Back in March, the hacktivist group Anonymous declared “total war” on then-candidate Donald J. Trump, promising an operation that would dismantle a campaign that “shocked the entire planet.”
With his near-constant use of Twitter and frequently hacked website, the Trump campaign seemed a perfect target for the activist hackers of Anonymous, a group that had embarrassed the likes of Sony Pictures, the CIA, and Fox News. But while Wikileaks tormented the Clinton campaign all summer, arguably altering the course of the election, Anonymous was nowhere to be seen. Despite all the puffery, there were no major operations or major leaks.
It raises the question: Is Anonymous and the ethos it represents finally over?
It turns out that just as the 2016 presidential election divided America, it split Anonymous due to infighting, rendering the collective directionless at a time when many expected them to become a significant voice during the campaign.
“We believe that major Anonymous operations simply did not take place because of the divide of the collective on the political spectrums,” representatives from YourAnonNews, the group’s best-known voice online, told VICE News. “The U.S. election pitted friend against friend, mother against son. It did the same within Anonymous as many activists became caught up in the debate instead of remaining true and steady against the establishment.”
VICE News spoke to current and former members of Anonymous, as well as experts on the group, and all broadly agreed that the group, in the U.S. at least, is weaker now than it has been in a long time.
One former member went even further: “My personal opinion is that the concept, movement, and organization that is Anonymous is simply dead,” said Hector X. Monsegur, a security researcher who in a former life was known as Sabu, the best-known member of Anonymous and its offshoot LulzSec. He later became an informant for the FBI.
Anonymous burst onto the scene in 2008 with a high-profile campaign against the Church of Scientology that, in their view, was attempting to censor the internet by removing all traces of a video featuring Tom Cruise promoting the religion.
The campaign propelled Anonymous out of the shadows of 4Chan — a notorious imageboard that spawned a variety of internet memes including Lolcats, Caturday, and Rickrolling — and into the mainstream.
People found it difficult to understand Anonymous, which has no centralized leadership or organizational structure. Anyone can identify with the movement simply by saying: “I am Anonymous.” This lack of leadership caused a lot of the problems, with many media outlets picking up statements from one member and associating it with the entire group.
Though there was no official leadership, certain members became more prominent and influential than others. Monsegur was among them, leading an offshoot known as LulzSec that created some of the movement’s 50 Days of Lulz campaign, which included attacks on Sony Pictures, the CIA, and Fox News.
“The media helped prop up Anonymous, and the media also helped shape it into what it is today: an anachronism of another time,” Monsegur said. “It’s possible that journalists and media organizations were burned by the failed ‘operations’ that became almost too common.”
For all the criticism Anonymous received for its misfires, it can boast some significant results:
- During the Arab Spring in Tunisia, the group helped activists in the country stay online, disseminate information, and raise the profile of the injustice they believed was happening in the country.
- In 2012, Anonymous hacker Deric Lostutter hacked into a high school’s football sports fan site to uncover evidence of a gang rape by Steubenville High School students of a young girl.
- Anonymous helped highlight Islamic State–linked Twitter accounts and get them suspended.
- The group helped raise the profile of the protests taking place in Ferguson after the shooting of black teenager Mike Brown by the police.
Operations continue to be launched under the name of Anonymous on a daily basis — one of the most recent is a push to get John McAfee appointed as Donald Trump’s cyber chief — but almost all fall flat and receive little attention.
“There have been too many false claims by people claiming to be Anonymous. Every time you turn around there is a new Anonymous video, but no movement to support it,” Wauchula Ghost, a hacker affiliated with Anonymous, told VICE News. Earlier this year, operating on his own, Wauchula Ghost hacked Islamic State Twitter accounts, posting gay porn, rainbow flags, and messages of support for the LGBT community.
“People need to understand it’s not about buying a mask and creating a Twitter account,” Wauchula Ghost said. “You actually have to fight for what you believe in.”
Anonymous is a global movement. And while “the U.S.-based movement of Anons seems very small, [it is] still robust in other parts of the world,” said Gabriella Coleman, an anthropologist who wrote Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous.
The group behind the Operation Ferguson campaign told VICE News that the current lull in Anonymous activity is not a permanent one: “Anonymous tends to have its cycles of activity and inactivity. If you are around long enough, you see that a lot.”
This is a sentiment echoed by those behind the YourAnonNews Twitter account, which has more than 1.6 million followers and holds a lot of sway within the movement. “Online enthusiasm is waning and it has been for years. People have to understand that there is an ebb and flow to Anonymous as a whole.”
Anonymous was created online, and that remains its “core,” according to YourAnonNews. But as demonstrated by the group’s annual Million Mask March earlier this month, the movement still has the ability to get boots on the ground — and that may determine its future.
“You want to help your fellow man and community?” Monsegur said. “Go outside and do so. Join the many thousands of grassroots movements out there in the streets that are actually helping people. A storm of retweets isn’t helping anyone.”