Internet Thugs Misappropriate the Hacker Moniker

I’d like to pick up on Olivier Sylvain’s post on the cyber mob Anonymous and take it in a slightly different direction.  Let’s step back to get a sense of the group dubbed Anonymous. The group originated on 4Chan’s /b/ forums and now has a serious presence on the wiki Encyclopedia Dramatica, YouTube, and Internet Relay Chat forums.  The group may now compromise several groups with different aims (see here for a discussion of splinter group more interested in so-called “pranks”, or in my view bigoted attacks, than strident “political activism” like DDos on PayPal, Visa, and the like).

It’s difficult to see how the group and its various permutations warrant the breathless admiration of journalists who dub them “hacktivists.”  A little step back to the original hackers of the early 1960s.  As Howard Rheingold explains (and Patricia Wallace concurs in her work), the term was coined to describe people who “create computer systems.”  The first people to call themselves hackers ascribed to an informal social contract called the “hacker ethic.”  This ethic included these principles:

“Access to computers should be unlimited and total.  Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative.  All information should be free.  Mistrust authority–promote decentralization.”

The original hackers were motivated by altruistic concerns.  Indeed, we owe a debt of gratitude to their broader community for helping design the Internet.  Our guest blogger and celebrity computer scientist Steve Bellovin was a key player in that community: in 1979, Bellovin, then at UNC for graduate school, and Jim Ellis and Tom Truscott, Duke grad students, created the first link between Duke and UNC, which later became Usenet, the oldest global virtual community.

Let’s compare the original hackers to the group(s) Anonymous, which exemplifies the destructive side of cyber anonymity.  From its beginnings, the group took its name because it believes its collective identity serves as a mask, letting them do and say things that would otherwise be out of bounds.  According to a YouTube posting from a group member, “We are Anonymous, a “people devoid of any type of soul or conscience” who form “a nameless, faceless, unforgiving mafia”—“we ruin the lives of other people simply because we can.”  Anonymous members describe themselves as “unencumbered by pointless ethics, foolish moralities, or arbitrary laws or restrictions.”  When Anonymous members engage in offline “raids,” they hide behind the Guy Fawkes mask design made famous by the film of Alan Moore’s graphic novel V for Vendetta.

The group (or part of it) has been rightly called an “Internet Hate Machine.”  Much of what it does is for the “lulz.”  It has attacked African Americans, women, LGBT individuals, Jews, and Muslims.  It urged members to “search and destroy” a popular female video blogger’s online identity.  The group hacked into her online accounts, posted doctored photographs of her being raped, and took down her videos.  On Encyclopedia Dramatica, group members listed feminist websites that should be shut down with distributed denial-of-service attacks and “image reaping”—flooding sites with traffic to use up their allocated bandwidth.  Members updated the wiki as they accomplished their goal.  Disabled sites appeared with black lines through them next to the phrase: “Down due to excessive bandwidth.  Great success!”  As sites reappeared, group members updated the wiki entry with the phrase “back from the dead” and called for others to “search and destroy” them.  When Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff’s blog reappeared after successful image reaping campaign, group members were notified: “FUCK!  Pulled a Lazarus. Get in there.”  The group has closed over 100 feminist sites and blogs.  It attacked two popular hip-hop sites, defacing them with swastikas and racial slurs and hacking into its employees’ computers.  The disabled were targeted as well: group members posted JavaScript code and flashing computer animation to trigger heaches and seizures in epileptics.  Benjamin Mako Hill, a student at MIT’s media lab specializing in sociology and online communities, describes Anonymous as likely just “a lot” of “selfish teenage assholes.”

The attacks allegedly devoted to political activism — such as the DDos attacks on PayPal, Visa, and Mastercard — seems like just more lulz activities.  Consider its recent “cyber protest” after the BART shut down cell service to ward off protesters from gathering in response to a police shooting.  The group released personal information from BART customers:

Thus below we are releasing the User Info Database of, to show that BART doesn’t give a shit about it’s customers and riders and to show that the people will not allow you to kill us and censor us. This is but the one of many actions to come. We apologize to any citizen that has his information published, but you should go to BART and ask them why your information wasn’t secure with them. Also do not worry, probably the only information that will be abused from this database is that of BART employees.

Let me get this straight: releasing the sensitive personal information of BART customers to punish BART?  That sounds like a privacy-invasive joy ride by a bunch of trolls.  Hacktivists?  I think not.


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11 Responses

  1. Steve Schultze says:


    I appreciate it when the academic community probes phenomena like Anonymous. However, I’m not really sure what the point is of this post. Is the point to say that many “members” of Anonymous are immature douchebags? I don’t think that comes as a surprise to anyone. Is the point to lambast the media for glorifying them? I think there has been more than enough criticism to go around. If you’re criticizing the “hacktivists” label, I think you need to look a bit more closely. Simply compiling lists of stupid things that some members did and selectively quoting some members of the white hat hacker community is not enough. What’s more, that Mako quote is actually incorrect. I assume you are referring (without citation) to this Guardian article:

    According to the article, Mako didn’t describe them as “macho, misogynistic thugs.” The journalist did. He also said that “a lot” of them “are just selfish teenage assholes,” and noted that “Most grow out of it, others go on to do computer security.” The point here is not editorial nitpicking, but that Anonymous — although quite demographically similar — is nevertheless heterogeneous in various ways. They are not all assholes, and not necessarily all that they do is simple trolling. I readily admit that many of them are, and that much of the recent activity done under the Anonymous moniker has been less justifiable.

    However, I think that’s the no-brainer story. There are far more interesting things to study about how Anonymous organizes (or doesn’t) and what genuine causes that some parts of Anonymous believe in and advocate for. Much of the Anonymous ethic resonates with phrases like, “All information should be free. Mistrust authority–promote decentralization.”

    I particularly disagree with your analysis that Project Chanology was one of the more prank-ish Anonymous efforts. On the contrary, I think that it was by far the most interesting activism efforts by Anonymous or by anyone using digital tools to bridge online and in-person advocacy. Scientology and the Internet have a long history of battling over whether information will be free. The worldwide in-person Anonymous protests (and the dozens of other coordinated advocacy efforts) were nothing short of astonishing. When I was Henry Jenkins’ student he allowed my to anonymously post this analysis on his blog:

    I still think that academics have missed an interesting opportunity to study Anonymous and trolling sub-cultures. I had high hopes that Anonymous itself would “grow up” and move on to other interesting and effective hacktivism. Perhaps some Anons might call me a “moralfag” (google it), but part of the point of Anonymous has always been that many perspectives and motivations exist. It’s far less interesting to repeatedly point out the nasty things that Anons do (they will certainly continue to provide plenty of examples) than to admit and probe the genuine successes of the group.


  2. Paul Horwitz says:

    Danielle, I also found this post interesting, but I come at it from a slightly different angle. I’ve also read histories of the early hacker movement, and met and talked with some of the early figures. I agree with your general characterization, but it’s fair to say we shouldn’t overglorify that generation either. As with any such disparate movement, I think it’s fair to observe that it had many facets and members, and some of them were more interested in criminal activity per se; not all of them, and not necessarily for nefarious reasons, but still. The Well is not the face of the early net and/or hacker community. I don’t think this affects your general desire to distinguish between the early generation and the current one; this is a friendly amendment, more or less. But it may matter inasmuch as, the more diverse the earlier community was, the more likely it was to have a variety of different offshoots in the present day.

  3. Thanks to you both for your comments.

    Steve, studying the “nasty things” that sub-cultures of Anonymous do may be far less interesting to you, but certainly not to me and not to the many individual victims whose voices were silenced simply because they were “femi-nazis,” “fags,” or “n—s,” the words used by the perpetrators in attacks on individuals. Those attacks ought not be dismissed as silly pranks (I put the pranks comment in quotes because I see it as trivializing to call it that, thanks for making sure for showing me I was unclear)or uninteresting. They exemplify a broader societal problem, one that academics, pundits, and society should take seriously: bigoted cyber mobs that deny vulnerable individuals the ability to engage online as equals and take full advantage of the economic, social, political, and cultural opportunities in our networked age. My broader point was indeed to expose the media’s enthrallment of the group as part of the broader story of how we trivialize online harassment of vulnerable individuals specifically and dismiss privacy invasions and criminal acts generally due to silly labels like hactivism. You make excellent points about what Anonymous could become and what it might tell us about civil disobedience in the information age. I would recommend Sonia Katyal’s brilliant work on that score. As always, Paul, thanks for your insights and fine tuning of what I had to say. Appreciate it very much. Danielle

  4. Steve Schultze says:


    Thanks for taking the time to respond to my comment.

    I agree that studying the social dynamics behind “nasty things” that people do under the name of Anonymous is interesting. The mob mentality, selection of targets, and collective ethics of the group (to the extent that some can be discerned) is worthy of study. Simply pointing out that some of them do mean things together is less interesting.

    As for the media response, I think that this NYTimes post is a good example of balanced reporting — including analysis of Anon’s attempts to transition from more wild lashing out to “legitimate” activism:

    I would caution that although some Anonymous activities are quite self-evidently hateful, the story is often more complex. For instance, amidst all of the language of “faggotry” and the like, I have nevertheless seen openly gay people, african americans, and other members of seemingly targeted groups participating prominently in Anon activities with support from the rest of the community. This does not excuse the clear hatred that is often expressed by Anons, but it does complicate the analysis.

    As for academics that “get it,” I recommend Gabriella Coleman’s work.


  5. Steve Schultze says:

    Ack, I wrote “Gabriella” instead of Danielle. Sorry about that.

    And for those wondering why I was referring to Chanology and that non-Mako-quote in my first comment even though those don’t appear in the post, it’s because they were originally in there. It appears that Danielle has edited the post.

  6. Since my name has been summoned….(sorry this is long but I have spent 9 months chained to my computer studying Anonymous so I have a lot to say)

    The problem with the name Anonymous is that anyone can take it and it has and still is being used 1) by trolls 2) activists (of all stripes, not just hackers nor just juvenile jerks either).

    But then the most complex part of it all is how the name has been used by activists to engage in more traditional and important politics but they retain some element of prankishness/rowdiness that is part and parcel of the lulz. But it has been seriously toned down and is, to be sure, a difficult juggling act to pull off.

    Even if anyone can take the name Anonymous, one can locate and differentiate the political wings pretty easily. Also some activists who are part of these political operations are seasoned lefty activists (who have good reason to keep themselves anonymous), others have cut their teeth on politics for the first time and some are just there for the lulz. It is a complex landscape of motivation and social organization that defies easy categorization.

    Two additional comments:

    I think Steve’s point about the media’s stunning creation of (and Anonymous hack of the media) is a key part of the story.

    While I rarely call Anonymous hacktivism (because I follow the narrow definition by Oxbloodd Ruffian, which means legal activism and some of Anonymous action are too dicey to qualify), there are many hackers involved and many non-hackers. From a sociological vantage point there has also always been a transgressive tradition in hacking from its start (phreaks… for instance fed into the hacker underground). While I think it is key not to criminalize and sensationalize the hacker community, it is also important not to whitewash what makes this domain so interesting. There are many contentions among them and more than one way to hack.

    I have started to finally write about Anonymous–mostly to disambiguate as there are so many misconceptions–and here is the most substantial overview of the political wings:

    This considers Anarchy and Anonymous:

    Finally here is a defense of *one* DDoS campaign.

