Can a prankster ever grow up and become an activist? For Anonymous, the answer is no.
The loosely organized online network has been involved in political causes since 2008, but a recent media study printed in National Communication Association’s Communication Monographs found that Anonymous, try as it might, can’t shake its origin from 4chan, the online bulletin board known for its raunchy content and outlandish posts.
The study that was authored by Adam Klein, a Howard University academic who specializes in media studies, looked at every news story written about Anonymous along with 56 operations – or Ops as Anonymous dubs them – the collective launched between June 1, 2012, to June 1, 2013. The news articles in question came from 44 different outlets in 10 countries.
Mr. Klein found “a stark disparity between the news media’s interpretation and the hacktivists’ own words and actions,” he wrote. “As a dissident group, Anonymous runs the risk of becoming marginalized and trivialized by journalists as the next circus-like spectacle.”
Klein identified four main ways the media talks about Anonymous. Either they are “legitimate activists,” “vigilante heroes,” “global threats,” – or, in the most common portrayal, “malicious pranksters.”
Anonymous is even commonly described as being full of “pranksters” even when the collective states they are trying to protect free speech or fighting corruption.
In fact Klein found political causes accounted for 82 percent of Anonymous’ campaigns during his study. Add in antispying campaigns, which make up another 13 percent. That means fundamentally, a full 95 percent of all Anonymous activities are politically motivated – making the frame of “malicious pranksters” a misrepresentation of the actual collective’s actions. (Klein found only three of the 56 Anonymous campaigns were waged for no stated purpose.)
“From a review of targets, Anonymous’ members appear to be driven by social justice issues that suggest politically progressive views, such as the targeting of banks, corporations, and big media, or the defense of gay rights,” wrote Klein.
For example, when the Burger King twitter account was hacked by Anonymous-affiliates in February 2013 during Operation Mad Cow, outlets referred to it as “mischief” or a “childish outburst.” Mentions of Anonymous’ beef with tainted meat, big food corporations, or globalization was rarely found.
The media narrative of Anonymous as “prankster” was established early on. In 2011, PC Magazine referred to Anonymous as a “prankster and hacktivist” collective in its article on the arrest of 14 individuals who targeted PayPal with a distributed denial of service attack. The action was over PayPal's refusal to transmit payments to WikiLeaks.
That same year, Wired referred to Anonymous as “Internet troublemakers” in its article about the hack on security company HBGary.
Klein theorizes the media’s unwillingness to portray Anonymous as legitimate activists has more to do with what he calls corporate media having a predisposition to being pro-corporate, in favor of big business and capitalism.
As an example, he cites Anonymous’ attack on PayPal, which he wrote could be “seen not only as an attack on that financial power but also as a threat to the free market.” When Anonymous attacked The Los Angeles Times, it received widespread coverage, of which 78 percent was negative, and 67 percent of the articles described Anonymous as “pranksters.” This pattern is consistent across all 10 countries.
The one instance when Anonymous received positive news coverage was when it hacked into the US Sentencing Commission website and defaced it following death the death of Aaron Swartz, a young Internet activist who killed himself while under indictment for federal hacking charges.
“The shift toward tolerance, and in some cases a defense of Anonymous, could be attributed to the news media's more accustomed tendency to play the role of watchdog when the focus of their scrutiny is political, rather than financial," wrote Klein.
But the media may not take Anonymous seriously for other reasons.
Media outlets are well aware of Anonymous’ origins on 4chan, a website known as the cesspool of the Internet for its disturbing content. This 4chan origin story gives everything the collective does an air of spectacle, considering 4chan is the birthplace of many popular online memes, including the I CAN HAZ CHEEZBURGER images of cats, the Rick Roll misdirect involving the 1980s pop hit, and the most recent widely popular meme known as Pepe the Frog.
It’s important to note, too, that Anonymous has actually turned protesting into a form of spectacle itself, because Anonymous often wants to create spectacle. Its utilization of memes and other Internet phenomenon, their video announcements (which serve as protests in and of themselves), and the Guy Fawkes masks and hidden identities denote a “character” or someone playing at activism as opposed to a serious freedom fighter.
Gabriella Coleman, a McGill University professor and author of "Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous," said the study captured “the general sentiments” the media has toward Anonymous but lacked some nuance and contextualization since “not all media articles are created equally,” she wrote in an e-mail.
“Numbers can only go so far in revealing the story,” said Ms. Coleman. "It is significant that while the portrayals are not always positive, they rarely portray Anonymous as cybercriminals or cyber terrorists.”