Anonymous, the Hactivists

Brigham Larson, Reporter

In just the past two years, the Earth has experienced a myriad of historical, Earth-shaking events that have sent journalists scrambling and citizens restlessly doomscrolling; constantly attempting to stay on top of the flow of news. Lately, the event that has captured the most attention is the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, which was recently subject to a full-scale invasion by Russian forces.

Many across the globe have changed their profile pictures, Twitter bios, and in other ways joined in solidarity with the people of Ukraine. But these actions were not enough for some people who felt that Vladimir Putin and his enablers had to pay for the endless damage he is inflicting on an innocent country.

Enter Anonymous, a collective of protesting hackers (or “hacktivists”), which declared cyberwar on Putin and his forces via numerous videos and messages sent out through platforms such as Twitter and YouTube. Shortly thereafter, members of the collective brought down Russian state websites using distributed denial-of-service attacks (AKA DDoS, which is when a server is overloaded with bot traffic until it shuts down). Other hackers then proceeded to interrupt the signal of state-owned TV networks in Russia to broadcast uncensored news coverage of the war and play Ukrainian music.

Anonymous, however, is not a group, or, as a 2015 video on how to become Anonymous states, even a movement or party. The figure in the video, who is obscured by a Guy Fawkes mask, states “All we are is people who travel a short distance together — much like commuters who meet in a bus or tram: For a brief period of time we have the same route, share a common goal, purpose or dislike. And on this journey together, we may well change the world.”

The cyberattack (which, as of this writing, is still ongoing) is the latest installment of the collective’s history of highly impactful, brutal, and sometimes downright merciless computer-focused activism. Their particular brand of protest dates back to at least 2008, though an early version of Anonymous has existed since at least 2003 on one of the darkest corners of the web.

4chan’s /b/ message board is well-known on the Internet for all of the wrong reasons. Not only is it entirely devoted to the posting of unclassifiable, random content, it has essentially zero rules for posting or moderation, meaning that objectionable images, as well as hate speech and violent threats are fairly common occurrences. As long as it doesn’t violate US law it is 100% allowed to be uploaded. It has been designated by many mainstream news publications as “the worst place on the Internet.” And on this anarchic, lawless corner of the net, Anonymous was born.

All posts on /b/, unless registered by the user, are posted completely anonymously. As such, without fear of being caught, many users of the board began utilizing it to organize elaborate online pranks and raids, which became the focus of the beta version of Anonymous that had begun to open its digital eyes. An early example of one of these pranks came in 2006, when large numbers of Anonymous members, or “Anons,” raided the online children’s game Habbo Hotel, blocking access to areas of the game and forming obscene symbols with their avatars. Around this point, Fox had aired a report on Anonymous, exaggerating their relatively harmless online practical jokes into claims that they were “hackers on steroids” and even “domestic terrorists.”

The pranks and memes continued for several years, growing more and more elaborate each time, until Anonymous users turned their sights on the ultimate prank, a trolling opportunity to get revenge on an organization that had offended many Anon’s staunch support of freedom of speech: the Church of Scientology.

In 2008, a gossip blog called Gawker uploaded a video of actor Tom Cruise appearing in a promotional video intended for internal Church use only, which was called odd and even off-putting by some sources. In response, the Church issued a cease-and-desist letter to Gawker, claiming it had violated their copyright in uploading the video. To some it appeared that the Church was attempting to censor the strange video.

The response from the Anonymous community was unlike anything the collective had accomplished before. Years of online pranks had taught some Anons how to accomplish certain hacking tricks, particularly DDoS-ing servers and overloading printer traffic and ink cartridges with black faxes, but there were no childish pranks or memes involved. Massive protests were held outside Scientology’s headquarters, with hundreds of people donning the iconic symbol of Anonymous, theGuy Fawkes mask, to symbolize their fight. Websites were taken offline. Officials at the Church were scrambling to resolve the havoc. And a group originally designed solely to provide “lulz” to its members had become a legitimate force in protesting.

