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.
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.
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.
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.
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.