The Hacker Group Anonymous Returns
At the end of May, as protests against the police killing of George Floyd got under way, reports started to circulate that the shadowy hacker group Anonymous was back.
The rumors began with a video depicting a black-clad figure in the group’s signature Guy Fawkes mask. “Greetings, citizens of the United States,” the figure said in a creepy, distorted voice. “This is a message from Anonymous to the Minneapolis Police Department.” The masked announcer addressed Floyd’s killing and the larger pattern of police misconduct, concluding, “We will be exposing your many crimes to the world. We are legion. Expect us.”
The clip generated a wave of renewed enthusiasm for Anonymous, particularly among young people. Twitter accounts associated with the group saw a surge of new followers, a couple of them by the millions.
At the height of its popularity, in 2012, Anonymous had been a network of thousands of activists, a minority of them hackers, devoted to leftist-libertarian ideals of personal freedom and opposed to the consolidation of corporate and government power. But after a spate of arrests, it had largely faded from view.
Now a new generation was eager to join. “How does one apply to be a part of Anonymous? I just wanna help out, I’ll even make the hackers coffee or suttin” an activist in the United Kingdom joked on Twitter, garnering hundreds of thousands of likes and retweets.
Anonymous “stan” (super fan) accounts remixed the video on TikTok to give the shadowy figure glamorous nails and jewelry. Others used the chat service Discord to create virtual spaces where thousands of new devotees could celebrate the hackers with memes and fan fiction. One of the largest Anonymous accounts on Twitter begged people to “stop sending us nudes.”
A series of hacks followed the release of the video. News outlets speculated that it was Anonymous who had hijacked Chicago police scanners on May 30 and 31 to play N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police” and Tay Zonday’s “Chocolate Rain,” a 2007 song that served as an unofficial anthem for the group. Likewise, when the Minneapolis Police Department website went offline from an apparent DDoS attack—a hack that overwhelms a target site with traffic—social media credited Anonymous.
Three weeks later, on Juneteenth, a person identifying as Anonymous leaked hundreds of gigabytes of internal police files from more than 200 agencies across the U.S. The hack, labeled #BlueLeaks, contained little information about police misconduct. However, it did reveal that local and federal law-enforcement groups spread poorly researched and exaggerated misinformation to Minnesota police officers during the unrest in May and June, and made efforts to monitor protesters’ social-media activity.
I had recently published a book that detailed the tangled origins of Anonymous, and until last month, I’d thought the group had faded away. I was surprised by its reemergence, and wanted to understand how and why it seemed to be coming back, starting with who had made the new video. It didn’t take me long to find out.
The video was watermarked, which is uncharacteristic for Anonymous. The mark is blurred out in copies, but appears in the original post in white font: “anonews.co.” That URL led me to a news-aggregation site, which brought me to the site’s Facebook page, where the first iteration of the video had been posted on May 28. A British company called Midialab Ltd. controlled the page. I wrote to the email listed on the page, and the company’s owner replied the same day. This person requested anonymity but was willing to put me in touch with the creator of the video.
I suspected I was chasing the tail of some Russian troll farm whose business it was to promote radical division of all stripes. The first place to report on the video, on May 29, had been RT, the state-owned Russian media outlet. And the millions of new followers flocking to Anonymous Twitter accounts? As the accounts themselves pointed out, many were bots.
Within an hour of receiving the email, I got a call from a suburb in Harford County, Maryland, just north of where I live. The man on the line told me his name was John Vibes. “Hey, man,” he said. “Surprised I’m local? I made the video.”
Vibes told me he had worked as a party promoter organizing raves in Baltimore and Philadelphia for the past decade, which had led him into countercultural thought and, eventually, activism. “I had been writing things about police brutality and I was contacted by the guy that runs” anonews.co, a tech entrepreneur in the U.K. who agreed with Anonymous’s politics and wanted to support it. Vibes is a freelance writer who writes and produces videos for the Facebook page, which functions as a news hub. “Mostly we just cover news about what Anonymous would be interested in—the banking system, corruption,” he said. “A couple of times a month we’ll look at the big stories and we’ll aggregate the general sentiment into a video.”
Indeed, the Facebook page releases Anonymous videos regularly, many of them made by Vibes. But he was not the masked figure speaking to the camera in the most recent viral video. The page often recycles the same footage and simply uses new audio.
