Last weekend, Anonymous, the internet's favorite protest group, threatened to release stills from a sex tape featuring pop star Iggy Azalea within 48 hours, unless she apologized for racially insensitive comments and behavior.
Well, kind of.
The Twitter account making the threats, @TheAnonMessage, isn't a particularly respectable Anonymous affiliate. But a number of media outlets ran with the story anyway, characterizing this black sheep as the collective itself. At the time of this writing, a Google search result yielded more than 500 news articles on Anonymous threatening Azalea, all from English-speaking outlets around the world.
Miscreants with hidden identities write threats to other online users every day, but those usually don't make headlines. This one did, and what should have been a non-story became a big one.
We are, after all, living in an age where hackers are actually stealing nude photos of celebrities and then sharing them online. A hacker collective releasing stills from Azalea's sextape fits into that gross male hacker boogey-man stereotype that has prevailed this year. The public and media believed @TheAnonMessage because the precedent exists.
Reporting @TheAnonMessage's threats as legitimate actions of the collective, however, indicates two things: either the media still doesn't understand Anonymous, a now seven-year-old online phenomenon, or outlets are willfully mischaracterizing Anonymous for clicks. It's probably a little of both.
Last Friday, @TheAnonMessage inserted itself into an online feud between Azalea and rapper Azealia Banks, coming down on the side of Banks. The Twitter account in question demanded Azalea apologize to Banks for her insults, and then proceeded to share tweets that depicted Azalea as racially insensitive (at best) while simultaneously threatening the release of the sex tape.
"There's an X rated tape of you, we bet you'd certainly don't want public, are we right?" read one of the tweets. "@IGGYAZALEA….and this is nothing. Comply or else."
Prior to this incident, @TheAnonMessage was known in the Anonymous community as the account that doxed the wrong man—a man who didn't even live in St. Louis—in an effort to name the police officer responsible for the death of Ferguson resident Mike Brown.
After @TheAnonMessage made the threats, more well-respected accounts associated with Anonymous spent the weekend and Monday denying involvement with this alleged sex tape and @TheAnonMessage, saying they were more concerned with important matters like #OpDeathEaters, an attempt to expose an alleged pedophila ring in the UK, and had no time for pop stars. They also reminded everyone of @TheAnonMessage's lack of credibility.
Usually when the Anonymous community runs a media campaign, all the top Anonymous Twitter accounts share it, not deny it. So how did these mostly random threats become such a story?
To be fair to the outlets that covered this story, there's no easy way to tell who is "legit Anonymous" and who is just a wannabe or renegade. To inexperienced reporters doing a drive-by story on the collective, all social media profiles proclaiming themselves Anonymous look the same. Anonymous can also comes off as a bit intimidating to the uninitiated, which prevents some from taking the time to understand how the collective works.
To someone who has been paying attention to Anonymous, the Twitter accounts that are actual mouthpieces for the collective are well-known. Further, people that track these sorts of things, myself included, will say that for every hacker-type in the Anonymous collective, there are anywhere from 10 to 50 affiliates that don't have basic coding skills. That isn't to say these non-hackers in Anonymous are not concerned with the issue of the day—they are—they're just not hackers stealing state secrets and ones capable of acquiring a purported sex tape featuring a controversial pop star.
Because there is no gateway to entry, anyone can join and proclaim themselves as part of Anonymous. This way of functioning has its issues, and in many ways is the collective's weakness. In this case, a disliked member was seen by the media as representing all of Anonymous. @TheAnonMessage retaliating to Azalea's racist behavior with threats of sexual violence made all of Anonymous look like the biggest jerks in this rapper feud.
If any of the media outlets covering this farce looked a little deeper, they'd realize @TheAnonMessage was, to put it mildly, full of shit. It's now been a week since the original threats were made and they have yet to come to fruition. The young man that ran the now-suspended @TheAnonMessage Twitter account tweeted angrily at a pop star (and MTV), like thousands of other people online, and the media ate it all up as if it was an actual real thing because it's an easy story to sell.