The genesis of the hacktivist collective Anonymous is a far cry from either hacking or activism. It began as a way to raise hell, for a group of mostly kids tired of a rule-bound world to careen around in their digital clown cars smashing the mailboxes of the Internet’s Babbits.
Since that beginning, the group, insofar as it can be called a group, has changed. Repeatedly. It has moved from lulz, or kicks, to extremely earnest political activities, to self-celebration, and on the way, has alienated many, and not just those who consider the group vandals, but many of those vandals themselves.
Anonymous has been responsible for high-profile protest campaigns, or the Web’s version of satirical street art, against everything from the Church of Scientology and the entertainment industry to the wagon-circling attitudes toward rape of small towns like Steubenville, Ohio.
In the light of #OpMaryville, at least the third campaign by the group focused on bringing attention to the alleged cover-up of rape, Anonymous is capturing national headlines again, and with those headlines, it is attracting yet another surge of members.
All it takes to “become Anonymous,” after all, is to say you are. Slap up an anonymous Twitter account, slap on a Guy Fawkes map, suggest a campaign for or against one thing or another, and there you are. But that low barrier to entry and its high profile campaigns led by earlier participants have produced a paradigm shift that has left many early joiners disillusioned.
I reached out to five self-identified members of Anonymous to learn more about what it means to take up the cause and how becoming Anonymous has become a drag for many. For obvious reasons, they’ve asked for even their Twitter handles and IRC aliases to remain anonymous. We’ve assigned them rather random names. They’re random because their nationalities, native languages, and even genders are hidden behind their anonymity.
In the beginning was the lulz
One of the joys of creating, or contributing to the creation, of a brand new thing, is dispensing with the dead wood of the past. Sweeping away the prerequisites, the structures of hierarchical belonging, the “right action” against which you were measured and found wanting, can be a process that wakes you up to the promise of yourself. For many who found Anonymous, this element was integral to who, not what, they became.
“My take on ‘Anonymous’ is not that you ‘become’ anonymous,” Alan, a person whose online activities brought him unsought-after notoriety, told me. “You are anonymous and can be anonymous without ever calling yourself ‘Anonymous.’ It’s just a moment when I decided to stand up and take action, not become or join ‘Anonymous.’”
This was a common motif for many of the anons we have spoken with. Anonymous has no condo board, no dues, no officers, but should also have no brand, no personae, no rock stars. “Let do what thou wilt be the whole of the law,” XXX could have been their motto. But there was no motto either.
“My sense of Anonymous as a whole really began with anonymous from 4chan,” Bill said, who first became aware of the group in 2007. “What really appealed to me was that by everyone appearing to be the same you were given an idea without any preconceived notion about what it meant related to the person saying it). It began with ideas in their purest form.”
4chan is the imageboard on which Anonymous made its first appearance, a function of the contribution of otherwise unidentified users being marked as “anonymous.” It was on 4chan, in 2008, that Project Chanology was first proposed, in which users launched a series of attacks on the Church of Scientology.
4chan users had come together for a number of actions before that, including in 2006, flooding the Finnish online game Habbo Hotel with clone avatars and blocking other users from its make-believe pool with a sign stating it was “closed due to fail and AIDS.” Encyclopedia Dramatica also played a role Anonymous’ development, providing a place to plan “raids,” which it also did increasingly via IRC (Internet relay chat) chatrooms.
After Chanology, the raids become “ops,” or operations, many of which, though still lulz-intensive, had a genuine activist edge. These included #OpPayback, which went after Hollywood for the perceived viciousness off its attacks on file-sharers, and #OpTunisia, as well as other international ops targeting international censorship efforts by authoritarian governments.
A group that later became LulzSec hit the computer security firm HBGary in retaliation for its research into Anonymous. Despite using terms like “fag,” the group has struck homophobic groups like the Westboro Baptist Church as well.
In 2011, Anonymous gave birth to two other groups, the aforementioned LulzSec and AntiSec. LulzSec launched DDoS attacks against Fox, PBS, a host of gaming sites, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, and more; while AntiSec hit Arizona state websites in retaliation for a controversial immigration bill and U.S intelligence consultancy Stratfor, posting 30,000 credit card numbers it hacked from the company’s servers.
As Anonymous became more earnest in its ops, it began to attract those whose concerns were derived from serious changes in their societies, and vice versa. That was arguably the first big change for the group. Seriousness can energize a group, and it did.
In the time after 9/11, Dale, an anon with a long track record of participation in ops, wanted revenge, and coming face-to-face with his anger wound up bringing this future-anon up short. It made D’s move toward Anonymous a more political one right off the bat.
“I am not happy with how I was so easily reeled in to a mindless follower,” Dale told me. “Perhaps it is out of that experience is where my rage exudes from, and why I do what I do. The Patriot Act was really a turning point in my view of what politics really were. I have always believed that bipartisan politics are a complete and utter fucking sham. The idea that you have to pick one side or the other is a joke. The political philosophy of the United States government no longer has anything to do with the people backing the Constitution.”
Even for Dale, the concern was for politics “not in the sense of a communism, or even socialism; but in the sense that we are all one people (humans) and we must treat each other with respect and dignity.”
Put your trust in God; but mind to keep your powder dry!
As Anonymous launched more and more ops, and those ops got more and more press, among the fictions that began to spread were first, that Anonymous was an organized group; second, that it was a political group with the government in its crosshairs; and third, that it was comprised of NSA level super-hackers.
None of these fictions was true. Except, of course, where they were. Groups of people affiliated with anonymous did organize, somewhat, producing subgroups and one-off teams for campaigns. Some anons were political, obviously; some were probably “revolutionary” in the obsolete “street fightin’ man” sense. And clearly, there were hackers involved.
