By Matthew Wallin

Fox 11 News in Los Angeles has called it a group of “hackers on steroids” and an “Internet hate machine.”[1] In recent years, those associated with it have been referred to as “hacktivists,” or “Internet vigilantes.”

The labels continue to be assigned—but what exactly is “Anonymous?” Is it a group? Can it be assigned an encompassing descriptor? Perhaps the best description of Anonymous is that both in reality and in cyberspace, Anonymous is simply an idea.

Often symbolized by the Guy Fawkes mask popularized by the movie V for Vendetta, Anonymous has no formal leadership, no formal membership, and no formal purpose. To assign labels, purposes, or goals to Anonymous as a whole, is to completely misunderstand what Anonymous is, when Anonymous as an idea can include almost anyone. Considering this, and that Anonymous has no formal membership, it is appropriate to refer to those who identify as Anonymous as “Anon(s).”

Nevertheless, despite these important concepts, article after article, commentator after commentator, and government official after government official still refer to Anonymous as a tangible, organized entity—when in reality it is anything but.

How is it, then, that Anonymous is perceived to be so influential in the world? What type of power does it possess, and does that translate to actions of consequence on the international scene?

A Brief History of Anonymous

Key to understanding the influence of Anonymous is gaining an appreciation of its history.

In 2003, 15-year-old Christopher Poole, more commonly known by his Internet handle “moot,” founded the online image board[2] Reflecting his interest in Anime and modeled after Japan’s popular 2chan website,[3] 4chan was simple in design and employed a basic posting system whereby unregistered users could easily post images or comments in threads under the name “anonymous.” Still using this simple system today, the website is divided into various topics, ranging from technology to Anime, and includes the notorious, anything-goes “random” section simply referred to by its directory label, “/b/.” It is within /b/ that many Anons tend to congregate.

Aside from common, but not universal, interests in video games, anime, and other types of “nerd” or “geek” culture, Anonymous can be described as uniting around a need for amusement, or “lulz.” Literally a twist on “lol” (which stands for “laugh out loud”), Anons often cite the purpose of their actions as being “for the lulz.” Thus, much of the content and imagery found on /b/ can aptly be described as shocking or disgusting to the average viewer—devoid of any political correctness, respectfulness, or filtering. There is no real purpose other than to entertain, amuse, troll, or shock.

A typical early Anonymous action “for the lulz” was “raiding,” an activity best described as the online equivalent of a disruptive flash mob. Often at the call of a single user, Anons would flood into chat rooms, forums, online video games, and other Internet media merely to overwhelm that outlet and shock its users. One of Anonymous’ first raids occurred in 2006, when it invaded the online game “Habbo Hotel” in a protest against the perceived racism of the game’s moderators. With their in-game avatars uniformly presented as black men with large afros and wearing suits, Anonymous blocked off key areas within the game,[4] sometimes forming the shape of a swastika.[5]

Despite the inherent silliness of this type of action, it demonstrated to Anons the potential impact that a united effort such as a raid could have on a targeted outlet. In some cases, for any number of reasons, raids have been initiated against private individuals, during which their personal information is made public and they are severely harassed. This type of action has contributed to the “internet hate machine” label applied by media outlets like Fox 11 Los Angeles. Yet just as often as not, calls for raids and other types of attacks are ignored or outright rejected by the wider community. It is thus completely dependent on the actions of individual Anons to carry out raids or other types of attacks, either collectively or independently.

Though 4chan’s /b/ board saw the origin of Anonymous, it is incorrect to label /b/ as Anonymous’ home—it would be more accurate to refer to it as a primary community where Anonymous congregates virtually. This status is not exclusive to 4chan, as Anonymous is known to utilize a variety of “chan” websites, Internet-Relay-Chat (IRC) channels, and other means of interaction. But what often unites Anons outside of the typical meeting grounds is a common use of lingo, memes, and phraseology that tend to easily identify one Anon to another.

