Six years ago today, the first video missive ever created by Anonymous went viral. Titled "Message to Scientology," the two-minute video by activist Gregg Housh was eerie with its time-lapsed footage and text-to-speech manifesto threatening the Church of Scientology, which they accused of attempting to censor the internet. This was back in 2008, before Anonymous was even considering organizing protests around the globe.
I remember the night I saw "Message to Scientology" on the front page of Reddit as if it were actually yesterday. If these internet protest people named Anonymous were for real, I thought, their new take on activism was kind of cool.
Was it a life-changing moment? In retrospect, yeah probably, considering Housh's video led me down the dark internet hole that was the beginning of my research and writings on Anonymous. I didn't know it at the time, but 2008's "Message to Scientology" actually significantly changed Anonymous too, and shaped it into the hacktivist movement we now know it as.
In recognition of the anniversary of "Message to Scientology," then, consider this trip down e-history lane a crash course on what made Anonymous the collective it is today, with Housh's video a major catalyst along the way.
To explain Anonymous we must start at the beginning, which is tricky as it started on 4chan, which doesn't archive its content. What we do know is that, by 2004, users of 4chan's /b/ message boards were collectively referring to themselves as "Anonymous" whenever they organized internet pranks (the name comes from 4chan users posting anonymously on the site, as you don't have to register for an account). It is unclear which was created first: their catchphrase poem—"we are Anonymous, we are Legion, we do not forgive, we do not forget, expect us"—or the black and white graphic of the headless man in the suit that became their logo.
Either way, both were in heavy circulation by 2005 whenever the collective came together to harass people, like teen girls who had turned down or cheated on a 4channer, MySpace users with cringe-worthy profile photos, or animal abusers. At this point, Anonymous was mostly for dicking around.
2006: The first real cause with global support
The first raid by Anonymous that could be described as both global and for a just cause was a prank protest against the social networking game Habbo Hotel, after rumors circulated on the web that a few moderators were racially profiling and even banning users in the game based on skin color. The "operation" was called "Pool's Closed" and featured an avatar horde of black men with afros wearing business suits gathering en masse in front of the game's pool area (and other popular areas) to prevent other users from entering. This was, more or less, a digital sit-in, a DDoS of avatars if you will.
Whether or not Habbo Hotel was in fact engaged in racial profiling before the raid became moot; after the attack, the company banned all avatars of black men with afros wearing business suits. The Pool's Closed raid was repeated in 2007 for "lulz against racism" and some Finnish people prank protested in real life outside the Habbo Hotel headquarters.
2007: The first news report
/b/'s Anonymous was enough of a thing at this point that it caught the attention of a Fox News affiliate in Los Angeles, who aired a four-minute-plus fear report describing the collective as the "internet hate machine." Members were characterized as "hackers on steroids" and "domestic terrorists," and in case you didn't get how terrorist-y they could be, Fox News inserted an unrelated van explosion in the news clip for emphasis. This highly mocked news segment was remixed countless times into song by the collective. One creepy audio visual piece from 2008, titled "Internet Hate Machine," combines opinions, viral jokes and videos popular at the time and fully captures the ethos of Anonymous six years ago:
As comically inaccurate as the Fox News report was, it did somewhat set the tone for later news coverage of Anonymous.
2008: When everything changed
In January, a video of Tom Cruise talking rather maniacally about Scientology was leaked onto YouTube, but was promptly removed by Google after the Church of Scientology lay claim to the footage. Gawker, however, refused to take their video down despite the Church of Scientology threatening legal action. Anonymous got wind of this attempt at what they saw as censorship and began "Operation Chanology," which initially involved DDoSing Scientology websites, faxing black pages (because fax machines were still a thing), leaking Church documents online, and endless prank phone calls.
Housh's "Message to Scientology" upload on January 21 was just days into Operation Chanology, and was seen as a mainstream call-to-arms intended for people outside the confines of 4chan, in support of Gawker and internet freedom in general. Housh's work also established the modus operandi of announcing who Anonymous would "wage war on" via video. The subsequent media coverage did not characterize the collective as dangerous cyber terrorists but did blanket them all as hackers and dubbed their form of activism "hacktivism."
Thanks to this first video, people who had been protesting Scientology for quite some time, like long-time critic Mark Bunker, became aware of Project Chanology and Anonymous, as well as the Average Joe (and me).
Bunker, rechristened by Anonymous as "Wise Beard Man," changed the fundamental nature of Anonymous that February when he urged the collective to protest Scientology in legal ways, i.e. peacefully, and in real life. Legal forms of protest, he said, would prevent media portrayals of Scientology as a victim of "the internet hate machine," as the Church had taken to citing Anonymous' onslaught as a "religious hate crime" to any reporter that would listen.
Anonymous took Bunker's words to heart, and organized protests once a month in more than 100 cities around the globe starting February 10. Each city got their own separate forum, Facebook group, YouTube and IRC channel (Twitter wasn't popular yet). The idea was to inform on and utilize as many platforms as possible.
Given the problems at the time with criticizing Scientology openly and publicly, it was determined that everyone protesting should cover their face to protect their identity. To be anonymous IRL as well as online was a natural fit for Anonymous, and most took to wearing bandanas and scarves over their faces.
