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Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: From Trolling to the Misfits of Activism

An extract from the ultimate book on the worldwide movement of hackers, pranksters, and activists that operates under the non-name Anonymous, by anthropologist Gabriella Coleman. Now 50% off as part of our Student Reading Sale. 

Trà My Hickin24 September 2018

Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: From Trolling to the Misfits of Activism

Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy is the ultimate book on the worldwide movement of hackers, pranksters, and activists that operates under the non-name Anonymous, by anthropologist Gabriella Coleman, the writer the Huffington Post says “knows all of Anonymous’ deepest, darkest secrets.” This landmark book is part of our Sociology student reading, and is 50% of during the month of September – click here for more information

Here we present an extract from the Introduction, 'From Trolling to the Misfits of Activism':

Today the broad deployment of both Anonymous’s Guy Fawkes mask and the ideas it came to stand for among demonstrators occupying Tahrir Square and Polish politicians sitting in parliamentary chambers seem absurd when we consider the collective’s origins. Before 2008, the moniker Anonymous was used almost exclusively for what one Anon describes as “Internet motherfuckery.” Anonymous, birthed in the pits of 4chan’s random bulletin board /b/ (often regarded as the “asshole of the Internet”), was a name synonymous with trolling: an activity that seeks to ruin the reputations of individuals and organizations and reveal embarrassing and personal information. Trolls try to upset people by spreading grisly or disturbing content, igniting arguments, or engender- ing general bedlam. The chaos of feuding and flaming can be catalyzed by inhabiting identities, beliefs, and values solely for their mischievous potential; by invading online forums with spam; or by ordering hundreds of pizzas, taxis, and even SWAT teams to a target’s residence. Whatever the technique, trolls like to say they do what they do for the lulz—a spirited but often malevolent brand of humor etymologically derived from lol. 

One early Anonymous trolling raid—legendary to this day—set its sights on a virtual platform, called Habbo Hotel, whose tag line enthusiastically beckons, “Make friends, join the fun, get noticed!” A Finnish environment geared toward teenagers, it encourages visitors to create cutesy, Lego-style avatars who can socialize together in the hotel and custom- ize guest rooms with “furni.” On July 6, 2006, Anonymous logged onto the site in droves—presenting themselves, all, as black men in gray suits with prominent afros. By navigating just so, they were able to collectively assemble into human swastikas and picket lines, both of which prevented regular Habbo members (children, mostly) from entering the hotel’s pool. Anyone attempting to understand the reasons for these actions was informed by the mustachioed characters that the pool was closed “due to fail and AIDS.” 

A couple of year’s after the first Habbo Raids, and a mere six months after they had been labeled the “Internet Hate Machine,” certain Anons began using the name and some associated iconography—headless men in black suits, in particular—to coordinate political protests. This surprising metamorphosis sprouted from what many consider to be one of Anonymous’s most legendary trolling provocations: targeting the Church of Scientology. “In a previously unseen way,” noted one participant in the raids, “the greater Anon community united to unleash a hearty load of fuck you upon Scientology’s entire cult empire.” [2] Impelled by the lulz—by the desire to release an avalanche of hilarious and terrifying mischief—thousands boarded the troll train, christened “Project Chanology,” to launch DDoS attacks on Scientology websites, order unpaid pizzas and escorts to Scientology churches across North America, fax images of nude body parts to churches, and propel a barrage of phone pranks, most notably against the Dianetics hotlines designed to offer advice regarding the “first truly workable technology of the mind.” 

Like most previous raids, many expected this hearty “fuck you” would run its course and then peter out after a few days of brutal and playful shenanigans. But a short video made by a small group of participants—concocted for the lulz alone— ignited a serious debate within the rank and file of Anonymous. The video “declared war” on the Church: “For the good of your followers, for the good of mankind—and for our own enjoyment—we shall proceed to expel you from the Internet and systematically dismantle the Church of Scientology in its present form.” [3] This ironic declaration of war spurred individuals into debate and then catapulted them onto the streets. On February 10, 2008, over seven thousand people in 127 cities protested the Church of Scientology’s human rights abuses and acts of censorship. 

