After more than six months of daily conversations with Anons of every imaginable type, it is still difficult to understand (much less explain) how hackers, hippies, veterans, anarchists, militants, pacifists, environmentalists, capitalists, socialists, libertarians, social activists, far right-wingers, and far left-wingers all marched under the banner of Anonymous on November 5th. Locations with extremely varied cultures held marches that day. From Egypt to Armenia, Romania to Hong Kong, the U.S. to Moscow, the Anonymous collective controlled cities. The only thing uniting them beyond the Guy Fawkes mask is a sense that the world needs substantial change far beyond just the slogan the winning politician uses; and that something, somewhere has gone terribly wrong in our society. What started out as an infamous internet hate machine has evolved into the digital Robin Hoods that are quickly becoming the world’s favorite antihero.
The early days of the "Internet Hate Machine"
Anonymous originated on 4chan.org around 2003. If a user does not enter a screen name when posting on the site, sometimes referred to as the sewer of the internet, the website automatically assigns the same screen name to every user: anonymous. The site itself is the birthplace of many internet phenomena mostly those phenomena that offend large segments of the population, while providing laughs or “lulz” to those with different standard of humor.
It was in this environment that the collective was born. Anonymous in these early years could only be seen as the final boss of the internet. If a person, business, or organization became a target, they were quickly brought to heel and destroyed. The collective had a reputation for merciless cyber-bullying. The hive mind, or mob mentality as some detractors would call it, gave users a massive sense of diffusion of responsibility. The collective recognized this and enshrined it in one of the many Anonymous slogans:
None of us can be as cruel as all of us.
The speed with which Anonymous was able to mobilize to take down websites or just play pranks became notorious.
Tom Cruise triggers the push into hacktivism
In 2008, a gossip website
published a video of Tom Cruise praising the religion of Scientology. The Church responded to the video with a cease-and-desist letter. This letter, seen as censorship, raised the ire of the collective and the hive decided to expel the Church of Scientology from the internet. Anonymous launched Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks on the Church’s websites. DDoS attacks can be likened to an old fashioned sit-in where protesters blocked access to a building by sitting in the entryway. The same principle applies to DDoS attacks, only the protesters place bits of information in the way to block access to a website.
From this first highly-publicized operation, Anonymous gained momentum in the activist community. The collective became the last line of defense against anything the collective saw as an infringement of rights on the internet. In 2012, Anonymous was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine
The move to cause-oriented activism from just having fun and doing it for the “lulz” caused a rift in the collective, and that fracture still exists today.
Leaving the information superhighway and moving to the streets
Over the last few years, Anonymous has become more and more active in planning real-world operations, instead of those mainly based in cyberspace. Operations such as #Op HumanAngels
, an operation aimed at simply brightening a person’s day, demonstrate how far Anonymous has evolved from its days as the world’s most feared cyber-bullies.
This week, the Guy Fawkes mask has been actively engaging governments all over the world on topics ranging from ending NSA surveillance, to releasing imprisoned Anons or other political prisoners, to protection of the environment.
The shift in strategy of coming out of the dark recesses of cyberspace has lengthened the collective's reach and grown the organization. A quick search on Facebook or Twitter results in thousands of community pages affiliated with Anonymous. The growth has spurred support pages of all kinds, from pages that collect and post all of the Anonymous videos posted to YouTube to pages that simply celebrate the stylized art that has become synonymous with Anon advertising such as Anonymous Art of the Revolution
This new openness and ease of access has brought thousands of new Anons into the collective's hive mind, and brought the organization out of the shadows and turned Anonymous into a true pop-culture icon.
The structure and goals of Anonymous
The collective has maintained the same structure, or lack of structure, since its inception. There are no leaders, only individuals that propose and support various ideas. Without leadership and structure, the goals are always fluid. The leaderless movement has also left law enforcement baffled when trying to combat their activities. Just a few months ago, Austin P. Berglas, Assistant Special Agent in Charge with the FBI in New York referred
to Anonymous as “dismantled;” a statement protesters at the Million Mask March, which has been referred to as the largest Anonymous operation ever undertaken, mocked with signs.
