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Occupy Anonymous

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What happens when a social cause movement becomes famous without a leader? One such example is the hacktivist collective Anonymous, which has been operating as social cause merry pranksters and Robin Hood figures online since 2004. Strongly opposed to internet censorship, surveillance, homophobia, and child pornography, they are considered to be  successors to Wikileaks. In 2012, Time Magazine named them one of the most influential groups in the World.

Their slogan:

We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.

In 2011, Anonymous merged with the Occupy movement, with members often appearing in Guy Fawkes masks.

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While many mainstream media commentators initially dismissed this leaderless movement as ineffective, “We Are the 99%” emerged as one of the most effective policy memes impacting the 2012 U.S.elections, and continues to resonate in political and social change discourse.

In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, the vast network of Occupy members mobilized a sophisticated disaster response system, Occupy Sandy, which proved so effective, FEMA and The Red Cross consulted them on local distribution of goods and services, including the brilliant Occupy Sandy Wedding Registry, which donated over $700,000 worth of specific goods directly to those in need.

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At times, members of leaderless organizations become inadvertent figureheads when the press fixates on their charisma or seeks a scapegoat who can be suppressed as a symbol of movement suppression. Such is the case of Julian Assange, who emerged as the leader of the collective Wikileaks, a story that unfolds with brilliance in Alex Gibney’s 2013 documentary, “We Steal Secrets,”  detailing the evolution of the controversial website which facilitated the largest security breach in U.S. history, known as Collateral Damage. While Wikileaks was initially designed as an anonymous collective endeavor, Assange’s identity as the founder of the encrypted site was unwittingly revealed by Private Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, currently serving 35 years in Federal prison for violations of the Espionage Act. Manning admitted to releasing classified documents to the press and to the world.
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In March 2014, Edward Snowden, appeared via robotics feed at TedTalks. Snowden, currently being sought by the United States government, is a self-proclaimed whistlerblower who champions free speech privacy rights for all global citizens. In 2013, Snowden leaked thousands of classified American National Security Agency documents, sparking a global conversation about citizens’ rights to privacy on the Internet.

In the interview onstage from an unnamed remote location in Russia, Snowden discusses his actions and challenges global governments to consider the long-term implications of spying on its own citizens. While spying on our private phone calls, emails and business transactions may not seem like a big deal, he affirms,

“Your rights matter, because you never know when you’re going to need them.”

What are your thoughts on leaderless movements that operate outside current political systems?
Are they more sustainable than those that depend on a single figurehead?
What happens when an individual steps into the spotlight as a controversial, self-proclaimed agent for the collective good?  Are they heroes, futurists, traitors or something else? View this TedTalks and share your thoughts in the comments below.




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  1. Evyenia

    I think this can be a tricky question. I have heard arguments from both ends of the spectrum regarding how we should consider Snowden. I think he made some very interesting and thought provoking points in the duration of his interview with Ted Talks. Snowden said, “Intellectual property is the basis, foundation of our economy and if we put that at risk through weak security, we’re going to be paying for it for years.” Clearly he believes that protecting this intellectual property is a right, and one that we should be more aware that we need to fight to maintain. Snowden also made a point about terrorism, or how the response to it is perceived, saying, “Terrorism is a cover for action.” I think this statement speaks volumes, yet he does not outright say what he implies with this statement.
    Having a face to put with a movement produces a different effect on people, I think, mainly because they become the absolute voice and image of what they are representing. Having a mass faceless organization such as Anonymous perhaps makes their followers feel like there is more of a collaboration, it is everyone, and no one.

  2. Deisy

    To be honest, I’ve had a hard time, since the whole Snowden situation happen, deciding whether to agree or disagree with what he did. I agree that we should know about the NSA and their secrets and that’s our right. But I’m not sure what his motives are, if they are good or bad. I think that’s the difference between having a face with a movement and not having just one face like anonymous. With anonymous, I can just focus on their actions and the movement itself rather than with Snowden, with him I focus on the person and not the cause (which is what he was also talking about in the begging of the video too).

    To me, it’s better to have an organization like Anonymous than just one person like Snowden. A whole organization where lot ONE person takes credit makes me feel more needed and like I’m a part of the movement and LEADING the movement as a community instead of being lead by someone else.

