the many Twitter accounts working under the banner of Anonymous posted what it claimed was the name of the police officer who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, allegedly without provocation. So far, the Ferguson police have kept this officer's identity secret in order to avoid stalking and death threats, and he is currently on paid leave during an FBI investigation. But not only did the account (@TheAnonMessage, since suspended for reasons Twitter declined to comment on) give a name, it posted a photo and a screenshot of the man's Facebook page. The claim was picked up by The New York Times and other outlets, though the Times and most others did not give the identity of the supposed shooter.
The St. Louis Police Department denies that the man has anything to do with the shooting. He "is not even an officer with Ferguson or St. Louis County PD," it wrote on Twitter. "Do not release more info on this random citizen." Later, the police broadened the message. "He is not an officer anywhere in the State of Missouri, to include St. Louis County and Ferguson," they wrote. They've refused to release the actual name of the man in question, and police in Ferguson have been less than forthcoming about the facts since Brown was shot on August 9th. After the shooting, they gave accounts that conflicted with those of eyewitnesses. Last night, they fired tear gas and rubber bullets into a peaceful-looking crowd, saying they had been provoked.
Internet vigilantism is a dangerous, counterproductive pursuit
Does that mean Anonymous is right, though? It's seeming more and more unlikely. The Facebook profile, since disabled, seems to show a conversation from August 12th in which he changes his name and job title so that "nobody will find me," but it's hard to be sure of the context. A cached version of the page lists interests in several police and neighborhood watch associations, and the home page of St. Louis suburb St. Ann lists someone by that name as part of the police department. But he's listed as a communications supervisor, not an officer. His stepmother backs this up, saying that he works as a police dispatcher and has no connection to the case.
On a gut level, it's difficult for me to outright condemn the idea of "doxxing" or internet vigilantism wholesale when our court systems and social contract seem worse than useless in dealing with attacks on women and people of color. But it's a dangerous, frequently counterproductive pursuit. Director Spike Lee reposted what he thought was the address of Trayvon Martin shooter George Zimmerman. People ended up terrorizing the parents of an unrelated man named William George Zimmerman. And in this case, having a name isn't helping the discussion. Brown's killer isn't the one shooting at protestors from behind a row of armored vehicles. Finding him isn't worth the risk of naming the wrong person, or losing sight of the real target: a militarized police system that can kill with impunity. It's not going to help the people who have been arrested during protests, or the people seeking justice for the many other men and women who have been beaten or killed outside Ferguson.
In their attempts to be helpful, people operating under the Anonymous banner are ignoring and even drowning out the voices of activists who have been protesting these cases since long before Ferguson. Earlier today, the Twitter account SageAnon posted a flyer declaring today a "day of rage," overriding the National Moment of Silence vigils being held tonight across the country while listing their locations. It doesn't matter that Anonymous isn't a centralized organization. Whenever someone takes up the name, they're taking up an ethos and a huge megaphone. The narrative of a group of anarchic hackers organizing an angry protest is a lot catchier than that of longtime opponents of police brutality trying to advance a cause they've championed for years.
This kind of rebranding isn't in any way unique. Far more straightforwardly socially progressive projects have ignored or appropriated work done by people outside the mainstream. But because Anonymous isn't any one group, it's capable of being almost everywhere, and members can provide invaluable help to other activists. So far at least one group promoting the Day of Rage has retracted it in favor of simply linking to the Moment of Silence. And two years ago, members helped create the Save Wįyąbi Project, a map charting missing and murdered indigenous women across Canada, alongside activist Lauren Chief Elk. Tellingly, when Canadian news service CBC reported on it, they only mentioned Anonymous.
The straightforward, nuance-free anger of Anonymous operations can be exactly what some issues need. But sometimes they, and all of the rest of us, need to accept that there are people who know the situation a lot better than we do. People who have been working at it a lot longer than we have. It may be loud, but the voice of the internet doesn't always know best.