EWFA Chapter 8
Chapter 8 - Merry Pranksters, Freedom Fighters, or Sadistic Bullies?
IN 2008 I was living in England, writing for a travel company. I remember returning from a trip to Spain, exhausted and dirty after a weekend of no sleep and near-missed departures. I transferred from the Eurostar train as the sun rose over London when I spotted a portly fellow in a Guy Fawkes mask wobbling toward me. We ended up sitting together on the train.
“Kind of early for a raid, don’t you think?” I asked.
He pulled up the mask and grinned. “Never too early for lulz,” he chortled. “You coming?”
“No. I had no idea there was something happening today.”
I explained I’d never participated in any raids, but was generally aware of Anonymous’s activity.
“Ah. A lurker then?”
“You might say that.”
He flashed another grin, slouched into his seat, and started fiddling with a Nintendo DS.
This interaction freaked me out. It was the first time I’d witnessed someone acknowledge Anonymous in the “real” world. It was almost as if Indiana Jones or some other cinematic character had boarded my train. To me, Anonymous was part of the Internet, and this was real life. A bemasked Anon seemed as out of place on my train as Darth Vader.
It was a jarring moment. The lines between the Internet and real life weren’t just blurry. They weren’t even there anymore. Facebook brought everyone and their mom (literally) onto the Internet, and everyday people were living out their lives on the web like it was no big deal. And now, even the antisocial denizens of the web’s pale, pulsating underbelly were drinking coffee on my train at five o’clock in the morning.
The trolling of the Usenet era can largely be seen as lighthearted, almost gentlemanly fun that actually had some social value in that it inoculated noobs to online life and encouraged them to absorb the social mores of the online community.
Journalist Julian Dibbell became aware of trolls when researching online gaming for an essay called “A Rape in Cyberspace” that he wrote for the Village Voice in 1993. The story chronicled a lone troll named Mr. Bungle who “raped” fellow players’ avatars, forcing them to commit bizarre sex acts on each other via a “voodoo doll,” a bit of code that allowed Bungle to take control of others’ characters. The spectacle drove at least one victim to tears.
Back then, this kind of malicious trolling was mostly a solitary proposition. According to Dibbell, the attitude of the man behind Mr. Bungle was, “This is all just make believe, so let’s just play around and see what happens when you poke this community with a stick.” But for the victims it wasn’t just a game. They felt violated. The essay was an early glimpse into the ways that online life and real life would bleed together in the coming decades.
Dibbell continued to track trollish behavior in online games, writing another landmark article about griefers (trolls who terrorize others within online games) for Wired in 2008. During that time, technology made it easier for people with trollish inclinations to find one another and engage in collective mischief. Trolls would set up sites and create FAQs dedicated to griefing tips. They congregated in anonymous IRC channels to plan coordinated attacks. Trolling became a more explicitly subcultural, even communal, behavior, as they realized they could cause a lot more damage—and generate a lot more lulz—working together.
The Habbo Hotel Raids & The Patriotic Nigras
Habbo is a global social networking site for teenagers that allows users to create cartoonish avatars that interact with each other in a Lego-like environment. The hub of the Habbo universe is the Habbo Hotel. It’s where users access chat rooms and games. It gets 18 million unique visitors each month.
Because Habbo is populated mostly by kids, it became an easy target for trolls. First they came from Something Awful. The goons created a fake cult of nonconfrontational characters who wore gray hoods. They would chant mystical babble like “the path is gray” in an effort to convert other players, whom they called prismatics because of the colors in their costumes. They didn’t disrupt the other players, but mostly just aimed to confuse. At one point they staged an “ascension,” where the goons reenacted the Jonestown Massacre, complete with gray Kool-Aid. The prank climaxed when the goons disconnected simultaneously, vanishing into the ether after having consumed their gray beverage. Other goons posing as concerned friends and family went into hysterics, and those who weren’t in on the joke were spooked.
4chan users, many of whom had also migrated from Something Awful, saw delicious opportunity in July 2006. In what came to be known as The Great Habbo Raid, hundreds of /b/tards joined Habbo, creating black, suit-wearing avatars with giant Afros. The avatars disrupted conversations, flooded chat rooms with racist spam, and generally annoyed people. In particular, they blocked access to the hotel’s swimming pools, repeating, “Pool’s closed due to AIDS.” When moderators banned the trolls, the /b/tards accused them of racism.
Meanwhile, over in Second Life, a game world that attracts tens of thousands of players at any given moment, a group of /b/tards calling themselves the Patriotic Nigras spent their days messing with some of the community’s denizens, especially the furries. Furries have long been a favorite target of 4chan for many reasons, but mostly because they take themselves so seriously. The furries flock to Second Life, where they are able to live out their “fursonas” in peace and mutual appreciation.
So the Nigras created Tacowood, a parody of the Furry utopia Luskwood, but instead of a beautiful forest populated by cuddly anthropomorphic critters, Tacowood comprised a “defurrested” wasteland strewn with the corpses of dead furries.
For my money, the best thing the Patriotic Nigras ever pulled off was their griefing of an in-game CNET interview with Second Life virtual real estate magnate Anshe Chung’s avatar. The interview was interrupted when the Nigras conjured a parade of giant pink penises out of thin air, which danced across the stage, horrifying everyone involved.
In Julian Dibbell’s aforementioned write-up of troll culture, one Something Awful goon who was part of a troll group within the game EVE Online said, “The way that you win in EVE is you basically make life so miserable for someone else that they actually quit the game and don’t come back.”
The Nigras and goons aren’t really playing Habbo Hotel, Second Life, or EVE. They’re playing the 4chan metagame. These kinds of trolls were purely “for the lulz,” and they defined Anonymous’s behavior in its early days. It was relatively mischievous fun at someone else’s expense, and it didn’t cross the line into the real world.
Mitchell Henderson Memorial Raid
On a spring afternoon in 2006, a seventh grader named Mitchell Henderson fatally shot himself in the head. His friends created a virtual memorial page on MySpace, leaving condolences for family members, prayers, and cherished memories.
One mourner’s MySpace comment became a meme.
He was such an hero, to take it all away. We miss him so, That you should know, And we honor him this day. He was an hero, to take that shot, to leave us all behind. God do we wish we could take it back, And now he’s on our minds. Mitchell was an hero, to leave us feeling like this, Our minds are rubber, our joints don’t work, Our tears fall into abyss. He was an hero, to take that shot, In life it wasn’t his task, He shouldn’t have had to go that way, before an decade’d past.
The phrase an hero struck /b/tards as hilarious. On its face, the garbled grammar brought the lulz, but more importantly it was the idea that killing oneself is inherently heroic. On 4chan, an hero is now synonymous with suicide. When someone asks for advice on the /adv/ board, some smartass will inevitably suggest, “an hero?”
The way /b/ saw it, some emo wimp killed himself over a toy, and a bunch of whiners were turning the spoiled little shit into a hero. Something had to be done. In the midst of the tragedy, the page caught the attention of /b/, who spammed the page mercilessly with insensitive messages. They eventually found out his parents’ home address and began prank-calling them, saying “Hi, this is Mitchell. I’m at the cemetery,” or “Hi, I’ve got Mitchell Henderson’s iPod.” (For reasons I’m unable to determine, /b/ became convinced that Mitchell killed himself over a lost iPod, which probably contributed to their sense of the situation’s lulziness.)
