Campaign Spotlight: Anonymous

Longcat is long

Anonymous is difficult to define. For some, it is a tactic; for others, a movement, a collective, a hacker group or a vigilante group. The most convincing description seems to be a “culture... nascent and small”, as Quinn Norton writes, but one with “its own aesthetics and values, art and literature, social norms and ways of production, even its own dialectic language.”[1] It has developed into a substantial and effective political force, combining spectacle with infrastructure hacking to produce new ways to attack governments and corporations, principally for suppressing freedom of speech and protest. In this article, Tom Anderson and Rebecca Fisher delve into Anonymous, bringing out some of its defining characteristics and exploring its evolution into a powerful force against corporate and state power.

“Anonymous is a banner which any citizen can fly…This means you are anonymous.”[2]


“Anonymous does not exist... It is just an idea; an Internet meme...It is a beehive where the queen is missing. Yet buzzing with activity.”[3]



Anonymous has launched online attacks on websites and servers all over the world, made occasional forays into street protest and offline direct action, and tackled a wide range of issues and targets, from cults to law enforcement agencies and from government departments to drug cartels and multinational corporations. It has also employed a variety of tactics in its actions against such targets, including:

- Pranks, such as bombarding a target with phone calls and emails, phoning in fake pizza deliveries, faxing black pages of paper to waste toner and so on.[4]

- Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, which involve flooding a website with a large number of hits to stop it working. This has sometimes been done by a number of activists each pointing a ‘load testing’ device, a program designed to test whether a server can cope with a high volume of hits, at a target server.[5]

- Doxing, or gathering information about a target from the internet to use it against it. This has sometimes involved seizing private information.[6]

- Data dumps, or taking private information about a target and making it public.[7]

- Protest and offline direct action – Anonymous ‘operations’ have included mass street protests and occupations of buildings, for example during the anti-Scientology campaign and OpBart.[8]

Anonymous-style tactics are not new, of course. The idea of disguising identity in order to express dissent has been used throughout history, and more recently as a staple of anti-capitalists, from the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas to the use of black bloc tactics on street demonstrations across Europe. Hacking is also not a new practice. However, Anonymous actions are identified by shared imagery and ideas: the masks, hyperbolic video communiqués dictated by a computer-generated voice, the sign-off (“Anonymous does not forgive”, etc) and a commitment to freedom of information.


In order to understand the weird world of Anonymous – their love of cats, their unashamed use of offensive language, their incessant pranking – it is important to understand the archetype of the trickster. This is the term used in mythology and folklore to denote a figure or spirit who plays tricks, and otherwise disobeys normal rules and conventional behaviour, in order to expose contradictions and initiate change; who rejects traditional morality by embodying neither hero nor villain status. As Norton writes in Anonymous 101: Introduction to the Lulz, “One minute, the loving and heroic trickster is saving civilization. A few minutes later the same trickster is cruel, kicking your ass and eating babies as a snack.”[9] In the Anonymous culture, these qualities are borne out in primacy of pranking and disregarding accepted morality. “The trickster as myth proved so compelling that the network made it real. Anonymous, the net’s trickster, emerged like a supernatural movie monster out of the misty realm of ideas and into the real world.”[10]

One of the most fundamental elements in Anonymous' trickster nature is the concept of the 'lulz'. A corruption of LOL (online abbreviation for 'laughing out loud'), the lulz mean doing something weird or unexpected for the sake of personal comic enjoyment. But it is a particular kind of humour, as Norton explains: “The lulz is laughing instead of screaming... It's not the anaesthetic humor that makes days go by easier; it's humor that heightens contradictions. The lulz is laughter with pain in it. It forces you to consider injustice and hypocrisy, whichever side of it you are on in that moment.”[11] Over the years, this trickster culture has evolved from funny pranks to (still funny) acts of political disruption and resistance.