Anonymous has no established long-term goals, only operations. Only those Anons that wish participate in any operation become involved. The simplest description is to picture a school bus. The bus is the proposed idea or operation. As the bus drives down the street, passengers hop on the bus, thereby supporting the idea or operation. They ride the bus until they feel it has gone far enough and get off at the next stop.
A typical example of the process can be found in #Op Maryville
where the Twitter account @youranoncentral
acted as a clearing house for information related to the alleged rape of a 13-year-old girl that went unprosecuted for unknown reasons. Once the operation was launched and the figurative bus started moving, Anons from all over the world began cooperating by gathering information, contacting media outlets, and ringing alarm bells; becoming passengers in the bus. Once the government appeared to concede to the demands of Anonymous, the passengers got off the bus and are presumably waiting for another bus to travel with.
As a participant in the collective, each individual is responsible for choosing what operations to support with their actions. Each individual is also responsible for the consequences of their actions.
The structure of the organization allows anyone to don the mask and use the collective to launch their operation. The checks and balances in place in the collective make certain that unsupported operations quickly fall by the roadside. If enough Anons don’t support the operation, it never gains momentum, and never leaves the planning phase.
In order to wear the mask, one simply needs to identify with the leaderless structure and hold the general belief that something is wrong and that just a few determined individuals can force real change in the world. The recruiting video below provides a glimpse at the collective’s membership requirements. Alternatively, one might stand with the old guard of Anonymous and just like the idea of pulling pranks for the "lulz."
The rank and file participants in Anonymous cross every ethnic background and span the age range from teens to elderly. A wheelchair-bound elderly masked woman at the Million Mask March in Washington, DC said
You know it’s bad when the grannies have to get out here and protest.
Shannon Watson relayed her experiences with becoming involved in the movement.
When I started Activate CT, and jumped into the world of activism with both feet I never imagined the way it would take over my life. Anonymous is one part of my life, yet it provides me with so much support and motivation, it is truly like having a huge family across the globe. We may fight, but what family doesn't? In the end, we all care and that is what it’s about! Helping to organize the Million Mask March was an amazing experience for me, I met some wonderful people. I walked away feeling like we succeed. Across the globe, eyes were opened, new people were active; information and truth were spread. That's what it was all about! This is one small step in one segment of the war we are fighting against the corruption over taking this planet from so many directions.
Anonymous and the law
Law enforcement and the collective have a very complex relationship; bitter enemies on many levels while working hand and glove on others. Anonymous routinely assists police in apprehending child molesters. They have also been responsible for bringing unbearable pressure down on police departments the collective sees as ignoring their duties. On the federal level, the FBI is locked in a constant struggle with the hacktivist side of the collective. At Anonymous-oriented protests, plain clothes law enforcement can often be found filming activists and gathering intelligence on participants. Federal informants are not uncommon.
Anonymous maintains a strong network
established to support those imprisoned for activities related to Anonymous operations through the freeanons.org
website. Jeremy Hammond has received an amazing outpouring of support from the collective in the form of a letter-writing campaign
asking for leniency at his sentencing.
The future of Anonymous
Anonymous is, by its very nature, unpredictable and volatile. The only thing that is certain is that the entity that exists in the minds of some as cyber-terrorists and in the minds of others as some sort of vigilante superhero is here to stay. John Fairhurst, organizer of the Washington, DC Million Mask March
, ended his speech with this statement
And to the powers that be: we the people stand here united on this common ground of fairness, justice, and freedom. We have come here not only with anger in our eyes, but love in our hearts. We the people will bestow upon you the mercy you have denied others. We will not stop. We will never give up. You should have expected us.
If there is anything the world has learned for certain about Anonymous over the years, it is that in the end, just as the rules of the internet
proclaim: Anonymous delivers.