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"I Did What?!?" Anonymous, Crap Detection, and What Giving Your Attention Can REALLY Do

Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart is really striking the right chords with me—part self-help, part-theoretical exploration of the Internet, the text delves deeper into the social and psychological side of social media and technology while showing readers how to understand and, more importantly, control how they surf the ‘net.

The book goes over the basics of how important your attention span is while you browse the internet, especially with sites like Twitter and Facebook, while also showing you how to be more conscious of how your attention is captured. The text also highlights the importance of your attention in this process by emphasizing that practically everyone is out to get a piece of it. Unfortunately, that not only includes Aunt Cathy and your college roommate, but corporations like Microsoft, Wal-Mart, and numerous small businesses, musicians, Internet trolls, etc. Rheingold’s analysis makes it extremely clear that, on the Internet, our attention is a part of a larger socioeconomic system where it can be considered a commodity, a currency, or something else—it’s definition is constantly taking shape and multi-layered. Rheingold writes that

The moment you see a link, and then decide whether or not to click it, is the moment you exert executive control of your attention or, by not exerting control, allow it to be captured. (97)

Of course, one of the major points that Rheingold makes is that your attention can be used for good. I was reminded of my own participation in a form of cyber-activism in the form of Folding@Home, a program that uses a portion of your computer’s processes to work through protein folding (which can help find cures to diseases like Alzheimer’s, Mad Cow Disease, and Parkinson’s), which Rheingold references as a positive use of attention. At the time, as a freshman in college, I stumbled upon a topic on a forum about using my Playstation 3 video game console to help cure some pretty rough diseases. In addition, the Folding@Home client allows users to join “teams” that can be used to promote the cyber-activism of various virtual community groups such as forum members, co-workers, etc. So, with the goal of helping cure Alzheimer’s while promoting NeoGAF and GameFAQs (all while exerting no effort whatsoever—all you had to do was open the program when you weren’t using your system), I installed F@H on both my PS3 and my computer. This, I think, is a great example of how virtual communities and positive attention can come together for the social good.

However, fast forward a few years later, and I found myself, unknowingly, engaged in a worldwide cyber-terrorist attack on the US Department of Justice.

Back in January of this year, when the infamous video site called Megaupload was shut down and its owners arrested, the Internet group Anonymous vowed to get “revenge” for the shut down. Of course, Megaupload’s closure was merely a catalyst—this was during the time that SOPA was an issue.

When all was said and done, Operation Megaupload, according to Time,

took down usdoj.gov and justice.gov (the U.S. Department of Justice), universalmusic.com (Universal Music Group), RIAA.org (the Recording Industry Association of America), MPAA.org (the Motion Picture Association of America), copyright.gov (the U.S. Copyright Office), hadopi.fr (France’s copyright-enforcement agency), wmg.com (Warner Music Group), bmi.com(Broadcast Music, Inc.) and fbi.gov (the Federal Bureau of Investigation). The DOJ’s website was first to fall, about an hour after the Justice Department announced its indictment of Megaupload.com.

Anonymous executed this take down through the use of DDoSing the websites. A DDoS, or distributed denial of service, attack is when users flood a server with incoming data, causing the website or server to crash. This kind of attack does a lot more than simply rendering the websites unvisitable—it totally destroyed online infrastructure for these organizations and companies, causing substantial financial losses. Even CBS.com was deleted for over twenty minutes.

DDoSing a website intentionally can potentially net you up to ten years in prison, as shown through the arrest of some Anonymous members back in 2011. However, the Operation Megaupload attack complicated the intentional aspect of DDoS attacks. Blogger Adrian Chen explains the process:

The link is a page on the anonymous web hosting site pastehtml. It link loads a web-based version of the program Anonymous has used for years to DDoS websites: Low Orbit Ion Cannon. (LOIC). When activated, LOIC rapidly reloads a target website, and if enough users point LOIC at a site at once, it can crash from the traffic. Judging from a Twitter search, the link is being shared at a rate of about 4 times a minute.

That’s how I got dragged into the mess. People (especially my more tech-savvy friends) were posting both run-of-the-mill TinyURL and PasteHTML links that looked totally normal—one even had the headline of “Possible Smiths Reunion? Marr Talks About Morrissey,” and that’s when I became a victim. My computer started DDoSing the US DoJ. I see myself as a pretty savvy tech user, but even I became a pawn in this grand scheme. You constantly see less-savvy people being phished and hacked on Facebook, so what happens when the consequence is a lot more than having to reset your Facebook or change a few passwords? What happens when that friend’s (or your own) choice of attention leads to the destruction of the US Department of Justice’s web presence, which could potentially cause millions of dollars in losses? 

Chen explains that 5,635 people [were] confirmed using LOIC to bring down sites during Operation Megaupload—but how many of these were willing participants and how many were people who were tricked into clicking on a Facebook or Twitter  post? Rheingold makes some great points about learning social media literacy in Net Smart, but, as he notes, we must always be aware of how our attention is being manipulated. I constantly use TinyURL as a way to shorten my URLs for Tweets, so what makes it clear that what you’re clicking on is what you’re going to get? Even though the signs said that the tweet was real (Morrissey and Marr are never getting back together), the friend ran a music blog and nothing seemed out of the ordinary, I was immediately thrust into something that I did not prepare for. Needless to say, that friend was unfollowed and I stopped frequenting their blog, but I’m a little more hesitant to even click links from people that I typically trust. Not clicking on the TinyURL in the “SEE WH0S 1S LOOKING AT YOUR FACEBOOK!” post is one thing, but you never know when the link to this article, for example, could be leading you to a commit a cyber-crime that could, in theory, land you 10 years in prison.

So now, I’ve begun to romanticize the days where I could post things on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr without being extremely paranoid about where I was going to end up.

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