The Dead Art of “Hacktivism”

In the mid- to late 2000s, a group of cyber-vigilantes called Anonymous used hacking as a force for free speech and protest. Recently it seems they’ve all but disappeared. What happened?

What started as a bunch of young adults on 4chan with nothing better to do quickly became a national phenomenon. It seemed like there was a time when Anonymous was a household name, even among the tech-impaired. Oppressive people and groups around the world knew to fear Anonymous, from the Church of Scientology to the Ku Klux Klan. They were the Internet’s voice for freedom of speech, and their megaphone was pretty damn big.

Anonymous’ de facto logo.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It’s 2019, and the last somewhat high-profile appearance of Anonymous was for the 2016 presidential election. There are plenty of causes to fight for, plenty of groups and individuals seeking to suppress our freedoms. Yet the “official” Anonymous YouTube channel has taken to posting religious alien conspiracy videos instead of speaking on any of this. So what happened?

If I may take a moment to speculate (or rather, to echo theories I’ve heard elsewhere), it is very possible that they were “memed” to death. After the initial shock, the Internet started treating them the same way they tend to treat everything else: with complete and total irreverence. Some potential reasons for this, in no particular order, include the following:

  • Younger, “edgier” preteens and adolescents began claiming membership in Anonymous, using the group as an empty threat against their classroom enemies.
  • Many members of Anonymous began to lose sight of the group’s true goals, as did the media who reported on them.
  • Some may argue that Anonymous was a bunch of hacks (pun sort of intended) which did little more than DDoS websites and Google people’s names. There is no record of them declaring a complete victory in any of their endeavors.
  • Any group that encourages illegal “black-hat” activity is subject to criticism, government scrutiny, and a lot of arrests within its membership. Such a situation would surely discourage many from taking things as far as the group may have wanted.
  • Likely the largest killer of the group was a lack of hierarchy and leadership. A bunch of hackers would basically get together and decide “yeah, sure, we’ll do this thing,” but there was no one really calling the shots.

So, with all of the dumb, awful, and horrifying things going on in today’s world, should “hacktivist” groups like Anonymous make a comeback? As far as I’m concerned…no. Not only were the group’s efforts largely ineffective – Scientology still exists, and the KKK is arguably stronger now than it was in 2016 – but I’m a firm believer in public discourse and conversation over empty threats and assertions of dominance any day. I’d say this comic from xkcd sums up Anonymous’ influence better than anything else:

“It was their main recruiting poster, hung nearly ten feet up a wall! This means the hackers have LADDER technology! Are we headed for a future where everyone has to pay $50 for one of those locked plexiglass poster covers? More after the break …”

Source: xkcd by Randall Munroe

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