Anonymous: From the Lulz to Collective Action
April 06, 2011
Taken as a whole, Anonymous resists straightforward definition as it is a name currently called into being to coordinate a range of disconnected actions, from trolling to political protests.1 Originally a name used to coordinate Internet pranks, in the winter of 2008 some wings of Anonymous also became political, focusing on protesting the abuses of the Church of Scientology. By September 2010 another distinct political arm emerged as Operation Payback and did so to protest the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and a few months later this arm shifted its energies to Wikileaks, as did much of the world's attention. It was this manifestation of Anonymous that garnered substantial media coverage due the spectacular waves of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks they launched (against PayPal and Mastercard in support of Wikileaks). Despite this notoriety and despite the fact that Anonymous had already coordinated protests against the Church of Scientology, commentators struggled to describe its ethics, sociology, and history using traditional analytical categories.
This difficulty follows from the fact that Anonymous is, like its name suggests, shrouded in some degree of deliberate mystery. It purports to have no leaders, no hierarchical structure, nor any geographical epicenter. While there are forms of organization and cultural logics that undeniably shape its multiple expressions, it is a name that any individual or group can take on as their own. In this capacity, Anonymous functions as what Marco Deseriis defines as an improper name: “The adoption of the same alias by organized collectives, affinity groups, and individual authors."2 For instance, those coordinating the DDoS attacks may not be the same people who write manifestos, or launch blogs or news sites under this name; the protests in support of Wikileaks were, for the most part, unconnected to the arm of Anonymous currently protesting the abuses of the Church of Scientology, a fact overlooked by many writing on this topic.
A small cadre of participants in Anonymous are hackers: these are skilled programmers, security researchers, and system administrators who identify as such. Many, although not all of them, are motivated by some version of a desire for information freedom. A much larger group I describe not as hackers, but instead provisionally, as “geeks.” These geek participants hold a number of digital media literacies such as video editing, design skills, collaborative writing tools, and enough technical know-how to be able to use Internet Relay Chat. Other participants may not qualify nor identify as geeks or hackers, but through participation in this digital domain, they start to learn some of the cultural codes and digital literacies that can make them over time into geeks themselves, or at least familiar with them.
In this piece I will provide a brief historical description of how the multiple political operations under the banner of Anonymous came into being, and then describe in broad strokes some of their key organizational and ethical logics. Although in no way should this be taken as comprehensive, it will clear up some of the more common misconceptions surrounding the political wings of Anonymous. In so doing, we will also see how part of Anonymous has over the last three years moved from disaggregated practices rooted in the culture of trolling to also become a rhizomatic and collective form of action catalyzed and moved forward by a series of world events and political interventions.
Anonymous emerged out of an enormously popular and anonymous image board, 4chan. It was primarily associated with a phenomenon—trolling—known at times to unfold there. Trolling on 4chan often consists of an unpredictable combination of the following: telephone pranking, having many unpaid pizzas sent to the target's home, DDoSing, and most especially, splattering personal information, preferably humilating, all over the Internet. Since at least 2006, “Anonymous” has conducted many such trolling campaigns. The motivating force and emotional consequence for the instigators of many acts of trolling, including those on 4chan, are cited as the “lulz,” a pluralization and bastardization of laugh out loud (lol). Lulz denotes the pleasures of trolling, but the lulz is not exclusive to trolling. The lulz can also refer more generally to lighthearted and amusing jokes, images, and pranks.
In 2008 Anonymous conducted a now-legendary wave of trolling when they decided to unleash their collective and unpredictable fury against the Church of Scientology. The Church was making a vigorous attempt to halt the circulation of a leaked church video (meant only for internal church viewing), featuring Tom Cruise exuberantly praising the practices and theology of Scientology. The Church threatened online publishers, such as Gawker, with legal action (citing violation of the DMCA) if they did not take down the video. Anonymous responded by leading a series of what they call “raids” against the Church between January 15th and January 27th 2008. These acts were described by one participant in characteristically offensive but accurate terms as “ultra-coordinated motherfuckary.” Consistent with previous actions, Anonymous trolled the Church of Scientology largely for the sake of the lulz, picking on a target that geeks love to hate.
