CRF Blog

The Masked Avengers

by Bill Hayes

In The Masked Avengers for the New Yorker, David Kushner reports on the hacking group Anonymous.

In 2003, Christopher Poole, a fifteen-year-old insomniac from New York City, launched 4chan, a discussion board where fans of anime could post photographs and snarky comments. The focus quickly widened to include many of the Internet’s earliest memes: LOLcats, Chocolate Rain, RickRolls. Users who did not enter a screen name were given the default handle Anonymous.

Poole hoped that anonymity would keep things irreverent. “We have no intention of partaking in intelligent discussions concerning foreign affairs,” he wrote on the site. One of the highest values within the 4chan community was the pursuit of “lulz,” a term derived from the acronym LOL. Lulz were often achieved by sharing puerile jokes or images, many of them pornographic or scatological. The most shocking of these were posted on a part of the site labelled /b/, whose users called themselves /b/tards. Doyon was aware of 4chan, but considered its users “a bunch of stupid little pranksters.” Around 2004, some people on /b/ started referring to “Anonymous” as an independent entity.

It was a new kind of hacker collective. “It’s not a group,” Mikko Hypponen, a leading computer-security researcher, told me — rather, it could be thought of as a shape-shifting subculture. Barrett Brown, a Texas journalist and a well-known champion of Anonymous, has described it as “a series of relationships.” There was no membership fee or initiation. Anyone who wanted to be a part of Anonymous — an Anon — could simply claim allegiance.

Despite 4chan’s focus on trivial topics, many Anons considered themselves crusaders for justice. They launched vigilante campaigns that were purposeful, if sometimes misguided. More than once, they posed as underage girls in order to entrap pedophiles, whose personal information they sent to the police. Other Anons were apolitical and sowed chaos for the lulz. One of them posted images on /b/ of what looked like pipe bombs; another threatened to blow up several football stadiums and was arrested by the F.B.I. In 2007, a local news affiliate in Los Angeles called Anonymous “an Internet hate machine.”

In January, 2008, Gawker Media posted a video in which Tom Cruise enthusiastically touted the benefits of Scientology. The video was copyright-protected, and the Church of Scientology sent a cease-and-desist letter to Gawker, asking that the video be removed. Anonymous viewed the church’s demands as attempts at censorship. “I think it’s time for /b/ to do something big,” someone posted on 4chan. “I’m talking about ‘hacking’ or ‘taking down’ the official Scientology Web site.” An Anon used YouTube to issue a “press release,” which included stock footage of storm clouds and a computerized voice-over. “We shall proceed to expel you from the Internet and systematically dismantle the Church of Scientology in its present form,” the voice said. “You have nowhere to hide.” Within a few weeks, the YouTube video had been viewed more than two million times.

Anonymous had outgrown 4chan. The hackers met in dedicated Internet Relay Chat channels, or I.R.C.s, to coördinate tactics. Using DDoS attacks, they caused the main Scientology Web site to crash intermittently for several days. Anons created a “Google bomb,” so that a search for “dangerous cult” would yield the main Scientology site at the top of the results page. Others sent hundreds of pizzas to Scientology centers in Europe, and overwhelmed the church’s Los Angeles headquarters with all-black faxes, draining the machines of ink. The Church of Scientology, an organization that reportedly has more than a billion dollars in assets, could withstand the depletion of its ink cartridges. But its leaders, who had also received death threats, contacted the F.B.I. to request an investigation into Anonymous.

On March 15, 2008, several thousand Anons marched past Scientology churches in more than a hundred cities, from London to Sydney. In keeping with the theme of anonymity, the organizers decided that all the protesters should wear versions of the same mask. After considering Batman, they settled on the Guy Fawkes mask worn in “V for Vendetta,” a dystopian movie from 2005. “It was available in every major city, in large quantities, for cheap,” Gregg Housh, one of the organizers of the protests and a well-known Anon, told me. The mask was a caricature of a man with rosy cheeks, a handlebar mustache, and a wide grin.

Anonymous did not “dismantle” the Church of Scientology. Still, the Tom Cruise video remained online. Anonymous had proved its tenacity. The collective adopted a bombastic slogan: “We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.” [more]