There is a cartoon of a 4chan troll euphorically licking the tears from the cheek of his victim. This harassment represents a nastier bent to Anonymous’s trolling.
Tom Green LIVE! Raids
Remember Tom Green, the gonzo comedian who, like Andy Kaufman, made a career out of confusing and enraging NORPs? Green’s cable access show was picked up by MTV in 1999, and for a few years he was among the most well-known comedians. After a few box office flops, he launched Tom Green LIVE!, a web show that continued in the spirit of his earlier show, which had featured unscreened prank callers.
In August of 2006, /b/tards flooded his phone lines with prank calls blurting out as many obscure 4chan memes as possible before Tom cut them off. There are videos on YouTube of an increasingly frustrated and unhinged Green putting up with abuse from /b/tards. Here was a man who was used to be in control of the situation. But the troller had become the trolled. Green eventually got wise and began to address 4chan directly, but this was perceived by Anonymous as further desperation. This represents the first time Anonymous went after a specific person on a large scale.
Hal Turner Raid
The trolling of white supremacist radio host Hal Turner represents a meaningful shift in Anonymous’s behavior. It wasn’t just for the lulz; it was, in chan-speak, “for great justice” (a line from the aforementioned Zero Wing). In their eyes, this guy was a villain who needed to be taken down. In lulzy fashion, of course.
In December 2006, Anonymous members flooded Turner’s show with prank calls and brought down his website, provoking him to post all the prank callers’ phone numbers, encouraging his true fans to retaliate.
In response, Anonymous dug up Hal Turner’s criminal record along with his current residence and contact information. Hundreds of prank calls ensued. In the following months, Hal threatened 4chan and Anonymous, and they continued to prank his show and website. This conflict culminated with Turner filing a lawsuit against 4chan and several other sites for copyright infringement. The suit was dismissed.
Hal was convinced that he would be able to get the jerks that caused him so much pain, but he, like many others who wander into Anonymous’s crosshairs, didn’t recognize the collective’s knack for asymmetrical warfare.
During the American Revolution, colonial forces were able to take out huge swathes of enemy combatants because, technically, they didn’t play by the rules. They hid in the woods, sniped from a distance, and behaved in otherwise dishonorable fashion. The British forces were still operating under the old rules, and in some cases they got slaughtered. Those dishonorable tactics would become the strategies of future conflict. In today’s War on Terror, insurgents use similar methods. They hide among civilians and employ other kinds of trickery. Military strategists call it asymmetrical warfare. It’s why the US’s magnificently powerful armed forces are still fighting a war after a decade of conflict. Hal Turner tried to fight 4chan with legal means and lost. Like the clumsy British forces, he was playing by old rules.
In a weary post, Turner eventually admitted defeat.
I am not certain where to go from here. My entire existence—short of my physical presence on this planet—has been utterly wrecked, by people I never met from places I’ve never been.
Anon Gets Cocky
In October 2006, Jake Brahm posted bomb threats to 4chan, and was subsequently investigated by the FBI, sentenced to six months in prison and six months under house arrest, and ordered to pay $26,750 in fines.
The following year, a teenager in Pflugerville, Texas, posted photos depicting pipe bombs (they were fake), threatening to blow up his school. A few other Anons tracked him down using Exif data (data that is embedded into photographs by digital cameras that details the geographic location of the photo, the make and model of the phone, the time the photo was taken, and more) and reported him to the police. He was arrested.
Several similar cases have followed in the years since. Anonymous loves to mess with people, but they seem to draw the line at indiscriminate killing. They are adept at finding and punishing Anons who step out of line.
We’ve all seen pedobaiting, though you may not recognize it as such. From 2004 to 2007, Dateline NBC’s “To Catch a Predator” segment glamorized the police’s use of undercover sting operations that were used to catch real-world child predators. The show follows a general format. The tech-savvy volunteers at Perverted Justice, an organization devoted to the prevention of child abuse, pose as children in chat rooms until they get the attention of a potential predator. They then entice the target to meet with the hypothetical child. They hire a child actor, put him in a house, and wait for the target to show up, at which point he’s confronted by host Chris Hansen (whose oft-repeated line “Why don’t you have a seat over there,” is repeated constantly on 4chan) and eventually jumped by the cops.
Pedobaiting is a popular pastime for Anonymous members. The motivation is a mix of heroic do-goodery and naked schadenfreude. It’s exciting to talk to a sicko, and the payoff is an intoxicating moralistic thrill. With a simple Google search one can find guides to pedobaiting that detail the most effective ways to entrap and report potential predators.
In late 2007, Anonymous laid their sights on 53-year-old Chris Forcand. They posed as underage girls under the name “serious,” inciting conversations like the following:
forcandchris: i adopt you
serious: Mmm then we could play everday
forcandchris: for sure
forcandchris: andsleep together every night
serious says: if we sleep that is ;)
forcandchris: cause we would have sex every night
Forcand was arrested by the end of the year, and the event was reported by several news outlets as the first time a suspected child predator was exposed by anonymous Internet vigilantes.
Just how prevalent is child pornography (aka CP, as well as Cheese Pizza, Captain Picard, and Christopher Poole) on 4chan? From my personal experience I can say “not very.” But it’s there. So why hasn’t the site been shut down? First, the moderators are pretty vigilant about removing child porn as soon as it appears. And when they catch it, they report the offending IP addresses to the proper authorities, which is really all any photo upload site can do. The “4chan Party Van” is a jokey name for the FBI van that might appear outside your home if the moderators report you for posting CP. moot claims that child pornography is automatically reported to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s CyberTipline, which acts as a clearinghouse, forwarding the content to appropriate law enforcement.
But it still happens. On February 14, 2011, a Navy man admitted to acquiring child porn at 4chan. On May 18th, 2011, a man arrested for child pornography told the feds during a home raid that he obtained child porn there as well.
There probably aren’t that many genuine pedophiles on 4chan in the same way there aren’t very many genuine white supremacists on 4chan, or in society at large. People who behave outside the range of social norms tend to attract the most attention. Furthermore, trolls like to break the rules, and one of the only rules on /b/ is “No CP.” Like the rampant racism, homophobia, and sexism seen on 4chan, the site’s obsession with child pornography is rooted in irony, for the most part.
Enter Pedobear, a cartoon bear that is the closest thing /b/ has to a mascot. He’s the most infamous 4chan meme, and was originally depicted as ASCII art.
Pedobear originally comes from 2channel. In Japan he is called Kuma, which is Japanese for bear, and has no association with pedophila. In 4chan’s early days, there was a lot of memetic overlap between 2channel and 4chan, and Kuma made his way to English-speaking message boards. Now he often appears in 4chan threads in the Pedobear Seal of Approval, or its converse, a depiction of the bear muttering “Too old” at images of anyone over 16. “Is dat sum CP?” he asks, peeking his head into any thread with pics of kids. His arch-nemesis is Chris Hansen of “To Catch a Predator.”
