You are hereThe Guardian: Anonymous: peering behind the mask

The Guardian: Anonymous: peering behind the mask


Are members of the 'hacktivist group' Anonymous defenders of truth and seekers of knowledge, or simply a bunch of cyber terrorists? Jana Herwig investigates

May 11, 2011- When Anonymous first made big headlines in early 2008 with its protests against the Church of Scientology, dubbed Project Chanology, it was not yet apparent that Anonymous would be here to stay.

Three years later, Anonymous has not only gained a sizeable collection of adversaries and critics – including government agencies, IT security companies and digital rights advocacies who criticise its methods – it has also won scores of secret and not so secret admirers, especially among the highly social media literate, digital creative class.

The reputation of its members as defenders of truth and seekers of knowledge, digital avengers who cannot be lied to because they will hijack the emails of those who try, seems to strike a chord with many.

What has remained unclear is just who or what Anonymous is. Popular descriptions used in the media are those as a protest movement, a hacker community, or – merging the two – as a hacktivist group. Apart from an interest in the actual individuals behind the handle, a focus has been on whether or not Anonymous has a leader or central command structure which oversees and steers it actions.

While Anonymous claims the contrary – and some reports from "inside Anonymous" characterise it as a "stamping herd" of wary individuals – this suspicion does not subside. In mid-March, Gawker announced to have received chat logs from Anonymous' "secret war room", and evidence of "certain members doling out tasks, selecting targets, and even dressing down members who get out of line".

What has received less attention in the media is where Anonymous came from and what it is outside of ongoing activities such as last year's Operation Payback, which targeted companies that had cancelled their service to Wikileaks, or the current Operation Sony, which began as a consumer rights protest until Sony suggested Anonymous might have been behind the PlayStation Network hack (Anonymous denies this).

But these operations, and the fluctating number of individuals that engage in them at a time, are not identical with the collective identity of Anonymous, an identity that has been crafted in a collaborative effort and whose origins I am going to outline here.

Anonymous is anyone who knows the rules

This collective identity belongs to no one in particular, but is at the disposal of anyone who knows its rules and knows how to apply them. Anonymous, the collective identity, is older than Anonymous, the hacktvist group – more to the point, I propose that the hacktivist group can be understood as an application of Anonymous, the collective identity.

This identity originated on imageboard 4chan.org, as a byproduct of a user interface policy called forced anonymity, also known for short as "forced anon".

Forced anon made it impossible for users to type in their name when they published a forum post. Instead, "Anonymous" would invariably appear as the default author name for any post. As a result, and in particular for the uninitiated, discussions on 4chan would seem like an absurd soliloquy, with "Anonymous" posting a message and "Anonymous" and "Anonymous" responding.

What this interface policy prevented was the creation of a hierarchy among users, which is known to quickly establish itself in online forums, with older forum members dominating and "newbies" having little weight in the discussion. Anonymous's (the group's) present dismissal of hierarchies and leadership has its roots in this practice. The uncertainty about who is talking (or probably just talking to him or herself, feigning conversation) is characteristic of the "forced anon" experience.

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