THE ACCIDENTAL ACTIVIST: PART II
Founded in 2003 by 15-year-old Christopher Poole, 4chan, the online hangout for millions of young people, unwittingly spawned the group Anonymous, which sprang to the defense of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange last December, attacking and taking down MasterCard’s and Visa’s Web sites. Does the anti-Facebook ethos of one of the Web’s largest active forums represent a movement or just mayhem? Vanessa Grigoriadis peers into 4chan’s “hive mind,” a primordial soup of teenage-male angst and cute cat photos.
At 11 on a December morning, Gregg Housh, a 34-year-old computer engineer from Boston and an Internet activist associated with Anonymous—the loosely affiliated organization of hackers whom the media has variously called “domestic terrorists,” “an Internet hate machine,” and “the dark heart of the Web”—takes my call as he is preparing to make an appearance on CNN. “You’re the 35th media person to call me this morning!” Housh booms in jubilant tones, noting I am not from “England or Australia,” like many of the others. Though Housh disavows any illegal activity himself, he expresses surprise that he hasn’t heard from the F.B.I., which is currently looking to capture patriotic and well-intentioned Internet heroes such as he—ones who might have knowledge of how, exactly, the Web sites of MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal were brought down after they shut off any donations to WikiLeaks processed through their organizations. “The government knows where I am if they want to find me,” he says. “I’m here!” That’s more than can be said for most members of Anonymous, who are, appropriately enough, staying anonymous, hiding their I.P. addresses in Internet Relay Chat rooms and posting under deadpanned handles like Coldblood and Tux, the latter a possible shorthand for the group’s logo, which features a man in a tuxedo, sans head.
In the past couple of months, though, this group—previously best known for wearing Guy Fawkes masks and cavorting to techno music in front of Scientology churches while holding up signs that say things like honk if you are driving a carand don’t worry, we’re from the internet—has become very famous indeed. The “hacktivist” drama would end, or at least pause, with an international manhunt for 40 teenagers and twenty-somethings by the F.B.I. and the London Metropolitan Police at the end of January, with search warrants executed and computers seized. But before Christmas, they were just trying to defend Julian Assange, their brother in “haxx,” who was in jail in England awaiting extradition on possibly trumped-up charges of sex crimes (women’s rights, in this group, not being a prime subject), while several companies had shut off the nutrients WikiLeaks needs for survival—not only financial ones but also server space and domains. (WikiLeaks had to register on the Web with the Swiss Pirate Party.)
That was not cool. Anonymous needed to take care of that. “Corporations should not bow to government pressure,” explains Housh. “Government is supposed to be there to do simple things to make people happy, and that’s all.” Bam! On December 8 they shut down MasterCard for 37 hours. Blam! Visa down, for 12 hours. Zop! PayPal … well, it didn’t go down except for the blog, but at least Anonymous’s attacks made the site run a lot slower. They also shut down the sites of a Swiss bank, Senator Joe Lieberman (after he prodded Amazon to kick WikiLeaks off its system), and the Swedish prosecutor investigating Assange’s alleged sex crimes. “Freedom of expression is priceless,” Anonymous crowed on their Twitter page. “For everything else, there’s MasterCard.”
All it took to accomplish this was spreading the word to other computer geeks to activate a loic, or “low-orbit ion cannon,” which sounds like some sort of Star Wars fantasy but in reality is merely a piece of software that, once downloaded, allows Anonymous to take over control of your computer. The computer is then turned into a volunteer zombie, making requests for access to Web sites, like MasterCard.com, that can’t handle the amount of incoming traffic and consequently get knocked offline (that’s called a DDoS attack, a distributed denial of service, for the nerds out there). DDoSes aren’t the most complicated hacks—Slate tech columnist Farhad Manjoo compares them to the “Mean Girls-esque trick of having your friends prank-call your loser enemy all night long to tie up her phone”—but a Web site, for most companies, is like hanging a shingle, and when someone uses a sledgehammer to knock your sign down, it creates great discomfort and fear in the mind of the owner.
During those heady days of early December, at least 50,000 people signed on to be part of the Anonymous army, joining in the grand disruption of the global wheels of commerce (er, kind of … these sites may have gone down in the DDoS attacks, but it’s not as though actual MasterCards didn’t keep working perfectly at the checkout). “I guess you could call it an army, but I wouldn’t,” says Housh, unfurling another telephone monologue. “Anonymous isn’t an army, or a group, per se. There aren’t members. Anyone who uses the loic is Anonymous, which means that anybody at any time in their lives can become Anonymous. Anonymous is nobody and nothing and nowhere.” He laughs a little, somewhat ghoulishly. “For all I know, you downloaded the loic, too—you’ve never proved to me you didn’t—so you might be Anonymous, too.”