Vibes emphasized that he wasn’t a hacker, but a “journalist” who was echoing the sentiment of Anonymous members on social media and chat rooms. The purpose of the Facebook page was to create an outlet for that message. “To be clear, we’re not a Russian troll farm,” Vibes said.
Still, my conversation with Vibes left me feeling uncertain about whether Anonymous was really back. The new hacks in May and early June were tied to the group largely through rumors. And the video wasn’t put out by Anonymous hackers, but by an activist who supported their message. In some sense, Vibes was simply another fan, remixing a remix. Was it all just smoke and mirrors?
But when I spoke with a variety of current and former Anonymous hackers over the past month, they all insisted that Anonymous was indeed reactivating. To understand why, and what that really means, it’s helpful to keep in mind the two somewhat-competing interpretations of Anonymous.
In one sense, Anonymous is a decentralized community of tech activists who collaborate in small groups on projects they call “operations.”
But then there is the second definition of Anonymous. Anonymous members will tell you that Anonymous has no members, that it is not a group, but rather a banner. People rally to it. And like a pirate flag, anyone can run it up their mast and start doing deeds in Anonymous’s name.
“It’s the vigilante,” Gregg Housh, one of the creators of a 2008 Anonymous anti-Scientology video, told me. Anonymous “was designed specifically to be that way. In its initial founding, it existed as trolls … people doing whatever they wanted, with that hint of vigilantism. It was designed to be totally open. Anyone can be Anonymous.”
In the new video Vibes made, Anonymous represents extrajudicial justice, the superhero entering to right what the normal course of the law cannot—an idea that can seem deeply appealing now that the ordinary enforcers of justice—the police—appear to some to be the source of the crime.
My sources affiliated with Anonymous all told me the same thing: People were flowing back into the chat rooms to coordinate new “operations.” This is how Anonymous has always worked. A viral video generates a wave of enthusiasm. Then the leaderless collective debates what to do. Sometimes it settles on performative acts of protest, such as hacking police scanners or briefly downing a website. But as occurred with BlueLeaks, oftentimes more skilled hackers steal and leak documents intended to buttress a political cause with substantive evidence.
However, both the group of people and the movement have changed over the years. And to track Anonymous’s trajectory, it’s necessary to understand how the entire project began: as a joke by teenagers.
In the mid 2000s, Aubrey Cottle was part of a crew of online pranksters who called themselves “trolls” and orbited two anarchic online message boards: Something Awful and 4chan. Thousands of users were on these boards—almost all young men—but among them was a more die-hard band who hung out in the same chat rooms, feuded online, and met up in real life. They called themselves Anonymous. The name was derived from the way 4chan presented usernames. If none was specified, the site displayed “Anonymous” by default.
In 2007, a man appeared at Cottle’s door. Cottle was 20 and still living with his mother in Toronto. As Cottle tells the story (confirmed in part by a friend of his), the man was from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the nation’s equivalent to the CIA. Curious, Cottle led him to his room, which was littered with hard drives, server equipment, and old copies of the ’90s hacker magazine 2600.
“Would you be willing to use your abilities against al-Qaeda and terrorist groups?” the agent asked him. A number of thoughts flashed through Cottle’s mind: Is this guy for real? I would never work for the feds. Should I delete everything? But mostly he felt like a fraud. The man thought he was something he wasn’t.
“You want me to raid internet forums for you?” Cottle asked.
Anonymous trolls loved to conduct “raids” on other sites, flooding online games and chat rooms with their “army” of users to disrupt the space. Like cruel older brothers, they often picked the easiest target they could find—younger kids. They loved raiding a children’s game called Habbo Hotel by lining up their avatars to block access to the online pool.
When 4chan began cracking down on organizing raids, Anonymous migrated to Cottle’s copycat site, 420chan, which he’d created to discuss his principal interests: drugs and professional wrestling. And Cottle became the de facto leader of Anonymous, a role he relished. It was during this time, Cottle told me, that he codified a set of half-joking rules for the group that became known as the infamous “Rules of the Internet.” They included “3. We are Anonymous 4. Anonymous is legion 5. Anonymous never forgives.”