Longcat, one of the many cat-based internet phenomena popular with Anonymous

Anonymous has its roots in the hacking and pranking culture within Internet Relay Channels (IRC), EFnet and the 1990s hacker scene. It was born on a website called 4Chan, founded in 2003, which developed an anonymous forum where users could not be traced nor their posts archived. A particular section of the site, known as the /b/ board, developed to be explicitly about anything and everything. Norton argues that this functioned as a kind of collective identity: “the collective unconscious version of the place from which the base drives arise,” and in which anything was permitted, from the highly offensive to the sweet and innocuous.[12] For Norton, the forum has “a kind of innocence and purity” in which “terms like 'nigger' and 'faggot' are common” and act to discourage those not familiar with the culture: “These words are heads on pikes warning you that further in it gets much worse, and it does.”[13] /b/ seems to provide a way for people to say what they like without censorship and, while sometimes this includes offensive material, often it is sweet and harmless, such as “talk[ing] about 'My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic'.”[14]

For some, this offensive language, which still permeates forums used by Anonymous activists (or anons) such as,[15] reflects an amoral, nihilistic streak within the culture of Anonymous. Whether or not the language signifies an underlying amorality, its use sits uncomfortably with many anons, particularly those who are increasingly moving into political campaigning and interactions with the wider activist community. But it is this 'anything goes' attitude that typifies a great deal of Anonymous culture and is key to understanding anons' actions, both in terms of their trickster sense of humour and in their emphasis on freedom of speech.

This identity seems to have “spilled into the rest of the net” when Anonymous started its 'raids', that is, collectively coordinated attacks on targets for any perceived slight, or just for fun, without warning and without providing the victims with any means of defending themselves.[16] Pursuing a slightly chaotic and often controversial trajectory, the targets chosen and tactics used against them have steadily become more political.

When a video of Tom Cruise manically proselytising for Scientology was leaked out, the highly litigious 'church' tried to get it removed, and Anonymous launched into action to keep it online. To do this, they created their first 'op' (short for operation), called Project Chanology. Norton argues that this “marked both the birth of political consciousness for Anonymous, and the development of its methods of taking mass action.”[17]

To the dismay of some within Anonymous, this developed into a moral campaign, taking the high ground against the Church of Scientology for hurting people, taking their money while promising to look after and teach them. For many veterans, this was the opposite of the lulz, and a sign of the 'cancer' that was killing /b/. But the self-styled 'moralfags' within Anonymous left the internet and set up meetings all over the world. In February 2008, anti-Scientology protests were held in several cities, during which participants hid their identities by wearing identical Guy Fawkes masks made famous by the character V in the graphic novel V for Vendetta and worn by the character Epic Fail Guy on 4Chan.[18] This morphed into a relentless attack on the Church of Scientology, encompassing a broad range of protest and disruption techniques which Anonymous called 'raep', a misspelling of 'rape', replicating the use of offensive language that had been prevalent on /b/. The protests multiplied and developed from 2010 onwards, including the creation of, an online social network and forum site that currently has public forums on freedom of information, anti-Scientology campaigns, the Occupy movement and the struggle against the Iranian regime.

These tactics worked particularly well against the Church of Scientology, whose main defence against criticism has always been legal action. Litigation was impossible with no name to take to court. Previously, Scientology had also attempted to ruin the reputation of its detractors, but this could not work against Anonymous either. As Norton writes, “Anonymous didn't care. Call them rapist and they'd laughingly tell you they were child rapists... Anonymity and the 'words will never hurt me' ethic that arose out of the aesthetics of extremes on 4chan made them immune to the Church's arsenal.”[19]


Despite eliciting negative reactions from some anons, such concerted attacks as those demonstrated in Operation Chanology, combining a moral standpoint with a lulz mentality, took root within the Anonymous culture. In 2010, anons became involved with two glabal struggles for online information freedom. Indeed, if Anonymous can be said to have any shared philosophy, it is one about the freedom of information. WhyWeProtest has this to say about the issue:

“A common thread that binds many internet users and impels them toward Anonymous is the concept that information, by its nature, is free; and that communication should be unfettered. The open sharing and expression of ideas and opinions, however controversial or divergent, is the cornerstone of all free societies. This ability empowers individuals to determine their own destinies; justice is possible only when the influential cannot force others to remain silent about abuse.”[20]

Firstly, the hive mind of Anonymous coalesced into a protest against what it saw as attempts by the Hollywood studios to not only write copyright laws that hampered online freedoms, but use illegal techniques, such as DDoSing, which anons had been jailed for. When it appeared that Indian company AiPlex had been contracted by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to send out take-down requests to piracy sites and DDoS those that refused to comply, such as The Pirate Bay, Anonymous created Operation Payback, in which they promised to “prevent users to access said enemy sites [those of the the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the MPAA and AiPlex] and we will keep them down for as long as we can.” This was because they were “tired of corporate interests controlling the internet and silencing the people's rights to spread information, but more importantly, the right to SHARE with one another.”[21]

During Operation Chanology, anons had hit upon a new and formidable cyber weapon –the ludicrously named Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC) – which enables a computer programmer to test a website's capacity by loading it with traffic. LOIC is innocuous enough in itself, but not when enough people download it and send vast amounts of traffic to a single target, often causing the site to be taken down. This was applied against the websites of AiPlex and MPAA, and the sites were indeed removed soon.

