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From Rick Rolling to Revolution: The Story of Anonymous

The iconic Guy Fawkes mask associated with Anonymous.
Photo courtesy
The iconic Guy Fawkes mask associated with Anonymous.

How did a group of Internet enthusiasts evolve from online trolling to altering the course of world politics?

That was the focus of a South by Southwest Film and Interactive panel today delving into Anonymous, the loosely-organized collective of “hacktivists” that have brought attention to the Stop Internet Piracy Act (SOPA) and claimed credit for compromising the servers of Austin-based global intelligence firm Stratfor, releasing the company’s emails to Wikileaks.

In contrast to many of the sensational stories Anonymous generates, “I don’t think anything had been done where you’re trying to figure out where it came from and what it is,” said Brian Knappenberger. He’s at SXSW with his documentary, “WE ARE LEGION: The Story of the Hacktivists.” Although this today's panel was ostensibly about the film, it ended up being largely about Anonymous in general, which continues to generate headlines.

Knappenberger first learned about Anonymous through its battle with the Church of Scientology in 2008. True to the group’s roots in internet culture, the dispute arose over usage rights of a Scientology video where actor Tom Cruise extolled the religion’s virtues.

The church clamped down on Internet sharing of the video, sparking a further backlash. Suddenly IRC chat users, members of anything-goes image board, and folks from other far flung corners of the Internet coalesced into Anonymous, launching “Operation Chanology.” The initiative published protected, high-level church materials, mounted attacks on Scientology websites, and even saw Anonymous members protesting outside church buildings, in their now-iconic Guy Fawkes masks.

Panelist Gregg Housh was part of that operation, and he describes himself as “taking part in a lot of the early organization, and I guess what you could call the branding of Anonymous.” Housh eventually went public – to what he says was the group’s dismay – and now speaks regularly on Anonymous-related events.  “Once you have a name, the press won’t leave you alone,” he says “Most of the press can’t print anonymous sources.”

The conversation dwelt upon recent and current events, including the revelation that Anonymous member “Sabu,” a powerful figure in Anonymous offshoot LulzSec, had been cooperating with federal authorities following his arrest. But a discussion two of LulzSec’s most controversial techniques – “doxing,” or releasing sensitive information about individuals online; and attacks on press outlets – sparked a broader conversation.

Housh said he was “on the fence” about doxing. While finding it objectionable, he cited an argument hackers make when they dump personal information online: “If we got in, then somebody else got in there already … We have to dump our data or you’re not going to believe it’s already out there when we dumped it.”

Regarding press attacks, Knappenberger cited Anonymous’ dissatisfaction with a report PBS’ “Frontline” aired on Bradley Manning, the army sergeant accused of providing thousands of diplomatic cables to Wikileaks. Dissatisfied with PBS’ treatment on the story, LulzSec allegedly broke into the PBS NewsHour webpage, posting a story claiming that deceased rapper Tupac Shakur is “still alive in New Zealand.”  

“Anonymous should not be attacking the press,” said Housh, adding that if he deemed that acceptable, he’d need to “change my thoughts on free speech.”

And this being an Anonymous panel, also sounding off were two nameless members of the group: “Anonymous 9000,” appearing via a video stream clad in a Guy Fawkes mask, and a local member appearing in person, affiliated with Occupy Austin.

“We fight for the users,” Anon 9000 said in a pitch-shifted voice. “And to see people getting DDOSed [a Direct Denial of Service attack that can take down a website] … by a few people” reveals the power, but also the problems, in a group where everyone is nameless.

“Any one person can co-opt Anonymous,” he said.

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
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