Soon after the first waves of trolling the course of Anonymous veered toward more traditional political territory. What led to this transformation? A set of videos were key instigators in this change of course. Over the span of a week in late January of 2008, the videos were made and circulated, material that led to days of fiery debate among participants in the attacks as to the purpose and meaning of their raiding. The first and the now the most famous declared war against the Church of Scientology. However this video was not a wholly sincere declaration; it was made for the lulz. Five days later another video appeared, this time recorded by a long-time critic of the Church Mark Bunker who asked Anonymous to renounce its trollish ways and deploy more serious and especially legal tactics in order to fight what he and his political cohort understood as a dangerous cult. This was soon followed by a more sincere call for political action by some participants of Anonymous. These home-brewed videos catalyzed a period of heated debate on IRC channels. One of the recurrent questions was whether Anonymous should leave the Internet to protest the Church.
Enough participants decided to move forward to organize a global day of action—a set of protests remarkably well executed and attended. On February 10, 2008 over six thousand people protested across North America, Europe, New Zealand, and Australia, many in front of Scientology Churches. A sizable chunk of protesters at these first protests lacked what we commonly associate with street protests: political intentionality and consciousness. At the New York City protests the atmosphere was carnivalesque. People were making fun of the Church and speaking in hyper-charged Internet jargon about lol cats, long cats, the lulz, and mudkips. These actions were impressive for their high levels of attendance and aesthetic bravado, which included a performance of their anonymity: Most protesters arrived wearing Guy Fawkes masks, now a staple part of Anonymous' iconography.
Soon after the global day of protests, a separation occurred. Many participants receded back to the Internet from whence they came, but those that remained continue to organize more traditional protests focused on the human rights abuses of the church, and now don a more recognizable political subjectivity (although many still don the Guy Fawkes mask as well ). “I came for the lulz but stayed for the outrage,” as one Irish Anonymous participant told me in August, voicing a common sentiment. The lulz, however, have not simply evaporated. Protesters continue to engage in a sometimes difficult juggling act between traditional street protest and the more wild, grotesque, humorous, and offensive elements that are part and parcel of the lulz.
Starting in the winter of 2008 and continuing through the the fall of 2010, the more traditional political face of Anonymous was largely, although not exclusively, focused on lambasting the abuses of the Church of Scientology.3 In September 2010 the name Anonymous was yet again mobilized on 4chan to launch a new political operation: Operation Payback. Coming in the form of politically motivated DDoS attacks, Anonymous targeted the MPAA (and eventually other organizations and companies) to show support for the famous file-sharing site, The Pirate Bay soon after its servers were DDoSed by an Indian software firm that had been hired by the MPAA to engage in this form of digital privateering.
Like previous operations this one was first concocted on 4chan, but migrated onto IRC due to the impracticalities of coordinating on an anonymous image board. Although some participants participated in both Operation Payback and the protests against Scientology, the MPAA-targeting operation was sociologically distinct from the protests against the Church of Scientology. They were organized on different IRC networks and initiated largely by a different group of people.
In December 2010, soon after Wikileaks released a small trove of diplomatic cables, those participating in Operation Payback shifted their energies to engage in the largest and most spectacular set of actions to date. Anonymous did not protest only to register its support of Wikileaks; they launched into actions in response to PayPal, Mastercard, and Amazon pulling all support and services for Wikileaks, despite the organization not been charged with any infraction.
This operation, which disabled the websites of some of the world’s most powerful corporations for a few days, was exceptional. It led, for instance, to one of the most populated channels in the history of Internet Relay Chat with a large infantry of geeks logging on to IRC to watch or lend a helping hand—at one point there were over seven thousand people on the main channel. Despite the chaotic feel of interactions among these hefty numbers of participants, they managed to control the DDoS with a notable degree of deliberation and care. For instance, participants chose targets through polling, collectively wrote documents to explain who to and who not to attack, and constantly reminded other participants of this on IRC.
Not all participants took part in this form of digital dissent. Others made and released dozens of images and videos. In this period those protesting the Church continued to do so, some of them lending a helping hand wtih this other wing of Anonymous. Many others were just watching to see what would happen, and some, like a number of geeks and hackers, were ethically appraising the use of DDoS as a tactic for protest and dissent.4
In late December soon after these attacks waned, Anonymous lent a helping hand in what seemed to be an unlikely place: Tunisia. They did so well before the North American and European media started to report with any depth and accuracy on the protests against the government brewing so strongly on the ground. On January 2, 2011 Anonymous initiated “OpTunisia” after the government blocked Wikileaks from the Internet and they continued to offer aid as street protests more strongly swept the country. In keeping with tradition, they DDoSed government and tourist websites, but also funneled videos of the street violence out of Tunisia and created packets for Tunisian cyberactivists and protesters providing information for evading governmental surveillance. In the Anonymous care packet, some anons also gestured toward the very limits of their own cyberacitivism by stating “This is *your* revolution. It will neither be Twittered nor televised or [sic] IRC'ed. You *must* hit the streets or you *will* loose [sic] the fight. Always stay safe, once you got [sic] arrested you cannot do anything for yourself or your people. Your government *is* watching you." OpTunisia represented another turning point in the political formation of Anonymous as a protest movement. Whereas most previous operations resided in the realm of Internet politics or censorship, this operation moved squarely into human rights activism as it converged with an existing social movement. OpTunisia also attracted a large number of participants.