After videos and photographs of the London group circulated on Project Chanology message boards after the first protests in 2008, however, it became all about the Guy Fawkes mask popularized by the 2006 V for Vendetta movie—never mind that the mask was used by 4chan at the time to depict a stick figure male character constantly failing at everything in life. The Anonymous protests in London were bigger than any other city that spring, and footage of Anons all wearing the masks looked spooky and cool and the protests didn't seem like an epic fail somehow, as they arguably came across in some other cities.
By late spring, it was determined the Guy Fawkes mask was the reason for the success of the London protests, and would henceforth be the signature look of the internet's first real protest group. The British influence didn't stop there: The London protesters created an Anonymous flag, and even though every city created their own design after, the flag and iconography created by the London troupe persists to this day.
By late 2009, the amount of people protesting Scientology monthly had dwindled, and the methods the protesters utilized—blaring 80's music, shouting about internet memes behind masks and offering free hugs—alienated the public observing them (more than one observer I interviewed on the streets of Chicago thought Project Chanology was a cult, actually). But the lessons learned from the experience, such as how to obtain protest permits and the idea to film everything that happened in the protests, would come in handy in later years.
Operation Chanology opened the door in the hive mind's eye to more politically motivated global operations, like Anonymous' support of the Green movement in Iran that year, too. Bizarre operations that came off more as publicity stunts were carried out around the same time, and maintained Anonymous' image as a chaotic collective doing it all for "the lulz."
2010: The splinter groups emerge
"Operation Payback" and "Operation Avenge Assange" (which grew out of Operation Payback) were both large scale DDoS attacks on various US corporations carried out at the end of 2010 under the Anonymous banner for political reasons. Both used a technique known as LOIC, and both resulted in numerous arrests; the US government federally charged 13 people in October 2013 for Operation Payback, and 13 of the 14 people arrested for Operation Avenge Assange (known as the Paypal 14) reached a plea deal with prosecutors last month. The fact that anyone was arrested at all showed cybercrime units in various law enforcement agencies were getting better at their jobs, even if the majority of those arrested were new to the collective and clearly lacked the skills needed to prevent detection and arrest.
Subsequently, the majority of politically motivated operations that involved something illegal or violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (like DDoS attacks, website defacement campaigns and actual hacks) against major US corporations and government websites after 2010 were carried out by small groups or subsects with distinct names—not always specified by the media—like LulzSec, AntiSec, fail0verflow, AntiS3curityOPS, cabincr3w, UGNazi, etc. (An exception to this was Operation Megaupload, an attack carried out in 2012 by more than 5,000 people that utilized the LOIC after being broadcast on Twitter.)
These exclusive groups wanted to be separate from the Anonymous plebeians, and touted their elite haxor skills, real and imagined. Anonymous was not necessarily splintering as much as it was evolving to accommodate the needs of different people joining its ranks, specifically those joining because of trending hashtags associated with Operation Payback.
2011: The IRL protests return with a vengeance
In 2011, Anonymous' good deeds during the Arab Spring, Operation BART, and Occupy Wall Street garnered mainstream support and were met with positive press—enough so that the collective even began to be referred to by academics and media types as digital "freedom fighters" and online Robin Hoods.
Anonymous at an Occupy Wall Street protest. Image via Flickr/David Shankbone
Despite being local to San Francisco, August's Operation BART was significant for primarily organizing itself on Twitter under the trending hashtag #opBART, and for riding on mainstream outrage; these practices were also observed during their Arab Spring operations. The #opBART in-person protests were likened to a "real life DDoS attack," and were a runner-up to the Occupy movement that began a month later.
Much has already been written about Anonymous and Occupy Wall Street, but it is important to note the collective's main contribution to the movement: its ability to generate hype and spread information through social media and other electronic means were skills the group had been practicing for three years, since Project Chanology. Media coverage of Occupy Wall Street (and the Occupy movement of more than 900 cities with their own protests and encampments) continued to draw more people to Anonymous, including internet-clueless and formerly anti-hacking types.
2012 and beyond: For justice, and the rise of networked feminism
By 2012, the collective had more or less become a household name, prompting Time magazine to list Anonymous as one of the most influential people that year. Ideas for Anonymous protests were generated predominantly from newsworthy social issues that provoked sizable online outrage, and became increasingly feminist with a focus on justice issues, such as #OpPullOutMethod (in protest of conservative radio presenter Rush Limbaugh's highly offensive remarks to a woman who wished to talk at a meeting on contraceptives), #OpHuntHunter (against revenge porn site owner Hunter Moore), Operation Red Roll Red (on the Steubenville rape case), #OpJustice4Rehtaeh (in support of an alleged gang rape victim who committed suicide), and #Justice4Daisy (again, in support of a rape victim).
These operations took on a life of their own outside the initial publicity push from Anonymous, and the collective can be partly credited for inspiring a movement of cyber feminists, who increasingly adopted tactics made popular by Anonymous. A popular term for this feminism-oriented cyber activity is "networked feminism," and although these activists are not explicitly affiliated with Anonymous, their use of the prefix "op" in their associated hashtags clearly shows an influence from the original hacktivists.
Everyone protests like Anonymous now, and all because Housh's "Message to Scientology" video was weird enough to go viral back in 2008. Thanks to that first global operation, the collective went from (probably) awkward fedora-wearing basement-dwelling neck beards messing with random people to freedom fighters of all walks of life, all over the last six years.