I soon learned that Dandakaranya, the forest I was about to enter, was full of people who had many names and fluid identities. It was like balm to me, that idea. How lovely not to be stuck with yourself, to become someone else for a while.
– Arundhati Roy, ‘Walking With The Comrades’
Anonymity is a funny thing. ‘The one barrier me and my buddies have regarding beating the shit out of you is your anonymity,’ an anonymous critic once informed me.
I declined to provide the angry Aryan with my personal details, but his message, and many more like it, reinforced the idea that giving the general public – and hence neo-Nazis – my name and address would probably not be a good move.
‘What’s your name?’ is a very common question, the answer providing a potential wealth of information. The relationship between a name and a person is something I’ve had reason to seriously contemplate over the last few months, especially as it relates to my monitoring the activities of the far right. Happily, the Internet makes it possible for a person to assume any number of names and to affix to them a variety of personalities.
Malcolm Harris writes that a ‘fundamental anonymity means names stand not for individuals, but for contingent singularities, subjects that are not who but what they say’. For some, this can be a liberating experience: anonymity provides a shield, from behind which they can express ideas their position otherwise precludes them from doing, or doing in relative safety. In my experience, anonymity has its downside too: maintaining it is time-consuming, I’m unable to claim credit for a large amount of the work that I do and I’m often unable to take advantage of opportunities to do other, equally interesting kinds of work.
Several years ago, there was some public discussion regarding blogging and anonymity, occasioned by the public exposure of several local bloggers. In one 2008 case, several Victorian Liberal Party staffers lost their jobs after it was discovered they’d been attacking their party’s then leader, ‘Red’ Ted Baillieu, on an anonymous blog. In 2010, The Australian took it upon itself to out the political blogger Grog’s Gamut as Greg Jericho, a public servant. Although these unmaskings were decidedly unwelcome, the staffers who lost their jobs have gone on to bigger and better things, as has Jericho. This year, on behalf of the Australian Writers Centre, he judged The Koori Woman as the best commentary blog of 2014. He continues to write for The Guardian and the ABC’s Drum. His research on blogs and social media was eventually published as a book, The Rise of the Fifth Estate, ‘the first book to examine the emergence of social media as a new force in the coverage of Australian politics’.
Some have argued that online anonymity is like a cancer on the body politic. In 2009, Clive Hamilton wrote that an ‘ugly culture of dogmatic and belligerent interventions now dominates social and political debate on the Internet’. In Australia, The Anti-Bogan regularly documents aspects of this culture and publicly names and shames those engaged in racist, sexist and homophobic abuse online. The Melbourne-based Online Hate Prevention Institute has declared that it aims to ‘be a world leader in combating online hate’ and ‘change online culture so hate in all its forms becomes as socially unacceptable online as it is “in real life”’.
Perhaps the most telling argument for the importance of anonymity is the act of whistle-blowing – consequently, hacktivists are always seeking to stay one step ahead of authorities. One of the latest such ventures is Media Direct, ‘a secure communications platform facilitating direct and anonymous contact with leading journalists’. Launched in May, Media Direct represents a further evolution in whistle-blowing technology, according to its Australian coordinator, Luke McMahon. ‘We’ve produced a self-contained system,’ he says. ‘Media Direct brings together technical and non-technical tools to realise the most appropriate approach to the contemporary media environment. Media Direct, unlike Wikileaks, is not a publisher, but rather allows whistleblowers to safely convey information to select journalists directly.’ In this context, anonymity exists at the opposite end of the spectrum to celebrity.
The ability to convey information safely is obviously key to whistle-blowing, but in the context of anti-fascist organising, both collecting and conveying information to the public present certain difficulties. Daryle Lamont Jenkins, of the US-based antifascist organisation One Peoples Project, acknowledges that ‘as with anything there are pros and cons to being anonymous, but a big issue is that within antifa circles most of us are’. This is justifiable, ‘understandable and oftimes when it comes to gathering info, necessary. Problem is, with so many of us taking that route, it makes us that much more inaccessible and detached. That’s a problem. Antifa need to be more public.’
For activists, the chief obstacle is that being public can mean serious harassment. The Australia First Party, for instance, has recently published a series of increasingly bizarre claims regarding my blogging activities, both on its website and on leading White supremacist website Stormfront. Party leader Dr James Saleam is a veteran fascist with a long string of criminal convictions, most notably organising a shotgun assault on the Sydney home of African National Congress representative Eddie Funde in 1989. Stormfront itself is ‘the web’s most famous and ubiquitous white supremacist and neo-Nazi website’ – and has numerous Australian members.
While post-Second World War Australia has largely been spared fascist violence, elsewhere in the world the story is very different. Last week in Las Vegas, a former neo-Nazi skinhead named Melissa Hack pleaded guilty to conspiring with others to murder two anti-racist skinheads, Dan Shersty and Lin Newborn, in 1998.
As documented in such films as Antifascist Attitude (2008), numerous antifascists have been murdered by neo-Nazis in post-Soviet Russia. Indeed, one of the stars of the film, human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, was murdered in Moscow in January 2009, alongside journalist Anastasia Baburova. Another documentary, about the life of murdered antifascist Ivan Khutorskoy, has just been released; there was also a European tour by two Russian antifascist bands to raise funds for his family that finished just last month.
The journalist who outed Greg Jericho argued that ‘if you are influencing the public debate … it is the public’s right to know who you are’. Indeed, there may be tactical advantages to going public. But given the rise of Golden Dawn in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary and the election of the NPD’s Udo Voigt to the European parliament (Voigt was denied a visa to Australia in 2003 to address a fascist gathering on the grounds of his poor character), the consequences of engaging in antifascist activity in much of Europe will likely escalate. How antifascists negotiate these opposing concerns will determine, in part, their success in combating the rising fascist tide.