On November 5 each year, communities all over the United Kingdom gather around bonfires to let off fireworks and burn an effigy of a man hanged for treason more than 400 years ago.
Guy Fawkes, an English Roman Catholic, was part of a foiled plot in 1605 to blow up parliament’s House of Lords and kill the Protestant King James.
In the 17th century, the saving of the king was celebrated annually as Gunpowder Treason Day, but over the centuries Fawkes’s reputation – and the meaning of the annual excuse for a party now known as Guy Fawkes Day – has undergone a transformation.
Today, the man who was once seen as a dangerous fanatic has somehow become a symbol of the individual’s fight against the tyranny of absolute power, be it governmental or corporate.
Similarly, a decade since it first came to the world’s attention with a series of juvenile and occasionally destructive pranks, the online activist group Anonymous now seems to be reinventing itself as one of the good guys, waging online war against ISIL, and this week claiming to have foiled a terror attack in Italy.
Under the circumstances, there is more than a hint of ironic contradiction in the choice of the image of a 17th-century terrorist as the public face of Anonymous – the Guy Fawkes masks worn by Anonymous spokespeople.
Given that Anonymous is a “non-organisation”, which has described itself as an “internet gathering [with] a very loose and decentralised command structure that operates on ideas rather than directives”, it is hard to say exactly when it was born.
Some commentators believe it grew out of the image-based internet forum 4chan, which was founded in 2003 by American digital entrepreneur Christopher Poole, and based on Japanese bulletin boards set up to share and discuss examples of the art forms manga and anime.
According to an investigation in 2011 by a technology reporter with America’s National Public Radio, back then Anonymous was “a loosely affiliated group of hackers with little or no defined social agenda”.
4chan, still in business today, describes itself as “a simple image-based bulletin board”. Users “do not need to register an account before participating in the community”, and, consequently, virtually every poster on the board is “Anonymous”.
Anonymous, adds the site’s FAQs, “is not a single person, but rather represents the collective whole of 4chan. He is a god amongst men … He does not forgive.”
In her 2014 book Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous, US cultural anthropologist Gabriella Coleman suggests the group’s first public appearance was on July 29, 2007, in a video posted to YouTube.
In it, a headless, suited man addressed Fox News, which had just broadcast an item about hackers entitled “the internet hate machine”.
Fox, intoned the metallic voice on the Anonymous video, had “completely missed the point of who and what we are … we are everyone and we are no one … we are the face of chaos and the harbingers of judgement … We laugh at the face of tragedy … We ruin the lives of others simply because we can …”
It was either a disturbing manifesto or, more likely, the extension of a sick, adolescent joke.
Fox’s interest had been piqued in part by a coordinated trolling attack in July 2006 on a Finnish virtual environment, Habbo Hotel, which was aimed at children.
Anonymous members, creating identical avatars as black men with big afros, raided the site “in droves”, according to Coleman. Gathering their avatars together in the shape of swastikas, they blocked access to the hotel’s virtual pool area and told the other players it was closed “due to … Aids”.
But it was the following year, 2008, that Anonymous really hit the headlines for the first time. After the Church of Scientology forced YouTube to remove a video of star Scientologist Tom Cruise rambling about his beliefs, Anonymous launched Project Chanology, a series of cyber attacks on the church’s websites.
“For the good of … mankind,” said an Anonymous video posted on YouTube, “we shall proceed to expel you from the internet and systematically dismantle the Church of Scientology.”
At the same time, a series of demonstrations were held outside Scientology premises in the US and Europe – and it was at these that the Guy Fawkes masks appeared en masse for the first time.
Scientology and Tom Cruise, it should be noted, are still very much in business.
In 2010, the group surfaced again with what it called variously Operation Avenge Assange or Operation Payback.
In November that year, Julian Assange’s website, WikiLeaks, had made public a large archive of US State Department messages. As media commentators argued the merits of freedom of speech versus the need for security in an increasingly insecure world, companies including PayPal, MasterCard and Visa blocked payments to WikiLeaks.
