Anonymous’s rapid rise from the depths of geekdom to becoming a catalyst and nerve centre for real-life revolutionaries is one that has taken even some of its own members by surprise.
The loosely-knit hive brings anonymous techies, hackers and, increasingly, activists together under a single appellation, united in their non-violent but often illegal collective action.
With high-profile campaigns, centred on “distributed denial of service” (DDoS) attacks that knock target websites offline, it has been transformed from a fringe group of law-breaking pranksters that emerged in 2006 into an international movement that draws new recruits by their thousands.
In an interview with a group of Anons conducted on their home turf, Internet Relay Chat (IRC), they tell Al Jazeera that they are fighting, above all, for the free flow of information.
“You can’t make a decision on something if you don’t know anything about it,” one Anon says.
“I’m into this because it’s a more modern and technical approach than traditional activism like protesting against [the] G8 or something like that,” another adds.
While some traditional activists have criticised the group for its methods, few would argue that its unique cocktail of anonymous civil society and collective action has proven to be powerful agents of change.
Indeed, Amnesty International, the prominent human rights NGO, chose to focus its 2011 annual report on what it describes as the “critical battle [that is] under way for control of access to information, means of communication and networking technology”.
Widney Brown, senior director of international law and policy at Amnesty’s international secretariat, told Al Jazeera that Anonymous’ outrage over government and corporate pressure against WikiLeaks underlined the hotly contested power dynamics that surround information.
“The desire to be able to speak freely about what is going on in your life is something that’s always there, but what we have with social media is the ability to amplify it,” she says.
“Governments are obviously threatened by the fact that activists have become so effective at using these new technologies and social media,” she says.
Amnesty considers the use of non-conventional methods by cyberactivists in defense of these principles as justified, so long as they are not violating other people’s legitimate right to privacy and security, Brown says.
Yet for Anonymous, personal privacy is not always sacred, as the very public nailing of the HBGary security firm – the firm’s CEO’s had his email hacked and his reputation destroyed in a stinging revenge attack, after threatening to reveal the identity of leading Anons – in February demonstrated.
The antithesis of the rampant individualism that the internet has fostered, through the likes of Facebook and self-promoting blogs, Anonymous represents the untameable wild west of the web, a world where geeks teach the corrupt and powerful a lesson.
Using pseudonyms, the Anons gather in the virtual space created by IRC, a type of online chatroom where they discuss technology, politics and activism, all with a dose of sexual banter and “lulz”(a play on LOL – laugh out loud – that describes the thrill of mischievous, and sometimes nasty, pranks).
The Anons are very much a product of this type of chat, says Gabriella Coleman, an anthropologist at New York University who has been following the group for several years.
“If you didn’t have IRC, you wouldn’t have Anonymous. That’s where they co-ordinate, that’s where they socialise, that’s where they have fun, that’s where they get to know each other,” she explains.
In the parallel, more manicured universe of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg has insisted that users make their real names known or face deletion, a principle that internet activists condemn as potentially life-threatening for activists in many parts of the world.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange recently called Facebook an “appalling spy machine”, condemning the way in which the social network stores such extensive information on its users, information which can potentially be used against them by authorities.
For those who frequent IRC, in contrast, anonymous free speech is a fundamental value, and one for which they are willing to fight.
Most Anons take precautions to ensure that their identities remain hidden from the authorities, and from their fellow Anons.
“There’s definitely people involved who don’t care about the politics, but who want to create a kind of space where people can do politics,” Coleman says.
And it is a space to which many activists have turned to in recent months.
“Many people come here [be]cause they don’t know [an]other door where to knock to be listened when nobody else hears,” one Anon said.
Anonymous and the Arab Spring
While mainstream media was slow to tune in to the revolutionary drumbeat that has been rising in the Arab world, Anonymous was present from the beginning.