  3. Ben R.

    Since Wikileaks and Occupy there seemed to be a gust of leaderless movements. Why then? Why now? Like the ARAB SPRING, they strive for an honest democracy that, as is “FED UP” with corruption, poorly managed security agencies and war violence. In Assange’s case as noted in “WE STEAL SECRETS,” while he was in hiding the agency members were more sustainable. It seems that a scapegoat was needed. The Doc speaks of the anonymous figures that sprouted in Melbourne, Australia. As the interviewer in TED TALKS denotes, society’s opinion on Snowden has changed and evolved, labeling him as a monster or a hero. I see him as Kathleen’s description of the hackivist collective, “one such example.. , which has been operating as social cause…and Robin Hood figures online since 2004. Strongly opposed to internet censorship, surveillance, homophobia, and child pornography.”

  4. CLAUDIA SAEZ DE LA FUENTE

    I think that leaderless movements that operate outside current political systems are necessary and are a positive thing as they shine a light on topics that the everyday user might not realize but needs to know to be able to make informed decisions in the future, to be able to know what he or she is signing away or really voting for.
    The one thing that I was taken aback by was the fact that there was no leader and there was no structure within those leaderless organizations, so as long as there is some kind of organization in place then I think that it is as valid as a single figurehead type of movement.
    When someone appoints themselves the agent of the collective good, then I think that it is going against its own believes as it is supposed to be a group decisions and group run, choices made by agreement, all opinions are valued and taken into account. Therefore when someone self-proclaims the leader, I feel as if they have forgotten what it was all about, power once more blinds them.
    These people that take the responsibility to show the rest of the world’s population what is actually happen are not traitors, heroes or futurist I think they are just doing a job of informing people.
    My favorite quote from the TED TALK was-
    “It’s up for us to protect that liberty for the next generation coming”

  5. Emily Spierer

    I think that the recent advancements in technology, which has led to society’s increased dependency on the Internet, has shaped people’s perceptions about various issues within society in general. More specifically, due to our increased dependence on the Internet, I think that many people have become very naive in the sense that they fail to see the potential negative aspects of the Internet and the media within our culture today, especially in regards to privacy and intellectual property rights. With that said, I think that leaderless movements that operate outside our current political systems are very important, as they expose different problems and issues within our society that are often overlooked, or even unknown by individuals. I’m not sure if leaderless movements are more stable that those with a specific leader, but I think that both scenarios evoke a different response within individuals as a result. Regarding Edward Snowden, I think that he should be seen as hero, since he very bravely stood up for what he believed was right, despite the repercussions, in order to expose the corruption and breach of citizen’s privacy that has been going on within our government. Furthermore, I think that he made a lot of great points in the Ted Talk and made a very good case for himself. While many people still see him as a traitor, I think that his decision to leak classified information will have an overall positive influence on our society in the long run.

  6. paloma Urquijo Zobel

    I completely agree with Claudia that these sort of systems are necessary …Snowden says the “ 1st amendment of the USA constitution guarantees us free press for a reason…. To challenge the government….but also to work together with the government to have a dialogue and debate on how to inform the public about of vital importance” How are we supposed to work with the government if we don’t know about half the stuff that is actually happening? I think that if the government isn’t challenged to a degree such as what these organizations and movements are doing then they will not feel pressured in the least. I think we are seeing ‘transparency’ in all senses emerging as a trend. As we have seen through movements and riots all over the world recently people are fighting back against their governments and fpr the majority winning. However I can also see how something’s are better kept under wraps to not cause massive panic etc but things PRISM that Snowden leaked, I believe is a perfect example of why we need these organizations. I definitely respect him and would call him a hero. He knew he would have to go into hiding which means he really did this for the good of the people putting his interest after everyone else.