The problem with this picture, which frequently appeared in the media, is that there did not necessarily appear to be a higher percentage of hackers in Anonymous than you’d find at the local table-top gaming store and the politics of the majority of anons seem to track pretty well with those whose Twitter accounts featured their real names.
But a combination of the high-profile hacks, the punky rhetoric, and the persistent ignorance of even basic technology among many in government and law enforcement (to say nothing of we in the media), Anonymous took over where “The Mob” left off. They became Public Enemy Number One.
And one thing you have to say about American law enforcement, and especially the FBI: When they’re on a scent, they don’t half-ass it. They made arrests. And these arrests were game-changing developments for Anonymous in terms of the trust under which its members operated.
Perhaps the most game-changing of all the arrests was that of Hector Xavier Monsegur, whose nom d’Anonymous was “Sabu.”
In August, 2011, Sabu was turned by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and became an informant. His help was instrumental in securing the arrests in March of 2012 of other members of the Anonymous-affiliated LulzSec group: Ryan Ackroyd (“Kayla”), Jake Davis (“Topiary”), Jeremy Hammond (“Anarchaos”), Darren Martyn (“pwnsauce”) and Donncha O’Cearrbhail (“palladium”).
Although some claimed not to be surprised most anons seemed genuinely shocked that those they worked with side-by-virtual-side could turn on them and join the ranks of the enemy.
“OpSec,” or operational security, was always important to Anonymous, but after the arrests started, it became even more so. The trust had eroded. People anons had worked with turned out to be the enemy.
“Trust is the biggest issue that has changed for me,” Bill told me. “Rule #1 about Anonymous: Don’t trust anyone. Your opsec is the most important thing about being anonymous. The weakest link will be the first one to break. If one of your ‘friends’ goes down and you have fucked up even once you better expect the party van.”
Charlie, a contentious anon, agreed, noting “You can’t be an anon if you get caught.”
There is no I in Anonymous
Another element that compromised trust was also a function of the group’s growth. Some anons began to feel that others had crossed the line, implying violence against those it opposed and celebrating their own personae online.
As an example, Bill pointed to #OpRollRedRoll, which took on the Steubenville rape case. In that case, a group of rapists seemed to have been shielded by the power structure of their Ohio town. But some anons felt the way other anons handled the op degenerated into the unacceptable: threats of violence against the alleged rapists and those who supported them, and a desire to claim credit.
“#Ops are supposed to be about justice and to help those who have no voice,” said Bill. “Anonymous never was and never will be about anyone’s ego.”
“Most of Anonymous are focused on gaining Internet fame and raising money for each other,” Edgar, an anon with an international focus, said. “I can haz wepay? I’m no longer under the impression that much we do online under the hijacked banner of Anonymous means anything anymore.”
Bill has supported many Anonymous-born campaigns, or “#ops,” but in the light of the changes that have convulsed the group, one in particular has had particular resonance.
“#OpNewBlood has been a big one for me,” Bill said. “The idea that anyone can be Anonymous means that idiots and the misguided can be Anonymous. It’s an attempt to stem the growing rate of cancer that is taking hold over Anonymous as a whole.”
#OpNewBlood is a campaign to educate new anons, or “new bloods,” as they’re often called.
“I can say I have seen a number of people start as complete idiots and change into knowledgeable friends,” said Bill. “‘Lurk moar’ is probably the most underrated saying for new bloods. Becoming an anon requires many months of people having zero fucks about what you have to say.”
Besides what hope the never-ending flight
Of future days may bring, what chance, what change…
What Anonymous does best, what it has always done best, is grab headlines. That has resulted, as we have seen, in trust-crushing arrests. But it has also resulted in demonstrably positive, if discrete, changes in public awareness.
“When the MSM doesn’t want to report something (like small town rape cases being thrown out of court etc) we put a huge spot light that everyone notices right on the people who need to be noticed,” D said. “ We are good at informing people; we are the ones who ‘make it viral.’ From the beginning; I have never seen that aspect of Anonymous ever fail.”
That ability to grab headlines can be poisonous when individual self-identifying anons decide the headline should feature their alias, and many anons feel this has become almost par for the course. This credit-claiming has altered the group again, and not for the better.
“Anonymous is nothing like it is used to be,” Alan said. “Today it’s a fashion statement or an odd feeling of power and acceptance to call yourself ‘Anon’. You ask some of these newfags why they join and they will quote you something they saw or read about Anonymous, romanticizing some action or #op.”
“We became anonymous out of boredom,” Charlie added. “At least till when teenagers with Guy Fawkes masks fucked it all up.”
Dale feels Anonymous is turning into a fad.
“It isn’t about the ego,” Dale told us, “it isn’t about the fame, it is about changing the world for future generations. Too many newfags have egos, and want fame. There has been plenty of my PRs that have hit MSM airwaves; but I have never gloated about any of them.”
In the early days,” Alan said, Anonymous “was a call to action, and people just responded calling themselves Anonymous in order to never gain attention to who they really are. It needs to evolve, but people won’t let it die. I fear it’s going to hurt them in the end.”
But Dale disagrees, feeling that evolution will take care of the problem in a way extinction never could.
“Anonymous can be anybody, anywhere,” Dale said, “it doesn’t matter what political belief or motive. People forget that. In saying that, Anonymous will be around forever.”
“Like every other movement there are ups and downs in its trendiness,” Bill agreed. “Right now it’s on the rise of popularity. Give it a few years and it will no longer be the ‘cool’ thing to do and the number of people affiliated with it will be much smaller. A smaller Anonymous means a more coordinated Anonymous which will in turn bring in more associates due to the previous actions. It will always be a roller coaster ride.”