Tunisian Anons collaborated with their international counterparts on Operation Tunisia, which was launched on January 2 – well before most Western media outlets had clicked onto the fact that there was a revolution underway.
|Anonymous’ propaganda poster for Operation Egypt, its solidarity campaign [Courtesy of Anonymous]|
“We did initially take an interest in Tunisia because of WikiLeaks, but as more Tunisians have joined they care more about the general internet censorship there, so that’s what it has become,” one Anon told Al Jazeera in the midst of the DDoS attacks on selected Tunisian government sites.
As Anons realised the significance of what was taking place in Tunisia – and the fact that it was being ignored by foreign media – they collaborated with Tunisian dissidents to help them share videos with the outside world.
Anonymous quickly created a “care packet”, translated into Arabic and French, offering cyberdissidents advice on how to conceal their identities on the web, in order to avoid detection by the former regime’s cyberpolice.
They used their collective brainpower to develop a greasemonkey script – an extension for the Mozilla Firefox web browser – to help Tunisians evade an extensive phishing campaign carried out by the government.
After Tunisia, Anonymous’ interest in the wave of protest movements did not wane.
In Algeria, where internet use is more limited and web users have been slower to embrace trends like Twitter than their Tunisian neighbours, Operation Algeria never really kicked off, much like the protests on the street.
Operation Egypt, meanwhile, was launched on January 25 at the request of Egyptian activists and is viewed by many Anons as a success. Reflecting the mood on the streets of Cairo, it was decided from the outset not to attack media or to promote violence.
The Anons worked in collaboration with Telecomix, a cluster that uses legal means to promote free speech, to restore mirrors and proxies to help restore Egyptians’ access to sites being censored by the government. They even used faxes to communicate important information when the internet was no longer an option.
In the operations for Egypt and Tunisia, some lulzy methods were used that harked back to Anonymous’ past, including placing massive orders for pizza to be delivered to the countries’ embassies.
In contrast, the IRC channel for Operation Libya took on a more militant tone, particularly before NATO agreed to impose a no-fly zone when rebels were on the defensive.
“Libyan freedom fighters came to Anonops as a safe meeting point,” another Anon explains, referring to how some members of the Libyan opposition used IRC as a virtual shelter early on in the uprising.
“They were really thankful for listening to them and their problems and helping them, although we could only do so much,” another Anon adds.
Several Anons interviewed for this article agreed that Anonymous’ interaction with activists in the Arab world had changed the nature and demographics of their own movement.
“Previously, I’d say that Anons were pretty evenly distributed among North America, Europe, and Australia,” an Anon says.
“But since Anonymous’ actions in Tunisia especially, a lot more have taken up the Anonymous banner, around the Muslim world especially.”
Anonymous did, however, have a history of involvement of rallying in support of protest movements against authoritarian governments.
Operation Iran was founded during the protests which followed the country’s 2009 contested presidential election. The cyberactivists launched their subgroup to take down the “hitlist” websites of protesters’ photos which were being published by the Iranian government’s supporters.
Al Jazeera spoke to the founding member of Anonymous Iran, who says his group has around 15 dedicated members, mainly Iranian nationals living overseas, who are joined by hundreds of “seasonal” supporters whenever it launches a campaign.
“We don’t accept users from inside Iran because of the risk,” he says in an email interview.
“We are fighting for freedom of speech and ideas inside of Iran.”
Coleman says that, despite such precedents, Tunisia marks a turning point.
“[Anonymous] went to Tunisia because of the censorship. But in some ways, they stayed beyond censorship questions, and that enlarged the types of operations they’d be willing to engage in,” she says.
“It really shifted the realm of possibility.”
Anons in the West found they shared a common goal with those fighting oppression elsewhere in the world. And crucially, she says, regardless of nationality, religion or politics, Anons the world over are avid geeks.
Jacqui True, an associate professor of international relations at the University of Auckland, affirms that Anonymous’ involvement in the Arab Spring has been an exceptional case of kindred spirits meeting in cyberspace.
“They’ve been led into the Arabic-speaking world by Arabic-speaking activists, who they’ve found common ground with,” she says.
“The internet knows no borders, so even those who come to questions of political freedom and democracy from really different vantage points and from really different experiences can have a common cause.”
You can follow Yasmine on Twitter: @yasmineryan