Pedobear’s appearance in a thread can be used to signal that someone is looking for child pornography. He might appear when someone posts a non-pornographic image of a kid. It’s usually used as shorthand to say, “Dude, you’re a pedophile.” The cuddly representation of such repugnant behavior encapsulates the cutesy and sinister dichotomy present on 4chan. Although meant to characterize pedophilia, Pedobear is also a mockery of pedophilia, which many Anons have successfully fought against in the real world.
But why would anyone joke about child pornography and child predation, two of the most universally reviled behaviors in human history? On 4chan, it’s precisely because they’re the most universally reviled behaviors in human history. /b/tards love nothing more than shocking NORPs with behavior that takes on the appearance of deviance.
The media and even police have sensationalized Pedobear. The San Louis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department released a Public Safety Information Bulletin entitled “A Seemingly Innocent Menace: An Introduction to ‘Pedo Bear,’ which detailed the perceived threat of the character.
His cute face and nonthreatening appearance negate the truth of his sinister, much darker side.
In fact, one of the things that make PedoBear popular is the controversy surrounding his licentious love of little girls. PedoBear is and should be associated with the Internet and pedophiles/sexually-preferential offenders who reportedly use him to communicate their interests in young children to each other.
At the San Diego Comic Con 2010 in July of this year, law enforcement discovered an individual dressed in a PedoBear costume, handing out candy and being photographed in contact with attendees, including multiple children. Once identified, the young man and his costume were excluded from the family-friendly event . . . Disguised as innocence, this underground community that would make victims of our children, teasingly reaches out into the light of day.
The bulletin failed to mention that 99 percent of the time, Pedobear is used in jest. Real pedophiles aren’t on 4chan for the lulz.
Project Chanology is Anonymous’s anti-Scientology effort. It changed everything, bringing the collective, along with 4chan, into the limelight, and gave Anonymous’s efforts a pseudopolitical bent that would come to dominate the group’s future endeavors. That masked man I saw on the train in Europe? He was part of Project Chanology.
Of course, the broader going anti-Scientology movement goes all the way back to Usenet days. Before delving into the early anti-Scientology movement, it’s important to understand something about the ideals of hackers and even general Internet users from that era, all of whom today would be considered extremely tech-savvy given the structural barriers to entry that the Internet imposed.
Tech heads were, and still are, drawn to the Internet in part because it promises a level playing field, where all-important information is out in the open. As the WELL’s Stewart Brand famously declared, “Information wants to be free.” Enthusiasts in those days saw the Internet as a utopian future, where one could be taken at his or her word.
Usenet was home to a fervent discussion at alt.religion.scientology, started in 1991 by Scott Goehring, a regular guy who wished to expose the hypocrisies and deceptions of the Church of Scientology. It soon became frequented by ex-church members, free speech enthusiasts, and other critics who found the church’s suppression of information to fly in the face of geek principles. Among these geeks was Dennis Erlich, who joined the newsgroup in July 1994. Erlich was a former high-ranking member of the church who had been affiliated with none other than the founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard. The newsgroup, which was already known for controversy and flame wars, exploded in size.
On December 24, 1994, previously secret documents dealing with mysterious concepts like “Thetan Levels” were leaked to the newsgroup, and the church wasn’t happy. It hired lawyers to contact participants and demanded that the documents be removed. Subsequently the church attempted to shut down the newsgroup entirely, claiming copyright infringement.
On February 13th, 1995, church attorney Thomas Small, along with seven others, raided Dennis Erlich’s home and spent six hours seizing files from his computer. Dennis complained about the raid that night, kicking off massive outrage. Several other raids occurred throughout the year. On August 12, 1995, Usenet poster and former Scientologist Arnaldo Lerma’s home was raided by ten people from the FBI (two federal marshals, two computer techies, and several attorneys). They took his computer, backups, disks, modem, and scanner. Ten days later, two more raids took place. Even newsgroup users in the Netherlands and Sweden were investigated.
These raids infuriated the geeks, for whom technology is not so much a tool as an ideal in itself. The Church of Scientology, on the other hand, is shrouded in secrecy, and uses technology as a means to achieve an end: KSW, or Keeping Scientology Working. KSW is a church edict that declares the role of technology to be a primary tool for furthering the interests of Scientology.
Over the next few years the church spammed newsgroups with propaganda. In the early days of search engines, the church also employed web designers to build thousands of dummy web pages to flood search engines with Scientology-related information so criticisms of the church would be hard to find. The anti-Scientology movement became less about unmasking a pseudoreligion and more about upholding truth, transparency, freedom of information, and other lofty ideological goals.
Remember You’re the Man Now Dog? In 2006, Scientology lawyers threatened that site’s founder Max Goldberg, resulting in a flare of anti-Scientology sentiment among a younger, more lulz-seeking audience on the heels of a South Park episode that mocked Scientology.
Soon, the church became perhaps the first victim of what has come to be known as the Streisand Effect. The term was coined in 2003 by Mike Masnick of Techdirt, when actress and singer Barbra Streisand attempted to suppress the online dissemination of photos of her home, an effort which only drew more attention to the photos. Streisand unsuccessfully sued the photographer, which brought even more publicity.
Anti-Scientology sentiment continued to simmer throughout the early ’00s. Even after the threats to Max Goldberg, geeks lost interest until January 15th, 2008, when the fight against Scientology took a decidedly lulzy turn. Gossip blog Radar ran a leaked church video of normally ultrasuave Scientology member Tom Cruise looking and sounding like a brainwashed pod person. The Mission Impossible theme music plays in the background as Cruise gushes about the power of Scientology. The whole thing was begging to be parodied thousands of times over, and it eventually was.
Gawker founder Nick Denton smartly hosted the video himself, racking up over three million page views. In the post, Denton called Cruise a “complete fanatic,” teasing visitors with, “If Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah’s couch was an eight on the scale of scary, this is a ten.”
Cruise, for many people at the time, was the celebrity face of Scientology. Naturally, the church immediately attempted to suppress the distribution of the video, but the damage had been done. If deleting a few Usenet discussion threads was difficult in the early ’90s, suppressing a video in 2008 was impossible. Nothing short of a federal decree could accomplish that, and even then illicit videos could be distributed through bit torrent and other file-sharing services. Stewart Brand’s maxim about information wanting to be free had materialized on an Internet that never forgives . . . or forgets.
Why did it take so long for the anti-Scientology movement to pick up steam? Why was 2008 the year that the world took notice? Why anti-Scientology, rather than the hundreds of other causes one could rally around?
Lulz. The Tom Cruise video brought a lulzy angle to the anti-Scientology movement. Tom Cruise, and by extension his church, was seen as a buffoon who needed to be brought down a peg or two. Second, 4chan provided a platform around which thousands of activists could be quickly mobilized to take part in DDoS attacks, which required little effort from individual participants and could cause devastating damage in the aggregate.
