How Anonymous broke its own rules to break free
Before the summer of 2011, Anonymous was an amorphous collective of hackers and pranksters ready to pour cold water on members' nascent political aspirations. By 2012, a growing antiauthority, anticensorship, anti-surveillance sentiment asserted itself, and everything changed.
Your feelings mean nothing to us. … We have no culture, we have no laws, written or otherwise. … We do not sleep, we do not eat and we do not feel remorse. We will tear you apart from outside and in, we have all the time in the world.—Anonymous
Before the summer of 2011, Anonymous was an amorphous collective of hackers and pranksters born in a meme pool. Its operations were still largely unexpected and isolated; it was difficult for the media to wrap a narrative around them. There was no hero, not even an antihero.
By 2012, all of that had changed. Political aspirations, once mocked, came to represent a growing antiauthority, anticensorship, anti-surveillance sentiment. An Anonymous splinter group, LulzSec, captivated the media with a series of sometimes harmless but always high-profile attacks. And it wasn't the attacks that seemed to generate the most press attention; it was the swaggering Twitter feeds of LulzSec's members.
Up until that point, the lack of a protagonist, or even an official spokesperson, made it difficult for the media to explain even what Anonymous is to an audience that wants to hear of criminal organizations with Al Capone–like masterminds. It also ramps up the risk of embarrassment, since anyone claiming to be Anonymous can say whatever he or she wants about the group's character and motives. If the press runs with it, and it turns out to be a troll, the reporters look infinitely foolish.
With LulzSec members broadcasting a daily salvo of tweets, growing cockier as their list of victims expanded, the media finally found its foothold. These guys on Twitter, some of whom may not have had too much to do with actual hacking operations, gave the press a verifiable source. They could throw a caveat up on every story, saying, "We're not sure if this guy's the real deal, but he's the best we've got," and issue the occasional redaction if their source turned out to be a goof.
Eventually, even my Luddite parents had heard about the group on the nightly news.
In the fall of 2011, Anonymous announced an unofficial partnership with several like-minded organizations, most notably Adbusters magazine, who'd launched a protest called Occupy Wall Street. The call to action was simple, as presented in one YouTube video:
On September 17th, Anonymous will flood into Lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades, and occupy Wall Street for a few months. Once there, we shall incessantly repeat one simple demand in a plurality of voices: We want freedom. This is a nonviolent protest. We do not encourage violence in any way. The abuse and corruption of corporations, banks, and government ends here. Join us. We are anonymous. We are legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Wall Street, expect us.
In Lower Manhattan that morning, more than a hundred policemen barricaded off Wall Street's bronze bull. Several hundred people gathered at a nearby square, the heart of the protest. Protestors passed around a megaphone and bellowed progressive talking points—everything from animal rights to immigration reform to an audit of the Federal Reserve.
To my surprise, I saw only a half dozen Guy Fawkes masks, the calling card of Anonymous. But as I walked through the crowds I noticed that a wide semicircle of cameras, microphones, and tired cameramen surrounded each person wearing a mask. Meanwhile, the mass of the protesters were ignored by the media.
The narrative of Anonymous as mysterious band of elite cyber-terrorists, modern-day Robin Hoods bringing down multinational corporations, plays well on TV. The press has reinforced this perception among the public. Even WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange once sported the mask while demonstrating outside of London's St. Paul's Cathedral. Anonymous' greatest hack is of the press itself, manipulating the media cycle by performing outrageous stunts.
But this doesn't explain why the Anonymous story resonates so strongly with the average news viewer. The rise of Anonymous represents a strange new presence on the world stage. Unshackled by technology, Anonymous seems omnipresent, striking with precision, sometimes to make a political statement, sometimes just for fun. The government and corporate America eyes them with the same fear, disdain and derision that the '60s counterculture received. Just when we think we've figured them out, they morph into something else.
The rise of Anonymous signifies a progression in activism brought about by technology, wherein leaders are not needed and egotists are despised—at least on paper. Members of Anon take pains to avoid the emergence of recognizable figureheads, and, as a result, it has managed to stay alive. Members can wear the mask (real or figurative) today and take it off tomorrow, and they can use it to protest economic disparities in New York or criminal drug cartels in Mexico.
