The stream of images from Rio de Janeiro, Jakarta and Istanbul of protesters pitted against riot police has focused the world’s attention on the grievances of common citizens against their governments, sparking in some observers a sense of solidarity, and in most, discomfort.
Yet, no matter how jarring, there is a striking similarity to many of the photos and videos that goes beyond rock-throwing, tear gas, billy clubs, water cannons and drawn guns. Staring back at us in scene after scene is the ubiquitous “Anonymous” mask -- the menacing yet strangely beguiling mustachioed plastic face that has become a branded icon in protests from Cairo’s Tahrir Square to Occupy Wall Street’s New York encampment, more than 50 cities in Spain, Istanbul’s Taksim Square and, most recently, emerging grass-roots movements in Brazil and Indonesia. It is almost as if the same people are fighting these battles, everywhere.
While the masks have become synonymous with populism, and in some cases anti-capitalism, there is an irony in their frequent usage that is impossible to ignore: The Anonymous or Guy Fawkes mask comes compliments of the 2005 film ”V for Vendetta,” a big-time money-maker produced by Warner Brothers, a bastion of capitalism that holds the copyright to its reproduction and use. From time to time, Warner Bros. has tried to demand royalties for use of its design. In reality, though, the masks are often bootlegged, and copyright infringement is typically the least of the protesters’ concerns. Anonymous, a global, leaderless “hacktivist” collective, has actually distributed instructions for fabricating the masks, which thrills the artist who created the original, David Lloyd.
“I have no objections at all,” Lloyd told IBTimes. “I think it’s fantastic. It’s fascinating. The important thing about that mask is that it’s used on a widespread level by many people as an all-purpose symbol of resistance to tyranny, even of perceived tyranny. That’s the most important thing about that mask.”
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Lloyd noted that the mask has been banned in Bahrain and will likely be outlawed in Saudi Arabia, “which really shows the power of something, when, in fact, it does represent people’s need for freedom. If you think banning a mask is going to stop people from wanting freedom, you’re crazy. But that’s how governments are – they’re often incredibly stupid in their assumptions.”
How We Got Here
There is historical precedent for activist movements and revolutions to be catalyzed by similar slogans, ideas, and even marketing slogans and concepts. The specter of imperious governments behaving as if citizens should serve them, rather than the other way around, is, after all, nothing new. Among the early models for codifying public uprisings was Thomas Paine’s seminal American Revolution-era pamphlet “Common Sense,” after which came the French Revolution pamphlets, the writings of Karl Marx and Mohatma Gandhi, and the less famous yet highly influential works of political scientist Gene Sharp in the 1970s. Sharp, who has been described as “a revolutionary’s best friend, or, perhaps more accurately, as a dictatorship’s worst nightmare,” and “the Machiavelli of nonviolence,” in 1973 outlined “198 Methods of Nonviolent Action” in the first of many of his works that provide a road map for orchestrating protest movements around the world.
Beyond its discussion of tactics as basic as public speeches, petitions, picketing and vigils, Sharp’s list defines how to create a unique and recognizable identity for a movement. It recommends establishing “symbolic colors,” slogans, caricatures, sounds and symbols in service of the greater cause, and draws upon the myriad ways a political party or company creates an identity for voters or consumers to associate with its candidates or products, as McDonald’s has done with its red-and-yellow color scheme, Ronald McDonald and the Golden Arches.
Copies of Sharp’s works have been disseminated around the world despite government bans in nations from Myanmar to Venezuela, and the results are evident even in uprisings where individual protesters may not be familiar with his work, but whose leaders are.
When Egypt’s April 6 Youth Movement was struggling to recover from a failed effort to force reform in 2005, its leaders tossed around “crazy ideas” about bringing down the government to achieve the movement's aims, Ahmed Maher, a leading strategist who later played a key role in the successful overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, told the New York Times. Maher said the group stumbled upon Sharp's writings while examining the Serbian movement Otpor, which he had influenced, and used them in the Egyptian uprising.
Sharp's recommendations were also evident in the successful Rose Revolution in the nation of Georgia in 2003 -- an image of a red rose was used to rally supporters under one common symbol -- and in the Iranian uprising, which followed the 2009 presidential election and grew out of the “Green Movement,” remembered for its masterful appropriation of the color and for embracing the cry “We Are Neda” after a young girl was killed by government forces.