Anonymous would continue down the route of hacktivism in protesting from that point on. Elaborate, coordinated cyberattacks were carried out on anyone that any member of the collective perceived as an enemy to themselves and the standards that they and the collective stand for. Methods ranged from releasing the personal information of forces they viewed as tyrannical to ordering hundreds of pizzas to be delivered to their enemy’s homes. Targets included everyone from foreign political leaders to the Sony Corporation to a teenager running an anti-profanity website.

Around this time, an offshoot group known as LulzSec came about, which utilized the more complex hacking techniques utilized in recent years by Anonymous in the context of providing laughter, or “lulz,” much like the version of the group that arose on 4chan in the early 2000s. For exactly 50 days, LulzSec carried out various attacks on high-profile organizations, releasing personal information of many members that did not exactly paint a flattering picture of these individuals in question. The group shut down shortly after it started, with a press release stating that it was always intended to be a limited operation. Many members of LulzSec were later arrested, and some now work as government informants on hacking.

In 2015, Anonymous organized their largest in-person protest yet: the Million Mask March. In the UK-held event, Anons and others who wished to protest against tyranny donned the Guy Fawkes mask and loudly protested outside of government buildings, in reference to Fawkes’s attempted bombing of the London parliament and the graphic novel V for Vendetta’s depiction of protestors wearing the mask. Marches have continued even through Anonymous’ forced hiatus, with 2021’s march drawing a large crowd.

In 2016, much of the public fervor surrounding Anonymous had begun to die down. Their glory days of massive-scale takedowns, ominous warning videos, and clever, humorous means of protest were behind them. News-making attacks became fewer and farther between, and many still relied on the same basic DdoS techniques that had become their trademarks. 2016 Anonymous was not as news-shaking as the 2008 collective was. Reports indicated that there was infighting amongst members of the collective due to the 2016 election. Additionally, many Anons around this time had set those days behind them, had gotten married and were beginning to raise families. And so, in 2016, Anonymous crumbled.

Between 2016 and 2020, all was deathly quiet on the Anonymous front. A total of 6 attacks were credited to Anonymous members during this time, a miniscule number compared to the 25 committed in 2011 alone. For many years, it seemed like Anonymous and their personalized brand of brutal, darkly comedic justice would never be seen on the Internet again.

At the beginning of 2020, several cyberattacks were credited to Anonymous, and, like many of the previous ones, not achieving a large amount of media coverage, even with high-profile targets like the website of the United Nations, in which it created a page for Taiwan, which hasn’t held a seat on the UN since 1971.

Anonymous’ real return to the mainstream came in the Summer of 2020, when Black Lives Matter protests were being held across the country due to the murder of George Floyd. A Facebook account affiliated with Anonymous posted a video swearing revenge on the Minneapolis Police Department due to the murder. The Department’s website went down due to a massive influx of bot traffic. Anonymous’ protests spread all across the country as the events made news. New generations of protestors were introduced to Anonymous, as teenagers and young adults expressed admiration for their work. One Twitter account tweeted “How does one apply to be a part of Anonymous? I just wanna help out, I’ll even make the hackers coffee or [something].” Police scanners in Chicago were hacked by Anonymous to play “Chocolate Rain,” the viral 2000’s Internet hit that served as unofficial anthem for the group, as well as anti-police rap songs.

This attack culminated in the leaking of 269 gigabytes of police information in an event known as the “BlueLeaks,” which contained classified documents from 1996 to 2020, some of which contained information pertaining to questionable responses by law enforcement to the protests.

Since Anonymous’ 2020 re-awakening, the group has remained active, engaging in multiple cyberattacks in 2021, including against targets like Epik, due to their hosting of what Anonymous perceived as extremist content. A significant amount of data was breached and leaked from these hacks. Anonymous also returned with their once-lost sickeningly dark sense of humor, defacing multiple websites with obscene imagery as a troll to organizations and supporters they saw as enemies.

And that brings the story up to today, with Anonymous’ cyberwar on Russia continuing to yield results using their methods. It’s quite interesting how change can be brought about on a level of this magnitude. Childish, profane pranksters being turned into a legitimate force in protesting, one to be feared and respected, is no small feat. Once their motto was “Do it for the lulz,” but now, with their attempts to right dangerous wrongs and bring about order through chaos, their modern motto conforms more to the situation: “We are Anonymous. We are legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.”