Two Sides of Heroism and the Aesthetisation of the Rebel’s Figure: Anonymous against ISIS

As a part of the global reaction to the second terrorist attack in the year 2015 in Paris, a group of hacktivists called Anonymous started a new anti-ISIS campaign in social media space. The aim was to reach terrorists’ Twitter accounts, shut them down and multiply these actions as much as possible to cripple the army’s propaganda. In the reality outside the social media space, the fight between the terrorist group and the Western society is a fight of mysterious rebels against establishment. On the contrary, the fight between the hackers and the terrorists is a fight of mysterious rebels against mysterious rebels. In this text, the heroic images of the ISIS fighter and the hacker will be compared and analyzed from the perspective of general cultural codes of heroism and manhood, forged through fictional and historical narratives of Western culture. The motivation of this comparison is the premise that Anonymous, with their fluid and unearthly identity, can create a cultural opposition to ISIS not only in terms of ideological fight, but especially in its aesthetic dimension.


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The ISIS, a militant group fighting in Syria and Iraq, with origins dating back to 1999, proclaimed itself a worldwide government. Its success in recruiting foreigners was possible thanks to a massive use of modern propaganda tools and radical rhetoric, which “appeals to basic masculine psychology“ (Kilpatrick, 2014). After the Paris attacks, Anonymous carried out a response through hacking the ISIS Twitter profiles and websites. The object of those activities is firstly to undermine the propaganda, on which ISIS’ successful recruitment and expansion lie, and secondly to ridicule the radical fighters’ image, shrinking it to triviality and turn it into pathetic emptiness. A prominent example is the recent replacement of an ISIS’ support website with “a message to calm down alongside an advert for an online pharmacy“ (The Independent, 2015), which promoted the infamous Prozac and Viagra. This performance is a typical example of Anonymous’ mixing of cultural phenomena and their connotations through the art of hacking. As simple as it is, the mockery of one cultural phenomenon can well be made with just connecting it to another one.

But in some respects, Anonymous have something in common with their enemies. Like the ISIS fighters, Anonymous derive from an ideological gap, offering criticism of social authorities and the claim that they are “on the side of the people“. Some kind of promise of an ultimate revolution is also involved, although this is only a characteristic of their rhetoric, not reflected in any political consequences. Besides, the “nerd” stereotype is also involved. In a discussion attached to an article about Anonymous and ISIS, someone wrote: “In the end, ISIS will be defeated by 72 virgins.“ This nerd-offensive joke, arbitrary perhaps, shows a larger difference in the construction of heroism between hackers and terrorists. Anonymous surrounded themselves with an atmosphere of society’s bad consciousness, answering the call of injustice and suffering, sometimes on the edge of law. ISIS lacks this kind of Robin Hood aura. In the group’s propaganda videos, the fighter is romanticized  through historically familiar images of a “holy war“. To end suffering and hunger in this utopia gets sidelined. The focus remains on the conquest and homogeneity in religion.

If the ISIS crisis brought not only an armed conflict, but also a conflict of ideological choices, the activities of Anonymous are very important. In the light of the aforementioned, ISIS and Anonymous share some values and feature similar tools of self-making, such as romantic rebellion, anarchism, unexpected strikes and restoration. The difference is, however, fixed in the heroic image itself. While Anonymous work with the idea of a sneaky, unpopular and vicious kind of hero, the ISIS’ fighter is a great warrior, who serves not the people, but the Heavens directly. The first one is mocking, the latter is serious. On the level of political aesthetics, the great villain of Anonymous can and should beat the absolute heroism of ISIS. Because in the real world, the good side and the bad side can bear cultural labels opposite to those found in fairy tales.