“The establishment is invincible. Protesting is useless. You’ll never change anything. If everyone in the world believed that, then every single country in the world would still be kept in poverty by a ruling monarchy. That’s a fact.”
– r/Anonymous tagline, reddit subforum
Anonymous is kind of like the Robin Hood of the Internet, if Robin Hood had a depraved sense of humor and destroyed anything that got in his way.
Individual members are called “Anons.” I have a few friends who fall into this category. I’m sure there are several people in any college classroom who do as well.
In fact, just by doing research on the group’s behalf, I’m an Anon.
Wired.com’s Quinn Norton is one of many writers who sought to analyze Anonymous’ identity. “Notorious hacker group, Internet hate machine, pimply-faced, basement-dwelling teenagers, organization, movement, collective, vigilantes, online terrorists … none of them have ever really fit.”
The truth is – and I can say this with a touch of personal experience – Anon was originally just an internet forum. The term used to be slang for users of 4chan, an imageboard where the default username was “Anonymous.” 4chan dates back to 2003 and is still around today, but its users have developed something of a new identity – the collective consciousness we know today as Anon. The media still has very little idea what to make of this, so let me begin with a newsreel that gets it completely wrong.
The first and most important point I can make against this video is that Anon is not a terrorist organization. It’s hardly even an activist organization – that’s just one benevolent cog in the larger machine. They’re neutral. They’re pranksters. Some would say anarchists. A researcher named Biella Coleman who studies Anonymous likens them to “the trickster gods” from various mythologies. “The trickster isn’t the good guy or the bad guy, it’s the character that exposes contradictions, initiates change and moves the plot forward.” In one Anon’s own definition, “a criminal exploits others for their own self-advantage – an outlaw refuses to allow the opposition to limit field mobility & tactical flexibility with sophism.”
Anon first became a permanent fixture of the news cycle after its 2008 protest against Scientology, its first mass gathering that invoked anti-hero Guy Fawkes as a public symbol. Since then, they’ve taken vocal stances against the U.S. government, Fox News, pedophiles, rapists, and the Catholic Church, to name a few. But the list goes on.
Despite common enemies there’s notable dissension even within the group, which is why it remains fragmented. Not every Anon supports every cause embraced by the whole. For example, one thread shows conflicted feelings about Sen. Rand Paul, and another expresses concern at the inclusion of Syrian hackers in the group. The media’s stereotype of Anonymous is that of a “hive mind,” but the truth is far from it. The collective transcends race, social caste, and political motivation.
The irony is that the media hardly even needs to look that hard to find a central code. Though it’s still a joke list, 4chan’s rules of the Internet pretty accurately summate the mindset of the average Anon.
So I’ve established who they are and what they think, but the question remains – what do they do?
The answer: anything for “the lulz.” And what does that mean? “Lulz” is a misspelling of “lol,” another way of stating that Anon is driven by self-amusement and kicks above any cohesive ideology. At its heart is a love of internet memes, dark humor, and general silliness. That is the great uniting force behind Anonymous. However, the consequence of such inside jokes is that the media will largely never understand the group’s motivations.
That said, a great deal of this self-amusement is garnered from hacking. Not all Anons are hackers, and not all hackers are Anons, but the overlap is significant nonetheless. There are a few ways Anons utilize these methods to complete various “operations” – DDoS attacks, account locking, and the release of private records. The mainstream media very awkwardly and inaccurately uses “hacking” as an umbrella term. I’m here to tell you that the majority of American people today have no idea what hacking means. For starters, logging into your friend’s Facebook is not hacking.
- DDoS attacks: Shorthand for “distributed denial of service.” Whether performed manually or computer-automated, it provides a way for a relatively small group of people to shut down a target website’s servers. In more layman’s terms, a bunch of people refresh a page until it overloads from traffic. Sounds simple enough right? That may be why it’s Anon’s preferred plan of action. The group has used DDoS tactics to cripple everything from FBI databases to Bank of America accounts – servers that one would think would be immune to cyber warfare. Anonymous says guess again.
- Account locking: What most people think of when they think “hacking.” It’s what you see in the movies. It’s what happens when someone cracks your password, however well-encrypted, and changes it to lock you out. I’ve seen Anon use this one on the Westboro Baptist Church – hacking their Facebook page and filling it with lolcats. It’s also more commonly used to make a statement, i.e. by replacing a site’s main page with a video of a masked Anonymous voice preaching justice. Websites belonging to the Vatican’s main radio station, the Chinese government, and pro-Israeli lobbying firms have all been subject to this form of attack.
