There is a remarkable degree of perversion involved naming a group Anonymous that speaks to a dry wit. Their choice of name, however, could hardly be more apt. A loosely affiliated “hacktivist” collective, the identities of few Anonymous members are known to the world at large. While their work initially focused on self-gratifying entertainment, exemplified by the catchphrase “we’re doing it for the lulz,” their work of recent years has taken on a strong activist bent. In the past four years alone, the list of Anonymous targets has included the Church of Scientology, major record labels, the Ugandan government, child pornography sites, Facebook, the Israeli government, and most recently, the Westboro Baptist Church. The movement has lent its support to the Stop SOPA and Occupy Wall Street movements, and has adopted the Guy Fawkes masks of the comic book V for Vendetta as one of its most recognizable insignias.
Reactions to Anonymous have been mixed; they have been characterized by some as digital Robin Hoods and by others as cyber-anarchists. One of the difficulties in analyzing Anonymous is the challenge of identifying a coherent group ethic to which analysis can be applied. Very little hierarchy or identifiable group leadership exists, and although some individuals serve as ad hoc spokespeople for the organization, they have no official title within the group. Anonymous is a name that can be adopted almost at will by anyone. While larger projects like the DDoS attacks on major record labels or the takedowns of Israeli government websites and deletion of government databases are undertaken with substantial group consensus, virtually anyone can claim an attack in their name.
With the rise of Anonymous’ broadly hacktivist ethic, much of their recent work has surrounded key social and political issues such as LGBT rights (in Uganda), intellectual property law and anti-piracy legislation (SOPA and the recording industry), and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Through code, members of Anonymous have taken action against entities that they perceive as immoral or unjust by taking down websites and infiltrating networks. While their causes may be noble, the aggressive means by which Anonymous pursues its loosely determined objectives makes many sympathizers uneasy.
One of the strongest results to come out of the Anonymous movement may not actually be the organization itself, but a paradigm for effective organizing using the Internet. “The fundamental fact of the 21st century is that any person can now theoretically collaborate with any other person on the planet,” Anonymous’ unofficial spokesperson Barrett Brown told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
To that end, Anonymous has spearheaded a number of campaigns that have had tangible effects in the offline world. The blackouts of Wikipedia and other like-minded organizations became the most visible aspect of the movement to block the passage of the Stop Online Piracy Act, and largely as a result of these protests, SOPA and PIPA were shelved before they were voted upon in Congress. More recently, members of Anonymous have been lobbying for recognition of the Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group by the U.S. government, a move taken in response to the WBC’s threatening to picket funerals of the victims of Friday’s Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
Love them or hate them, Anonymous seems to be here to stay. Amorphous and shadowy, but a potent force on the Internet, their hacktivism is slowly but surely blurring the lines between our virtual world and our offline lives.