For many, the very idea of anonymity evokes fears of online harassment and identity theft. We know people are entitled to say nasty things about us, but we shake our heads anxiously when, say, a friend's bank accounts is looted by someone who simply got access to her e-mail. We know it could happen to us. If Anon can bring down the CIA's website, what can we possibly do to protect ourselves?
We are experiencing an evolution of human social behavior, but it remains to be seen if the Age of Anonymous will be recollected as an awkward technological adolescence or as the inevitable birth of world where people are free to try on new identities wherever they go. Anonymous is just one manifestation of anonymity, but it represents a global recognition of its value; and a growing unease with the erosion of personal identity ownership.
Anonymous can be whatever you want it to be, and the social power of your idea of "true Anonymous" lies in that idea's viral potential. In fact, the "idea" of Anonymous as a social activist group is just one particularly powerful iteration of this mysterious, ever-changing collective. Before 2007, they weren't in it to achieve social reform—they were in it for the lulz.
The term "Trolling" comes from the lexicon of fishing. It refers to dragging a baited hook or lure from a moving boat in order to entice gullible fish. Sometimes anonymous online trolling is harmless, such as when it gleefully manipulates the press into broadcasting phallic imagery (as in a notorious Oprah episode). Other times it tends toward the malicious—one favorite pastime deals with seeking out relatives of deceased teenagers and harassing them via social media.
But trolling has a social purpose: it's a way for members of internet forums to lightheartedly embarrass noobs who'd behave foolishly, bringing them into line. It's a way to defuse flaming—hostile communications; clever trolls remind impassioned users that it's best not to take things too seriously. It's just the Internet, after all.
In 1994, John Seabrook gave an account of his first experience with flaming in the New Yorker:
No one had ever said something like this to me before, and no one could have said this to me before: in any other medium, these words would be, literally, unspeakable. The guy couldn't have said this to me on the phone, because I would have hung up and not answered if the phone rang again, and he couldn't have said it to my face, because I wouldn't have let him finish. If this had happened to me in the street, I could have used my status as a physically large male to threaten the person, but in the on-line world my size didn't matter. ... My flame marked the end of my honeymoon with on-line communication. It made me see clearly that the lack of social barriers is also what is appalling about the net. The same anonymity that allows the twelve-year-old access to the professor allows a pedophile access to the twelve-year-old. The same lack of inhibitions that allows a woman to speak up in on-line meetings allows a man to ask the woman whether she's wearing any underwear. The same safe distance that allows you to unburden yourself of your true feelings allowed this guy to call me a toadying dipshit scumbag. A toadying dipshit scumbag!
Seabrook's breathless reaction to a random insult is now hilariously quaint, a relic of the time when the Internet was only used by university professors, military researchers and students. The discourse was usually intelligent and congenial. This changed with each passing year: especially the "Eternal September" of '93, when America Online first gave its users free access to Usenet.
Soon, the social corners of the Internet became populated by people outside of traditionally geeky circles. Kids are on the Internet, and so are their moms, tut-tutting at the puerile discourse found there. Some network natives felt that they'd lost something special.
But not everyone was willing to let the web lose its fun, frontier-like character.
A decade after Seabrook's essay, Chris 'moot' Poole--then 15 years old--created 4chan. An image board where users could discuss and share their favorite bits of Japanese pop culture, its /b/ board became a clearinghouse for stomach-turning imagery. Adding to the attraction was 4chan's default anonymity and ephemerality, which encourages users to post content that they might not were even pseudonyms attached. Because 4chan's default name field was "anonymous," the community's users began referring to each other as "Anon." When 4chan trolls would reach out beyond their insular subculture, they began to call themselves "Anonymous," collectively.
Naturally, those with mischievous inclinations found it a fitting home, and it became a game to see how hard one could work over others and outdo one anothers' work.
Anonymous's first known trolls took place in the world of online gaming, where they would bring grief to self-serious players. For instance, on Habbo Hotel, a global social networking site for teenagers, an early iteration of Anonymous called the Patriotic Nigras staged a mock suicide cult. In 2006, the Great Habbo Raid saw hundreds of Anons create an identical avatar that they would use to block entrances, disrupt conversations, and flood chat rooms with nonsense.
