Extremism can come from the most remote places on earth. It can also stem from locations that are visited thousands of times a day by billions of people with easy access to multitudes of information. When this happens, minds start to shift and communities start to build from the ground up. Anonymous, the cyber terrorist group, is one example of how extremist communities can start from the grassroots level, and globalize the planet from there.
The authors carried out research which documents a movement that has the potential to become something much larger and more lethal than ever before, an aspect not largely researched before in the realm of cyber terror. In order to understand the kind of extremist enemy a cyber group like Anonymous can be, the research applies the theory of memetic engineering to the cyberterrorist group known as Anonymous.
Anonymous was created on the Internet and is a decentralized community that has no leaders. Memetic engineering, a theoretical concept developed by Richard Dawkins (1976), posits that memes (units of cultural transmission) are diffused through cultural channels (e.g. traditional media, social networking sites, etc.) to infect minds that, in turn, will replicate those memes themselves. Memetic engineering is about memetic replication. Memes can be anything from smiley faces to evil ideas. Members of Anonymous operate in (online) disguise and have been known to transmit terrorist memes through online channels such as imageboards, chatrooms, and even YouTube videos.
The authors’ research has key implications for further research and future policy. Cyber laws are just starting to see their beginning in legislation with new acts such as The Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative, proposed by the National Security Council and the Obama Administration. These new laws are trying to curtail the fresh spring that is bubbling up out of the global zeitgeist that is producing such extremist groups as Anonymous. Further research into the mechanics and science of these groups is necessary to increase global awareness.
This analysis is important for the field of terrorism studies because it directly relates to where terrorism is heading in the future. A postmodern society will accommodate cyberterrorism just as a modern society has accommodated traditional terrorism. Scholars and policy-makers alike must learn what they will be facing in the future. While terrorism remains an old but complex phenomenon, there is a lot to be learned about cyberterrorism. The latter may still be in its infancy stage, but groups like Anonymous have emerged all over the globe. The digital infosphere is constantly growing to accommodate new players.
The collaboration of these authors is a shining example of what can be done to combat a potentially extremist organization that has it roots in one of the world’s most accessible realms, the Internet. It is necessary to understand what drives the machine that interconnects humans across the globe. That connection is the human connection, and memetic engineering is one insightful way to apply what is already known into a realm that could be dangerous to all.
For a fuller discussion see Thomas Woolford and Jonathan Matusitz “The Memetic Engineering of Anonymous, the Cyberterrorist Group” soon to be published in the International Journal of Cyber Warfare and Terrorism.
Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative
Cole Stryker’s Book Epic Win for Anonymous: How 4chan’s Army Conquered the Web (2011, Overlook Hardcover)