    The Amazon book tracking thing scared me a little….I really dont think anything is private anymore

  7. SeungMi Kim

    It is actually hard to clearly say that movements that depend on a single figurehead is necessarily more sustainable than those leaderless movements that operate outside current political systems; however, I believe that having a leader for a certain movement within a solid system is needed for achieving its resonant goal. Despite that those with a single figurehead, I believe, are stronger and have greater potential in sustainability than those without a leader inside the system, leaderless movements like Anonymous seem to take great steps for informing and spreading the awareness of certain social issues that most people have overlooked. When there is a person stepping into the spotlight as a self-proclaimed agent for the collective good, I believe the group of people in the organization would get a stronger path and direction within a more solid goal, which then leads to a powerful action. I think it’s hard to distinguish those of leaderless movements as neither traitors nor heroes/futurists, but I think they are the ones(despite that I would choose to say they are close to traitors if I should pick one of them). From the Ted Talks, Snowden’s bravery to stand up for arguing against such Internet censorship, surveillance, homophobia, etc. and claiming what he believes is right should be appreciated. I was especially inspired by his quotes, “we need to encode our values not just in writing but in the structure of the Internet”.

  8. Kristin Ferrandino

    In approaching issues, often the individual who brought the could-be controversial scandal to public is more studied than the issue itself. This is a practice that I often think about and thought it was interesting that Snowden brought it up…
    “But when I think about it, this isn’t the question that we should be struggling with. Who I am really doesn’t matter at all. If I’m the worst person in the world, you can hate me and move on. What really matters here are the issues. What really matters here is the kind of government we want, the kind of Internet we want, the kind of relationship between people and societies. And that’s what I’m hoping the debate will move towards, and we’ve seen that increasing over time.”

    I think that while leaderless movements can often be disorganized with no figurehead to be found, it definitely gives a more democratic feeling to a given revolution. I believe their sustainability can often be higher given that a mass amount of people feel just in power as the next; the belief that you can change an issue just as much as the next can is extremely powerful.

    The practice of a specific individual coming into light regarding a general topic is also a tricky enterprise. Sometimes, like in Snowden’s case, there can be a shift between the issues at hand and who the leader is as in individual — something very counterproductive. As long as there is still democracy and no personal martyring is present in exchange for publicity, I believe that having a leader can provide much needed stability. Perhaps a ruling group — not higher elevated in power than the movement, but instead as a council — is the way to go.

  9. Yoon Hee Song

    I think leaderless movements that operate outside current political systems have both good sides and bad sides. However, I believe that having a leader in a certain group is more controllable than a leaderless group. However, leaderless movement could be more sustainable than those that depending on a single figurehead in terms spreading different thoughts and ideas. I think that Snowden did a right thing in releasing thousands of classified documents to media outlet because through his action, he provided people’s right to know with their private information.

  10. JuyeonJung

    I think that leaderless movements that operate outside current political systems are important and now the society has seen those movements in a positive way. It is not about who speaks for the movement but about how impactful it is to inform people about the issues. It might be easier to speak out and does not really matter who the person is in terms of being a leader in the leaderless movements. Without public’s attention and awareness, nothing is easy to evoke the world to start up the little changes. As ted said in the talk, I think anonymous movements have a power to minimize the risk maximizing the benefit of the leaderless movements. People should trust the issue itself not the one who makes moves for it; it proves how dependent people are on the society nowadays. The relationship between people and the society will simply not change the world.

  11. Priyanka Paul

    I think the sustainability and effectiveness of leaderless movements most of the time depends on the cause and culture it surrounds. Many leaderless movements like occupy wall street can work and are working, sure there is always supervision in case of possible outbursts. However there are certain cultures in which it is difficult to have leaderless movements because of the riots it can and has caused in the past. Many societies need a leader to push a movement in a certain direction to avoid havoc and still fight for the cause. I believe it also depends on the cause and how prominent it is, for example in cases of war and terrorism people are full of hatred and need to focus their energy on someone or an organisation and that at times can lead to hostile situations. Therefore in those cases I think it is important to have a leader whom people can look up to and trust to fight for their cause.
    It is a difficult question for me when asked whether I think Snowden is a hero or a traitor. For most the general public I believe he is a hero because he was successful in informing the public about what is being done without their knowledge. The part of his talk that I found the most interesting was when he spoke about the issue of the government trying to stop terrorism however they actually were not successful in catching anyone or actually stopping a terrorist act. He arises the question of whether it is actually just a way of catching terrorists or is it a way of keeping an eye on what is going in the general publics’ households. He says “the first amendment of the USA constitution guarantees us free press for a reason,” and I completely agree with him, I am just not sure I agree with the way in which he did things.


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