Cottle and his friends also were the first to start using the Guy Fawkes mask. They chose it simply because they loved the movie V for Vendetta, a 2005 film adaptation of a dystopian-fiction comic book. V, the film’s protagonist, dons the disguise to fight a future fascist police state by firebombing buildings, inverting the story of the original Guy Fawkes, who is vilified in English folklore for attempting to blow up Parliament in 1605.
Cottle told CSIS he’d think about its offer (which he later declined) and went back to cyberbullying. But not long after the authorities came to Cottle’s door, Anonymous would make the news. A Fox affiliate in Los Angeles had run a segment on the group, framing them as “hackers on steroids.” The report implied that Anonymous was perhaps a terrorist organization, overlaying the segment’s narration with stock footage of a van exploding.
The segment delighted Anonymous. Hacking was something its members did for their own amusement. Now in the eyes of the media—and the government—they were a shadowy and powerful cabal, capable of anything. It was something people wanted to believe about them, something they could use.
Anonymous spent much of 2007 harassing Hal Turner, a neo-Nazi radio host, not because the group was at all political during this period, but because Turner proved to be an easy target. Each week, Anonymous would clog his phone lines, down his website, or order hundreds of pizzas to his house. But the fun ended abruptly when it hacked Turner so thoroughly that it discovered he was an FBI informant.
After Turner, Anonymous needed a new target. They shifted to the Church of Scientology, a recurrent enemy of hackers and freedom-of-information activists since the early 1990s. The catalyst for the new operation was a video, the one made by Housh. It used the Fox news piece as inspiration, hinting that Anonymous was a powerful ring of international hackers. “Over the years we have been watching you,” it announced in a text-to-speech computer voice. “We are legion.”
When the video went viral, enthusiasm hit an all-time high. Anons flowed into the same chat rooms they had once used to coordinate raids, this time channeling their numbers into a series of street protests against Scientology in major cities around the world. (Anonymous accused Scientology of bilking its adherents with pseudoscience and of illegally silencing critics.) Several hundred people attended a protest I reported on in New York, almost all of them dressed in Guy Fawkes masks.
For many, the cynicism of trolling was shattered when they realized they could effect change in the real world. To the surprise of even themselves, Anonymous had inherited a conflict that had been raging since the 1980s. On one side were hackers who wanted to employ the internet as a tool for personal empowerment; on the other stood governments and corporations, who used it as a panopticon for personal-data collection.
Presently, the Anonymous movement split into competing factions of trolls and activists. Cottle led the trolling side, but his contingent soon lost control.
The watershed moment came in late 2010, when an Anonymous operation to support Julian Assange and WikiLeaks snowballed into a massive attack against PayPal and Mastercard for blocking WikiLeaks donations. Once again, following media attention, thousands of Anons flooded into chat rooms they had previously used to coordinate invasions into computer games, this time in an attempt to disable corporate websites.
Before long, Anonymous had uncovered plans for HBGary Federal, a security company; Palantir, the tech-surveillance giant; and the private security company Berico Technologies to embarrass WikiLeaks using Nixonian dirty tricks. The story of the HBGary leak became front-page news. And Anonymous’s ranks swelled even more.
The Anons involved in the hack formed a splinter group, LulzSec (Lols Security), and went on a high-profile hacking spree, targeting major corporations like Sony and several government agencies whenever they felt that these organizations were trampling individual freedoms—or simply to show that they could. But in 2012, the FBI arrested one of LulzSec’s members, Hector “Sabu” Monsegur, a 28-year-old man living in New York City public housing. Sabu became an informant and the center of an elaborate sting operation that resulted in the arrest of many of the group’s principal participants. (Monsegur has denied being responsible for those arrests, though does not deny being an FBI informant.)
Anonymous never fully recovered. Small groups of Anons remained, but the energy behind the banner dissipated.
Anonymous’s most high-profile hack in the following years came in support of the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri. In response to the police-shooting death of Michael Brown, the group downed the city’s web servers and publicized the home address of the police chief. When officials were not forthcoming about the details of Brown’s death, Anonymous leaked audio recordings of emergency dispatchers discussing the incident. However, when Anonymous announced the name of the shooter, it named the wrong person, damaging its reputation.
Then Anonymous weathered another blow: the alt-right.