If you’ve spent any time in Internet chat rooms, you’ve probably come across the saying “Don’t feed the trolls.” That means that you’re not supposed to shower any sort of attention, neither praise nor wrath, and definitely not CNN coverage, on the Internet’s top troublemakers, those flame-throwing, drama-producing, forum-obsessed kids with an excess of both computer savvy and time on their hands. Right now, though, the trolls are getting really well fed, though whether they’re also involved in a reputable practice of civil disobedience is a worthy subject of debate.
In the Internet underworld, trolls are known for such socially and technically juvenile high jinks as posting chauvinistic statements on feminist blogs, but some of them are also “script kiddies” or even “elite hackers.” Anonymous is attractive to these people, and they have participated in recent Anonymous actions like taking down the Web sites of the governments of Tunisia, Iran, and Egypt. A high-level attack, by someone with master’s-degree-caliber computer skills, was also directed toward the demimonde gossip site Gawker, which experienced one of the worst hacks ever perpetrated on a media company. Hackers stole the passwords to Gawker’s employees’ e-mail accounts, along with 200,000 unencrypted commenter passwords, their source code, internal e-mails, and chat logs—then dumped this information on the Pirate Bay (the Internet’s biggest aggregator site for downloading TV shows and movies for free). “Your empire has been compromised, your servers, your databases, online accounts and source code have all been ripped to shreds!” wrote the group, calling themselves “Gnosis,” in a note to Gawker. “Fuck you Gawker, how’s this for script kids?”
For a long time before all this (at least on the Internet continuum of time), the trolls had been relatively well contained. Their main hangout was 4chan.org, a heavily trafficked “image board,” which is a regular bulletin board, like one you might use to argue about politics or trade tips on yoga retreats, but with a few key differences. 4chan does not have archives or searchability. It’s one of the last places on the Internet where you really can say anything you want and it won’t come back to haunt you. Anything posted on 4chan has generally disappeared by the end of the day, and there’s no chance of Google finding it again. There’s also no requirement to register under your real name, as on Facebook, or even a fake one, as onMyHemorrhoids.com (actually, you can still buy that domain name for $1,995). Most everyone posts under the same name: Anonymous.
Anonymity is part of the culture of 4chan, a complex network of millions of trolls—(mostly) young men who are entranced with the notion of acting as one, as a “hive mind,” and at the same time desperate to assert their individuality apart from whatever pressures they feel in society, or “I.R.L.” (in real life). It’s one of the largest active forums in the world, with 10 million unique visitors and 705 million page views a month. 4chan was founded by a kid who grew up in New York City and Westchester, using the online handle “moot,” in 2003, when he was 15. He’d become a fan of 2chan, a Japanese bulletin board about anime and porn, but since he couldn’t understand anything anyone was saying—not that you really need to, when you’re looking at anime and porn—he decided to copy the underlying code and translate the site into English over his summer break. He borrowed his mom’s credit card to buy server space. He didn’t tell anyone his real name online, and he didn’t tell anyone I.R.L. that he ran 4chan—not his parents, not his friends, nor anyone at school.
Moot finally came out with his real name, Christopher Poole, a few years ago, in part because he assumed that one day a 13-year-old hacker would “drop docs” on him. These days he lives in New York City, where he’s just launched a private beta version of his new venture, Canvas, with funding from Huffington Post co-founder Ken Lerer and his son Ben. “Canvas lets people share, collaborate, and play with media,” says Poole. “We’re starting out with images and comments, and will expand it to audio and video. The key is that the collaboration happens in an environment of fluid identity, so you can post anonymously or pseudonymously while still sharing in a social group experience. We’re testing it with a small group of extremely active and creative users and can’t wait to open it up to the world.”
On a recent winter night, Poole sits down for a chai latte in Manhattan’s East Village. He’s as cute and wholesome as a teen idol, with wide green eyes that match the color of his shirt. “I know people expect me to be some sort of balding, overweight neckbeard,” he says, and it’s hard not to think that if Anonymous looked like him they would show their faces more.
Poole is calm and collected as he explains his mission with 4chan, and the way it intersects with Mark Zuckerberg and the world’s most popular site at the moment, Facebook. “Mark’s vision of the world is that you should be comfortable sharing as your real self on the Internet,” says Poole. “He thinks that anonymity represents a lack of authenticity, almost a cowardice. Though I like Mark a lot as a person, I disagree with that.” He sips his tea and beams a benign smile across the table. “4chan, a site that’s anonymous and ephemeral, with wacky, Wild West-type stuff, has a lot to offer, and in Mark’s perfect world, it probably wouldn’t exist,” says Poole. “He is a very firm believer that his is the right way for society to go.”
