“We are legion. Expect us.”
Such is the sign off phrase of “Anonymous” in each video posted to address the worldwide public. These videos, which garner thousands of views, feature darkened backgrounds and a lone masked figure speaking in a distorted voice. The Guy Fawkes mask brings to mind images of past rebellions, as well as the anti-hero from popular graphic novel and movie V For Vendetta.
“We do not forgive,” warns Anonymous in each of their messages. “We do not forget.”
Anonymous has gone global. The name of the self proclaimed “hactivist” group is on the lips of people all over the world, from anti-censorship protesters in Egypt, to citizens of Bend, Oregon.
But what is Anonymous, and why have they become a global fixation?
History: Rise of the final boss of the Internet
On Feb. 16 members of the Occupy Bend movement hosted a viewing of the documentary We Are Legion: The Story of the Hactivists at the downtown Bend public library. The documentary, written and directed by Brian Knappenberger, details the history and purpose of Anonymous.
Anonymous originated from the image sharing website 4chan, according to Knappenberger’s documentary. It spawned from a joke regarding the forum’s notorious /b/ forum, the objective of which is to post the most disturbing and provocative content possible, and in which most posters are anonymous. The joke suggested that every poster in the /b/ forum was really one person with the literal name “Anonymous.” The organized group that formed from the 4chan posters started as a group of organized pranksters, according to We Are Legion. They would invade websites, often sites targeted for children and post obscene messages and images. Anonymous titled themselves the final boss of the Internet.
We Are Legion features interviews masked members of Anonymous. One such person claimed that the group’s initial mission was merely to enrage those who “took the Internet too seriously.”
But in 2006, Anonymous became more than a group of pranksters when they targeted white supremacist radio personality, Hal Turner. Anonymous began by merely calling into the radio show to challenge and harass Turner, according to We are Legion, but they eventually resorted to other measures. Anonymous hacked Turner’s private e-mails and his website, and eventually resulted in the end of his radio show.
The next target for Anonymous was the church of Scientology. The church was attempting to stop an embarrassing video of actor Tom Cruise from going viral, which provoked the group into action. What started as a movement to post the video in question all of the the Internet evolved into Anonymous’s first physical movement. For the first time, members of Anonymous came together, as they demonstrated in mass numbers outside Scientology buildings. Most of the protesters wore Guy Fawkes masks to hide their faces. Whether the masks are meant as an allusion to 1605 Gun Powder Plot in London, or to the graphic novel and film V for Vendetta is unclear. Their action against the church of Scientology resulted in the arrest of several members of Anonymous, and some were imprisoned for up to a year, according to We Are Legion.
Since then, most Anonymous activity has been digital. The group launched “Operation Payback,” an attack against the online payment website, Paypal, after they banned the WikiLeaks account from their website. Anonymous representatives interviewed on the documentary claimed the attack on Paypal was down out of the defense of freedom of speech, not necessarily out of support for WikiLeaks itself.
When WikiLeaks was blocked in Egypt, Anonymous reacted by hosting Internet connections for citizens of Egypt and attacking government websites. Most of their work is done by overloading website servers until they crash, but Anonymous has also demonstrated the ability to hack actual computer systems.
In December 2012, Anonymous released a video detailing plans to prevent the Westboro Baptist Church from picketing funerals after the shooting in Newtown. Anonymous has claimed credit for attacks against Twitter accounts belonging to members of the Westboro Baptist Church, as well as their website, according to the Huffington Post article Westboro Baptist Church Spokesperson’s Twitter account hacked by Anonymous by Meredith Bennett-Smith.
Anonymous is a group without a leader. One of the members interviewed for the documentary We Are Legion compared the group to a flock of birds that moves in a solid formation, but is led by no single individual. Anonymous is meant to be seen as a collective, according to the masked member of the hacktivist group, not a series of individuals.
Students react to Anonymous
The web origins of Anonymous is definitely a sign of our times, according to Tom Barry, a sociology professor at Central Oregon Community College. The nature of Anonymous’s operations reflect our reliance on the Internet and social media to organize, as well as the sense of anonymity that came with the popularity of the Internet, explained Barry.
“This is a group that is covert, as opposed to out in the open,” said Barry. “It makes them harder to detect. It also gives them more power, because ‘Anonymous’ could be anyone.”
Barry believes the masks worn by members of Anonymous could serve multiple purposes. They are probably meant to protect professional and private identities, he said, but they could also be theatrical.
“It’s more sexy, isn’t it?” said Barry, referring to the dramatic appearance of the iconic masks. “It’s dramatized.”
Barry likened the image invoked by the masks to Batman, who does good, but does so outside of the norms of society.
“We live in a visual culture,” said Barry. “The symbol itself is one that carries a lot of power. It’s the symbol of the anti-hero.”
Anonymous’s form of activism will have its impact on society, predicted Barry.
“Once they start to have an impact, it’s going to force legislature to try to counter this kind of activity,” said Barry. “They’re forcing the structure of society to respond to them.”
Though their methods are drastically different from those of the social activists that came before them, Barry said he believes Anonymous has the potential to accomplish good.
“They certainly can,” said Barry. “Activists have a cause.”
Gina Ricketts, director of the Native American program at COCC, is not impressed with Anonymous’s methods. Ricketts, who was a social activist while in college in the 1970s, believes appearing only online and behind masks shows a lack of commitment to the cause–if Anonymous truly has one.
“I wouldn’t even call it activism,” said Ricketts. “I wonder how much these people are really committed.”
Social activism means a willingness to make sacrifices for a cause, explained Ricketts, because social activists care about the future. What social activism isn’t, according to Ricketts, is destruction, such as what is caused by Anonymous’s antics.
“That’s not social activism,” said Ricketts. “That’s just being a hacker.”