Fredrick Brennan was 12 years old when he discovered 4chan in 2006. When I interviewed him for my book, It Came From Something Awful, he recalled the fun and “camaraderie” of the days when Anons piled into chat rooms to attack PayPal and Mastercard. But he spent his late teens struggling financially, bouncing between low-paying jobs in the gig economy. Eventually, he decided that he was doomed to forever be on the bottom as an “incel” (involuntary celibate) dropout. The copy of 4chan he founded in 2013, 8chan, became a wildly popular breeding ground for “far-right extremism.” However, Brennan managed to shed what he described as the “toxic” ideology of the chans; his tipping point came last year, when a wave of mass shooters who self-identified as fascist incels all cited 8chan as their inspiration. Since then, he’s been working to shut down 8chan, now known as 8kun.
The seeds of the alt-right had always been a part of Anonymous’s culture. Though Anonymous troll armies had started out by harassing neo-Nazis in 2007, they’d also coated sites in swastikas and racist slurs for shock value. And eventually, the neo-Nazis they targeted began using 4chan in their online recruitment efforts.
So by 2016, Anonymous hacktivists had turned back to the places where they had once organized—chat rooms and forums that are adjacent to 4chan—and begun to fight a rearguard action. In 2018, Anonymous declared war on “QAnon,” a bizarre alt-right conspiracy theory that had been started on 4chan the previous year by far-right trolls but has since spread into mainstream Republican discourse.
Some Anonymous hackers now spend their time tracking and outing alt-right organizers, often in the same networks they occupied in the mid-2000s trolling era.
What does all of this mean for the future of Anonymous?
Some members have shifted their modus operandi. Several told me they now work quietly, rarely if ever repeating the mistake that had landed many of them in jail: publicizing what they do. (This has not been the case with BlueLeaks, however. A hacker involved in the leak identified as Anonymous, and other Anonymous groups were happy to adopt the hack under their banner.)
They are more wary than ever, often openly wondering who among them are police or informants. They no longer organize on the archaic Internet Relay Chat (IRC), believing it to be compromised, instead preferring more modern end-to-end encrypted chat clients, such as Wire, Gajim, or Signal. For social media, they almost exclusively use Twitter, feeling that other companies do not do enough to protect users’ privacy.
And age has brought temperance. “We’ve grown up a lot—at least I have—since the beginning of all of this,” an Anonymous activist who runs the Twitter account @Anon2World told me. “Back in 2010–2012, we would have decimated anything we could to make a point; now we realize how we could inadvertently affect people in negative ways.”
This time around, many members emphasized, they would like to play a supporting role to Black Lives Matter, as they had during the 2014 Ferguson protests, when despite their stumbles, their presence was appreciated by some BLM activists. And in the long term, it now appears that Anonymous might be with us perennially, blooming in revolutionary moments, when it feels as if one big push might effect change.
But there is another possibility—that once again Anonymous will be recast.
Anonymous began with teens hanging out in chat rooms. They put on the mask of the anti-fascist superhero for fun, but over time learned to play the role first with style, then conviction.
When teens began hanging out in Discord chat rooms last month wondering how they could join Anonymous, the answer from the largest Anonymous Twitter accounts was simple: Do it yourself.
Many of the new Anonymous stans had come from TikTok and the K-pop (Korean pop) community. At the end of May, the K-pop stans clogged the Dallas Police Department’s tip-line app with dance videos. Then, spurred on by Anonymous Twitter accounts, they reserved hundreds of thousands of tickets to Trump’s ill-fated rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in which the president found himself addressing largely empty seats.
The pattern felt familiar: a group of teens meeting online to consume media, then realizing that their numbers were so strong, they could pull some epic pranks, or become a political collective, or maybe both. As the former Anonymous member Jake Davis put it on Twitter, the “TikTok/Kpop … stuff feels like a more viral version of old 4chan invasions/raids … Fully expecting Fox News to make some spooky video calling them hackers on steroids.”
In V for Vendetta, after a pandemic leads to a fascist dictatorship in the year 2020, everyone puts on the Guy Fawkes mask to topple the regime.
That’s at least how the movie version ends.
And if there were ever any difference between our world and the other side of the screen, it feels as if it were effaced long ago.