And, of course, they were evident in the Occupy Movement in the United States, which arose after the financial crash of 2008 to protest systemic financial inequities. Occupy relied on overarching slogans such as “Whose Streets? Our Streets. Occupy Wall Street” with a logo depicting a ballet dancer atop the New York City financial district’s iconic bull statue, as well as the catchy “Occupy [fill-in-the-blank]” franchise. The template for the Occupy Movement was replicated in countries across the world.
At 85, Sharp continues to actively guide young radicals who trek to London to meet with him. The difference, today, is that the tactics of branding have been amplified through the use of common accoutrement and global communications technology, the latter of which is beyond Sharp, who uses neither Facebook nor Twitter.
The Guy Fawkes mask, first adopted by Anonymous in a demonstration against the Church of Scientology, was developed for the main character in “V for Vendetta,” which is based on a graphic novel by David Lloyd and Alan Moore. Lloyd said he created the mask’s distinctive design from a vague memory of effigies burned each year in the U.K. on Guy Fawkes Night, Nov. 5. The event commemorates Fawkes’ role in an attempted bombing of the house of Parliament by portraying him as an evil terrorist, complete with white mask and moustache; the holiday began as a way to celebrate the survival of England’s King James l. In his version of the mask, Lloyd hoped to reform Fawkes into a hero, rather than a villain.
Lloyd designed the character in the summer, when the holiday masks were not available, and his version is a more stylized approximation of Fawkes’ face.
“Powerful interests don’t like people causing trouble for them in their ivory towers,” Lloyd observed of the responses to the surge of protests in recent years. Though the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York eventually faded away, “elsewhere it’s still going strong,” he said, “and I’m very glad that protesters adopt that mask of V so evidently in the implementation of what they believe in. I think it’s great.”
And yes, Lloyd said, he does receive a portion of the proceeds from Warner Brothers when a licensed version of the mask is sold.
Social Media Strategy
The mask might have remained a simple curiosity – a component of a popular Halloween costume or a useful disguise for a small group of people engaged in civil disobedience -- without the galvanizing force of social media. The combination of branding and technology proved formidable.
Ozgur Oral was a relatively typical Istanbul businessman until very recently. He followed Turkish news and harbored some criticisms of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s policies, but did not participate in various small-scale demonstrations against them (at which vendors sold Fawkes masks). But as the extreme actions of Erdogan’s police forces increased in recent weeks -- the police have used riot squads and armored vehicles to beat and bully the waves of activists -- in the vicinity of Taksim Square and Gezi Park, Oral says he became enthralled with the protest movement, which was mostly blacked out by local news media yet exploded on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites.
“With the help of social media, even though the strict TV media restrictions, the protests became more interesting and attractive, and even apolitical or neutral people like me could not resist to attend the meetings and protests,” Oral told IBTimes via email from Istanbul as the protests raged earlier this month. “The media bosses’ attitudes made people connect with each other against censorship, and the pro-government media created their own enemies.”
Turkey provides a classic storyline of a modern political protest movement. As in Iran, the U.S., Egypt and elsewhere, the social media frontier gave voice to the previously voiceless, serving as a conduit for views and news often ignored by mainstream media and as a way to organize in places where traditional forms of communication were restricted.
With the adoption of Occupy branding from Istanbul to Tokyo, Sao Paolo and numerous other cities worldwide has come an expanding social spider web that further homogenizes and unifies international protest efforts, reducing the distinctions between local and global. Ultimately, such protest movements are dependent upon ancient crowd dynamics, yet the influence of social media and shared themes has been profound. In 2011, Egypt’s President Mubarak responded to a groundswell of social media opposition by shutting down the Internet -- a disastrous mistake that has confounded the controlling efforts of other rulers before and since.
Until the Internet shutdown, relatively few protesters had taken to the streets; the majority stayed home and “liked” anti-Mubarak actions on Facebook and other sites. Denied access to the Web, those latent supporters were compelled to go outside to find out what was going on, at which point large throngs began to form. By the time Internet service was restored, it was too late: The movement literally had legs.