DDoS attacks are often initiated by a piece of software affectionately called the Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC), named after a fictional weapon from the Command & Conquer PC real-time strategy game. The LOIC allows someone who has zero technical ability to participate in collective attacks. You just push a button, point the “cannon” at a particular URL or IP address, and the software does the rest. The LOIC will flood the target address with “garbage requests.” A website’s server can only handle so much traffic at a given time. When thousands of users are all using the software simultaneously, pinging the site with garbage requests, the attacks can be devastating. And here’s the best part—when they succeed, the individual attackers are virtually untraceable.
But that was just the beginning. Anonymous inundated the Church of Scientology with prank calls and black faxes. (Imagine pulling an entirely black sheet of paper out of your fax machine, soaking wet with wasted, expensive ink.) Anonymous spread the word far and wide on social networks and message boards.
On January 21, 2008, the following manifesto, entitled “Message to Scientology,” was uploaded to YouTube, narrated by a digitized text-to-speech voice:
Hello, leaders of Scientology. We are Anonymous.
Over the years, we have been watching you. Your campaigns of misinformation; your suppression of dissent; your litigious nature, all of these things have caught our eye. With the leakage of your latest propaganda video into mainstream circulation, the extent of your malign influence over those who have come to trust you as leaders, has been made clear to us. Anonymous has therefore decided that your organization should be destroyed. For the good of your followers, for the good of mankind—and for our own enjoyment—we shall proceed to expel you from the Internet and systematically dismantle the Church of Scientology in its present form. We recognize you as a serious opponent, and we are prepared for a long, long campaign. You will not prevail forever against the angry masses of the body politic. Your methods, hypocrisy, and the artlessness of your organization have sounded its death knell.
You have nowhere to hide because we are everywhere. We cannot die; we are forever. We’re getting bigger every day—and solely by the force of our ideas, malicious and hostile as they often are. If you want another name for your opponent, then call us Legion, for we are many.
Knowledge is free. We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.
Thus began Project Chanology, kick-started by anonymous users of 4chan and other chan-style boards where anti-Scientology discussions were held following the release of the Tom Cruise video.
I got in touch with “c0s,” an Anon who claims to be the guy who created and uploaded the “Message to Scientology” video, in AnonOps, an anonymous IRC channel devoted to Anonymous’s operations. I was immediately struck by how polite he was, and how willing he was to chat. Previously I’d only dealt with random /b/tards, who are a particularly different breed than those who are interested in the hacktivist strain of Anonymous found at AnonOps.
After chatting with c0s for a bit I got the impression I was dealing with someone who’d spoken with the press before. He eventually revealed his name, Gregg Housh, a guy who has appeared on countless radio and TV shows, often positioned by producers as a “spokesman” for Anonymous. Housh is quick to clarify that he doesn’t speak for the collective, and that he has no personal role in any of Anonymous’s illegal activities, but he was heavily involved in their anti-Scientology efforts.
Housh started off our conversation by reiterating that the political efforts of Anonymous should be distinguished from the earlier trolls conducted by anons (lowercase a), who have even attacked Housh personally for his “justicefaggotry.” When Housh went public with his identity, these “armchair assholes” doxed him, digging up his social security number, his bank account information, home address, and more. Housh suspects the /b/tards got hold of his information by looking up property records and going from there.
Housh claims that he and a small group of Anons basically started Project Chanology. He had hung around 4chan before, taking part in the Hal Turner and Habbo raids, before pursuing great justice.
I asked Housh to name a few things that the press consistently gets wrong regarding Anonymous.
Error number one is talking about moot in any way for the last 4 years, since he has had nothing to do with it since then, and has actively avoided everything Anonymous has done (yet reaped the benefits with VC and jobs.)
Error number two is of course the use of the words group and member. ugh.
Error number three would probably be any attempt made to paint them as politically one way or another, since it is quite obviously apolitical
Housh recently gave a speech on the steps of New York’s City Hall with a handful of other Anons, journalists whom he feels are responsible for the media climate marked by lazy and fearmongering characterizations of Anonymous.
Housh is hardly the angst-ridden teenager that many journalists would like you to believe makes up Anonymous. He’s in his mid-30s, and he’s been online since ‘93, when he used a text browser. He remembers Usenet’s eternal September, which he, perhaps jokingly, calls “the worst thing that ever happened to the Internet.”
Usenet before eternal september? Very few stupid questions, mostly just good chat and sharing interesting files. it was quite a good community of pretty intelligent people
Like the folks I spoke with at the WELL, Housh insists that in the early days the web wasn’t a chaotic Wild West. The low number of active users prevented people from being “lost in the numbers,” so antisocial behavior was more easily pinpointed and punished.
Anonymous released a second message, in similar style to the letter aimed at the Church of Scientology, a week after Housh’s initial video. This time, Anonymous lashed out at the media.
Dear News Organizations.
We have been watching your reporting of Anonymous’s conflict with The Church of Scientology.
As you said, the so called Church of Scientology have actively misused copyright and trademark law in pursuit of its own agenda. They attempt, not only to subvert free speech, but to recklessly pervert justice to silence those who speak out against them.
We find it interesting that you did not mention the other objections in your news reporting. The stifling and punishment of dissent within the totalitarian organization of Scientology. The numerous alleged human rights violations, such as the treatment and events that led to the deaths of victims of the cult such as Lisa McPherson.
This cult is nothing but a psychotically driven pyramid scheme. Why are you, the news media, afraid of discussing these matters? It is your duty to report on these matters. You are failing in your duty. Their activities make them an affront to freedom. Remember, all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. This information is everywhere. It is your duty to expose it. It is easy to find. Google is your friend.
This is not Religious Persecution, but the suppression of a powerful, criminal, fascist regime. It is left to Anonymous. The Church has been declared fair game. It will be dismantled and destroyed.
We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not Forgive. We do not Forget. This is only the beginning. Expect us.
Anonymous continued harassing the Church of Scientology websites through the spring. They also engaged in Google Bombing techniques. A Google Bomb occurs when Google search results are successfully manipulated by spamming the search engine with specific keywords. For example, 4chan once bombarded Google with the key phrase “Justin Bieber syphilis.” Within hours, Gawker and even the San Francisco Chronicle had run stories about the pop star’s alleged STD. In the Scientology Google Bombing, Anons manipulated the church’s search engine rankings so that certain keywords such as “dangerous cult” linked to the Church of Scientology website.
In February 2008, the anti-Scientology movement jumped off the flickering screen. Another video appeared, encouraging Anons to participate in physical protests at church headquarters around the globe. The protests were small, maxing out at a few hundred participants in English-speaking cities, but they occurred.
The protestors often wear Guy Fawkes masks—now the international symbol of Anonymous. The mask had previously become a vague symbol of faceless rebellion, popularized in 2005 in the film adaptation of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, in which a masked anonymous figure incites a massive anarchic rebellion against an oppressive police state. The masks allow Scientology protestors to remain anonymous during real-life protests, and also grant them a perceived heroic flair.
By the summer of 2008, Anonymous had grown beyond the confines of 4chan. Gabriella Coleman, an anthropologist and leading scholar specializing in the documentation of hacker culture, emphasizes the diversity of the group. She tells me that although there are many young people involved in Anonymous, the perspective of “angst-ridden teenagers with no lives is a misconception.”