- Releasing private records: Potentially the most far-reaching and devastating of Anon’s tactics, this one is often levied against individuals. Whether an ordinary blogger who pissed off the wrong Anon or a high-profile individual who opposes a moral cause, Anonymous saves this tactic for people it really wants to tear down. Sarah Palin; white supremacist Hal Turner; a random assortment of Hollywood celebrities; several Obama administration officials; and that’s not even the half of it. During the rise of the Occupy movement, Anon systematically released the personal info of many officers accused of police brutality.
No matter what the form of cyber warfare, the objective always involves raising awareness. By tackling the online presence of major institutions, Anonymous successfully penetrates the news cycle, and the media questions the motives. Given, the media’s guesses will mostly be wrong, but viewers and alternative outlets can uncover the timing of these attacks with a little digging – be it the Vatican covering up sex abuse, the Chinese government cracking down on social media, or Jewish lobbyists hiding oppression of Palestinians.
Aside from cyber warfare, the group occasionally branches out and produces a news release or public video announcing their next operation. These are generally very stylized and menacing, and of course, never reported by major media. The local Fox News broadcast from above merited its own response, for instance.
Over time Anon has formed several “alliances” with other groups or individuals that share similar motives. Barrett Brown, the Occupy movement, Julian Assange, and Bradley Manning have all become undeniably a part of the Anonymous network’s umbrella. Each case highlights the media’s ineptitude at drawing connections when Anonymous re-emerges in the news.
- Barrett Brown: A journalist and online activist who often covers Anonymous. The mainstream media gives him little notice if any at all, and when it does, it constantly shoehorns Brown as a self-styled “spokesman” for Anonymous. As someone who plans to go into journalism, this misrepresentation really hits a sour note with me. Neither Brown nor Anonymous claims he is this alleged spokesman. One of the primary pillars of Anonymous is that it’s, well, anonymous. Decentralized. No leader. But the media is increasingly obsessed with dumbing down issues and compartmentalizing them into digestable packets. It’s already happened once with Occupy Wall Street – movements need a face. In any case, Brown’s real crime was apparently taking a public stance in favor of Anonymous. He was indicted on 12 federal charges, totaling up to 100 years in prison. His legal defense fund was seized by the U.S. government. Barrett Brown is now in jail.
- Occupy Movement: Speaking of which, Occupy shares many similarities with Anon in both form and function. They both have wings that are politically-minded and progressive with an emphasis on social media and awareness. They both seek to highlight abuse on a corporate and federal level. Though they were hatched independently, they very quickly became intertwined. Protestors in Guy Fawkes masks appeared at Occupy rallies……and all of a sudden, Anonymous became a voluntary ally in the Occupy cause. Just like that. The group became an activate springboard and platform, lending support, members, and donations. It helped pilot Occupy’s online footprint on Twitter with #occupy, and it persecuted any politician or law enforcement who stood in the groups’ way. This partnership continues to this day, and for better or worse, the line has blurred for where Occupy starts and Anon ends. Unfortunately, this has only heightened the media’s portrayal of Occupy as an allegedly undemocratic institution filled with anarchists and rapists.
- Julian Assange: Founder of the whistleblower service known as Wikileaks and hero to Anonymous. In December 2010, Assange’s arrest galvanized the group, sparking a number of operations that pushed the limits of what its hacktivists could do. “Operation Avenge Assange” led to the temporary shutdown of major financial institutions, including Paypal, Amazon, Mastercard, and Visa, all firms that had pulled support from WikiLeaks’ donation platforms. Anon was, in effect, pulling out the big guns. People who hadn’t heard of them at this point saw this story on the news. Anonymous continues to shed light on the charges against Assange, his pursuers, and the rationale behind supporting such a polarizing figure. The media then framed this as a full endorsement from a solidly anti-American organization. But the consequences of the WikiLeaks arrest were seen on multiple fronts.
- Bradley Manning: Possibly the most famous – or notorious – contributor to WikiLeaks. Manning was a private in the U.S. Army who leaked hundreds of thousands of classified military wires to the site. He was been subsequently arrested and thrown in solitary confinement for more than a year. Manning was previously identified as a troubled soldier, under review for the possibility of mental disorders. Through now-revealed weblogs, Manning voiced his disdain for the U.S. military. “i was actively involved in something that i was completely against” (sic). Anonymous was humbled, especially, at the reasoning behind Manning’s actions – that it would lead to “hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reform … because it’s public data … it belongs in the public domain. Information should be free.” Thus Operation Bradical was born. Anon has since declared war on the U.S. military for its egregious treatment of Manning. Relatedly, Manning’s case was also part of Barrett Brown’s downfall.
So we’ve established that Anon has a very limited number of friends. Grossly overshadowing that, though, is its list of enemies. A complete synopsis of them would be daunting and, frankly, impractical, but the major ones remain. The Westboro Baptist Church, a favorite punching bag of pretty much everybody, is a constant victim of Anon harassment. Middle Eastern governments, most significantly the Bashar al-Assad regime of Syria, are also a lightning rod of attention. Any politician who lifts a finger to suppress Internet free speech is in the crosshairs. The Obama administration is an antagonist as well. Each target has earned its own operation with at least an honorable mention in the news cycle.
- #OpOuraborus: It began with a letter to the Westboro Baptist Church. “Cease & desist your protest campaign in the year 2011… close your public Web sites. Should you ignore this warning… the propaganda & detestable doctrine that you promote will be eradicated; the damage incurred will be irreversible, and neither your institution nor your congregation will ever be able to fully recover.” And Anonymous wasn’t bluffing. For almost 2 years now they’ve ridiculed and embarrassed the WBC at every given opportunity. It’s hacked them time and time again on Twitter and Facebook. It’s released the personal info of its most prominent members. Perhaps most comically, Anon defied the WBC’s decree that “God protects its site” by hacking it during a live interview with the Church’s spokeswoman. These actions have coincidentally resulted in a tremendous PR boon for Anon. Not that it really cares, but still.
- #OpSyria: Anonymous has used all three of the aforementioned cyber attacks in the fight against the al-Assad regime, and the media noticed. Syrian government websites have been blinking in and out of existence courtesy of DDoS since 2011. Its operators, meanwhile, have been shut out from changes. Regime leaders have had their names and records released to the Internet. OpSyria has basically established that if you err on the side of totalitarianism, Anon will expose you. Syria was just one of many similar operations conducted against Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Malaysia, India, and Iran. The revolution in this case will not be televised. But it will be global.
- #OpCISPA: The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act. It’s been defeated in Congress twice so far, in large part due to efforts by the people behind Reddit, Google, and of course, Anonymous. Like the much-maligned SOPA, CISPA provides a way for authority to crack down on online privacy. Anonymous was having none of it. Though website blackouts and high-profile opposition were absent from CISPA round 2, Anon spearheaded the resistance as a lone wolf. This operation was recent, from the last few weeks. Though it hit some turbulence in the execution phase, CISPA was dead-on-arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Some media credit the Senate’s cold feet with mounting threats from Anonymous.
- #OpGuantanamo: For what it’s worth, the President has received some praise from Anons for his consistent opposition of Internet censorship bills. But the honeymoon from CISPA was short-lived. Obama made headlines recently when he restated his desire to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba. OpGuantanamo arose right around the same time OpCISPA ended. Anon plans to use tweetstorms and petitions this time around to damage Obama’s reputation and force his hand. In the style of the old muckrakers of the early 20th century, Anonymous plans to enlighten Americans on exactly what their President has accomplished in his first term. The group very accurately argues that his foreign policy is a cookie cutter reprint of the Bush years. It contests that in some cases, such as the signing of the NDAA, Obama is even more extreme. Since this is one of Anon’s newest operations the media has yet to cover it in a big way. But reports from as early as 2 days ago have foreshadowed a much larger outcry in the next weeks.
Five years out from a Scientology rally and Anonymous is now a major player in U.S. politics. The group boldly took credit for protecting the integrity of our last election, too. It’s spawned a number of conspiracy theories about who Anon might work for and exactly what kind of control they have over voting machines, but there are a few common points that take little to no imagination to consider.
- In its open letter, Anonymous reminded the public that they warned Karl Rove he could not steal the 2012 election. At the time it seemed like an irrelevant threat – until Anon took credit for preventing sabotage.
- The same district in Ohio where this alleged voter fraud would have occurred has a history of irregularities in its voting machines.
- Mitt Romney’s son Tagg collaborated closely with a firm that owns and operates said voting machines in Ohio.
- Anonymous correctly identified the operating system of these machines – “ORCA” – and established intimate knowledge of its errors.
- Anonymous undoubtedly has the expertise to craft something like a firewall to block out remote access.
An article from alternative media source Truth-Out elaborates on these theories. Whether or not Anon is being entirely forthcoming about any alleged role in voter fraud may very well take a backseat to the idea that they even can – which many do believe.