This identifiable culture has generated a monumental list of viral memes incomparable to any other online source. Many of the memes we see and share today would have never become popular without having cleared 4chan first. For instance, the “LOLcats” phenomenon of posting captioned cat pictures originated in 2005 as a means of celebrating “Caturday” on Saturdays.[6] “Rickrolling,” the practice by which users were tricked into watching a video of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up,” also had its origins at 4chan.[7]

Anonymous Actions

Although it has exceptional meme-creating prowess, it’s difficult to determine just how much influence Anonymous has beyond conducting raids or generating Internet culture. Does its influence translate into national or international political power? Ultimately, this is a question of whether Anonymous wields any soft power.

Key to the idea of Anonymous is, of course, anonymity. While anonymity is a prized concept on the Internet, it is becoming increasingly difficult to preserve. This has affected not only Anons, but some of their individual targets as well. Anonymity tends to act as an enabler, providing Anons with a feeling of safety and thus granting a greater amount of creative license. That is, the feeling of safety enables Anons to create material or commit acts to which they would not normally feel comfortable attaching their own names.

As a whole, Anonymous has difficulty organizing to accomplish any particular goal because it is too loose and too ill-defined to take collective action. Instead, it relies on ad-hoc coalitions of interested individuals to carry out work under the Anonymous banner. Demonstrating Anonymous’ inherent inability to mobilize as a whole, many Anons reject individual calls to action, claiming that Anonymous does not constitute anyone’s personal army. If anything, these calls to action are more often ignored or rejected than heeded. Despite this, the sheer number of Anons and their prolific posting on various sites creates an environment of low-probability, but high-impact, events.

Considering this, there are numerous cases in which collective operations are undertaken for a specific purpose—and these particular actions are perhaps where Anonymous has garnered much of its notoriety as a “hacker group.” However, the percentage of people who possess the skills and knowledge necessary to actually break into secured systems amongst Anonymous is likely to be very low. Many of the famous “distributed denial of service” (DDoS) attacks used by Anonymous to take down websites are accomplished with very simple tools such as “Low Orbit Ion Cannon” (LOIC). DDoS tools like LOIC require little more than a URL and a single click to flood websites with millions of hits that exceed their bandwidth capabilities, rendering them inaccessible to a majority of users.

One of Anonymous’ first attempts at a worldwide campaign came in the form of Project Chanology, a protest effort against the Church of Scientology. In 2008, after the Church of Scientology demanded that YouTube remove a leaked promotional video in which Tom Cruise extolled the virtues of Scientology,[8] Anonymous launched a campaign to eliminate the Church’s presence on the Internet. On January 21, Anonymous launched its own YouTube video outlining its complaints against Scientology,[9] and soon after began DDoS attacks on Scientology websites. Not long after the launch of the first YouTube video by Anonymous, a second video surfaced, calling for real-world protests beginning February 10.[10] Soon, Project Chanology grew from a small, Internet-based effort to full-scale public protests. Anons rolled out onto the streets, donning Guy Fawkes masks and blaring “Never Gonna Give You Up”in front of Scientology centers in cities around the world. Collective anger over the Church of Scientology’s actions prompted an estimated 7,000 people in over 90 cities to take to the streets.[11]

In the grand scheme of things, the turnout for Project Chanology was relatively small and the long-term impact was negligible, but for a relatively unknown entity like Anonymous, the event was significant. As there was no measurable impact against Scientology, the true achievement of Chanology was in demonstrating to Anons that other Anons were real and existed beyond posts on a website.[12] It showed that online activism could transcend the virtual and exist in the real world, setting a precedent by which Anonymous became a more tangible entity. And unlike the much larger Occupy Movement several years later, Chanology was truly Anonymous-driven.

