The Masked Avengers: How Anonymous incited online vigilantism from Tunisia to Ferguson.

Anyone can join Anonymous simply by claiming affiliation. An anthropologist says that participants “remain subordinate to a focus on the epic win—and, especially, the lulz.”

The first Million Mask March took place on November 5, 2013. Several thousand people marched in support of Anonymous, in four hundred and fifty cities around the world. In a sign of how deeply Anonymous had penetrated popular culture, one protester in London removed his Guy Fawkes mask to reveal that he was the actor Russell Brand.

In the mid-nineteen-seventies, when Christopher Doyon was a child in rural Maine, he spent hours chatting with strangers on CB radio. His handle was Big Red, for his hair. Transmitters lined the walls of his bedroom, and he persuaded his father to attach two directional antennas to the roof of their house. CB radio was associated primarily with truck drivers, but Doyon and others used it to form the sort of virtual community that later appeared on the Internet, with self-selected nicknames, inside jokes, and an earnest desire to effect change.

Doyon’s mother died when he was a child, and he and his younger sister were reared by their father, who they both say was physically abusive. Doyon found solace, and a sense of purpose, in the CB-radio community. He and his friends took turns monitoring the local emergency channel. One friend’s father bought a bubble light and affixed it to the roof of his car; when the boys heard a distress call from a stranded motorist, he’d drive them to the side of the highway. There wasn’t much they could do beyond offering to call 911, but the adventure made them feel heroic.

At the age of fourteen, he ran away from home, and two years later he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, a hub of the emerging computer counterculture. The Tech Model Railroad Club, which had been founded thirty-four years earlier by train hobbyists at M.I.T., had evolved into “hackers”—the first group to popularize the term. Richard Stallman, a computer scientist who worked in M.I.T.’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the time, says that these early hackers were more likely to pass around copies of “Gödel, Escher, Bach” than to incite technological warfare. “We didn’t have tenets,” Stallman said. “It wasn’t a movement. It was just a thing that people did to impress each other.” Some of their “hacks” were fun (coding video games); others were functional (improving computer-processing speeds); and some were pranks that took place in the real world (placing mock street signs near campus). Michael Patton, who helped run the T.M.R.C. in the seventies, told me that the original hackers had unwritten rules and that the first one was “Do no damage.”

In Cambridge, Doyon supported himself through odd jobs and panhandling, preferring the freedom of sleeping on park benches to the monotony of a regular job. In 1985, he and a half-dozen other activists formed an electronic “militia.” Echoing the Animal Liberation Front, they called themselves the Peoples Liberation Front. They adopted aliases: the founder, a towering middle-aged man who claimed to be a military veteran, called himself Commander Adama; Doyon went by Commander X. Inspired by the Merry Pranksters, they sold LSD at Grateful Dead shows and used some of the cash to outfit an old school bus with bullhorns, cameras, and battery chargers. They also rented a basement apartment in Cambridge, where Doyon occasionally slept.

Doyon was drawn to computers, but he was not an expert coder. In a series of conversations over the past year, he told me that he saw himself as an activist, in the radical tradition of Abbie Hoffman and Eldridge Cleaver; technology was merely his medium of dissent. In the eighties, students at Harvard and M.I.T. held rallies urging their schools to divest from South Africa. To help the protesters communicate over a secure channel, the P.L.F. built radio kits: mobile FM transmitters, retractable antennas, and microphones, all stuffed inside backpacks. Willard Johnson, an activist and a political scientist at M.I.T., said that hackers were not a transformative presence at rallies. “Most of our work was still done using a bullhorn,” he said.

In 1992, at a Grateful Dead concert in Indiana, Doyon sold three hundred hits of acid to an undercover narcotics agent. He was sentenced to twelve years in Pendleton Correctional Facility, of which he served five. While there, he developed an interest in religion and philosophy and took classes from Ball State University.

Netscape Navigator, the first commercial Web browser, was released in 1994, while Doyon was incarcerated. When he returned to Cambridge, the P.L.F. was still active, and their tools had a much wider reach. The change, Doyon recalls, “was gigantic—it was the difference between sending up smoke signals and being able to telegraph someone.” Hackers defaced an Indian military Web site with the words “Save Kashmir.” In Serbia, hackers took down an Albanian site. Stefan Wray, an early online activist, defended such tactics at an “anti-Columbus Day” rally in New York. “We see this as a form of electronic civil disobedience,” he told the crowd.

In 1999, the Recording Industry Association of America sued Napster, the file-sharing service, for copyright infringement. As a result, Napster was shut down in 2001. Doyon and other hackers disabled the R.I.A.A. site for a weekend, using a Distributed Denial of Service, or DDoS, attack, which floods a site with so much data that it slows down or crashes. Doyon defended his actions, employing the heightened rhetoric of other “hacktivists.” “We quickly came to understand that the battle to defend Napster was symbolic of the battle to preserve a free internet,” he later wrote.

One day in 2008, Doyon and Commander Adama met at the P.L.F.’s basement apartment in Cambridge. Adama showed Doyon the Web site of the Epilepsy Foundation, on which a link, instead of leading to a discussion forum, triggered a series of flashing colored lights. Some epileptics are sensitive to strobes; out of sheer malice, someone was trying to induce seizures in innocent people. There had been at least one victim already.

“Ever hear of a group called Anonymous?” Adama said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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