The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Demet Dagdelen: Anonymous, WikiLeaks and Operation Payback: A Path to Political Action through IRC and Twitter

Demet Dagdelen, University of Amsterdam


In recent years WikiLeaks and Anonymous have enjoyed a considerable amount of attention from the press. Whilst WikiLeaks became the center of many scholarly discussions, Anonymous remains an understudied subject matter within the academia. In this paper I aim to situate Anonymous within the existing discourses of online political activism, mobilization/coordination efforts and hacktivism.

The relationship between Anonymous and WikiLeaks manifested itself in December 2010, when WikiLeaks came under intense pressure to stop publishing secret United States diplomatic cables. In order to force the organization to stop their activities, companies such as Amazon, PayPal, BankAmerica, MasterCard and Visa either stopped working with or froze donations to WikiLeaks. Although, WikiLeaks was supported within communities where Anonymous users emerged from (4chan, reddit..etc.) their support never manifested itself until these corporations stopped offering their services to WikiLeaks. In December 2010 Anonymous organized Operation Payback: Avenge Assange and launched Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks against these corporations in their support for WikiLeaks.

Anonymous is arguably one of the most interesting online movements for it mixes a very wide array of hacker ethics and norms (both old school and new) with techniques and tactics that have their roots in the Bulletin Board System-like cultures, whilst employing a very successful use of the Web 2.0 era social media. It adapts and changes very easily, in a meme-like fashion, whilst protecting its core values, such as anonymity and decentrality. However, it isn't only the cultural and ethical aspects of Anonymous that is interesting, its structure is what presumably makes it possible for Anonymous to shift between methods, targets and platforms so quickly whilst operating in a loosely coordinated but decentralized manner.

Gabriella Coleman states that “To understand the dynamics of power and authority in Anonymous one must confront what is one of the most interesting, prevalent, and socially-vibrant norms within Anonymous: its anti-leader and anti-celebrity ethic. This ethic that modulates, even if it does not fully eliminate, the concentration of power.” (Coleman, 2011).

Data Set

This study analyzes captured logs from the IRC channel #OperationPayback, as well as five different dataset of tweets from Twitter between December 2010 and December 2011 to better understand the structural characteristics of Anonymous. With the quantitative analysis of thousands of lines of IRC chat logs, I aim to look into the structure of mobilization efforts during Operation Payback:Avenge Assange, and by applying digital methods and content analysis to a set of tweets captured during the attacks, this paper will ask these two qualitatively different datasets similar questions in order to further our understanding of Anonymous and open up the topic for further academic discussion.

There are various approaches employed in analyzing the data sets. First, the dynamics of the selected platforms is revealed by taking an approach that predominantly deals with instances of communication, such as users joining or leaving an IRC chat room or tweeters posting new content. The analysis of the dynamics of the IRC chat room shows the vast amount of “lurkers”/mere observers present in the attacks. A user-based approach was employed in order to answer the question 'Who gets heard?'. This question is especially interesting, since Anonymous is popularly thought of as a democratic and decentralized movement yet no data has been collected and analyzed so far, in order to ground these claims. The findings of this paper reflect Anonymous' anti-leader ethic surprisingly well, especially in the IRC chat rooms during the hours when the actual DdoS attacks against PayPal is taking place.

Various analysis was done at the user level to reveal the structure of communication, including looking into how much of the communication were the top 10% of users were responsible for on IRC as well as on Twitter. The distribution of users based on how many lines they had indicates that a very large majority of people only contributed one line to the conversation on IRC and there wasn't a large group of people governing the flow of information. The results are reflected in the Twitter data, however not as drastically as in the chat logs.

Going from users to networks that are defined by these users, mention networks were drawn by looking into the instances when one user mentions another (with a specific format on IRC and with the @reply function on Twitter). These network were then visualized with a force-based graph drawing algorithm and arc diagrams to show the structure of the mention networks as well as any existing patterns.


Various methods were employed in order to gain an insight into the content of the conversation. One of these approaches involves looking into the content of the most reTweeted tweets on Twitter. The Twitter data sets that are employed in this study are those with the following hashtags: #operationpayback, #leakspin and #anonops, all three of which were archived starting in December, 2010 during the attacks until December, 2011. The content analysis revealed Twitter's role during Operation Payback as a platform for raising awareness as opposed to aiding Anonymous in its co-ordination efforts (Twitter was employed for both efforts, however, the activity of raising awareness was more dominant within the platform). Furthermore, hashtag networks were constructed, which revealed the various related “stories” that were being told during the attacks.

A different Twitter data set was utilized to look into the aftermath of Operation Payback: Avenge Assange. Content analysis of related tweets captured in December 2011, a year after Operation Payback: Avenge Assange was launched, revealed Anonymous' fascination with the spectacular. By 2011 the movement's attention had shifted completely from raising awareness to freedom of information issues or distributing the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks to reminiscing about the DDoS attacks.


Overall, the analysis of over 150.000 tweets captured between December 2010 and December 2011 along with the quantitative analysis of tens of thousands of lines of IRC chat logs provides a look into Anonymous that is novel, but certainly not a complete account of Anonymous' nature and accomplishments. The goal of this paper is to answer questions about Anonymous that remain unanswered and employ a data-driven approach in order to ground or dispute various claims that have previously been made about Anonymous, and hopefully open up the topic of Anonymous for academic discussion.

Demet Dagdelen