Earlier this week, a member of the amorphous hacker-activist community Anonymous claimed to know the identity of the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The Ferguson Police Department had withheld the name out of concern for the safety of the officer and his family. (Under increasing public and legal pressure, that name was finally released this morning).
On Wednesday, when the chief was still stonewalling, an account called @OpFerguson tweeted, “We have the name of the shooter. We just can’t verify. We need to either talk to witnesses or get a second leak source.”
Fair enough. Anonymous wants to play truth crusader, so it’s putting reports through the same rigorous verification that journalists (theoretically) do. The trouble is, Anonymous isn’t a news organization — it’s not really an organization of any kind. It is, by its own admission, “A global collective of millions of autonomous individuals and groups. Each is responsible for themselves only.”
And so when a Twitter account called @TheAnonMessage fingered a man for the shooting who wasn’t even a police officer (that should have been easy enough to verify, no?) other members of Anonymous, like whoever’s behind @OpFerguson, distanced themselves from the rogue account.
“For the record, one last time. Operation Ferguson has NOT, repeat NOT released the name of Mike Brown’s killer, nor have we claimed to,” @OpFerguson tweeted.
At least give @OpFerguson more credit than the many websites that reported on the “doxxing” without doing any of their own verification (like Jezebel, which added insult to injury by later squeezing pathos out of the story of the mis-doxxed “cop”‘s 48-year-old stepmother crying on her porch).
Now, after @TheAnonMessage was suspended from Twitter for sharing libelous information, a new account called @TheAnonMessage2 has sprouted up, hilariously claiming that they meant to reveal the wrong person’s name so that the police would feel that much more pressure to release the correct name. “Well, our plan worked,” the account tweeted.
That of course led to a lot of criticism of Anonymous as if it’s some monolithic brand that endorses the actions of anyone with “Anon” in their Twitter handle. If somebody with no hacking expertise or involvement in activism started an account called @Anon4MikeBrown, I imagine they could stir up a lot of trouble.
Anonymous’ lack of leadership or organizational structure can certainly be a benefit. Its members can move fast and have less worry over their cohorts ratting them out to the police — I mean, it’s not as if they do a roll call every morning.
But it also leads to fiascos like the one we saw yesterday. One of the things traditional journalism has over lone wolf hacktivists is that every time a news organization publishes something under its name, it’s risking its credibility and authority — which are really the only things that matter to a journalist. Sure, the bureaucracy of newspapers and magazines and even newer, leaner news operations can be frustrating, but it also engenders a sense of responsibility amongst its staff — “If I publish something I don’t know to be 100 percent true, I risk not only my own livelihood, but the livelihoods of my coworkers and the legacy of my publication,” the thinking goes.
It’s a fun thought exercise to think about how Anonymous or Wikileaks can vanquish traditional journalistic gatekeepers forever, and I understand the appeal of this techno-anarchist future. But,as the Ferguson debacle shows, the reality is far messier.