“We are Legion. We do not forget. We do not forgive. Expect us.”
So goes the cartoon-villain tagline of Anonymous, the amorphous collective entity that started as an ad-hoc identity for Internet trolls and pranksters and, in the last year especially, has become an increasingly politicized engine of online agitation and digital “hacktivism.”
Last week, Anonymous took on its most challenging adversary yet—itself—when a splinter faction took control of a critical communications hub, and released information that could be used to track down other members of the secretive organization. The incident has revealed just how hard it is to peer behind the curtain and see what, or more importantly who, Anonymous really is.
Through its escalating acts of hacktivism, Anonymous has taken up causes of broadening social and political importance. Starting last September, there was Operation Payback, which unleashed weeks of distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks on the websites of the Motion Picture Association of America and other foes of Internet piracy. Next came Operation Avenge Assange, which briefly brought down Visa and PayPal websites after those companies cut off donations to the embattled Wikileaks. This was closely followed by OpTunisia, OpEgypt, and other operations aimed at helping Arab protestors topple their repressive governments.
Much of the work of coordinating these campaigns was done on an Internet Relay Chat network called AnonOps, and it was this hub that was highjacked last weekend in what the network’s abruptly shut-out administrators called a “coup d’état.” The outage didn’t last long. By midweek, AnonOps loyalists had begun relocating the network to a new set of domain names and there were rumors of a major counterblow: The infiltration of an 800,000-computer botnet with which the rogue group (consisting, it seemed, of one disaffected AnonOps admin called Ryan, age 19, and a sidekick or two) had threatened to overrun any new Anonymous sites with DDoS attacks. More serious, perhaps, was Ryan’s release of the private Internet protocol addresses of hundreds of registered AnonOps users, no minor violation of the anonymity that is both a tactical asset for Anonymous and, in some ways, its raison d’être.
If Anonymous has suffered any lasting damage from the infighting, perhaps it is to a more fundamental aspect of its identity: its cherished image as an utterly decentralized and leaderless force—a hive-minded swarm in which there are no fixed positions of control and no individuals more authoritative than any others.
In fact, it was precisely the perceived divergence of AnonOps from that ideal that the faction said had driven them to attack it. In an interview with U.K. tech-news site thinq_, Ryan and friends dismissed any notion that the site functions leaderlessly. “There is a hierarchy,” said Ryan, singling out a core group of 10 fellow moderators who meet regularly in a private chat channel and, he claimed, effectively decide what sites and causes the group will take aim at next. “All the power … it’s in that channel,” he said, insisting further that his only intention in shutting down the network was to break up that power by breaking Anonymous’s reliance on AnonOps as a communications venue.
AnonOps operators were quick to respond that they were no such thing. “Ryan seems to be mistaking ‘leadership’ with people who actually get of[f] their ass and do stuff,” his former fellow admins posted at the new site. And by “stuff,” a follow-up thinq_ report seemed to clarify, they meant the routine business of keeping the network running—“network maintenance, server issues, floods, attacks on us and how to counteract them, etc.”—and nothing like the “behind-the-scenes string-pulling” Ryan denounced. Anyone could start an operation on AnonOps, said one regular: it was just a matter of creating a new channel and drumming up interest for it. “If Anonymous really wants to do something, no one person can stop them,” said the user. “Nobody can control the hive.”
For an outsider, of course, the exchange of claims and counterclaims does little to resolve the question seemingly at issue: Is Anonymous in fact the undiluted anarchy it purports to be, or is that anarchy just a fiction masking the familiar inner power structures of any coordinated group? The real answer seems to be more nuanced than the question. Gabriella Coleman, a professor of anthropology at New York University, has been studying Anonymous up close for over two years, and she’s found elements of truth in both sides of the argument. Certainly, she points out, as Anonymous has grown from its trolling roots into more sustained political action, the need for organizational resources like AnonOps has given those who control these resources a degree of outsize influence within the group. As an example, she notes that the AnonOps admins can ban users not just for violating network integrity but for adopting particular tactics—like DDoS attacks on media organizations—that the admins happen to oppose.
Still, that is just one drop of concentrated authority in what Coleman describes as an unusually fluid organizational dynamic. “In Anonymous, there’s this constant pooling and dispersal of power,” she says, with much of that dispersal driven by a fiercely enforced subcultural ethic of “lulz”—which among other things marks for ruthless ridicule any group members caught taking themselves seriously enough to act like leaders. As a result, she adds, anybody seeking to locate Anonymous’s inner circle of power—and there are those who’ve tried—is most likely on a snipe hunt. Anonymous may not be a perfect anarchy, but it’s enough of one, with its circles of power sufficiently numerous and disconnected that even its most dedicated members can’t see it all. So while the drama unfolding in and around AnonOps this week may have opened a rare window into Anonymous’s inner workings, it’s unlikely anyone will ever get a glimpse of exactly how—or even why—Anonymous does the things it does.
And that may be the main reason even Anonymous itself has difficulty bringing Anonymous down. “Our inability to truly understand what’s going on [with them],” says Coleman, “is part of their power.”
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