One of the most significant results was to generate a lot of media attention, to increase the numbers of those taking action via Anonymous, and to ensure that now the anons who wished to use the Anonymous banner for political purposes rather than just the lulz were in the majority. The Anonymous hive mind started to gain an appetite for effective political action.

This appetite was again whetted later in 2010 when the US government cracked down on WikiLeaks. Following the release of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables. anons jumped into action, using the LOIC to attack companies that had complied with the US government and ceased providing services to WikiLeaks. These included Amazon, Mastercard, Visa and Paypal.[22] The attacks became known as Op Avenge Assange, which proved compelling yet confusing to the mainstream media. Many missed the fact that these attacks did not actually manage to disrupt the functioning of these target companies for very long, but managed to increase the attacks' effectiveness by leading people to believe that their Visa or Mastercards had been rendered unusable.[23] Meanwhile, anons continued to help keep the leaked cables available all over the world by mirroring them on other servers and keeping track of where they had been censored.[24]

Freedom Ops

As the popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa began at the end of 2010, anons saw a way to have a much wider impact. In the characteristic monotone computer voice, an Anonymous press release stated: “Anonymous has heard the cries for freedom from the Tunisian people and has decided to help them win this battle against oppression... Any organization involved in censorship will be targeted. Attacks will not stop until the Tunisian government hears the calls for freedom from its own people... This is not a battle which is waged for you [the Tunisian people] alone but to serve as a precedent and statement to the world. We unite to send a message that we in fact are not simply quiet citizens who can be chocked and peddled into submission.”[25]

Thus OpTunisia was developed, with the aim of launching DDoS attacks on Tunisian government targets and communicating with Tunisian dissidents, distributing information on the uprising and disseminating advice and resources to help circumvent Tunisian state e-security measures and network securely online. As one anon reported, the following message accompanied one of the 'digital care' packages to Tunisia: “This is your revolution. It will neither be Twittered nor televised or IRC'ed. You must hit the streets or you will loose [sic] the fight. Always stay safe, once you got [sic] arrested you cannot do anything for yourself or your people. Your government is watching you.”[26]

As protests kicked off in Cairo's Tahrir Square in 2011, OpEgypt was launched with similar aims and objectives. Since then, a host of ’Freedom Ops' have been developed for countries all over the world, including Britain, Italy, Ireland, the USA, Venezeula, Brazil, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and more.

One feature of these 'Freedom Ops' was spreading information about internet security to grassroots movements. Disseminating advice on how to express dissent online without being identified by the authorities is a vital way in which online activists can show solidarity with grassroots movements expressing anti-state and anti-corporate dissent. In 2011, those who had organised dissent using corporate-controlled social networks, from Tahrir Square to the British summer riots, faced arrest and prosecution after being identified from Facebook, Twitter and so on. The idea of mass secure networking is certainly a radical one.

Later in 2011, anons targeted Sony with DDoS attacks in protest at a lawsuit the company had brought against the person who had provided the means to re-enable the possibility of installing Linux on Sony's PlayStation 3, which the company had removed.[27] Anons DDoS'ed Sony websites and other hackers, not necessarily associated with Anonymous, hit the PlayStation network and Sony Online Entertainment Network. The Sony Play Station Network was down for almost a month in April-May 2011, and its stock price fell from $31 per share to just over $25.[28]

Anonymous' activities have not been confined to cyberspace, however. In August 2011, the Bay Area Rapid Transit Authority (BART) in San Francisco shut down cellular communications during an anti-BART Police protest in relation to the shooting of a homeless man named Charles Hill in July that year. Anonymous soon heard about the events and formed OpBart, during which the insecure BART websites were mercilessly hacked and large amounts of information stolen from their servers. This created a media storm, particularly when anons came off the internet and onto the streets in masked protests.[30]

