How Anonymous got political

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How Anonymous got political

Quinn Norton looks into the hacker network and writes about how it developed into a global activist power.

It was 26 January 2012 in Poland. Young people had been protesting in the very cold streets against an intellectual property agreement.

Before that, Anonymous hackers had stopped Polish government servers working for more than 36 hours to protest against the signing of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA).


Off the internet and into the streets. Anonymous protest against police violence in San Francisco. Robert Galbraith / Reuters

Then, Palikot’s movement –a group from the Polish parliament fighting for freedom, famous for their games – all put on Guy Fawkes masks. In hours the picture was everywhere. Anonymous – the group, the identity, the method – had got into its first government.

The anon hackers started as 4chan, a famous image-posting forum. At first, they did funny things, like ordering pizzas for other people or signing other people up for junk mail. They’d invented Rickrolling, but also did offensive tricks and lots of things connected to cats. In less than two years, they had become a global political power.

Their first move towards politics was with the Church of Scientology. The church had tried to censor a bad video where Tom Cruise was speaking about how good the religion was. Anonymous didn’t like the censoring, so they tried to destroy the church with a project called Chanology. They got all the people who didn’t like the scientologists together (ex-scientologists, family and friends of scientologists) and tried to defeat the church.

The second move was leaving the internet and meeting in real life. On 10 February 2008, Anonymous groups met together across the world to protest and party in front of hundreds of Scientology locations. People say there were over 9,000 people. For the first time, the group met. And they began to learn to organize protests.

‘Anonymous started because we needed to get revenge,’ said a Chanology member. ‘Scientology tried to fuck with our internet, trying to close the Tom Cruise video. We punished them, and the punishment continues nearly four years later.’

For three years, not much changed, until 2011 – the year that everything changed, and Anonymous too. OpTunisia, opEgypt, and the other ‘freedom ops’ developed. They hacked into companies, media, governments and law enforcement and developed their power. By 2011, Anonymous had many different approaches, theories and ways of organizing. It had opposed dictators, hacked corporations from Japan to the US, organised protests against websites from the CIA to Indian copyright holders. It had got into law enforcement and customer data. It had written manifestos and made videos and issued calls to action. But it had never brought the techniques together.

The tactics and ethics of Anonymous usually remained separate. That changed when a small police force in San Francisco did something which had never been done in the US: it cut mobile phone service to stop a planned protest against its violence.


In December 2010, anon hackers closed the sites of PayPal, Mastercard and others because they blocked donations to Wikileaks.

In July 2011, hackers attacked Arizona Police websites to protest against the state’s strict immigration laws.

In October 2011, hackers published the names of 1,589 people they said had used the child pornography website Lolita City.

In August 2012, anon activists got into Ugandan government websites to protest against the extreme homophobia laws that the parliament were discussing.

The story of many fatal shootings by the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police in San Francisco spread quickly in Anonymous after people began talking about the mobile phone blackout. Anons, Bay Area residents, and even people in Egypt, compared it to Mubarak’s plan of switching off the internet and sending out violent attackers. Anonymous members all got together to talk about it.

‘People were angry. Lots of people. I would say the channel at one point had over 400 people in it –… people formed into different groups and discussed everything. Hacking, Doxing [finding and publishing individual people’s personal information on the internet], and protest,’ said one opBART anon. ‘There were people writing for newspapers, and I joined in. I asked if I could make the video – and I did… At that point, we all felt so ashamed that our government could do such a thing to its people; what would they do next? It was a way not only to express anger, but to communicate to the public about what needs to be done. Mainstream media has television, we have YouTube and other sources.’

In opBART, they tried everything. Anonymous gave statements that were shown by media all over the world. The people on the street protesting met the people making videos and writing statements. They started regular Monday protests in central San Francisco at rush hour. Anon hackers attacked the insecure bart and mybart websites and released information about police. They even tried to force BART spokesperson Linton Johnson to resign with the threat of pictures he didn’t want others to see. But blackmail requires control – other anons published the pictures anyway.

It was a big burst of political action. But Anonymous’ best skill was getting attention of the media. No-one liked the idea of police with this power over phones. Lots of people from the media came. Lots of police were sent to meet the protesters and the media. Sometimes there were more police and media than protesters.

The real results were not in opBART – they came in the next weeks, when Anonymous joined and spread the beginnings of the Occupy movement. There was never any plan for Occupy to go further than lower Manhattan. But everything Anonymous had learned in San Francisco spread to every part of the US and other countries. Everywhere there was a big camp, there were anons, talking to media, protesting on the street.

Later, their disorganised organization grew much larger than the small community in 2011, and grew larger than Occupy. The Guy Fawkes mask became a symbol of protest. It was on the faces of thousands of anti-ACTA protesters and in Egyptian revolutionary graffiti. Now anyone can be Anonymous when they need to protest.

Quinn Norton is a US journalist and photographer. She writes about hackers, Anonymous, copyright and the internet, eg. in Wired News and The Guardian.

As this article has been simplified, the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed. For the original, please see: