It’s unheard of that a politically active collective has its origins in memes, pranks and pornography.
But Anonymous is exactly such a collective which has, in recent years, created a storm in the cyber as well as the real world.
Using cyber attacks, information leaks and real world protests, it has not only made the world governments scramble, but also made a generation which was viewed as apathetic, take part in the politics of the world.
The womb and the cradle of Anonymous was the notorious image board called 4chan. In a section labeled as /b/ , where people posted anything random anonymously, the first members of Anonymous mingled. They shared porn, created memes such as LOLcats and ,rarely, provided emotional support to heart-broken /b/rothers (as they were called).
Its culture was rude, vulgar and ruthless. Its members were trolls, cyber-bullies and hackers (although very few were actually technical hackers). Its unity was forged by executing pranks together — making fake phone calls and emotionally blackmailing naive victims with the threat of leaking their nude photos.
Its language was homophobic, racist and sexist, although it didn’t necessarily mean that they were actually any of these.
4chan was the dark underbelly of the Internet where people could anonymously encourage someone to suicide without revealing one’s identity.
It was this moral-less culture and anonymity which gave birth to Anonymous.
Anonymous’ first mass attack was against the church of Scientology, which made the group enter the real world for the first time ever.
The Church of Scientology is a religious organization with a bizzare set of mythos and a controversial record of corruption, ruthlessly crushing criticism and destroying critics through intimidation tactics and litigation.
On January 14, 2008, Scientology published a video of Tom Cruise extolling the the virtues of the church.
In it, the manic looking cruise talked in hyperbolic sentences, with the music of mission impossible running in the background.
The video was rather ridiculous and its effect was contrary to what was intended. And so the /b/rothers loved it — it was the perfect fodder for their lulz (a corruption of LOL).
But after getting trashed by media houses like The Times and the Daily Telegraph, Scientology started to take down the videos with the threat of litigation.
Upset about losing their source of the lulz, the /b/rothers termed it as Internet censorship.
And hence, project Chanology was born.
It was a large scale attack against the Church of Scientology and it derived its name from 4chan itself.
A video entitled “Call to Action” appeared on 28 January, 2008, calling all the people involved in Project Chanology to protest outside the Scientology centers on February 10, 2008.
It featured an electronic voice speaking British English and stock videos of clouds in the sky.
By January 30, 2008, 170 protests had been planned worldwide. People in Guy Fawkes masks, holding placards with meme references gathered all around like a flash flood under the name of Anonymous.
The media went into a frenzy. Regular activists who had been protesting against Scientology also joined in.
The issue came into the forefront along with the church’s various Human Rights Violations. The hype and the excitement had eventually fizzled out, but it had established Anonymous as a collective and had reinvigorated the protests against Scientology.
Project Chanology still continues on the Internet.
The fight against censorship and the freedom of knowledge reached far bigger proportions in Operation Payback.
It started with the Indian company, Aiplex Software, which was hired to take down sites which didn’t respond when they were asked to take down Bollywood related content.
Anonymous along with other pro-piracy activists launched an operation against Aiplex.
But someone had single-handedly taken down their site already.
Anonymous then launched several Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks on various high profile pro-copyright, anti-piracy organizations, law firms and individuals like Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) etc.
A DDoS attack basically floods a website’s server with so much traffic that it collapses. Every minute that the website is down, the owner of the website accrues huge losses.
Many websites which Anonymous attacked were down for more than a day and had to bear losses exceeding thousands of dollars.
When some countries tried to block Pirate Bay, one of the most popular torrent sites, Operation Payback was joined by hordes of new people to avenge this censorship.
But Anonymous reached new heights of fame and importance with its avengence of Wikileaks.
In December 2010, after Wikileaks started publishing confidential US diplomatic cables, it came under immense pressure to stop its operations.
Corporations like Amazon, Paypal, Mastercard and other online services refused to work with Wikileaks, paralyzing it.
Anonymous launched attacks on many of these sites.
But the most famous of them all was against Paypal.
The website was brought down by a DDoS attack which costed the company a whopping 3.5 Million Pounds!
Operation Payback also leaked many confidential data of the various companies it attacked, causing immense losses and effectively deterring Internet Censorship.
During the 2011 Arab Spring, Anonymous provided immense support to the revolutions and many of the protesters even joined Anonymous.
The ruthless censorship of the internet all over the region was aimed to stop people from organizing large scale protests. Also, there was considerable manipulation and censorship of the media.
Activities like Operation Tunisia helped distribute anonymizing software to overcome Internet censorship and Anonymous helped in sharing videos and information to the world outside.
It was the time when Anonymous truly matured as a political collective.
Some might say that Anonymous is all hype without substance. But its true power lay in information.
It’s major leaks, like that of HBGary security firm which uncovered a plan to discredit Wikileaks by providing fake information or that of the LulzSec which leaked many documents of the FBI or CIA, are its true weapons.
They also act as a force to keep the Internet free and clean and often target sites with pedophilia.
Their power to create hype also helps to highlight relatively ignored issues in the mainstream media.
But their biggest contribution is their ability to transform an apathetic generation of youngsters into politically conscious citizens of the world.