“Live unknown,” says Epicurus, suggesting one abandon politics, power, and social life to achieve peace of mind. Online, however, it’s become much easier to be involved in all of those things while still living unknown—anonymously. The loose group that goes under the umbrella name Anonymous has made that its explicit goal, with shifting, unpredictable results.
The first association most people have with Anonymous is the Guy Fawkes mask that serves as its unofficial logo—that is, Anonymous is fundamentally about being, well, anonymous. What the collective does beyond that can be difficult to sum up, since it has been in constant flux since its creation. Its members are diverse in age, race, and sexual orientation, but predominantly male. They say they support civil liberties, the rights of the oppressed against the powerful, and the right to dissent. They are capable of noble (if illegal) gestures, like hacking the Westboro Baptist Church and taking down wretched revenge porn king Hunter Moore’s wretched revenge porn site, but also more dubious actions like mass doxings of police officers. Their hacktivism has frequently perplexed the media, generating both fascination and outrage. Journalist Adrian Chen furiously rebuked them Thursday in the Nation, declaring them to be posers wearing the clothes of techno-liberation while ineptly sabotaging the progressive causes they claim to support. Anonymous is so vague and ill-defined that it can be all of these things, and you’d need to have future vision and God’s calculator to figure out whether the net is positive or negative. But it is too simple and too easy to condemn Anonymous outright.
Anonymous’ amorphous nature may be confounding, but it also allows the collective to adapt, evolve, and discard failed strategies with minimum mess. While it may have particular, pseudonymous voices on Twitter like @YourAnonNews and @AnonyOps, none of them ever claims to be central or essential to the movement. In the words of @YourAnonCentral, speaking to journalist Max Freeman, Anonymous is “an ideology in its own way that manifests itself as a group.” But how does that “group” work? Despite its seemingly formless organization, Anonymous does maintain a loose consistency.
Anthropologist Gabriella Coleman has been more or less embedded with Anonymous since 2008, about the time the group made its first concerted action by mounting an aggressive campaign against the Church of Scientology (“Project Chanology”). Her new book Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy (which Chen reviews in his Nation piece) is a fascinating and sometimes jaw-dropping account of the surreal evolution of the movement, climaxing with the fallout of the devastating revelation that one of Anonymous’ more self-promoting members, Hector “Sabu” Monsegur of splinter group Lulzsec, had been secretly turned by the FBI and was working as an informant.
In Coleman’s words, “Anonymous follows a spirit of humorous deviance, works though diverse technical bodies (such as IRC), is built on an anti-celebrity ethic, and intervenes politically in astoundingly rich and varied ways.” Anonymous was founded on in the spirit of that deviance, which it terms “lulz,” echoing Saul Alinsky’s rule that “A good tactic is one your people enjoy.” The Encyclopedia Dramatica page for “lulz” quotes Lucretius on the pleasures of watching a pot boil from safety. Here’s my preferred translation of the passage, by Ronald Melville:
A joy it is, when the strong winds of storm
Stir up the waters of a mighty sea,
To watch from shore the troubles of another
The search for lulz takes many different forms, some productive and some malignant. Coleman told me that “Anonymous has a real susceptibility to mutation.” From today’s vantage, the origins of Anonymous on imageboards like the notorious 4chan (whose /b/ board has been called “the asshole of the Internet”) looks unlikely and perverse. The idea of Anonymous had been around since at least 2003, resulting in disorganized “raids” against the sites of people like white nationalist Hal Turner. At its worst, early Anonymous action took the form of puerile antics like logging onto Finnish Second Life clone Habbo Hotel and forming swastikas to block people’s paths. But in 2008, after the Church of Scientology attempted to remove from the Web all instances of an infamous Tom Cruise video through copyright violation claims and other means, enough Anonymous denizens felt sufficiently offended to organize a long-term campaign against Scientology, more or less moving off of the chaotic chans and onto IRC channels. Project Chanology was the first move into a more sophisticated “hacktivism” that more or less left the chans behind. This shift, according to Coleman, was necessary for real organization. Imageboards like 4chan offer total ephemeral anonymity, making it difficult to verify even if multiple posts are by the same person. With the move onto IRC, users could remain anonymous while using consistent pseudonymous handles.