In this explanation, 4chan seems so innocent. After all, it’s Facebook that is now using facial-recognition software to identify people in candid photos. But then you go look at 4chan, and it’s a weird world (not that anybody is blaming Poole, any more than they do Zuckerberg for Facebook’s content). About a third of the traffic on the site goes to a board called “/b/,” also called “random.” And it’s definitely random. The quintessential troll board, /b/ is a bizarre mix of topics such as hacking, porn (including really messed-up porn like furry porn and “lolis,” which is a Japanese portmanteau for kiddie-porn anime), odd stuff like horse penises painted tie-dye colors, and everything else that can be found buried deep inside a certain type of fragile adolescent male ego: pain over unrequited love, abusive parents, racism, sexism, and the searing sensation of isolation that comes with never fitting in. One member described his involvement in the site this way: “I was a lonely teenage hate machine, with a new computer and an old routine.”
There are almost 800,000 posts a day on 4chan, more than 550 per minute, and few rules on the site, other than “1. You do not talk about /b/. 2. You do not talk about /b/. 3. If it exists, there is porn about it. No exceptions.” The posts are often posed in the form of questions, soliciting responses, like “Can someone please post hot girls biting their lips”; “Can we do a DDoS attack on the conservative government in the UK over student tuition fee increases, hate those bastards”; “I messed up with my girlfriend, well I’ve only IM-ed with her because she lives in Canada, but I didn’t write her back last night and now she won’t talk to me, please help”; “My dog is dying, I put her down tomorrow, I put a steak on the grill but what else should I do to make her life good tonight?”; “Guys please post pictures of sexy men dressed as cute girls, but I am straight, ok?” Also, lots of cats. Trolls, as it turns out, love cats.
If 4chan sounds trivial, that’s because it is. The site certainly doesn’t make much money—the only advertisers that want to be on it are adult companies that direct you to “your ex-girlfriend’s hacked profile from Facebook,” or demand, “Click here and find out which of your Facebook friends has the biggest titties!” In fact, you could say that 4chan has cornered the market on the trivial on the Internet, which is no small feat (the trivial usually spreads by accident on the Web, according to no logic). Through the sheer force of its numbers, 4chan has somehow managed to establish the Internet’s top memes—some of which are as important to the American consciousness at this point as Hollywood movies, and they’ve done it over and over.
Here’s a short list of what 4chan has been blamed or lauded for, depending on your perspective: they started a version of Lolcats, probably the Internet’s top meme—the hundreds of thousands of pictures of cats that float around every corner of the Net, with cat-speak captions: “om nom nom goes the hungry cat.” They started the “Rickroll,” a trick where you click on a link you want to see, but instead you’re brought to a YouTube video of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” (more than 44 million people had watched the video at press time). They’ve put a swastika on the top of Google’s “hot trends” list. They gamed an online poll that Justin Bieber fans had set up to decide which country he should visit first on his world tour, and voted to send him to North Korea. In 2008 they spread a rumor that Steve Jobs had a heart attack, and the shares of Apple dropped $10. A /b/ board member, a student at the University of Tennessee and the son of a state assemblyman, hacked into Sarah Palin’s Yahoo account during the 2008 presidential campaign. (He’s now serving one year in prison.)
After Poole came out with his real identity, 4channers voted him to the top of a poll for Timemagazine’s most influential person of the year, with an approval rating of 390 percent. They also hacked the rest of the poll so that the first letter of each of the top 21 names (Carlos Slim, Angela Merkel) spelled out marblecake also the game, a reference to pornographic argot and to the game that Time magazine just lost.
Still, it’s a long way from Rickrolling to taking down MasterCard’s Web site. For trolls, the prime order of business used to be getting “lulz”—a Schadenfreude-tastic bunch of LOLs, like what most of us experience while watching Jersey Shore. It’s easy to get lulz when a 4chan member says that he wants to name his kid whatever is suggested in the 77th post. (“Courage Wolf” is what the trolls came up with.) But after a while, they were ready to take on bigger targets.
In 2008, a nine-minute Scientology internal video of Tom Cruise promoting the religion, with great fervor, was leaked onto YouTube. (In it Cruise claims, among other incredible statements, that Scientologists should stop at accidents, “because you know you’re the only one who can really help.”) Scientology initially succeeded in squelching the video by threatening lawsuits, but when 4chan caught wind of it, “someone posted a thread about it, and it very quickly bubbled up into a big thing,” says Poole. With their hacking expertise, 4chan organized a massive DDoS on Scientology’s Web site, and someone reposted the video as well. And we all had some pretty good lulz at Cruise’s expense then, didn’t we?