Freelance photographer Andre Liohn, a native of Brazil, has observed protests in Cairo as well in Tunisia and now, his home country. While many Brazilians cite the Turkish protests as a source of inspiration, and some of the protest branding is in place in the Latin American country, Liohn stressed that regardless of common themes and means, each protest is at its core specific to the country in which it unfolds. In Brazil, he said, a youth group that had been in place since 2006 took to the streets last week to protest a small increase in the price of a bus ticket, and the general population got behind them only after the police reacted violently.
“For the first time in many years now, we have the chance to say these things together -- that we are unhappy,” Liohn said. “People have this individual feeling of being unhappy, and being alone in that unhappiness. The difference between the Occupy Movements, the Arab Spring, the protests in Turkey -- those actually occupy something. In Brazil, they don’t occupy anything, and they won’t occupy anything. People want to go to protests at 5 p.m. after work, stay until 10 p.m., and then the next day go back to work.”
Locals, he said, do not even use the word “protest” to describe what’s being staged – they use the word “parade.”
The Anonymous mask is a part of the Brazilian protests, but is not as evident as in Turkey, Liohn pointed out. Still, it is prominent enough, according to one protester who spoke with IBTimes, that the government is targeting those who wear it. The protester, who identified herself as Leticia Frose, said, “I am a part of Anonymous, but I am an activist, not a hacker. It’s different. And I don’t have a mask. The government, the police, they asked for the participants to not use a mask because they want to see our faces.” Fearful of the potential for violence if she wore the mask, Frose opted for a concealing scarf.
The reason the police harbor such hostility toward the mask, Frose claimed, is that they want to be able to identify the protesters. “In Brazil, two days ago, [following a protest] they found people in their homes,” she said. “A lot of people don’t want to show their face because the government can find them. A lot of people are in prison now because of the protests.”
In Lloyd’s view, that is precisely why the mask is valuable to protest movements – because it enables common concerns to be shared by a larger group that is less subject to personal repercussions. Not coincidentally, that is also why besieged authorities have sought to eliminate it. In addition to bans in countries where protests have not even occurred, the Wall Street Journal reported that during the Occupy protests in New York’s Zuccotti Park five people were charged under an “obscure, 150-year-old statute that bans masked gatherings.” The statute was enacted in 1845 in response to protests by tenant farmers who dressed up like Indians in “calico gowns and leather masks” and went on a rampage, WSJ reported.
Besieged authorities aren’t the only ones who find fault with repetitive and, at times, obscuring themes. Critics, including within the movements themselves, say that essentially buying into a franchise may diminish the need for developing a common focus and for sound leadership, particularly because Occupy and Anonymous both stress avoiding clear leaders.
Blogger Brendan O’Neill at spiked-online.com is among those who find protest branding self-defeating. “Occupiers will claim that the spread of their brand is about solidarity, even a form of universalism,” O’Neill argues. “But solidarity does not mean subsuming every radical movement into the same way of thinking and agitating.” Occupy is “a brand created by well-off Westerners” that "smacks of cultural imperialism,” in O'Neill's view.
“In particular,” O’Neill writes, “it is discouraging protest groups from thinking carefully and articulating clearly what they are all about, instead inviting them simply to don the Occupy badge; and it is also implicitly inviting protest groups to spend more time on appealing to influential Occupy sympathisers over here [in his case, in the U.K.], especially in the media, than on trying to win the backing of everyday people in their own nations. That is, the two most important things for any serious uprising to do – to state its aims and to try to win local support – are being made more difficult by Occupy’s Starbucks-style imposition of a contradictory and soul-killing radical conformity.”
Whether such criticisms represent the voice of reason or disgruntled second-guessing from the sidelines, the ultimate success or failure of the ongoing protests will help settle the debate. What's important though, Lloyd said, is that people do not feel intimidated about asking for their rights. And the ever-present mask is a useful tool for reducing these fears.
“We are entitled to our identity as private citizens and also to our identity as an individual member of society," Lloyd said. "Everyman -- that’s the whole key of V. It represents everyman. That’s why you never know who he or she is. And that is what we deserve -- to be recognized as a legitimate member of society that wants to protest, but not necessarily to be targeted as an individual so that we can be intimidated or bullied by any force that wants to do so.”