I think there’s a kind of hypersociality among these people. A lot of them have very interesting lives. Some are PhD students, some are Dutch squatters, some are system administrators. Some are landscape artists. Some are very sophisticated political activists.
Nonetheless, the protests have uniformly taken a lulzy tone. Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” blares from boomboxes. Protestors dress up like meme characters and wear outlandish costumes. In one photo, four protestors stand behind a sign reading “Truth is Free.” Among them they wear a skeleton mask, a hockey mask, a Star Wars stormtrooper mask, and a nondescript alien mask. This motley crew is here for a cause, but more importantly it’s here to have fun. The aesthetic isn’t only for fun, however. The masks and costumery afford a distinct tactical advantage: they allow Anonymous to attack the church, and when the church retaliates it just makes them look silly. Protestors have mostly steered clear of the law, but a few were detained here and there. By 2010, Chanology protests took place in over one hundred cities across the globe.
The lulzy nature of the protests is best illustrated by Operation Slickpubes. On January 8, 2009, a teenage protestor covered his body with Vaseline and pubic hair, presumably gathered from several friends. He ran into the New York Scientology building and rubbed his body on as much church property as he could. The entire affair is documented on YouTube.
Coleman says that Project Chanology is still active, even though it no longer gets any press.
It doesn’t have the kind of same support it used to, but there’s definitely a core group of people who are dedicated, and in some odd way they’ve achieved some of their major goals. Prior to Chanology, I was very scared of being public about my work on the Church of Scientology. Now I’ve given 25 talks on Chanology and geeky protests against Chanology, so in many ways it was very effective.
Old time anti-Scientology activists from the Usenet days are mostly unimpressed by the activities of Project Chanology. They see the effort as counterproductive. Andreas Heldal-Lund, founder of the anti-Scientology website Operation Clambake, says, “Attacking Scientology like that will just make them play the religious persecution card. They will use it to defend their own counter actions when they try to shatter criticism and crush critics without mercy.” However, some critics have formed alliances with Anonymous when they agreed to stop DDoSing.
Gabriella Coleman argues that Anonymous’s attacks have done some real good.
Scientology has received so much negative attention that they’ve refrained from legal intimidation tactics. If I had released some of the papers I’ve released recently six years ago, I would have been embroiled in legal battles. Anonymous really changed the landscape.
Sarah Palin Email Hack
On September 16, 2008, 20-year-old /b/tard David Kernell, the son of a Democratic state representative of Tennessee, hacked into Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s email account. The hack was as simple as pie. Most password-protected websites will ask users a security question like “What was the name of your first pet?” or “Where did you go to high school?” If a user can’t remember his or her password, they can change their password by confirming their identity through correctly answering the security question.
Kernell got his hands on Palin’s email address, then googled her widely available personal info in order to access her emails, which he then posted to /b/. Kernell had hoped to find incriminating information, but came up dry. He posted the account and password to /b/, and then another 4chan user changed the password and tried to alert a friend of Palin’s. The account was eventually locked by Yahoo! when a bunch of /b/tards tried to access it at once. Epic fail, as far as 4chan was concerned, but Kernell faced graver consequences: a year in prison followed by three years of supervised release.
Kernell, going by the name “rubico,” recounted the tale on /b/, which was then published at Gawker and elsewhere.
Hello, /b/ as many of you might already know, last night sarah palin’s yahoo was “hacked” and caps were posted on /b/, i am the lurker who did it, and i would like to tell the story.
after the password recovery was reenabled, it took seriously 45 mins on wikipedia and google to find the info, Birthday? 15 seconds on wikipedia, zip code? well she had always been from wasilla, and it only has 2 zip codes (thanks online postal service!)
the second was somewhat harder, the question was “where did you meet your spouse?” did some research, and apparently she had eloped with mister palin after college.
I found out later though more research that they met at high school, so I did variations of that, high, high school, eventually hit on “Wasilla high” I promptly changed the password to popcorn and took a cold shower . . .
I read though the emails . . . ALL OF THEM . . . before I posted, and what I concluded was anticlimactic, there was nothing there, nothing incriminating, nothing that would derail her campaign as I had hoped, all I saw was personal stuff, some clerical stuff from when she was governor . . .
The event was reported widely, and the hackers on steroids were making headlines again. Palin released a press release comparing the event to Watergate.
Steve Jobs Heart Attack Hoax
In October 2008, a rumor that Apple CEO Steve Jobs had suffered a heart attack appeared on 4chan. After the story was submitted to a CNN-owned website, Apple’s stock price fell by a massive 5 percent.
4chan, Friend of the Animal Kingdom
On the heels of recent successes in Project Chanology, Anonymous continued to move away from the lulz and toward great justice. On February 15, 2009, two videos appeared on YouTube featuring a 14-year-old kid from Oklahoma torturing a cat. 4chan, whose users see cats as kindred spirits, figured out where he lived and gave his information to local police. In August 2010, 4chan hunted down a woman caught on security camera footage chucking a cat into a trash bin in England. Later that month they pinpointed the location of a pretty blonde teenage girl who was depicted on YouTube gleefully tossing newborn puppies into a river.
These three cases represent 4chan’s softer side. Animal abuse is recognized on 4chan as the most sinister form of human evil, perhaps more so than child porn. 4chan users rallied, piecing together information bit by bit. With their powers combined, the efforts resemble something beyond what could even be accomplished by professional detective work.
Let’s take a closer look at the case of the puppy-throwing girl. The original YouTube video was taken down, but someone saved it and re-posted it to LiveLeak, a site that specializes in hosting video footage that no one else will host. The poster wrote:
We can determine from the picture so few things.
One, based on assumption, she probably has a facebook account, no matter what country they’re in.
Two, she is 5ft 6in-5ft 8in, blond, eye color unknown, Caucasian
She has something written upside-down on her red sweater, barely legible, might be of assistance if it’s the product of a local store.
Let’s work together on exposing this sicko! Use the comments.
From there, 4chan got to work. Someone posted the video to /b/, commenting:
Find this dumb little bitch and throw her into a river.
She’s european. Sounds either Swedish or German, based on what she says at the very end. “Voit.” If anyone speaks these languages, maybe they can decipher what she’s saying.
The hunt continues:
Nope. Not German. Sounds slavic to me. Seriously, that makes me rage.
The conversation continues with cries for justice. Eventually someone provides a list of potential perpetrators’ Facebook pages.
Youtube account owners name is Martin. They live in Bugojno, use googlemaps.
[link to a YouTube account] This faggot commented their youtube account and is a possible friend.
This is the Vrbas river, the one from the video.
The thread is peppered with criticisms from those who would decry moralfaggotry.
Despite the naysayers, this crowd-sourced detective work is one of the most exhilarating things about 4chan. They are able to accomplish much in the aggregate that they wouldn’t alone. As philospher Pierre Lévy says, “No one knows everything. Everyone knows something.”
