I've seen a lot of posts about Anonymous lately. The hacktivist group has entered the mainstream through their organizing and support of Occupy Wall Street protests, and hacking initiatives against companies like Stratfor and PayPal. Anonymous has been portrayed in the media as youthful, impulsive, tech savvy, and generally noble in intent, if not controversial in action. However, these descriptors of the famed "internet hate machine" are only of half the story. There is another side of Anonymous with a history riddled with racism, homophobia, terrorism, and pedophilia.
Anonymous has been around for quite some time. Likely you saw their work without even knowing it. From Sarah Palin's stolen e-mails and internet memes such as Lolcats, Pedobear, and barrel rolls to the incorporation of phrases like "fail" and "epic win" into common vernacular, their impact on our culture has been substantial, yet, it is only recently that their existence has become common knowledge.
The group takes its name from image board websites such as 4chan (the most popular), 7chan, and others, where there is no registration/login procedure. An image board is like a message board, but the discussion starts when a user posts an image with some accompanying text. Posters are tagged as “anonymous” if they don't supply a name.
Prior to 2008, you only knew about the chan sites and the group Anonymous if someone on the inside told you. The complete anonymity of posters fosters a frontier-like anarchy on the internet. While image boards host topics such as video games, cars, Japanese anime, and philosophy, common chan site posts and sections often include blood/gore, child porn/jailbait, and racism/homophobia. Sites such as 12chan (no longer online) were known for hosting terrabytes worth of childporn. Jailbait is a common image thread on most chan sites, hosting suggestive pictures of high school girls, some of which are posted by the girls themselves for attention. The sites are gay-friendly since, in-line with their culture, nothing is wrong or taboo, but variants of the word "faggot" are the most common form of insult used between posters. Racism is everywhere, in porn and also in the posts where many users use racial slurs and stereotypes as insults, or just to be shocking.
There is no “group” so to speak. People in Anonymous are instead bound by a unique internet culture and dialect generated from users within these chan sites. Words like "epic" and "fail" are words that have snaked their way into common speech in the years after Anonymous and their main website "4chan" went mainstream, while other more ambiguous or offensive words such as "beekeeper," an insult used when no other words are sufficient, and "faggotry," generally meaning any sort of excessively annoying behavior, have remained in obscurity.
Using the chan sites and related MIRC channels, groups of people, usually in their teens, use their sophisticated computing skills "for lulz (laughs).” The more popular ideas become organized projects, called "raids.” Participants join in independently as word about the raid spreads.
The first major raid in my memory was on the Habbo Hotel game in 2006/07. Hundreds of Anons, making identical characters, a black man in a suit with an afro and shades on, logged on to the same server and harassed other users, mostly in the 11-14 age range, with verbal assaults, profanity, and swastikas.
Another notable event was a simultaneous bomb threat by an Anon to eight sports stadiums across the country. It was a challenge contrived on the boards to scare as many people as possible.
In the days of MySpace, a common occurrence was using hacking skills to engage in cyber-bullying. An Anon would post the MySpace of a person he didn't like and they would hack his profile, filling it with taboo pornographic images. The harassment extended to the real world, where they would leave threatening voicemails and send “black faxes” to the target's homes. One instance was reported on KTTV, a Fox affiliate in California, but the occurrences of cyber-bullying were common.
Their first foray into activism was the raid on Hal Turner's (a white supremacist and Holocaust denier) radio show. After bandwidth attacks and constant prank calls to the show, Turner went off the air.
My only raid with Anonymous was Project Chanology, a raid on the Church of Scientology in response to their censoring the Tom Cruise video on YouTube. This was also the first appearance of the Guy Fawkes mask, now a hacktivist symbol, which we used to hide our identities from the church, who was notorious for taping, identifying, and then litigating critics. As they are now, we were then dumb kids who thought we were important, making grandiose statements, such as our motto, "We are Legion, We do not forgive, We do not forget, Expect us."
After that raid, the next project was posting flashing images in the forums of the epilepsy foundation. Anonymous faded into the background, resurfacing in the mainstream to defend Wikileaks. They have been active and in the media ever since, organizing OWS protests, attacking websites of groups involved in internet censorship, releasing personal data of people they don't like, such as Lt. Jon Pike, the pepper spraying police officer from UC Davis, and most recently, releasing 75,000 credit card numbers of innocent people obtained from hacking Stratfor.
They are now embarking on what they've named Project Mayhem. The goal is to protest outside prisons, target law enforcement agencies, corporations, government — all the usual suspects of an anarchist's ire — culminating in a dump of personal data and secrets on the date of the Mayan Apocalypse.
Anons are young, impulsive, and naive with computer talents that give them far more power than they are responsible enough to wield. Despite their “hacktivism” tag, they still make the same childish, grand statements of purpose that sounded cool when I was younger. Most of them are proud to be part of something big, even though most don't know what it is.
So when we talk about Anonymous and the great things they do, it's important to realize that these people fight “the man” simply because it’s the status quo. While the media lauds them for being everything that is right with the internet, and they are, they are also everything that is wrong with it. They are a microcosm of anarchy, with no morals, empathy, or agenda. And, while they are the tip of the spear for the people who wish to protect the uncensored internet, like any good double-edged weapon, they are equally a destabilizing force that needs to be regarded cautiously.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons