A prominent UK member of Anonymous speaks exclusively to IBTimes UK about the power it wields and how media attention keeps the movement alive.
A prominent member of Anonymous is interviewed at IBTimes UK offices about the groups' power and how it is fuelled by the media. (Credit: IBTimes UK)
Contacting a member of Anonymous is not the easiest thing to do. They are, by their very nature, rather skittish and somewhat paranoid about revealing themselves to anyone in the real world.
Following a couple of conversations on Twitter, extended email back-and-forth and finally putting assurances in place regarding the protection of his identity, I convinced a prominent member of Anonymous to speak on camera to me.
I still don't know who he is however. I know he is a white male and if I had to guess I would say he is in his late 20s. Other than that I don't know much else about his identity. We decided he would go by the name Ferris Beuller (he had just watched the film) when arriving at reception in the IBTimes UK office building.
We agreed to distort his voice and he conducted the interview wearing the infamous Guy Fawkes mask which has been the calling card of the group since its inception.
Its inception was borne out of the imageboard 4chan as far back as 2003, but it wasn't until 2008's Project Chanology, aimed against the Church of Scientology, that the group came to the attention of a wider audience - and it was also the spark which led Ferris to join the group.
Five years on, he is now seen as one of the more experienced members of the group, but he sees new members joining all the time but for entirely different reasons.
Ferris says that in the UK he has seen an influx of "terrifically disenfranchised teenagers" who feel let down by the political elite - especially by the Liberal Democrats who promised to change so much before the last election.
"They don't see a route by which their own opinions can be expressed and generally the political figures who they agree with are either persecuted or ignored which is why a lot of them turn to direct action, going out and having a real influence themselves despite the risk that that entails."
For many people the idea of Anonymous is a difficult one to grasp.
The group does not conform to traditional group dynamics. There is no set membership. There is no leadership. There is no hierarchy. People come and go from Anonymous as they please.
The group exists primarily online - though sporadically in the real world when people aligning themselves with Anonymous don the mask at protests and marches.
The group does not have a specific goal, and because it tackles such a wide range of issues and causes at times one Anonymous project will be doing one thing while another project will be fighting against that very issue. "There is a lot of in-fighting," Ferris concedes.
A better way of thinking about Anonymous, Ferris says, is like an on-going event where people join as and when they feel strongly about something.
"If you call yourself Anonymous, all it means is that at this time, in this place you believe X, Y or Z." Everyone decides their own level of involvement and there are "no regular or concrete members."
While Ferris "can't possibly speak for all of Anonymous," for him being part of the movement is "a very important aspect" of his political views.
"As a whole the group has upheld a lot of my values and done a lot of the things I would like to see done but on the other hand I don't agree with a great many of our actions, but because there is no leadership and there is no set definition of what is a member, the actions of others don't necessarily [line up with my own]."
Chaotic and unpredictable
By its very nature Anonymous is "chaotic and unpredictable."
But, despite this chaotic nature, over the last three years, Anonymous has risen to become a household name around the world, a by-word for online anarchy and mischief.
That notoriety reached its zenith last year when it was voted by readers as Time's Most Influential Figure of 2012. It is exactly this type of media attention that allows the collective to grow:
"A lot of the power of Anonymous comes from what the media grants it. If the media paid slightly more attention to more important issues, or less sensationalist [stories] they would probably pay Anonymous a lot less attention."
Ferris adds that the air of mystery which surrounds the groups is another weapon in its armoury:
"We can easily be mistaken for attention seekers, but I think that we use the power which we are given. If people stopped paying attention to us, we would cease to be relevant. The more publicity we get, the more members will gather."
Ferris says that if the group's attack on Church of Scientology hadn't been picked up by the media and the video message hadn't gone viral on YouTube, then Anonymous most likely would never have come to light to the level it has in recent years: "Attention grabbing is our greatest weapon"
However attention is not always a positive thing. Earlier this year four UK men were jailed for their part in cyber-attacks as part of the LulzSec, a highly specialised offshoot of Anonymous. Their arrests and subsequent jailing was brought about after the FBI identified one of the members - Sabu (aka Hector Xavier Monsegur) - and turned him into an informant.
Has this treachery had any impact on the group as a whole?
"In all reality it didn't really have much effect," Ferris says, adding that a lot of people within the group believe this type of thing will never happen to them.
He believes that unlike the heaving mass of online warriors that populate Anonymous, the LulzSec group was was so small, consisted of such specialised hackers and focusing on such big targets, they drew attention to themselves personally.
Compare the LulzSec attacks against the likes of Sony, the FBI and PBS where only a handful of people were involved to the Anonymous attack on the website of security firm HBGary in 2011 when hundreds of thousands of people used DDoS (distributed denial of service) and injection hacks to steal tens of thousands of documents.
Most Anons understand there is a "calculated risk" involved in taking part in these attacks and attracting unwanted interested from the authorities - hence the need for the masks and online protection .
"Personally I have a lot to lose so I am very cautious but not to the extent where whenever I log onto my computer I am worrying about who might be watching."
Indeed some Anons seem to be very open about their association with the group, posting messages on Facebook and elsewhere online that is easily accessible to anyone looking for information. This points to a misconception about Anonymous, that all members are hackers and have high levels of technical ability.
"The level of technical ability and hacking skill really is incredibly varied. I would say a very, very small number are actually what would be traditionally called hackers."
However, advances in the automated tools used to carry out cyber-attacks make it so members of Anonymous don't need to have the technical proficiency it once took to hack into a website. Automated tools like LOIC allow anyone to take part in a DDoS attract simply by entering a web address and pressing a button.
Because Ferris has been a member of Anonymous for so long, he says his family is aware of his secret online identity, along with a handful of his friends, but that is not the case for all Anons. He knows one member who is a gardener and who has been involved with Anonymous longer than him yet no one knows he is a member of the group.
Some may be surprised that a gardener is a member of Anonymous, but the perception of a spotty, teenager living in his bedroom who only emerges into the real world for meals and toilet breaks is just another thing people get wrong about Anonymous.
"I know a very wide variety [of people involved with Anonymous], all political or religious views, I know Christians, I know Buddhists, I know quite a lot of atheists and agnostics. You get capitalists, socialists, communists, anarchists; you get gardeners, businessmen, IT technicians, archaeologists , quite a lot of students."
Ferris puts the average age of Anonymous members somewhere around 25 and in terms of gender balance, while the stereotype of males dominating is somewhat true, it is not to the extent that is typically reported:
"By and large yes I'd say [the membership] is male, but not to the extent which we are portrayed as. I would say that 25% are female."
Anonymous is growing rapidly in certain parts of the world, and in recent months, with the exposure of the Edward Snowden leaks, the US has seen exponential growth in members - new and old: "Those I have thought we gone forever have re-emerged with a vengeance."
With governments around the world having a seemingly endless ability to do the wrong thing, it is unlikely that Anonymous will disappear any time soon. Giving a voice to the disenfranchised and a viable outlet for anger and frustration, Anonymous is much more than a collective of geeky teenage boys sitting in their bedrooms.
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