by Parmy Olson
Hackers started at MIT in the ’70s and graduated to bringing down the Paypal website in 2010 when it nixed the Wikileaks account. The potential for disaster in today’s electronically dependent world should make it the number one priority to protect us from the pestiferous and maladjusted while reaping the benefits of the socially responsible ‘Anonymous Hacktivists.’
The websites we see every day, from Facebook to Twitter to PayPal, seem like stone pillars in the sturdy world that we call the Internet. We log in, do our business, we log out, and sometimes we even let them collect databases full of our private information. We rarely feel the need to disrupt these entities or anyone else on the web, but that’s partly because we are not Anonymous. This is the nebulous online network of people that for the last few years has been waging seemingly random attacks on all manner of targets, from the FBI, to Sony to PayPal, from a right-wing talk show host, to the Westboro Baptist Church, to a rival hacker who attacked a charitable organization.
They are the cowboys of the web, playing by their own rules and making the cyber landscape more testing for anyone who wants to set up real estate there. They are the hackers, the trolls, the young, digital natives of websites like 4chan and TinyChat, IRC networks like EFnet who want to keep the Internet free and open so they can continue to use it as both a playground and battlefield. They are not hackers, but a generation of people who have grown up spending hours each day interacting with the online world and who, unlike their parents, have no fear of technology. When they act under the name Anonymous, they can be motivated by the pursuit of justice. Other times they are simply having fun at someone else’s expense. As Anonymous, they have their own culture, language and community, and they are not going away.
Around 18 months ago I started exploring their world, first by speaking to a well-known organizer in the collective named Topiary, then by asking him to introduce me to others. I was curious to unlock some of the mysteries of how Anonymous worked, what drove its supporters and who they were. Over the course of a year I soaked up the experiences of the collective’s most notorious figureheads, stitching that together to write a book that told the story of an Internet phenomenon through their eyes. The final book, We Are Anonymous, lays out the story of a few people who became icons in a modern-day community, splintered away to form their own group, turned on each other, got arrested, spawned copycats, and left behind lingering questions about what would happen to the community they left behind. How would Anonymous evolve?
To answer that question we must first look back to how Anonymous came to be, and a crucial part of the answer lies in culture. Anonymous originally came from an image board called 4chan, which according to Topiary, spawned an online subculture that “made you start seeing things differently in life.” 4chan’s most popular discussion board has almost always been /b/, or its random board, and some time around 2005 Anonymous accidentally emerged from that board’s users. Anyone could post whatever they wanted on 4chan and /b/, but they were all forced to post under the same nickname: Anonymous. Users held discussions at a rapid fire pace, sharing thousands of images of movies, cats, home-made Rage Comics and, naturally, porn and gore. This was a place of anarchy, without scruples, where users indiscriminately called each other “fags,” swore and said offensive things as often as possible. If someone posted a photo of a bus crash involving children they would laugh. Partly this was to weed out new users and keep the community underground. Partly it was because they could. One of the tag lines of Anonymous on 4chan was “No one is as cruel as all of us.” Anonymity gave users the freedom to be as depraved as they wanted on 4chan’s random board, to share their strangest sexual proclivities and be honest about what they truly thought, and to shape /b/’s very direction. For many, /b/ became a place of unfettered freedom, acceptance and creativity.
The image board became so dynamic that users started collaborating on “raids,” eventually tagging them with an ostentatious message: “We are Anonymous. We do not forgive, we do not forget. Expect us.” This was how the name “Anonymous” came about, as groups of anonymous users from /b/ and other image boards, sometimes a handful, sometimes dozens, sometimes as just one, would rush to disrupt a target that they either felt like bullying or who they felt deserved justice. It could be the ex-girlfriend of a /b/ user, or a rival website like 9gag or Ebaum’s World, or it could have been a simple prank. In 2008, someone from what is believed to have been /b/ wrote on the discussion board of Oprah Winfrey’s website during a show about pedophilia, tricking her into reading out the message on air after she believed it had come from someone in a known pedophile network. “It says this,” she said, pointing her finger upwards. “He doesn’t forgive. He does not forget. His group has over 9,000 penises, and they’re all raping children… So. I want you to know they’re organized!” Oprah had unwittingly read out Anonymous’ tagline, and one of their inside jokes, the meme “over 9,000.” Users considered it a moment of perfect lulz – a derivation of LOL (laugh out loud) which refers to fun had at someone else’s expense, usually through online exploits.
In times like these users like William, an interviewee in my book who is also a hardcore /b/ user, would feel a rush of excitement, sometimes euphoria, at having caused a stir. And there were no leaders to hog the limelight. On /b/ there could never be a hint of gender or race, never mind names. Identifying features were taboo, and avoiding them in the burgeoning community of Anonymous maintained a sense of collectiveness.
But individual identities started breaching the wider mask as users started pining for raids that had a moral purpose. These were the so-called hacktivists, and their efforts began in earnest in 2008 when Anonymous supporters started transferring their discussions from 4chan to Internet Relay Chat (IRC). Here, they could discuss raids in real-time and under nicknames, and here also was some semblance of hierarchy: named chat rooms – some public and some private – and chat operators with the power to kick people out of them. The wider embracing of IRC coincided with the leak of a controversial video of Tom Cruise discussing Scientology in 2008. When the Church of Scientology tried to suppress the video, supporters of Anonymous started fighting back, and it became a wildly popular cause. Taking down Scientology’s website and protesting outside their buildings was at first funny, then supporters started finding new reasons to attack the church, namely corruption. As Anonymous waged a war on Scientology, its community of what used to be bored, amoral /b/ users was evolving from the Internet’s anti-heroes to its superheroes.
