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A Look at the Original Online Vigilantes

Matt Hyland
December 4, 2014

In this day in age where privacy is so limited, where one can simply Google a name to locate information attached to numerous social media networks and where citizens are monitored daily via government surveillance, true privacy is truly an experience of the privileged and of those in power. Indeed, it is those governmental bodies such as the FBI for instance, or those who are very well off, that can afford and are given the privilege of secretively monitoring the public, of creating systemic change or of influencing the world around us in general, often unbeknownst to the general public. This fear based structural system, is exactly what the social movement of Anonymous has fought against; the right to freedom, of not just freedom of speech but of the right to privacy. To fully grasp this social movement and the development of their activism, it is essential to understand their history and progression, their main message and goals and how the mainstream media/public currently portray them as. Recommendations for improved communication and collaboration amongst the members within Anonymous, is thoroughly discussed. Anonymous is a group of online activists that define themselves as "a decentralized network of individuals focused on promoting access to information, free speech, and transparency".1 Originating in 2003, Anonymous publicly leads the hacktivism movement, which is the nonviolent use of illegal or legally ambiguous digital tools in pursuit of political ends.2 Anonymous has a distinct appearance; a decentralized structure, unabashed morals and political motivations, and a proclivity to couple online attacks with offline protests.3 Biella Coleman, a Professor at MIT who has been studying Anonymous since 2008 writes that; "Anonymous is not a united front, but a hydra, a rhizome, comprising numerous different networks and working groups that are often at odds with one another".4 They are described as a "rhizomatic collective", with faceless members all over the world and no clear leadership.5 This network of activists had its start on the online image board website called 4chan,which was developed in 2003 by a New York City teenager named Christopher Poole. 4chan originated as a discussion board for Japanese manga and anime, but quickly developed a number of other discussion boards.6 They started to use the name “Anonymous”, due to the fact that in 2004, 4chan introduced a new feature called "Forced_Anon" where any user posting on 4chan had the name 'Anonymous'.7 The main discussion board on 4chan known as “/b/”, is described as "the beating heart of the site".8 This is due to the fact that it is a free-for-all site, whereby users rapidly post ideas, pictures and comments on any topic of desire. Early actions of Anonymous on 4chan consisted of various pranks and acts of ridicule to produce laughs or what they termed, "lulz".9 It wasn't until 2008 that Anonymous would change its ideologies, due to a prank they pulled on the church of Scientology known as Project Chanology.10 Project Chanology, was made up of "cyber attacks, pranks, and demonstrations against the Church of Scientology to critique its ideology and tactics that support censorship".11 The situation grew a lot larger than Anonymous could have ever expected, and what started off as a prank ended up being a massive act of cyber-activism. On January 21st, 2008, "a video was published on YouTube promoting a call to arms against scientology; it was the first time that Anonymous went beyond the virtual walls of 4chan".12 In doing so, they formed as a group a means of representing themselves, by wearing "Guy Fawks" mask, which can be seen from the film "V for Vendetta". This mask was chosen due to the inherent symbolism of activism and vigilantism. This has grown to be how this movement and its members are identified. To remain anonymous and as a means to induce fear, members also censor their voices using a computerized voice. In the first controversial video that was publicized, Anonymous used their mechanical voice that narrated over a series of images, which threatened Scientology and called for punishment for their censorship.13 After this video brought anonymous to the mainstream, the protests proved that they were a force that should be taken seriously. More than "6000 participating members of the operation, dubbed 'Project Chanology', donned Guy Fawkes masks and protested in the streets of ninety cities worldwide, spanning North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand".14 While this was happening, online members were raiding Scientology websites and prevented the infamous Tom Cruise video, which was giving Scientology a bad image, from disappearing from the Internet.15 The Church of Scientology had done nothing initially to provoke Anonymous, but the activist group took issue with how the Church had tried to suppress freedom of speech, and consequently started to attack. Scientology still has not fully recovered from this attack. This has a lot to do with how Anonymous brought them out in the media...

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