Continuing chronologically, another operation that started in the last month was #OpMayDay. It happened at the same time as an announcement by the President himself. A little background:
- In most of the rest of the world, May 1st is known as International Workers’ Day.
- The holiday has roots in the U.S. but hasn’t been officially celebrated for over a century.
- Administrations dating back to Eisenhower have tried to replace May Day with offshoot “loyalty” holidays honoring the U.S. government. None gained any traction.
- Anon, along with Occupy, has repeatedly tried to raise awareness of the holiday, considering it an important landmark in the groups’ shared platforms of workers’ rights.
- Obama on May 1st announced that the day will once again be referred to as National Loyalty Day. Police state accusations aside, this was not a good PR move by the administration. It was at best clumsy and at worst explicitly repressive.
- Anonymous announced the operation in response.
It’s increasingly apparent that Anonymous considers even minor declarations from our government. No stone is left unturned. But is the Obama administration Anon’s new public enemy no. 1? Nope. That unfortunate distinction goes to another of Anon’s long-time targets…
Some disturbingly similar headlines involving rape have occurred in a relatively short time span recently: Steubenville, Torrington, Rehtaeh Parsons, Audrie Pott. Anonymous has gotten directly involved in two of these – Steubenville and Rehtaeh Parsons. In both cases, Anon believed local law enforcement was not doing enough to produce justice for the victims’ respective families.
- Steubenville, Ohio: The video that started it all was actually released by Anonymous firsthand. It took a few months to achieve the objective, but the accused rapists – two football player minors – were found guilty of rape. They risk being added to the sex offender registry. The story as it was reported in the press was a shocking example of the rape culture in America. Namely, the majority of media sympathy on major outlets like CNN went to the accused rather than the victim. Anonymous was very much at odds with this attitude from the beginning and maintained a constant watchdog in bringing the rapists to justice, even demanding apologies via Twitter. The major threat was that Anon would release names of what it thought were additional suspects from the town’s football team. It was in this way of operating outside the law that Mays and Richmond, the two culprits, are set to be in juvenile lockdown until 21.
- Rehtaeh Parsons: A case in Canada that bore significant overlap with Steubenville. The primary difference was that the victim killed herself after being publicly shamed as a rape target. Nova Scotia police closed the case due to lack of evidence, prompting Anonymous to solve the crime within 48 hours. They were ready to produce the names of two of the four rapists as a warning. This is however the only case in which Anonymous actually showed a measure of restraint, something like a conscience amidst its appetite for punishment. After a steady feed of screenshots and identification of witnessess, Anon ultimately left the remainder of the work to Nova Scotia police. At the behest of Parsons’ mother, Anon eventually backed off.
So we have a few instances in which Anonymous has brought down police officers without prejudice. Less than a year later it pools all its resources into helping a police department, albeit bitterly and accusingly. It is more than anything an arbiter of neutrality, or as it commonly refers to itself, an “agent of chaos”. Has it undermined the law? Certainly. But in both cases the press reported on the interventions of Anonymous. It was simply the backbone of both developments. We can safely conclude that these girls’ attackers would be out of jeopardy had Anon not stepped in. It really hates rapists.
And just like that, the group is a permanent “member” of society. Anon even appeared as one of Time’s 100 most influential people in 2012. It’s embraced the role of anti-hero amidst accusations of villain. It plays a game of chess with people as pawns. One could say Anon is simply a group of actors using the world as a grand dramatic stage. But if any one theory is certain, it’s that its members really are not going anywhere. Though occasionally prosecuted, it is impossible to shut down an amorphous entity that bears no static location or plan of attack. Just like Robin Hood, the legend lives on.
What news outlets find very difficult to grasp is that Anonymous is something of its own subculture, complete with attitudes, social norms, and shared beliefs. Trying to label the group is itself a fallacy, with the same ramifications as attempting to brand any other culture. It comes off as weak, misguided, and prejudiced. We’ve seen it unfold with Arabs as a result of the War on Terror – Fox News and the government step in to fill the information vacuum. They define a perceived threat preemptively, thus fueling the threat in the first place. “Terrorist organization,” in this case, is more than just a misnomer. It’s an audacious challenge. The average American citizen, however disgruntled with U.S. foreign policy, will not seek out al-Qaeda to become an enemy combatant. By contrast, that citizen may be very tempted to join Anonymous to counter draconian cyber and domestic policy. It’s as simple as logging onto a forum and reading the rules of the Internet.