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The Big KKK Debacle Proves You Can't Always Put a Lot of Faith in Anonymous

Let's make this clear right out of the gate: If you spent any part of yesterday giddily circulating Anonymous's list of prominent political leaders who were supposedly members of the KKK, you were, at least during that period, an unbelievable idiot.
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Let's make this clear right out of the gate: If you spent any part of yesterday giddily circulating Anonymous's list of prominent political leaders who were supposedly members of the KKK, you were, at least during that period, an unbelievable idiot. More than that, you were guilty of allowing your biases to so overwhelm the reason center of your brain that you, in some small way, participated in the social media-wide libeling and slandering of a bunch of potentially innocent people.

By now you know the story so I won't rehash it in great detail other than to say that yesterday the shadowy hacker collective known as Anonymous claimed to have made good on its promise to remove the hood from hundreds of high-ranking members of the Ku Klux Klan. Somebody -- somebody who said they were Anonymous -- published a list of alleged KKK members that included, among others, four U.S. Republican Senators. Along with those names were the identities of several national mayors who Anonymous asserted were also affiliated with the KKK. Needless to say, everybody on the list denied any connection to the Klan, but what's more disconcerting than the list itself was the credulity with which many online news outlets and private citizens approached Anonymous's big reveal. Everyone simply rolled over and accepted that Anonymous wasn't entirely full of shit.

Well, guess what? In keeping with common knowledge -- namely that Anonymous is made up of hundreds of individuals and subgroups often operating independently from one another -- yesterday's bombshell was probably a bunch of nonsense. After what was pitched as an official Anonymous document dump to Pastebin, which anybody can access, we're now hearing another voice that claims to be Anonymous which is distancing itself from yesterday's activity and claiming that the real KKK dump hasn't happened yet. It's now supposedly scheduled for this Thursday. And you can be sure that when that day comes, everyone will once again jump on the big Anonwagon and once again circulate through the social media bloodstream a bunch of names of alleged cross-burning, black person-lynching racists without having any proof whatsoever that those people really are members of the Klan. They'll just take it on faith that this time Anonymous -- whoever the hell they are, the sanctioned voice of the organization or some rogue splinter cell -- got it right and won't be corrected by yet another entity claiming to be Anonymous a few hours later.

On the surface it may seem like document dumping is the most pristine way to receive information, but the fact is that anybody can blindly throw a bunch of shit onto the internet and call it legitimate. People will believe anything they read online, particularly if it confirms their preconceived biases. This is why actual journalism has been so important throughout the history of this country: because, in theory anyway, journalists vet information and seek to add the necessary context to it. Before social media turned information gathering and dissemination into the equivalent of a wild west border town, you at least had some idea whom you could trust in terms of injecting news into the cultural bloodstream. Whether you agree with, say, the Times or not, for the most part they take seriously their responsibility to tell the truth and there's a system in place at the paper to pore over the facts and correct any mistakes. When an established outlet, on TV or online, screws up, there's generally a lot of hand-wringing, soul-searching and teeth-gnashing. Anonymous, or whoever, just potentially defamed a bunch of people and the response is -- well, nothing really. Business as usual.

Anonymous has tackled a lot of opponents and taken on a lot of campaigns that result in pure, beautiful schadenfreude for all of us. It's gotten information that was beyond the scope of the regular press, although that's usually because the regular press has to obey the law. It's done unequivocal good. The problem is that when you have an entity that doesn't answer to anyone and whose operations and vetting processes aren't transparent -- ironic, considering -- you can never be entirely sure the legitimacy of what you're getting. And that's the problem: Anonymous can't be confronted with contradictory evidence because there's no place to take it, and there's no one to talk to if you have a complaint that deserves to be heard.

What makes Anonymous "effective" in the sense that it can silently go anywhere is the same thing that makes it very dangerous. That anonymity and its operation beyond the boundaries of the rules makes it utterly autonomous in its decisions about who deserves to be taken down and why. Sure, you may love watching the group hit Scientology or the Westboro Baptist Church, because those are clear targets and common enemies. But what happens when Anonymous injects itself into a controversy that's far more nuanced, picking a side in a fight that isn't black and white? And what happens when the various factions of Anonymous begin going to war behind the scenes over who and what to turn their immense power on? What happens when one voice claiming to be behind an official Anonymous "op" turns out to be unsanctioned and, you know, outs an innocent person? Well, you probably get what we're seeing right now.

In the end, maybe it will wind up that the names posted yesterday really are secret KKK members. Maybe it won't, though. The problem is, how can you tell the difference?