    I am actually not a huge fan of the DDoS as a political tactic (it just loses its efficacy pretty quickly and is primarily good for media attention with a few exceptions) but it can be marshaled in some interesting ways and I think the Dec 2010 qualified as such, even if there were some serious ethical problems with it, which I addressed in the piece. There have been other campaigns that qualify as fully political like the German Lufthansa campaign and some by the Electronic Disturbance Theatre.

    Finally I hope to soon publish a long article on the role of lulz in the political wings. Retaining it makes for a difficult juggling act and makes their politics dicey but I don’t think we should discount them either.

    When it comes to the broader phenomena of troll culture and Anonymous trolling and Encyclopedia Dramatica, there is a piece coming out in Triple Canopy by David Auerbach that is the single best piece I have seen about 4chan and related activities so do look out for it. I think it should be out next month.

  7. Danielle Citron says:

    Yes, I did edit the post (thanks to Steve’s helpful comments). So sorry I did not do it with strike throughs to make that clear.

    An interesting thing about Professor Coleman’s terrific work is that she suggests that Anonymous formed during the Project Chanology attacks in 2008, see her interview in Brian on You Tube. Yet my sense is that people on 4chan/ED calling themselves Anonymous started acting as a group as early as 2003 (certainly with raids in 2006 and onwards), showing that it is indeed has many subgroups/permutations as Paul suggests. I am so looking forward to her forthcoming book.

  8. Danielle,

    They did form back then and they *still* continue to troll. Many are unhappy that a politics arose.

    But the “they” of trolling are not always the same folks and when they are acting out of 4chan it does not produce a stable group/entity in the way that the political wings produce more legibility and stability although there are still more than one political node and they are quite loose, at times.

    The ddos campaign of Dec 2010 came out of the Anonops network that already had left 4chan to organize politically against the trade associations in Sept 2010. But to be sure, they are able to marshal folks who just want to contribute to raise hell.

  9. Danielle Citron says:

    Thanks so much, Gabriella, so appreciate your comments. Lucky to have you here.

  10. Kaimi says:

    Very interesting conversation.

    And, as the New York Times recently mentioned, Anonymous’s masked activities create profit for Time-Warner. So it’s fun, plus profit. Everybody wins! Except for folks unable to use their own websites . . .

  11. Danielle, thanks for the citation, but on your linguistic point I don’t think I agree with you.

    First, the meaning of the word “hacker” is considered to be controversial by some. (at least as of right now…) gives a good summary of the issues. But word meanings change over time, which is why I’m a linguistic descriptivist. If you have access to the OED, look up “awful”, and in particular the different uses in (especially) the 19th century. There’s an 1809 quote “I fear our‥nation Is in an awful situation”, for today’s usage of “Frightful, very ugly, monstrous”; there’s also the 1871 quote “His truth, His awful holiness” illustrating the definition “Worthy of, or commanding, profound respect or reverential fear.” Better yet, see “manufacture”, which literally means “hand-made”, or you can “dial” a call without a physical dial anywhere in sight…

    Beyond that, the word in question here is “hacktivist”, not “hacker”. A combination of words can easily have a meaning distinct from its roots; the most glaring example I can think of is “concentration camp”, but also consider “extraordinary rendition”. For that matter, the coiners of such phrases often try to conceal or sugarcoat the real meaning, e.g., “right-sizing” instead of “layoffs”. (Hmm: in that sentence I quite ironically but inadvertently used the word “sugarcoat”.)

    I do think that “hacktivism” is misused, but not because of the meanings of the root words. “Hacktivism” comes from the computer abuse meaning of “hacker”, but refers to actions taken with specific political intent. The denial of service attack on the NATO website during the Kosovo bombing campaign is the oldest example that comes to mind; see the last section of (The efficacy of the counterattack can be questioned, but not, I think, the intent.) To label what Anonymous has been doing as “hacktivism” is to credit them with a reasoned political philosophy such as anarchy; I agree with you that it’s more attention-getting behavior at best done out of boredom and immaturity. That isn’t hacktivism; it is, arguably, hacking.