Early anons shocked gamers in persistent virtual world Second Life by building an entire town populated by the mutilated corpses of furry avatars. Cries of indignation and complaints to moderators delighted the trolls and only encouraged further shenanigans. Journalist Julian Dibbell quoted a mischievous EVE Online player who crystallized the modus operandi of the modern troll: "The way that you win in EVE is you basically make life so miserable for someone else that they actually quit the game and don't come back."
By 2006, anons wrought havoc off-line as well, using 4chan's boards to mobilize the troops for their raids. A few even called in bomb threats and were subsequently arrested. How-to guides on harassment methods were crafted, drawing from the rich but dubious literary heritage of The Anarchist Cookbook; the "Ruin Life Tactics" doc details some of the most common Web-based pranks, from pizza to personal ads.
A dead simple example:
Report the guy to the police as an anonymous tip for suspicion of selling drugs. Result:
Usually such calls to action are ignored, but every so often an effort picks up steam.
Such was the case with Parry Aftab, a self-described Internet safety expert and lawyer who was routinely trotted out on Good Morning America and similar morning shows every time a case of cyber-bullying caught the attention of TV producers. In July 2011, her home was swarmed by a SWAT team responding to a call they thought had come from inside her home. The caller told the police he was armed and had two hostages inside Aftab's home. When the police arrived, they shot tear gas inside Aftab's windows, only to find her cat. The prankster had used VoIP technology to mask his identity and remains unknown.
I found myself on the receiving end of some low-level trolling after publishing a portrayal of the group. Though my book was rather kind, the first two Rules of the Internet are (1) Don't talk about /b/, and (2) Don't talk about /b/. By explaining Anonymous to a mainstream audience, I had broken these cherished laws.
The result: thirty pizzas in one night, including a $90 pie with extra of every available topping, and a flood of unwanted magazine subscriptions. Most hilariously, my middle-aged aunt received a rather saucy message from one "Cole Stryker", asking her to meet me for an illicit midnight rendezvous. Vague death threats trickled in.
For the most part I was unfazed: extreme trolls rely heavily on the fear and ignorance of their victims. It's not very fun to antagonize someone who's already aware of the usual tricks, has prepared his friends and family in advance, and has taken measures to shore up his data security. But it's still unsettling that a faceless psychopath was able to obtain my home address within minutes.
"For Great Justice!"
Some Anons, however, use their collective power for good, applying a unique brand of vigilante justice to evildoers. They've used their collaborative sleuthing to expose animal abusers and to identify child pornographers to authorities. Dateline NBC's To Catch a Predator segment featured tech-savvy detectives luring pedophiles by posing as children online; Anonymous uses the same tactics, leading to arrests.
In October 2011, Anonymous became aware of a massive child porn ring made up of more than forty websites. They soon launched Operation Darknet to bring expose its operators, 100GB of child porn and the details of 1,569 customers. But that wasn't enough. Tired of waiting around for the police to act on the leak, enterprising Anons created a honeypot to collect data on users—a common trick used by researchers, law enforcement and spammers alike.
In this case, the honeypot was disguised as an update to Tor, the software system that allows internet users to remain anonymous—and therefore popular among those with an eye for illegal material. The product of a twenty-four-hour coding marathon, the ingenious ploy was devised after Anons, hanging out in a chat room used by Tor developers, caught wind of a legitimate Tor update being prepared for release.
Typically, Tor users' traffic is routed through a series of nodes, making it virtually impossible to trace the source of the traffic. But Anonymous's trap sent users through the honeypot, enabling them to log the IP addresses of 190 visitors to the network. Leaked publicly, the addresses led social media profiles and even real names.
The collective had realized it had the power to make lasting social change, something to be proud of rather than random pranks. But even after graduating from indiscriminate attacks against innocent bystanders to acts of Internet vigilantism aimed at abusers and criminals, Anon remained under the radar.
It was only when Anon went political and transcended the boundaries of the Web—and broke its own rules—that the revolution was improvised.
An expanded version of this article can be found in Hacking the Future, Cole's forthcoming book about the nature of anonymity as a social construct
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