Since this period, Anonymous has continued to initiate a diverse range of operations. As Tunisia helped spark the astounding protests in Egypt, attention also moved there. Along with operations in Libya and New Zealand among many other places, they have also led attacks in Italy as Silvio Berlusconi faced accusations of sleeping with an underage prostitute, and in Wisconsin to protest a law that seeks to shred collective bargaining rights of public unions. In early April they aggressively targeted Sony as a response to the lawsuit the corporate giant issued against George Hotz, a gamer-hacker who bypassed the digital protections on the PlayStation
Authority and Power within Anonymous
With this basic picture in place, we can turn to the following questions: who participates in Anonymous? What connects the different faces? Where and how does authority lie, pool, and disperse?
Technically, Anonymous is open to all and erects no formal barriers to participation. However there are forms of tacit and explicit knowledge, skills, and sympathies that lead some people and not others to politically engage in this domain. In contrast to most organizations, including Wikileaks, it is easier to contribute to Anonymous as it offers numerous micro-protest opportunities coordinated at the drop of a hat, among other possibilities for participation.
To grasp some of the power dynamics at play in Anonymous, it is imperative to address the technical architecture where many spend a significant time chatting and coordinating action: Internet Relay Chat. And it is worth emphasizing that there are currently two distinct and unconnected IRC networks where participants coordinate different efforts: Anonet and Anonops. Contrary to a number of media reports, these are open to the public. However a good deal of the public has no idea how to find or use Internet Relay Chat, although it is not technically difficult to use. 5
Within each IRC network there are also scores of channels, although there is usually only a dozen or so that are well populated at a given time. There are some channels devoted to social topics and lighthearted and humorous (ie: lulzy) banter, as many participants still value the lulz. The lulz provides “a release valve,” as one participant explained, a valve that makes the hard and sometimes depressing work of political engagement more bearable. Other channels exist to address technical issues, and of course, there are also multiple channels where the many political operations are coordinated; some participants have a pivotal role to play in many of them, others are only involved in a few channels.
On IRC there is a class of participants who hold more authority, those vested with infrastructural power: the IRC operators (“ops” are common to all IRC networks not only those of Anonymous). Tasked with maintaining order, they have the power to kick and ban individuals from the IRC network, which they might do for various reasons, including violating network and cultural norms, such as constantly connecting and disconnecting or in the case of Anonops, targeting the media or promoting violence. There are dozens of ops on each independent irc network. To be an op does not require that one be highly technically skilled. Although their opinions carry more weight during the many debates that unfold on these networks, they do not determine the course of every action or operation within Anonymous. Some are there simply to provide infrastructural support, others also engage in many of the political operations.
Authority and order also come in the form of policy, ethical sensibilities, and norms, all of which develop over time and often continuously formed and reformed in reaction to historical events. Participants across both networks are oriented towards issues of censorship, information freedom, and as their name so obviously signals, they tend to be overwhelmingly committed to the long-standing liberal principle that anonymous speech is necessary for a healthy democratic society. In the case of Anonops there is now an established policy to refrain from attacking the news outlets, even in nation-states where the media is seen to be a corrupt arm of state power, as in Iran. This provision is not universally accepted, and there have been periods when some participants violated this norm, leading to what is common to any political protest movement: debate and discord.
Finally, to understand the dynamics of power and authority in Anonymous one must confront what is one of the most interesting, prevalent, and socially-vibrant norms within Anonymous: its anti-leader and anti-celebrity ethic. This ethic that modulates, even if it does not fully eliminate, the concentration of power. Anonymous provides what Mike Wesch had described as “a scathing critique of the postmodern cult of celebrity, individualism, and identity while serving itself as the inverted alternative.” 6 It is key to note that participants do not only wax philosophical about this commitment; they enact it. Participants remind each other with remarkable frequency that one should not behave like a leader, nor seek personal attention in the media, calling the practice “name fagging” or “leaderfagging.””7 If you do 'leaderfag', you most certainly will receive a private or public drubbing, and if you have called a lot of attention to yourself, then with a mere keystroke, you might be instantly banished from IRC.