In any case, not everyone on 4chan wanted the fun to stop there with Scientology, and a small group broke off from the site; this was the founding of Anonymous, a name chosen in honor of the 4chan username they had all shared. Suddenly, Web sites and viral videos against the church popped up everywhere, with solemn invocations about Scientology’s “campaigns of misinformation, your suppression of dissent, your litigious nature.” Tens of thousands of Anonymous members started hitting the streets I.R.L. as well, in their Guy Fawkes masks. Housh was taken to court by Scientology after protesting outside one of their churches in Boston’s Back Bay. (The judge ordered him to stay away from the church for one year.)
The Anonymous campaign against Scientology is a bit messy: it’s about protecting free access to information but also about prosecuting Scientology as a fake religion, and also about getting lulz. But it succeeded in sparking a previously moribund ideological impulse in many trolls, which, in September 2010, they spun into a new campaign: Operation Payback, a series of DDoS attacks against the R.I.A.A. and M.P.A.A. following hack attacks on the Pirate Bay.
By this point, Poole was more vigorously enforcing 4chan’s ground rules, banning the posting of personal information and calls to invasion, so 4chan wasn’t as important to the trolls anymore. It was easy enough to recruit for DDoS attacks by posting calls on Facebook and Twitter and a zillion other social-networking sites around the globe where news spreads like wildfire.
By the end of 2010, the authorities were starting to catch up with Anonymous, but they still weren’t getting far enough. A 16-year-old Dutch kid was arrested for allegedly participating in the attacks. The F.B.I. raided a Texas server-hosting company in Dallas, claiming that some of the Operation Payback DDoS traffic had come through their I.P. address, along with servers in British Colombia and Germany, where a log entry read, “Good_night,_paypal_Sweet_dreams_from_Anonops.”
But these were just minor deterrents, these government investigations, and Anonymous was still going strong, defending WikiLeaks’ cause—after all, as they like to say, Julian Assange is the “most successful international troll of all time!” They executed attacks on the Web site of Ireland’s main opposition party and even the official site of Zimbabwe’s government, after President Robert Mugabe’s wife sued a newspaper for publishing a WikiLeaks report that she was involved in the trade of illicit diamonds.
Anonymous felt compelled, as well, to support the revolutions in Middle Eastern nations, and went after targets like the Tunisian stock exchange and the Tunisian prime minister’s Web site, where they placed a note: “We will use this brief span of attention we’ve captured to deliver a clear and present message. Like a fistful of sand … the more you squeeze your citizens the more that they will flow right out of your hand.” But then everything seemed to come to a screeching halt.
On January 27, the authorities tore into the homes of five young men in the U.K., and the F.B.I. executed 40 search warrants, including one on a student from Georgia Tech. They took their cameras, phones, computers, and hard drives, and in the U.S., they claimed that each member, if found guilty of carrying out DDoS attacks against corporations and Web sites, could receive a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
So, Housh was on the phone again, taking calls from The New York Times, while trying to scrape the ice from another northeastern ice storm off his car. “Those tactics might work on old-world criminals, but these arrests aren’t going to scare anyone,” he said, a bit breathlessly. “The F.B.I., the government, the Man, whatever you want to call them, doesn’t know what they’re doing, because nothing they did now will change a thing. The fact is that, by today, half the people who were arrested are back online, because they know they haven’t broken any laws! After all, that’s the reason they acted out in the first place—to defend WikiLeaks, which hasn’t broken any laws either.”
This is an argument we’re likely to keep having over the next few years: Are Anonymous cyber-vandals or vigorous grassroots protesters? On one hand, Web sites are property, and taking them down is stealing, in a way. At the same time, this is a moment of worldwide upheaval and change, and Anonymous is part of the democratic revolution. Just don’t piss them off. In February, in a hack much like the one Gnosis inflicted on Gawker, they ripped apart a security firm that they believed was planning to sell their identities to the U.S. government. According to Barrett Brown, an Anonymous strategist, they did this because the firm’s data was mostly bogus and could have gotten a lot of innocent people arrested, but their retribution—exposing internal data and over 70,000 private e-mails—was merciless.
They’re not above turning on their own, either. Housh says that he feels particularly bad about the arrest of Coldblood, a 20-year-old Briton named Christopher Wood. According to Housh, Coldblood wasn’t taking part in the attacks, though he had been part of the group before, but he had agreed to be interviewed by the press on the topic. The trolls didn’t like what he had to say, though, and one of the guys who was involved in the attacks “took their anger out on him,” says Housh, by changing his handle to “Coldblood.” So the London police picked up Wood, thinking it was the same Coldblood, and Wood lost his job as a result. “It’s really sad,” says Housh. “He didn’t do anything. He was just Anonymous.”