The following years would thus see a split between the anarchists of /b/ who “trolled” people for fun, and the hacktivists who collaborated on IRC chat rooms to hit targets for justice, while retaining the increasingly powerful name “Anonymous.” The split exists to this day, with each side rather embarrassed of the other. But the hacktivists seem to be winning out, or at least, gaining more attention from the press. In December 2010, a few IRC operators who had created a chat network for Anonymous made a snap decision to attack PayPal after the e-payment provider nixed its online funding services for WikiLeaks. The story of “Cable Gate” and Julian Assange had struck a nerve with Anonymous’ constituents, enough for thousands of them to pile into the designated chat rooms and ask how they could help. The IRC operators set links telling thousands of them to download a web tool that would let them take part in a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack on PayPal. Behind the scenes, though, the chat operators were hitting PayPal in their own way. They had invited two guys with botnets into their private chat channel. A botnet is a network of thousands of infected or “zombie” computers that can be called up at will to carry out commands, such as spamming a website. As roughly 5,000 Anonymous supporters hit PayPal with a small, free web tool, the botnet controllers quietly hit the site too, with many times the firepower. The major site was temporarily shunted offline, and Topiary announced the attack in a press release, stating that the Anonymous “hive” had shown its power.
This was, of course, half the story. Most of the public, press and many Anonymous supporters were unaware of the botnet controllers, or of the fact that even 5,000 of them using the designated web tool had not really caused PayPal to go offline. What does this tell us about Anonymous? That its biggest strengths were in manipulation, and working in small groups. Media reports in December 2010 ran with the story that a large, mysterious organization of “hackers” had brought PayPal offline, when this was far from the reality. Anonymous was not hackers, they were avid internet users who regularly visited IRC networks or image boards like 4chan. They were not particularly large, since the main Anonymous chat networks typically had a few hundred visitors everyday. The 5,000 or so volunteers who hit PayPal with an ineffective web tool only stuck around for a day or two. And they were not an organization: Anonymous was a very loose network of individuals and small, ever-shifting groups.
But supporters of Anonymous rarely corrected these public notions – why would anyone coming from a subculture of pranks and vigilantism, amend assumptions of their power and mystique? On Twitter, in press releases, in interviews with journalists, supporters of Anonymous would often exaggerate the collective’s power and danger, exploiting the public’s tendency to fear what they did not know. And what better place to create a frightening, mysterious phenomenon than the Internet, that fast-paced place landscape already teeming with half-truths and exaggerated notions that older generations and established institutions still struggle to wrap their heads around.
It wasn’t easy for people deep inside Anonymous though. Many struggled to stay in control and in touch with reality. Theirs was a paranoid, frenetic world, filled with gossip and backbiting, not to mention intense camaraderie and euphoria that accompanied every raid. A few months after the PayPal attacks, one particular group of six, dedicated organizers in Anonymous got together to create a splinter group called LulzSec, aiming to create a stir for Anonymous and become notorious themselves. Over the summer of 2011, they started attacking websites of high-profile organizations, from PBS, to Sony to FOX. In some ways, they were a culmination of everything Anonymous was seeking to be – prankish, anarchic anti-heroes who occasionally sought justice where it was needed, but were ultimately seduced by the allure of fame. With no clear sense of direction, LulzSec soon spun out of control. Its members were motivated by the short-term need to create bigger and bigger stirs, and eventually most of them were arrested and charged. The book We Are Anonymous charts the dramatic highs and lows of their 50-day hacking spree, and reveals how manipulation came into play again – not just of the public, but members of the group towards one another. Topiary ended up becoming just one of many other young men to get swept up in something he did not understand, and in a world that established institutions like the police still don’t understand.
Today, Topiary has pleaded guilty to two charges of hacking, while police have revealed that his real name is Jake Davis, a relatively shy, 19-year-old man from the remote Shetland Islands, just above Scotland. Eighteen months ago, while he sat alone in a small wooden house, living off the meagre earnings of a part time job and government welfare, Topiary had been writing press releases, manning official Anonymous Twitter accounts, distributing digital posters and telling journalists from around the world about Anonymous. He was in the thick of a revolution in digital activism, before going on to create LulzSec, a group of free agents who would take that activism to the next level of notoriety. Today he is faced with the harsh light of a court room and a likely prison sentence.
Anonymous is a reactive phenomenon, so it is difficult to determine where it will go next. It is possible that the days of the most outlandish online disruption, as seen against Scientology, PayPal, and by the guys behind LulzSec, are over now that a range of arrests have happened. Then again, it only takes a handful of people and optimum conditions for Anonymous to cause a stir again. In the grand scheme of things, we may look back on Anonymous as being an extreme road bump on humanity’s path to what the author Don Tapscott has called a “networked age.” Tapscott, who first spoke of the “digital divide” and net generation, sees our old industrial-age institutions being pulled, kicking and screaming from an era of hierarchies, assembly lines and compartmentalised information, into one of collaboration, sharing, transparency and empowerment. For all the disruption, chaos and paranoia, these “new” features can be found throughout the online world of Anonymous. It means their actions and emergence point not only to a change in how people protest, but in how people organize themselves, and how a new generation of online users is making their mark on the world: collectively, creatively and online.