It began with the aim of winding people up, but now Anonymous is making headlines for its righteous activism. Could they be the heroes the world needs?
On 11 December, the group known as Daesh (née Isis, Isil, Islamic State) will be attacked by goats. Well, images of goats anyway; a photographic air strike on sites and users affiliated to the extremists. The people behind the irreverent campaign? No one and everyone, it seems. Or rather the faceless, apparently “million-strong” collective known as Anonymous.
It marks the latest populist move that is changing the public perception of Anonymous and ‘hacktivists’ as a whole. As Amazon Prime’s hit show, Mr Robot, has suggested this year, it seems that hackers have the potential to now be heroes.
Anonymous has dubbed 11 December the ‘Day of Rage’, and it follows a sustained campaign of trolling by the hacktivists that includes, though is not limited to, Photoshopping rubber ducks into photos of Daesh fighters, spamming their Twitter feeds with cat memes and replacing one of its sites with an advert for Viagra. Such torment is, to crib an Anonymous slogan, “for the lulz”, yet beneath such immaturity lies actual, reasoned logic.
“There’s an argument to be made about making your enemy so angry that they become reckless,” Luke Harder, a Los Angeles-based ‘Anon’, explains to ShortList. “Can Anonymous stop Isis? No, the only effect we have is on internet and communications. But we can screw with that a lot, and the benefit Anonymous has over a government agency is that we’ve got the manpower.
“If everyone who claims to be sympathetic to Anonymous – and there’s got to be more than a million [people] by this point – got into it, we’d be such an incredible force that there would be almost no place for them to hide.”
Throwing its unique, brash and somewhat whimsical brand of online activism behind the war on terror, Anonymous has added ‘OpISIS’ to a burgeoning list of ventures proving popular with the public; such as supporting Black Lives Matter and pressuring governments for LBGT rights. Once these masked sentinels were seen as digital outlaws and cyber bullies. Now, Anonymous is emerging as a bona-fide vigilante for the internet age.
But with no leader, a chaotic membership system where anyone can pull on a Guy Fawkes mask to commit (good or evil) acts in its name, and a startling number of Anons sitting behind bars for cyber crimes, can these Robin Hoods of the internet ever truly shake off their label as lawless “hackers on steroids” and go straight, or will Anonymous’s in-built anarchy, fondness for dicking around and its relentless quest for lulz ultimately bring about its own destruction?
Echo chamber of NSFW
In 2004, Anonymous was born in the depths of 4chan’s /b/ board. A forum devoted to ‘random’ content – you can accurately trace the majority of internet memes here (from Lolcats to Rickrolling), not to mention an echo chamber of NSFW and cannot-be-unseen imagery – its users wear its reputation as the most vile page online like a perverted badge of honour. With a shared love of juvenile humour and causing offence, Anons started banding together on other sites. Hundreds would turn up on virtual networking site Habbo Hotel and block the swimming pool in a swastika formation, claiming it was closed due to Aids.
As misbehaviour gave way for more righteous deeds – attacking an apparently racist US radio host’s website, helping police capture a notorious child predator in 2007 and, most famously, pranking the Church Of Scientology – Anonymous splintered into two factions. There were those keen to use Anonymous’s mastery for the good of humanity, whereas others demanded the so-called ‘moralfags’ “stop ruining our bad name”. Not long after, some Anons were blamed for posting strobe Gifs on epilepsy forums.
“It started as bunch of jokers harassing people for fun online,” recalls Harder, 34, “but that’s ancient history by this point. It has evolved so much since then that I do think it’s a force for good, however it’s still a fallible thing.” Why? “Because people are fallible.”
Disorderly gang of hackers
Years later, Anonymous is still most commonly known as a disorderly gang of hackers, tarred by the stereotype of dweeby teenagers sitting in their mum’s basement. And while there are obviously highly-skilled hackers within the Anonymous ranks, some feel the word itself has lost meaning.
“Hacker is a misunderstood, misused term,” says Harder, an Anon that posts under his own name (“Pure involvement with Anonymous isn’t enough to get arrested”), works in demolition and has a wife and son. “To call Anonymous all hackers is just wildly inaccurate. To me, it would be like calling myself a race car driver just because I know how to drive.
“I reserve ‘hacker’ for the elite,” he continues. “If you look at the internet as a separate society, a hacker is like a superhero – you’re able to alter reality in a way a normal citizen cannot.”
While a lingering cynicism endures – from a modern society that looks at computer code as ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics – much of this is born out of confusion at Anonymous’s inner workings. It’s massive, that we know. It can also destabilise governments (just ask officials in Tunisia, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Iran, Libya, Morocco and Australia, plus others) and troll far right-wing groups such as the Ku Klux Klan or Westboro Baptist Church. But how does it pull off these grand schemes, orchestrate such well-drilled pandemonium, without a puppet-master Anon pulling the strings from up high?
“It’s the purest form of democracy,” says Harder, proudly, “and democracy’s a lot like capitalism – it responds to supply and demand, and market pressure.
“Recently we’ve had an influx of social justice warriors who are leading things down a strange path – like way, way too far to the left, almost coming back around to being right wing – and a lot of the old-school members are not happy about it. But it’ll eventually get weeded out; that’s how it works.”
“Anonymous does not require a leader,” adds ‘Luise’, a German “Anonymiss” who gave her age as “approximately 30” and declined to speak with ShortList on the phone, but agreed to communicate via email. “If there was one, they would be a megalomaniac – the power would not be tangible.
“Anonymous is like a puzzle. Without the many different parts, there is no great whole.”
If the public’s estimation of Anonymous has altered in light of its humanitarian efforts and terrorist-baiting charm offensive, it’s a stark contrast to 2013. Back then, the FBI boasted it had “dismantled” Anonymous following some high-profile arrests – including two Irishmen and two Brits – thanks in no small part to Anon-turned-informant Hector Xavier Monsegur (AKA ‘Sabu’) snitching on his former comrades.
Today, the deep web rebels are shrouded in even more secrecy as a result, wary to exchange information or become as pally with their fellow Anons, in case they, too, are an informant or a Fed. And this is particularly true when it comes to real-world protests.
“You don’t know who the person is behind that mask,” concedes Harder. “It’s been proven that police agencies will put agent provocateurs or outright spies among protesters to find out what’s going on. These people could easily put a Guy Fawkes mask on.”
So while the most likely cause of an implosion of Anonymous may well lie within – whether a supergrass or king troll determined to return to the halcyon days of ’04 – a devout, almost religious loyalty persists. And, if the public continues to get behind Anonymous’s myriad ops, it’s something that will only grow stronger. You never know, perhaps this disparate group of freedom fighters might even feel comfortable enough to remove its mask and step out of the shadows.
But, then, you probably shouldn’t expect it.
(Main image: Justin Metz)