All it takes is one person to translate a bit of dialogue, recognize a style of license plate, or pinpoint a specific mountain range in the background of a fuzzy YouTube video. These detectives use Google Maps, Flickr, Facebook, WhoIs, the Internet Archive, property records, and a host of other tools to dig up a wealth of information. The work would intimidate any single /b/tard, but together, hundreds or thousands of slackers can rival a small government’s intelligence efforts.
Adam Goldstein Raid
In July 2009, a disgruntled customer posted an exchange he’d had with computer repair serviceman Adam Goldstein to Something Awful, hoping to incite the wrath of the SA goons. The customer had bought a computer monitor from Goldstein’s eBay store, and it was never delivered. When the customer complained, he swore at Goldstein, who demanded an apology, claiming that he had three lawyers in the family, implying that a lawsuit could be on the way.
When Something Awful failed to build enough momentum around the kerfuffle, a goon brought the matter to /b/’s attention.
We at Something Awful require your assistance. While goondom and bee-ocity can accomplish much we have stumbled upon something so utterly delicious we couldn’t keep it away from you raving lunatics.
The meat of the matter is that Adam L. Goldstein LLC who runs a crap company called ATECH computer services decided to be a king-sized douche. After poking and prodding we found that he is a raving lunatic! So, whilst we are under the reigns of our admins and thusly cannot do much beyond making fun of him on our forums . . . we give you the information to do whatever with.
When goons and /b/tards began to spam Goldstein’s email, he discovered the Something Awful thread dedicated to his alleged poor customer service. He paid the SA membership fee in order to dispute the claims, and eventually started threatening lawsuits (or as 4chan calls frivolous legal action, “lolsuits”).
That’s when Anonymous’s wrath descended on poor Goldstein. They brought down his website, figured out where he lived by scraping his MySpace page, and created an Encyclopedia Dramatica entry for him. They bombarded his home and office with mocking phone calls, porn mags, pizza deliveries, sex toy deliveries, death threats, and black faxes. They even scheduled visits from call girls and Jehovah’s Witnesses and posted fake flyers warning the neighborhood of Goldstein’s purported pedophilic past.
But perhaps most damaging was that Anonymous discovered Goldstein was charging exorbitant prices for things like spyware removal and wireless network configuration, and posted this information to Reddit and Digg, where it was discovered by the blogosphere, destroying Goldstein’s online reputation.
In mid-2010, several Bollywood producers hired a company called Aiplex Software to DDoS websites that ignored takedown notices, in an effort to mitigate the piracy that was increasingly eating up their revenue. In retaliation, Anonymous, who I doubt gives much of a crap about Bollywood films, but who seeks to fight antipiracy wherever they see it, launched Operation Payback. They targeted not only Aiplex Software, but also the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, the British Phonographic Industry, and the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, bringing down the sites for a combined thirty hours. These efforts then bled into attacks on related law firms, antipiracy organizations, and even KISS’s Gene Simmons, who encouraged record industry execs to “Be litigious. Sue everybody. Take their homes, their cars.”
They brought down Simmons’s website for over a day, and redirected it to a popular torrent site, The Pirate Bay. He eventually was able to put his site back online, responding:
Our legal team and the FBI have been on the case and we have found a few, shall we say “adventurous” young people, who feel they are above the law. And, as stated in my MIPCOM speech, we will sue their pants off.
First, they will be punished. Second, they might find their little butts in jail, right next to someone who’s been there for years and is looking for a new girl friend. We will soon be printing their names and pictures.
We will find you. You cannot hide. Stay tuned.
His impotent threats, like so many of those Anonymous has targeted, were sheepishly removed a short time later after his site was brought down again. Then Anonymous went after the RIAA because it sought legal action against file sharing site Limewire.
In December 2010, Amazon, Paypal, Bank of America, PostFinance, MasterCard, and Visa decided to stop processing donations for the global news leak network WikiLeaks, which had recently caused global controversy by posting sensitive internal documents. These payment-processing sites had bowed to political pressure, refusing to work with WikiLeaks. In retaliation, Anonymous launched DDoS attacks against several of these companies, successfully bringing down the websites for MasterCard and Visa. A 16-year-old boy from the Netherlands was arrested in relation to the attack, and the FBI is probably still investigating.
HBGary Federal Hack
In February 2011, Aaron Barr, the chief executive of the security firm HBGary Federal, announced that he’d infiltrated Anonymous and would reveal his findings in an upcoming conference.
Anonymous hacked into HBGary Federal’s website and put up a mocking message. They acquired and published embarrassing emails tainted with the hubris of someone who thought he’d beaten Anonymous. This was a company that positioned itself to its clients as a leader in computer security. A company that had contracts with the NSA. And it had been bested by a bunch of amateur pranksters. Epic fail.
Up until then, Anonymous hadn’t been able to do a ton of damage. So they brought down a few websites for a few hours. No big deal. But this was something different. They brought HBGary Federal to its knees by using basic, widely known hacking techniques that could have been stopped had HBGary Federal’s employees taken a few 101-level password protection measures. Congress is now investigating the firm’s relationship with the NSA.
Anonymous’s most recent effort is ongoing as of this writing: on January 11, 2001, Sony sued George Hotz and several others for “jailbreaking” (i.e., busting through intentionally placed limitations in a piece of hardware) and reverse-engineering a PlayStation 3 console. Sony accused Hotz of violating the Digital Millenium Copyright Act and committing computer fraud and copyright infringement. Hotz had fiddled with a PS3, and they wanted to prevent him from telling others how to pull it off. What’s more, they acquired the IP addresses of visitors to Hotz’s blog.
On April 17, Sony was attacked by an unknown entity, leading to the compromise of seventy-seven million accounts (along with personal information and credit card details), and a devastating twenty-four-day outage of Sony’s PSN Network, where users play games against each other via the web. Some have speculated that Sony’s reputation is so damaged that it will be forced to exit the “console wars.”
Some representatives of Anonymous have denied involvement on behalf of the collective, but the coincidence is remarkable. The similarly silly and anonymous hacker group Lulz Security has claimed responsibility for the attack. On May 29, 2011, Lulz Security also successfully hacked PBS in retribution for an episode of Frontline that was perceived as unfair to WikiLeaks. Because they’re operating anonymously and in a lulzy fashion (for example, posting news stories about Tupac Shakur’s New Zealand whereabouts), they may as well be operating under the Anonymous banner. Their methods, motivations, and aesthetic are identical, however they don’t seem to recruit or share Anonymous’s populist ideals. And unlike Anonymous, they’re a discreet group of skilled individuals which could conceivably be dismantled.
Gabriella Coleman guesses that it’s impossible to know who is responsible for the Sony hack.
It’s just impossible to verify, because there is a very well-organized cybercrime mafia that exists in Russia and Bulgaria and other places, and they can very much exploit what Anonymous is doing. There’s a well-known security flaw at Sony, and the next thing you know they steal all the credit cards and then someone at Sony claims it’s Anonymous. Or, maybe it really was Anonymous. No way of knowing.