Anonymous thus shifted from (as one participating Anon later explained to my class) “ultracoordinated motherfuckery” to the dissemination of incriminating facts about Scientology. They also forged bonds with an older generation of dissidents already at work highlighting the Church’s abuses. Trolling had given way to an earnest activist endeavor, as if Anonymous had emerged from its online sanctuary and set out to improve the world. Over the next two years, some Anonymous members would hatch unrelated activist subgroups, and many participants came to identify themselves as bona fide activists, albeit with a transgressive twist. 

Many of Anonymous’s actions, like creating the publicity videos that have become a vernacular institution unto them- selves, are entirely legal. But a subset of tactics—notably DDoS attacks and hacks—are illegal: criminal offenses under all circumstances, at least in the United States. Government officials have thus made various attempts to slot a class of its activities under the umbrella term of “cyberwarfare,” and prosecute its participants accordingly. The epitome of this maneuver occurred on February 21, 2012, when the Wall Street Journal reported that General Keith Alexander, then director of the United States National Security Agency (NSA), had briefed officials at the White House in secret meetings. He claimed Anonymous “could have the ability within the next year or two to bring about a limited power outage through a cyberattack.” [4

As the Wall Street Journal article ricocheted across social media platforms, questions were raised. Did this claim strike anyone as believable? Just what exactly constituted the “ability” to bring about a power outage? What would be an appropriate response if this were true? It is unlikely that we will ever find out whether the NSA’s assessment was based on cred- ible intelligence or whether it was meant simply to smear and discredit Anonymous. Either way, General Alexander’s claim succeeded, at least momentarily, in portraying Anonymous as a menace akin to Islamic jihadists and the communist threat of yesteryear. 

Ultimately, it proved unconvincing. Anonymous, for all its varied tactics—both legal and illegal, online and offline—has never been known to publicly call for such an attack. And there is no evidence to suggest that it would so much as entertain the idea. Endangering human lives has never been a topic of discussion among members, even during the most helter-skelter of chat room and message board conversations. Subsequent news reports quoted activists and security experts who dismissed the NSA’s claims as “fear-mongering.” [5

Even though a tactic like this would be entirely out of char- acter for Anonymous, the group’s relationship with the court of public opinion remains ambivalent. Anonymous’s methods are at times subversive, often rancorous, usually unpredict- able, and frequently disdainful of etiquette or the law. Take “doxing”: the leaking of private information—such as Social Security numbers, home addresses, or personal photos— resides in a legal gray zone because some of the information released can be found on publicly accessible websites. 

A single Anonymous operation might integrate all three modes—legal, illegal, and legally gray tactics—and if there is an opportunity to infuse an operation with the lulz as well, someone will. A prime example is Operation BART from August 2011. Anonymous was spurred into action when San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officials sought to disable mobile phone reception on station platforms to thwart a planned anti–police brutality march. Local activists had called for the demonstration to protest the fatal shooting of Charles Hill, an unarmed passenger. Incensed by trans- portation authorities’ meddling in democratic expression, Anonymous helped organize a series of street demonstrations soon after. 

A couple of individuals hacked into BART’s computers and released customer data in order to garner media attention. Someone also found a racy, semi-nude photo of BART’s offi- cial spokesperson, Linton Johnson, on his personal website. The photo was republished on the “bartlulz” website along with this brazen rationalization: “if you are going to be a dick to the public, then I’m sure you don’t mind showing your dick to the public.” Sometimes coy and playful, sometimes serious and inspiring, often all at once (as OpBART demonstrated so well), even to this day, these activist tricksters are still ani- mated by a collective will toward mischief—toward the lulz. 

[book-strip index="1" style="buy"]

[2]. This quote comes from a class lecture.
[3]. “Message to Scientology,” YouTube video, posted by Church0f
Scientology, Jan. 21, 2008, last accessed July 4, 2014, available at
[4]. Siobhan Gorman, “Power Outage Seen as a Potential Aim of Hacking
Group,”, Feb. 21, 2012.
[5]. Sam Biddle, “No, Idiots, Anonymous Isn’t Going to Destroy the Power
Grid,”, Feb. 21, 2012.

This book is 50% off until the end of September as part of our Back to University sale. See all our Sociology reading here, and see all our reading lists here.

Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy
Here is the ultimate book on the worldwide movement of hackers, pranksters, and activists that operates under the non-name Anonymous, by the writer theHuffington Post says “knows all of Anonymous’ ...