Two ongoing debates characterize Anonymous: first, the extent to which illegal tactics like hacking and doxing should be used in service of a cause; and second, the degree to which members can or should be identified, even pseudonymously. Over the course of Chanology, some Anonymous members came to renounce illegal tactics in favor of legal organized protests, leading in turn to the creation of splinter groups like Lulzsec. Lulzsec and Anonymous-affiliated operations like AntiSec aggressively embraced “black hat” tactics. Lulzsec hacked Sony and compromised as many as a million user accounts. After Aaron Barr, the CEO of security contractor HBGary, bragged that he was going to take down Anonymous (“As 1337 as these guys are supposed to be they don't get it. I have pwned them!”), Anonymous hacked the company with some clever social engineering, tricking an HBGary systems administrator into handing over a user’s password and username. In the wake of the 2012 Anonymous arrests made with Sabu’s assistance, the group has, according to Coleman, retreated from such aggressive tactics, preferring to stay within the shadows but closer to legality, working in association with protest groups like Occupy Wall Street. Coleman told me that recently, more aggressive hacking operations have been taking place in Latin American countries in particular, where law enforcement is less savvy. The Associated Press’ Frank Bajak chronicled how Anonymous offshoot LulzSecPeru hacked into Peruvian government computers and obtained emails showing collusion between the government and corporate interests.
Likewise, Anonymous attempts to dissuade any individual personality from becoming too prominent, even pseudonymously. While Anonymous relies on a trust network to ensure that members are reliable, too much focus on reputation-building can lead to unwanted arrogance and competition. Christopher Doyon, aka Commander X, received in-depth coverage in the New Yorker and Ars Technica, leading him to be deemed a “namefag,” or someone out for too much individual fame. In cases like the screw-up of OpFerguson—in which an impulsive member, TheAnonMessage, unilaterally released the name of Michael Brown’s shooter only to discover that it was the wrong name—the Anonymous community will ostracize the offender, communicating in no uncertain terms that he or she is not to act under the Anonymous banner.(Andrea Peterson’s coverage of Anonymous’ actions in Ferguson has been excellent.)
In light of both Anonymous’ less savory ops and trollfests like Gamergate, there’s recently been a backlash against online anonymity from supposedly progressive voices like e-celeb Wil Wheaton, who says he only supports “positive anonymity,” which is a bit like only supporting positive free speech—it’s logically impossible.
Creative deviance unfortunately means taking some bad with the good. When Chen complains that Anonymous has done serious harm, Anon member @AnonyOps agrees. “There are plenty of people who call themselves anon who target the oppressed,” he tells me. “And it’s fucked up.” The question, as ever, is whether the good justifies the bad. Chen complains about Anonymous’ many failings, but forgets that literally every countercultural movement ever, productive or destructive, has begun in infamy and derision, and that contemporary judgments of them are always superseded by historical ones.
“Anon is just chaotic,” @AnonyOps says. “Sometimes chaotic good, sometimes chaotic bad. It’s hard to know how to put it to the scales. Sometimes I’m fighting against anon just as much as the injustices in the world, just to help make sure we stay on point and with the right message.”
Chen conflates Anon’s idealistic anarchists and its apolitical trolls, which is like lumping together Dwight Eisenhower and Ted Cruz. He bemoans Anonymous as “Silicon Valley’s shock troops,” media-seeking corporate pawns devoid of integrity. I find it hard to reconcile Chen’s support of Occupy Wall Street with his full-throated condemnation of Anonymous, when the two clearly bleed into one another. (Witness the Million Mask March last week.) Whether Anonymous is getting better or worse, it is certainly growing, ballooning over the last few years by the accounting of Coleman and its members. Anonymous has become something society will have to deal with. We can’t just wish it away.
The ebb and flow of Anonymous’ history, however, shows it experimenting with exactly what that most “positive” form of anonymity could be, with both successes and fiascos (by its own accounting) along the way. It will undoubtedly continue to search.