Fast-forward to 2011 and the Arab Spring in Tunisia, when Anonymous DDoS-ed Tunisian government websites in response to Tunisia’s censorship of WikiLeaks cables[13] in similar fashion to the Anonymous-led pro-WikiLeaks attacks on PayPal, Visa, and MasterCard. Yet, unlike the attacks on those financial institutions, when Anons hacked the Tunisian Prime Minister’s website, they replaced the front page with an “open letter” explaining their grievances against the Tunisian Government.[14] Anons also actively provided Tunisian citizens with the tools and information necessary to increase their online security.[15] In addition to “Operation Tunisia,” Anonymous also undertook efforts in Egypt, Algeria, and other countries, with varying degrees of success or failure.

Power Level: Over 9000?[16]

Perhaps the best way to understand Anonymous’ influence is to acknowledge that as a formal body, it has no power, no purpose, and no leadership. That hardly makes it a major player on the international scene. But as an idea, and as a culture, Anonymous holds a great deal of soft power, uniting small groups of interested individuals who can make a collective difference in whichever way their interests and skills sets allow. The idea of Anonymous as a defender of Internet freedom and bulwark against tyranny is also powerful, but at the same time, efforts taken by Anonymous to harass, silence, or violate the privacy of its targets have also worked against that narrative. The pro-WikiLeaks idea supported by some Anons that privacy should not apply to diplomatic correspondence is just one place where this dichotomy can be seen.

So how much power does Anonymous ultimately have? The real answer is: only as much power as is possessed by the sum of motivated individuals who identify as Anon and choose to carry out action in its name. Yet as anonymity continues to be eroded online, and the faces of those behind the Guy Fawkes masks become more visible, the number of individuals willing to carry out this action may be destined to decrease. As this happens, it may turn out that the removal of the mask and a new willingness to be identified and stand by one’s actions is what proves most powerful.

References and Notes

[1] “Anonymous on Fox 11.” YouTube. YouTube, July 27, 2007. Web.

[2] Brophy-Warren, Jamin. “Modest website is behind a bevy of memes.” The Wall Street Journal. July 9, 2008. Web.

[3] Bilton, Nick. “One on One: Christopher Poole, Founder of 4chan.” Bits. The New York Times. March 19, 2014. Web.

[4] “Pools’ Closed.” Know Your Meme. Web. February 18, 2014.

[5] Singel, Ryan. “Palin Hacker Group’s All-Time Greatest Hits.” Wired. September 19, 2008. Web.

[6] “LOLcats.” Know Your Meme. Web. February 18, 2014.

[7] “Rickroll.” Know Your Meme. Web. February 18, 2014.

[8] Barkham, Patrick. “Hackers declare war on Scientologists amid claims of heavy-handed Cruise control.” The Guardian. February 3, 2008. Web.

[9] “Message to Scientology.” Church0fScientology. YouTube. January 21, 2008. Web.

10] Vamosi, Robert. “Anonymous posts another video against Scientology.” CNET. January 28, 2008. Web. March 23, 2010.

[11] Moncada, Carlos. “Organizers tout Scientology protest, Plan Another.” The Tampa Tribune. February 12, 2008. Web. March 26, 2010.

[12] We are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists. Dir. Brian Knappenberger. 2012.Web.

[13] Ryan, Yasmine. “Tunisia’s Bitter Cyberwar.” Al Jazeera. January 6, 2011, and Hill, Evan. “Hackers hit Tunisian Websites.” Al Jazeera. Web. January 3, 2011.

[14] Read, Max. “Anonymous Attacks Tunisian Government over Wikileaks Censorship.” Gawker. January 3, 2011.Web.

[15] Ryan, Yasmine. “Anonymous and the Arab Uprisings.” Al Jazeera. May 21, 2011. Web.

[16] “Over 9000” is an Anime reference that became a meme commonly used by Anons. The original “over 9000” reference describes the power level of a specific character in the Anime series Dragon Ball Z. It has been repeatedly used to troll those with little understanding of the group, including Oprah Winfrey. For more information, see “It’s Over 9000.” Know Your Meme. Web. April 9, 2014.


Matthew Wallin

Matthew Wallin is a Senior Policy Analyst at the American Security Project and a member of the Public Diplomacy Council. He holds a Master of Public Diplomacy from the University of Southern California.