I was recently witness to just this very act after a participant had been too public about himself to a reporter, an anon who had not even built social capital by putting himself at risk participating in the DDoS attacks. After reading the article where he had been featured, one interlocutor condensed the collective mood in a mere sentence: “Attempting to use all the work that so many have done for your personal promotion is something i will not tolerate.” Then he was killed off— exiled from the IRC network
Does the existence of this ethic mean that power never pools, that there are no forms of authority? Or is Anonymous just living out a lie? Neither. To be sure, when it comes to certain actions, such as targeted hacking, only a small group of talented hackers can successfully pull this off; unsurprisingly, Anonymous is secretive about these types of operations. This fact does not mean, as this Gawker piece argued that a small group of hackers are the leaders; they are confusing the power to hack, which is certainly powerful, with the power to lead all actions within Anonymous. As stated earlier, those who are more present on the network and have put in more work carry more authority; and even they don't necessarily call all the shots. A more compelling rendition of these power dynamics would examine the dialectic between the creation of centralized power and its dispersal, which is common to many other geeky and hacker domains of collaboration. The uneasy relation between these two tendencies is partially resolved when anons constantly remind each other to refrain from behaving like a leader, and thus push participants to strive for consensus as the preferred mode of decision-making.
Conclusion: Political Gateway
Due to its multifaceted and layered attributes, Anonymous, as this informative article has argued persuasively, is a challenge to study. However, is Anonymous simply, as the piece concludes, “Cyber-lynch mobs that are organized via the Internet, who share the common meme of “Anonymous”, where a few people say 'hey let's do this', and those of like mind go do it while the others sit it out and post lolcat pictures on 4chan.”? If one spends time examining the political wings of Anonymous, it is clear that they have enough coherence, history, and ethical substance to separate them in some fashion from some other facets of 4chan or troll culture; even if the lulz is still part of the political arms of anonymous and trolling is still one of the actions coordinated under this moniker, the whole of the Anonymous cannot simply be reduced to cyber-lynching, nor can the whole of Anonymous be reduced to the forms of politics I have examined here.
Although I have sought to contextualize Anonymous within the cultural milieu from which it arose (4chan, trolling, and the lulz), I have primarily honed in on the various political expressions of Anonymous. We can locate the political arms of Anonymous by virtue of the IRC networks they use, the regular participants who show up to contribute their time and their labor, the messages they broadcast via videos, manifestos, and messages, and the norms by which they devise, enact, and tranform. Here I have only scratched at the surface as to how authority, ethical and behavioral norms, and political tactics arise and function within some nodes of Anonymous. There is much more to learn, study, and say.
What we can note about Anonymous is that since the winter of 2008 it has become a political gateway for geeks (and others) to take action. Among other opportunities, Anonymous provides discrete micro-protest possibilities that aren't otherwise present in a way that allows individuals to be part of something greater. You don't have to fill out a form with your personal information, you aren't being asked to send money, you don't even have to even give your name but you do feel like you are actually part of something larger. The decision to engage in political action has to happen somehow, via a concrete path of action, a set of events, or influences; Anonymous is precisely that path for many.
- 1. I would like to thank Luke Simcoe, Quinn Norton, Alex Leavitt, Nicholas Mirzoeff, James Hodges, and various participants from the different faces of Anonymous who provided invaluable feedback.
- 2. In a dissertation on the topic, Deseriis examines a range of these multiple use names, including those of Captain Ludd and Luther Blissett.
- 3. During this time period, the name Anonymous was still called into being on various sites to help coordinate trolling and there were some smaller political operations, including Project Skynet, Anonymous Iran, Operation Baylout, and Project Cntroll.
- 4. Not only was there no agreement among hackers and digital activists over the ethical legitimacy of these particular attacks, the positions were wildly divergent. Some hackers, like Richard Stallman, described them as “mass demo against control” while Rop Gonggrijp during the December 2010 annual Computer Chaos Club Congress keynote talk chastised the actions as immature.
- 5. One arm of Anonymous links to their server on their website.
- 6. In Press "Anonymous, Anonymity, and the End(s) of Identity and Groups Online: Lessons from “the First Internet-Based Superconsciousness" in Human No More, eds. Neil Whitehead and Michael Wesch. University of Colorado Press.
- 7. The terms “fag” and “fagging” are very common on 4chan, the Anonymous networks, and other troll-heavy sites, as part of the offensive language common among their users. Often used as an insult, it can also be used as a term of endearment. On Anonops, it has its own particular valence as there is also a sizable cohort of queer participants.