The hacker collective known as Anonymous recently announced that it would be releasing information on the secret membership of white supremacist hate group Ku Klux Klan. The release (or not-release, as it may turn out) of the information reveals a lot about the dangers and temptations of anonymity and hacktivism in the digital age.
The data release fell under the operation #OpKKK, and was announced in a YouTube video. The Hill has a good video summary:
Anonymous had announced the information would be released on November 5th, which is Guy Fawkes Night ("Remember remember the fifth of November ...", etc.) and something of a holiday for members of the Anon collective, who like to wear Guy Fawkes masks. However, some of the information may have already been released on Pastebin, a site for publicly dumping large amounts of text information.
The drops were meant to come as a shock, as some well-known names like Madeline Rogero the mayor of Knoxville, Tennessee, and Republican Senator from Texas John Cornryn, were on the list. And there was more information to come.
And then things got really, really messy.
The first problem with the info that was initially released is that some of the people on the list make no sense. Madeline Rogero, for example, is a Democrat with a long history of Civil Right advocacy and support for equality. She released a baffled, incredulous denial that would actually be pretty funny if it weren't such a weird situation.
If you know politics you know Rogero's denial isn't the cautiously worded denial of someone with something to hide. This is flat-out, the kind of denial politicians only issue when they know they are in the clear. Several more politicians reacted in the same way:
I am opposed to everything the KKK stands for. I have no idea where this information came from, but wherever it came from, it is wrong.- Mayor Jim Gray (@JimGrayLexKY) November 2, 2015
Claims that I have ties to the KKK are totally false and irresponsible. I'm proud to be the Mayor of the @CityofFortWayne (1/2)- Mayor Tom Henry (@MayorTomHenry) November 2, 2015
Then there was the fact that the release of the information a few days early might not even have been from the actual #OpKKK hacktivists. Twitter accounts claiming to be part of the real operation have denied that this initial info dumb came from them, further muddying what is actually going on:
As the Washington Post reported, some of the people on these lists may be there because other people signed them up to a mailing list out of vindictiveness or revenge. For example, Patricia Aiken, a law enforcement consultant in New Jersey, said that her email is on the list almost certainly because a former corrections executive (who eventually went to jail for illegal wiretapping) signed her up for the local KKK chapter to try and discredit her. Gizmodo has more evidence of this.
So what is going on here? Is the list real, just not vetted? Is the real list to come? Was the whole thing just a mess from beginning to end? Will the real info come out on November 5th? Who knows at this point.
And that's the problem with hacktivism. If you are willing to do something illegal, or at least unethical, to get this kind of information, then what else are you willing to do to further your own cause? Are you willing to forge or doctor information? Are you willing to release info that hasn't been verified in any way? (That seems to be the biggest problem here.)
If an investigative journalist publishes a story about official corruption, he or she does so under their own name, and with the weight of their organization or newspaper backing them up. That's how trust is built; their names are on the line, so they had better be right. That's why Dan Rather hasn't hosted any network news programs in a while.
Anonymous, as noble as their intentions may be, seems to want the benefits of investigative journalism without the risks. They want to weed out corruption and advocate for radical transparency, which is great. But if you aren't willing to put your name, your real name on the line, then you shouldn't be surprised when nobody trusts what you have to say, no matter how true it might be.