From the beginning, Anonymous experienced lots of infighting because there is no clear managerial structure. Multiple groups claim to be the real Anonymous at any given moment. AnonOps itself was attacked by Anons who felt that the site’s moderators were taking too much credit for Anonymous’s victories, and attempting to establish hierarchies of control within the ranks. The rogue group was presumably led by a disgruntled AnonOps admin named Ryan. Even worse, Ryan leaked the IP addresses of hundreds of registered AnonOps users. If the infighting has weakened Anonymous through wasted time and money spent getting servers back online, it has helped to solidify one of the group’s most cherished principles: No one’s in charge here.
I got in touch with another Anon, using the handle Anonymouse, who claims that he helped kick-start Operation Sony. Anonymouse immediately gave me a laundry list of misconceptions about 4chan and Anonymous. He too had been dealing with clueless reporters, and wanted to make sure I had a basic understanding of how his community works.
Anonymouse says he transitioned from observer to participant around August 2010. His role is PR, though he clarifies that nobody is assigned to a specific post within the ranks of Anonymous. It was just a need he felt equipped to meet. By the measure of most 4channers, Anonymouse is a newfag, having discovered 4chan after the “bincat” episode in 2010, when a woman was caught on security camera throwing a cat into a garbage bin. 4chan vigilantes harassed the woman, generating mainstream BBC news coverage about 4chan. Anonymouse’s initial fascination with 4chan culture soon gave way to a greater passion for the political efforts of Anonymous.
Anonymouse claims that ops usually start off from chatter in anonymous IRC channels, coupled with recruiting on chan boards and Twitter. When enough people have gotten behind a particular endeavor, someone will create a unique IRC channel, which serves as a virtual base of operations. Recruitment for the legal elements (physical protests rather than hacks and DDoS attacks) continues to take place on various social networks.
It’s important to remember that since anyone can claim to be Anonymous, and anyone can think of a cause to rally behind, not every operation announced by Anonymous represents anything close to an official, unified movement. The group is exceedingly amorphous, and operations live and die by the power of the word-of-mouth behind them. Movements are often announced with the distribution of poster-like images that detail the important elements of an operation, usually including a criticism of the offender, a description of the plan of attack, and a call to action, with links to appropriate IRC channels.
One poster passed around during Operation Sony reads:
Do you really own your own property?
Should you go to jail for making your PS3 run your own programs?
iPhone jailbreaker George Hotz, or Geohot, altered the Sony Playstation 3 console to run homebrew applications. Sony then hit him with lawsuit after lawsuit.
Should you be sued for breaking an agreement you didn’t make?
GeoHot never signed into the PlayStation network with his PS3 and never agreed to the terms of service (that changed AFTER he already purchased the system).
Should you have your personal information revealed for watching a YouTube video?
Sony demanded social media sites, including YouTube to hand over IP addresses of people who visited Geohot’s social pages/videos, as well as his PayPal Account.
Sony thinks so.
Let’s not allow Sony to commit this injustice. It’s time to get pissed OFF and not pissed ON.
On the 16th of April, go to your nearest Sony outlet and protest!
Bring your friends. Be pissed. Raise some noise.
Together, we shall make History.
Get in the IRC! Coordinate your protest!:
Join the Facebook Group: http://tinyurl.com/sonyprotest
Anonymouse tells me that Operation Sony began on the AnonOps IRC channel, where we’re chatting now, as an offshoot of Operation Payback. He runs a channel called #recruit, where he answers questions from curious /b/tards who wander over from 4chan. moot and his mods try to ban users looking to recruit for raids under a policy likely put in place to disassociate 4chan with the illegal actions of Anonymous. Anonymouse and his cohorts use dynamic IP addresses in order to evade the 4chan “banhammer.” According to Anonymouse, moot announced this rule to prevent the Chan Wars, but he likely brought more attention to the ideological conflict between the chan admins, eventually igniting a chan war “of epic proportions, the likes of which had never been seen.”
Anonymouse, like many of the Anons I’ve spoken with, holds a certain nostalgia for the pre-2007 4chan, claiming that it represents an Internet “before people started putting fences all over it.”
The Internet is slowly becoming a closed system. You have to register for almost everything and free registration sites are becoming paid ones. Couple that with government attempts to exert control of what people can do or say online and you have the attempted downfall of the biggest technological revolution mankind has ever witnessed. The Internet has so much potential to make the world more free and enlightened.
Anonymouse is also quick to dispel the notion of the Dorito-munching neckbeard. He calls himself “an extremely social person” who feels that media misinformation is among the biggest threats to Anonymous.
They screw up specifically because they don’t get the concept of a “group” with no hierarchy, social structure, pecking order, or organization. The press are always looking for a “boss”, but there isn’t one. The FBI are the same.
Gabriella Coleman says that there must be a hierarchy, but it’s flat. Certain people have to run IRC channels, for instance.
Anons are creating propaganda, even the ones who aren’t tech savvy. There’s different groups of people who have authority and power but it’s fragmented. That fragmented nature helps to distribute the power. There are some who are very powerful on one operation but not others. There are some that are powerful across the network, but only technically and not politically. It’s kind of complicated, but what’s clear is that there are some groups of people that carry a lot of authority. With the big operations, where they’re DDoS’ing, there are technically people who are coordinating it.
I asked Anonymouse about a recent bit of coverage from Gawker regarding the HBGary Federal hack. Their reporter claimed that Anonymous really is a handful of legit hackers. (Incidentally, Gawker was hacked a few months prior by a group called Gnosis, exposing 1.2 million passwords. The attack allegedly had nothing to do with Anonymous.)
Anonymouse thinks that the press is asking the wrong questions, claiming that they tend to focus on the illegal hacks rather than the illegal acts that the hackers are able to expose. He says that most of the media coverage belies a “sick” acceptance of HBGary’s activities, using government power to spy on its citizens. He draws parallels to the freedom-fighting actions of Anonymous and those of Bradley Manning and Julian Assange, who have also experienced a fair amount of negative press.
How about prosecuting the soldiers named in one of the Afghan war diaries as having shot a bunch of unarmed teenagers? The number one response I’ve noticed when I argue about this is “Well this is the real world, corruption happens, deal with it.” I’m left gaping. Sure it happens. Murder and rape happen too, does that mean we should just say “Oh sure we’ll just leave the murderers alone, it happens. I don’t understand it to be honest. “White collar crime” is somehow regarded as something which we should ignore.
HBGary Federal was developing software to influence public opinion polls by creating thousands of fake social networking profiles. From Anonymouse’s perspective, this is about as antidemocratic as it gets, and Anonymous should be praised as heroes.
Here’s the really frightening part in my view. HBGary were a small, obscure security company. We only went after them because they tried to dox a bunch of us. It was an act of personal revenge at first, rather than actively hoping to expose crime. But look what happened. The can of worms we opened was millions of times bigger than anyone ever expected. Same kind of situation with Operation Payback. [A leak of fifty-three hundred IP addresses collected by a UK firm because they were associated with pirating porn.] When the emails were leaked nobody expected the sheer amount of black ops which would be exposed. I guess you dream of a day when technology has empowered enough common people that it will be nearly impossible for any government entity or corporation to pull this kind of shit.
