It was 26 January 2012 in Poland, and the kids had been protesting in the streets against an intellectual property treaty in sub-freezing temperatures.
Already, Anonymous hackers had taken Polish government servers offline for more than 36 hours to protest against the signing of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA).
Then, Palikot’s movement – the Polish parliament’s radical libertarian wing already known for their prankishness – simultaneously covered their faces in the Guy Fawkes masks associated with the collective. Within hours the picture was everywhere. Anonymous – the group, the identity, the method, the aesthetic, whatever it is – had invaded its first government.
The anon hackers had come a long way from 4chan, a notorious image-posting forum that gave birth to Anonymous. They’d started out as pranksters, ordering pizzas on someone’s behalf, say, or signing them up for junk mail. They’d invented Rickrolling1, but were also known for their offensive content and an irrational love of cats. Somehow, in under two years, they had become a global political force.
Anonymous got its start in the /b/ section of 4chan, known as the darkest well of internet depravity. /b/ is the ‘anything goes’ board – and anything really does go. For the people of /b/, (who called themselves the /b/tards) no space could really be free enough. They wanted to explore and indulge the dark places in the human psyche, but they also wanted to be with their own, to crack jokes, reference net memes, to find within the awful the kind of funny that made the whole world less serious. /b/ wasn’t just about offensive pictures you couldn’t unsee; it included threads such as pictures of men eating fruit salad alone, laughing. Look at enough stock photography of fake laughter and fruit and it starts to seem as perverted as things like incest porn. The /b/tards were offensive and ridiculous, but only to hold a mirror up to contemporary life. Anonymous was a breathing form of discontent, a walking critique.
Its first shift towards politics came with the Church of Scientology. The church and Anonymous had declared something of a war over the church’s attempts to censor a cringe-worthy Tom Cruise video where he gushed fanatically about his religion. The project to destroy the church, called Chanology, took two important twists. The first was that it attracted existing church opponents into the collective. As this community of ex-scientologists, family members and friends of scientologists swelled the ranks of Chanology (and Anonymous), they brought a desire not just to troll, but to defeat the church – to be the good guys.
The second twist was leaving the internet and meeting in real life. On 10 February 2008, Anonymous gathered offline across the world to protest and party in front of hundreds of Scientology locations. Some Anonymous estimates put the turnout that day at over 9,000. For the first time, the legion met itself. It was here that the strange collective began to learn to organize for protest.
‘Anonymous was born out of a need to exact retribution,’ said a Chanology anon. ‘Scientology tried to fuck with our internet, attempting to shut down the Cruise video. It was punished, hard, and continues to be punished nearly four years later.’
Things went along mostly unchanged for almost three years, until 2011 – the year that rocked the world, and Anonymous with it. OpTunisia, opEgypt, and what came to be collectively known as the ‘freedom ops’, developed its moral compass. Outrageous hacks that spanned companies, media, governments and law enforcement grew its swagger and technique.
By 2011, Anonymous had trotted out different approaches, theories and ways of organizing itself on a wide array of operations. It had opposed dictators, hacked corporations from Japan to the US, staged ‘virtual sit-ins’ of websites from the CIA to Indian copyright holders. It had ex-filtrated law enforcement and corporate customer data. It acted as an amorphous mass, an élite hacking group, and everything in between. It had written manifestos and made videos and issued calls to action. But it had never brought their techniques together.
The tactics and ethics of Anonymous tended to remain separate. That all changed when a little-known police force in San Francisco did something unprecedented in the US: it cut mobile phone service to prevent a planned protest against its repeated brutality.
In December 2010, anon hackers brought down the sites of PayPal, Mastercard and others for blocking donations to Wikileaks.
In July 2011, hackers repeatedly attacked Arizona Police websites to protest against the state’s harsh immigration laws.
In October 2011, hackers published the names of 1,589 alleged users of the child pornography website Lolita City.
In August 2012, anon activists hacked Ugandan government websites to protest against the extreme homophobia of bills going through parliament.
The story of multiple fatal shootings by the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police spread quickly around the collective after the mobile phone blackout was exposed. Anons, Bay Area residents, and even people in Egypt, were comparing it to Mubarak’s tactic of switching off the net and sending out thugs. Anonymous convened around the issue, pouring into chat channels and organizing on social media spontaneously. The hive mind was buzzing.
‘People were angry. Lots of people. I would say the channel at one point had over 400 people in it – and that is being conservative… there was a lot of sabre-rattling in IRC [Internet Relay Channel]… people formed into different groups, everything under the sun was discussed. Hacking, Doxing [seeking out and publishing individuals’ personal information on the internet], and boots-on-the-ground protest,’ said one opBART anon. ‘There were people writing press releases, and I joined in. I asked if I could make the video – and I did… At that point, we all felt so ashamed that our government could do such a thing to its people; what would they do next? It was a way not only to express outrage, but to get the message out to the public about what needs to be done. Mainstream media has television, we have YouTube and other sources.’
In opBART, everything got tried. Anonymous released statements that were picked up by media all over the world. The people on the street protesting were in touch with the people creating videos and writing statements. They created and promoted a regular schedule of Monday protests, hitting downtown San Francisco at rush hour. Anon hackers attacked the insecure bart and mybart websites and released police and rider information. They even attempted to blackmail BART spokesperson Linton Johnson into resigning with the threat of compromising pictures. But blackmail requires control – other anons simply posted the pictures anyhow, while the community fought over the tactic.
It was a concentrated burst of emergent and co-ordinated political action. But by this point, Anonymous’ finest skill was drawing media attention. Between the collective’s bombastic declarations and the growing unease about a regional police force having this kind of power over telecom infrastructure, members of the media at all levels showed up, and the police dispatched riot lines to meet protesters and press. Sometimes police and press outnumbered protesters.
The real consequences didn’t show up in opBART itself – they showed up in the coming weeks, as Anonymous joined, fostered and spread the nascent Occupy movement. There was never any plan for Occupy to spread beyond lower Manhattan, but the tactics and the lessons the collective had learned in the Bay Area were rolled out in every part of the US and beyond. Everywhere there was a major encampment, there were anons, setting up communications, talking to media, hitting the streets to protest.
In time, their methods of random self-organizing spread far beyond the original small community of 2011, and even beyond Occupy. The Guy Fawkes mask became a face of dissent, appearing on the faces of thousands of anti-ACTA protesters and in Egyptian revolutionary graffiti. Now anyone in the moment of their discontent can be Anonymous.
Quinn Norton is a US journalist and photographer who covers hacker culture, Anonymous, copyright issues and the internet. Her work has appeared in Wired News and The Guardian among others.
Rickrolling: tricking people – by means of a disguised weblink – into clicking onto a video of British pop star Rick Astley’s 1987 hit single ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’.