It was then that Anonymous claimed responsibility for a series of cyber attacks that temporarily shut down the websites of these companies – so-called distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, which overload and crash a website with excessive volumes of traffic.
In a statement issued on December 10, 2010, headlined “Anon ops: a press release”, Anonymous insisted it was “not a group, but rather [a] gathering [of] Interent [sic] Citizens” whose motivation was “a collective sense of being fed up with all the minor and major injustices we witness every day”.
It is difficult to know whether anything Anonymous does, or claims to do, is to be taken at face value, or is wreathed in onion-skin-like layers of irony and carried out solely for the “lulz” – defined by Coleman as “a spirited but often malevolent brand of humour etymologically derived from lol”.
But in 2011 Anonymous suddenly seemed to grow up.
The trigger was the Arab Spring uprising in Tunisia, to which Anonymous reacted by claiming to have attacked official websites in response to the Tunisian government’s attempts to block citizens’ access to the internet.
In the US, cyberattacks on major corporations, defence contractors and official websites including cia.gov and senate.gov were attributed to Anonymous, and a leaked report by the Department for Homeland Security noted that “the loosely organised hacking collective known as Anonymous has recently expressed an interest in targeting industrial control systems”.
In the autumn of 2011, Anonymous also became inextricably linked with the Occupy Movement and its worldwide protests against the social and economic inequalities of global capitalism.
“Put simply,” said a note in the Boston University Law Review in 2013, Anonymous had “come a long way from ‘lolcats’” – a reference to the internet practice of posting images of cats superimposed with humorous remarks.
If those posting on its behalf are to be believed, Anonymous has come even farther since then.
Following the attacks in Paris in January, Anonymous launched the hashtag #OpCharlieHebdo, and claimed to have taken down a number of ISIL-related social network accounts.
“We are legion,” the group said in a statement reminiscent of the prose favoured by comic-book writers. “We will not forget. We do not forgive.”
After the terror attacks in Paris in November, Anonymous again announced it was launching a cyber war against ISIL propaganda on social media. The YouTube statement, delivered in many languages by activists wearing the now-familiar Guy Fawkes mask, earned Anonymous glowing prime-time TV news coverage around the world.
For once, as CBS reported on November 11, the hackers appeared to “share a common cause with the US government”.
Anonymous declared December 11 an anti-ISIL “trolling day”, inviting people to mock the organisation and its supporters.
One of its weapons – the hashtag #RickrollDaesh – was a throwback to its juvenile pranking tradition. To be “rickrolled” is to be duped into clicking on a link that leads to an endlessly looping video of the Eighties pop star Rick Astley singing his 1987 hit Never Gonna Give You Up.
But it is in taking down websites and disrupting ISIL social channels – it claims to have deleted more than 5,000 Twitter accounts affiliated with the terrorists – that Anonymous may be overstepping the mark. Such accounts and the frequently unguarded chat that they generate are a productive source of intelligence for security agencies.
Of course, it’s possible that Anonymous is having no impact whatsoever on ISIL – we have only the group’s claims to go on.
On December 28, the world’s media reported that the group had foiled a terror attack on Italy.
But what kind of attack, and how it was foiled, no one knows – the only source for the claim was the Anonymous-branded “Official OpParis” Twitter account, which tweeted: “In this month we are working in silence. We have already foiled 1 attack #ISIS against #Italy, we hope to block others.”
In the same way that any non-state violence in the Middle East and beyond was once attributed to Al Qaeda and is now credited to ISIL, so these days any internet-related “hacktivism” is either claimed by, or blamed on, Anonymous.
The truth, as Coleman noted, is impossible to divine.
“No single group or individual can claim legal ownership of the name ‘Anonymous’, much less its icons and imagery,” she wrote. It is this, she says, that “has helped Anonymous spread across the globe” to become “the quintessential anti-brand brand [and] the popular face of unrest” everywhere.
Whether behind the sinister Guy Fawkes mask can be found the face of a truly collective concern for social equality and justice, or merely the self-serving vacuity of a group of pimply pranksters, the world has no way of knowing.
Updated: December 31, 2015 04:00 AM