Now I put this question: Is the entire corporate world rotten to its core? If two tiny, obscure companies are involved in that level of corruption, what does it say about the bigger players?
About an hour into our conversation, Anonymouse claims that he’s the guy who “created” Operation Sony, explaining how the movement evolved out of Operation Payback. He argues that the effort is essential because Sony was attempting to acquire private information about people who had merely viewed an online jailbreaking guide.
The idea that merely reading a piece of information could make you a legal target is terrifying. Here’s an analogy: Making a bomb is illegal. But should you be arrested just for looking up the fact that gunpowder is made of Potassium nitrate, sulphur and charcoal in a rough 75/10/15 ratio?
When one looks at what Anonymous and WikiLeaks have been able to achieve, it almost seems possible that the utopian future of Anonymouse’s dreams is attainable. He foresees a perhaps stateless world in which large organizations behave because they have no other choice. When information moves freely, corporations and civic leaders will be relentlessly held accountable by an informed public. Anonymouse is optimistic that the efforts of Anons will contribute to the breaking down of cultural and national barriers. It’s pretty pie-in-the-sky stuff, but I can’t help but feel energized about the future when talking to him.
Middle East Activism
Most recently, some Anons have been fighting for freedom of information in the Middle East, in what is perhaps the collective’s most noble and important mission yet. In 2011, Amnesty International, the human rights NGO, focused its annual report on what could be called the “information economy.” It recognized the Orwellian truism that he who controls information controls the world. Today’s networking technology has placed new power in the hands of the people, which has enabled them to keep their governments more accountable. For one, information is more freely available. Also, social networking platforms give people an opportunity to initiate activism. Because freedom of information is an ideal all Anons seem to share, they are happy to fight censorship and promote truth across the globe, even if it doesn’t generaste much lulz.
In January 2011, Anons (some Tunisian, some not) launched Operation Tunisia long before most Western media outlets had even reported the widespread unrest there. Anonymous initially became interested in Tunisia originally because of the country’s censorship of WikiLeaks, but the protest took on a life of its own.
Anonymous accused Tunisian authorities of phishing operations (i.e., tricking users into giving away their passwords to obtain sensitive information and potentially remove criticism from blogs and social networking sites). Some journalists known for their criticism of the Tunisian government were targeted; in some cases their Facebook and Gmail accounts were hacked, and their blogs were shut down. Anonymous retaliated, successfully DDoSing eight websites, including those representing the Tunisian president, prime minister, the ministry of industry, the ministry of foreign affairs, and the stock exchange. Beyond the DDoSs, Anonymous created informational materials to guide dissidents on concealing their identities on the web. A few Anons developed a Firefox extension to protect Tunisians from phishing.
Anonymous also participated in the revolution in Egypt. They helped mirror sites that had been censored by the Egyptian government, brought down President Hosni Mubarak’s website, and, in typical lulzy fashion, sent pizza deliveries to the country’s embassies.
Go Go Go!
Anonymous has grown beyond 4chan, to the point where the media no longer mentions 4chan in reports on Anonymous. But according to Gabriella Coleman, the collective still uses 4chan as a recruiting tool. She says that there is an Anonymous that’s very much still into trolling and raiding, and is sometimes upset with Anon’s new moral dimension. But the Anons who are more politically minded, while still somewhat unpredictable, want to work with academics and journalists to get their message out.
Interestingly, Anonymous seems to care more about online offenses than, say, actual genocide. The attitude seems to be, “No way. Not on our Internet.” Although Anonymous’s inability to effect change off-line probably has something to do with their webby focus.
I’ve profiled just a few of Anonymous’s biggest efforts. They’ve also attacked furries, pro-anorexia support groups, bestiality enthusiasts, the Westboro Baptist Church, and countless others lolcows. Whether the target be a random tween or a multinational corporation, all of these attacks lie somewhere on the spectrum between “for the lulz” and “for great justice.” But of course, one Anon’s justice is another’s lulz.
Targeted by Trolls—The Spaghettios Girl Speaks
In 2010, an art piece performed by Natacha Stolz, a student at the Art Institute of Chicago, appeared on YouTube. The piece, called “Interior Semiotics,” is daring, even among art house fare. In the video, a young woman opens a can of alphabet soup, which she’d previously filled with dirt. She mixes the dirt with water, creating mud, while reciting an obscenity-laced poem:
Dirt is all around us, everything is shit. We apply meaning, value, and worth to the shit surrounding us. We live by this meaning, and by our words, we live by worth, and apply value, but, everything is shit.
She then smears the mud onto her shirt as the poem descends into monosyllabic babbling akin to glossolalia. She then puts down the can, pulls out some safety scissors, cuts a hole in her jeans. What happens next was the subject of some commenter controversy. Some thought she was masturbating and urinating. It turns out she was releasing tomato soup from her vagina, allowing it to spill forth onto a platform below. She then calmly wipes clean the platform and walks offstage as a few dozen art students applaud.
I asked Stolz to explain the piece in her words.
The piece is about language and our relation to objects and value that they obtain. I used the structure of Schneeman’s piece interior scroll and re-structured to talk about commodification. That’s at least where I was thinking but all that doesn’t come across in the video as parts of it are focused on the audience. The poem is suppose to be simple, repetitive and casual. When referring to shit I’m using the word since it has other meaning . . . not suppose to be just referring to feces but that’s also an interesting layer.
Natacha says the piece was well received by the audience at the time, even by some students’ parents. If this performance had been limited to those in attendance, it probably would have passed into the ether. Art students (and boy do these kids look like art students) are accustomed to seeing provocative performances. YouTube exposed Middle America to the video, and the righteous indignation that followed rung through the halls of the Internet. As one commenter put it, “Pretentious hipster bullshit.”
Most of the attention came from 4chan, in a “You Rage You Lose” thread, where the motivation for trolling was driven not just by the usual lulz, but an undercurrent of class warfare. In Anon’s eyes, here were a bunch of trust-fund hipsters smelling their own farts and calling it art. Spaghettios girl must be destroyed.
Stolz quickly traced the attention back to 4chan due to the memey language used in the hateful comments. When she started getting random friend requests on Facebook, she switched the name in the video description to a Facebook alias that she’d been using for another art project. As the video peaked five hundred views, the threatening phone calls and voice mail messages started coming in. Some asked if she could perform in private. Others propositioned her for sex. What could she do?
I wasn’t sure what to do exactly, I reached out to some teachers but no one could get back to me. I wasn’t so worried about someone confronting me in person, but I was really nervous about what it would mean as it soon was everywhere. When googling my name, it’s almost the only thing that comes up. I was in class in September, and this girl I was sitting next to started watching the video during break. I was charging my computer in the back of the room and I heard the two students behind her mention Spaghettio’s, then I was there standing behind all of them watching them watch the video and talk about it without them knowing it was me.
Stolz wisely retreated from the spotlight and did not engage with 4chan in a public way, though she did have some fun “messing with people” on /b/, a process she defines as trolling the trolls. As of this writing, the Interior Semiotics video has received over a million views. Stolz plans to integrate the experience into future work.