In many ways, this operation lay the ground for Anonymous' most concerted political intervention yet. As OpBart died down, Occupy Wall Street was just beginning, and many within Anonymous felt a great affinity with the Occupy movement. As Norton writes, “In the Occupy movement, Anonymous seemed to find a body its peripatetic spirit could inhabit.”[31] In Winter 2011, an Anonymous cell stole thousands of documents, including credit card information, from Strategic Forecasts Ltd (Stratfor). Stratfor has provided intelligence analysis to the US military and many private companies since 1996.[32] As one participant noted, “They [Stratfor] promote global market stability, whereas we want financial meltdown... It's about creating an egalitarian society without bosses or masters, it's about forcefully redistributing the wealth and power in society.”[33]

In January 2012, it was claimed that the hacking had compromised many of the top 100 US government contractors. This has been particularly embarrassing for a company like Stratfor, which makes security its business. Anonymous claimed the company had not encrypted its data,[34] and used stolen credit card data to make large donations to charities such as the Red Cross, CARE and Save the Children. The charities later begged for hackers not to make donations through fraud as they could be charged a penalty.[35]

Most recently, in May 2012, online Anonymous attacks have been made against the government of Quebec, in protest at its “opting to assassinate the right to protest by adopting an emergency law to try and stifle protests against the tuition hikes.”[36] Hackers successfully brought down 13 government and police websites as part of OpQuebec.[37] This seems to have coincided with a recent trend for Anonymous attacks to broaden out from internet freedoms to the role of police and other state forces in suppressing freedom to protest. As one participant notes, “We thought we had every right to gather in public parks, to speak our demands. And they systematically targeted us for elimination... So we decided it was time to coordinate a raid of our own.”[38]

Beyond Anonymous

Anonymous-style tactics can be an important weapon in the anti-corporate campaigning arsenal. However, these tactics, as with any other tactic, can be employed for both good and bad. Doxing has been used by corporations to gather information on activists for decades. In 2012, the Anonymous brandname itself was appropriated by an anti-abortion campaigner to target an abortion provider.[39]

The breadth and internationalism of Anonymous’ actions is to be admired. The tactics have been shown to have an appeal that cuts cross cultural and social frontiers. Indeed, anons are known to exist in many countries including the US, France, Chile, Argentina and Spain. However, there have also been concerted efforts by these countries to target them. Anonymous is currently being targeted by US law enforcement agencies, as well as the INTERPOL,[40] in the hope of stopping the hacking activities by arresting key figures in the network.

It certainly seems that, for now, the unashamedly political ranks of Anonymous are winning out over those who wish to concentrate on the lulz. In so doing, they have undoubtedly served to firmly embed the use of hacking tactics in a broad range of anti-state and anti-corporate struggles. The strength of Anonymous seems to reside in its leaderless, protean nature, which ensures it can both reflect the biases of its participants and quickly react to events. It is difficult to say how this new world of mass 'hacktivism' will develop; whether or not Anonymous will continue to evolve or fade into insignificance. But while it continues to combine humour and spectacle with political effectiveness, and to change form and direction, Anonymous remains not only hard to categorise but even harder to control.

References [1] Quinn Norton, 'Anonymous 101: Introduction to the Lulz', Wired, November 8, 2011, [2] [3] [4] See, for example, [5] Quinn Norton, 'Anonymous 101 Part Deux: Morals Triumph Over Lulz', Wired, December 30, 2011, [6] See, for example, [7] [8] Offline protest has been used extensively in the anti-Scientology campaign. See, for example, and [9] Norton, 'Introduction', ibid.

[10] ibid.

[11] ibid.

[12] ibid.

[13] ibid.

[14] ibid.

[15] For example, in one thread on, one contributor uses the words “faggot” and “retarded”, while another comments: “this thread gave me aids”. The authors are not rebuked for their use of language. See

[16] Norton, 'Introduction', ibid.

[17] ibid.

[18] [19] Norton, 'Introduction', ibid.


[21] Norton, 'Part Deux', ibid.

[22] [23] Norton, 'Part Deux', ibid.

[24] ibid.

[25] [26] Quinn Norton, '2011: The Year Anonymous Took on Cops, Dictators, and Existential Dread', Wired, January 11, 2012, [27] [28] Norton, '2011', ibid.

[29] [30] Norton, '2011', ibid.

[31] ibid.

[32] See also [33] Norton, '2011', ibid.

[34] [35] There are several claims, from sources claiming to be Anonymous, that the Stratfor hack was not the work of Anonymous. See, for instance, [36] Quoted in [37] ibid.

[38] [39] [40]