In her definitive account of the Anonymous movement, Gabriella Coleman describes the hacktivist movement thus:
An aggregate sack of flesh – meshed together by wires transistors and Wi-Fi signals – replete with miles of tubes pumping blood, pounds of viscera filled with vital fluids, an array of live signalling wires, propped up by a skeletal structure with muscular pistons fastened to it, and ruled from a cavernous dome holding a restless control centre, the analog of these fabulously grotesque and chaotically precise systems that, if picked apart, become what we call people.
Clearly typical definitions of an organisation or group don't apply to Anonymous and similarly trying to accurately quantify the size of this global movement has been seen as a fool's errand. Yet that is what graduate student from the University of Copenhagen, Yevgeny Golovchenko, has done − with surprising results.
The result was a revelation to many, including Coleman, who is an anthropology professor at McGill University and thought to be the world's leading authority on the group.
"The Anonymous network is larger than many of us thought," Coleman told the CSOMonitor website, adding that the data reveals "a parallel world, or really worlds, that live on Facebook."
The graduate student Yevgeny Golovchenko set out with the lofty goal of showing "the enormity and connectivity of the Anonymous movement at a global level".
In order to do this, rather than trying to connect pockets of Anonymous members in the real world, Golovchenko focused on the network of Anonymous Facebook pages that "play an important role in channelling information streams".
The data was gathered on 29 March 2015 and based entirely on information publicly available on Facebook pages. An initial automated pass with a tool called Netvizz yielded 5,470 Facebook pages, with 123,625 connections through Likes.
Golovchenko manually filtered these results to remove pages not associated with Anonymous and the result was 2,770 Anonymous pages with 51,764 connections.
However, the graduate student said that the 2,770 Anonymous pages in the analysis should therefore be seen as "the absolute minimum size of the page network" and it is likely the actual number of Anonymous pages on Facebook is greater.
These 2,770 pages have 22.5 million Likes with the most popular page alone having over 3 million Likes. This, as Golovchenko explains, does not necessarily reflect the size of the Anonymous network:
One could argue that getting Likes is easier for 2,770 pages than for instance 1 page. Hypothetically, the same person could have "Liked" most of the Anonymous pages – although such an endeavour would take hours if not days. Similarly, the same person can use more than one account to Like pages or even Facebook bots. For this reason, the 22.5 million Likes do not necessarily represent 22.5 million people. These challenges occur when counting number of Likes for any page on Facebook. However, even if only a third of the Likes represent actual Facebook users, the network is surprisingly immense – even to the members of Anonymous who have commented on this paper's results. Only few mainstream media can match the movement's enormous internet infrastructure.
To decide if a particular page was to be classified as Anonymous, Golovchenko said it had to meet one of three criteria:
- Direct association with the movement ("We are Anonymous")
- Direct promotion of the movement's cause
- Use of symbols that characterise the movement
To meet the final criteria, Golovchenko said that simply displaying the Guy Fawkes mask was not sufficient in itself for the page to be classified as part of the Anonymous network, as the symbol is popular in communities outside Anonymous.
Having gathered all the data, the graduate student set out to visualise his finding, with each point (node) in the graph representing a Facebook page that is associated with Anonymous. If page A gives page B a Like, they become connected with a line. The node size represents the amount of Likes received from others in the network. Colours show different communities.
Analysis of the data shows that while Anonymous really is a global movement, regional groups typically connect with other groups in that region (Europe, Asia, Africa) and while much of the media attention is focused on Anonymous in the US, there are also major nodes in places like Germany, Portugal, Spain, Greece, Brazil and Canada.