Anonymous’ #OpMaryville #Justice4Daisy is in full swing, promoting the cause of Daisy Coleman, who at age 14 had non-consensual sex with 17 year old Matthew Barnett, a popular senior football player at Maryville High. While the rape charges were later dropped, a 14 year-old with, seven hours after the encounter, a blood alcohol content of 0.13 cannot possibly consent. Even though Daisy was left, unconscious and sexually assaulted, in front of her house in 30-degree weather for hours, and there was the rape kit’s evidence, as well as testimony from her 13 year-old friend, who reports saying “no” multiple times while a 15 year-old forced her to have sex with him, the charges against Barnett were dropped. When the Kansas City Star broke this story, many were angered at the victim-shaming, lack of justice, and lack of virtue shown not only by the teenage boys, but by the town as a whole. Some members of the internet hacktavist group Anonymous appear to have been as enraged as I felt, and have turned the force of their digital prowess on the alleged-rapists, the Maryville authorities, and the town itself.
This is not the first time Anonymous has come out swinging to defend the helpless: anti-rape and –cyber-bullying operations such as#OpJustice4Rhetaeh, #OpAntiBully, #OpRollRedRoll, and taking down child pornography websites with #OpDarknet. The hacktavists obviously know what they are doing, combining social media campaigns with digital leaks and cyber attacks. Their digital literacy gives them an immense amount of strength; moreover, they can join up with others who share that strength. They are not unlike an army, albeit one with anarchical tendencies and no centralized leadership or digital meeting space; if they are not a political movement in the traditional sense, they are certainly political. Given groups like this, our society must engage traditional questions of political philosophy, bringing them into dialogue with modern life.
When Plato asked “what is justice?” at the beginning of The Republic, the Socratic interlocutor Thrasymachus answered by claiming that justice “is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger,” in other words, might makes right. One could likewise pose this question to Anonymous, a group that demands justice for victims, demands followed by the reminder: “We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us” and that “justice is coming.” The members of Anonymous have a striking focus on justice, but it is unclear thoroughly they have thought the concept through.
In an age where digital skills allow individuals, wearing both “white” and “black” hats, to access troves of information we must ask: when is that right? When does it cross a line? Who is to judge and on what grounds? Is crashing a website at the least a semi-legitimate form of political protest, like the Occupy movements, or is it criminal behavior? Is releasing the names of rapists and hacking the private accounts on which they admitted to their crime deserving of a longer sentence than that faced by the rapists themselves?
After perusing some of the tumblrs and twitters associated with this group, it is clear that politically, many members have made legitimate critiques of our political culture today, one that so often neglects to account for policies that best serve voters. Further, their critique of the NSA and the stripping away of American freedoms is not without merit. However, anarchy for its own sake, revolt without an end, rarely creates the necessary circumstances for sustained and intelligent dialogue.
Democracy might not always work; anyone who disagrees need only look at the wreck of a shutdown our country experienced. Often times, the democratic process grants too much to us: it assumes that citizens will engage politically and converse intelligently, it assumes upon a certain respect for opinions and needs of weaker or minority members in this society. It assumes that, for the most part, its practitioners are willing to show up and engage the fundamental questions of how humans ought to interact with each other in social, political, communal, and economic ways. When it fails to work out in that ideal way, because humans are rarely as good as their ideals, it is tempting to turn to vigilantism.
Vigilante justice, however, operates outside these norms, and is inherently subversive. There are perhaps cases when such subversion is necessary, but I would caution those who subvert to think carefully about whether they could replace the system with something better. I would suggest they not simply charge in to defend, but while making their defense, make the effort to ask the questions essential to those engaging in the life politic: what is good for the community? what is justice? what is the end for which humans strive? will these actions get more people to that end, or less?
The anonymity of the internet can lead us to forget we are interacting with other humans in a political way; it is too easy to forget that digital actions have consequences in real life. This is clearly true of those who tweet lightly about rape. I have a strong sympathy for those who go after people who do evil things, such as raping young girls or distributing child porn. I just hope that, in the battle to fight for justice, these hacktavists follow the ancient injunction to “know thyself” and examine whether they act with true justice, or whether the advantage of the stronger only accidentally lines up with the pursuit of true justice.