Modern field guide to security and privacy

Anonymous launches #TrollingDay against Islamic State

Elements of the hacktivist collective Anonymous are taking on the Islamic State on social media Friday using memes, gags, and pictures of goats in the collective's latest strike against the terrorist group. 

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
A protester associated with Anonymous wore a Guy Fawkes mask, a symbol for the Internet phenomenon turned protest movement, during a Nov. 5 rally in New York.

The hacker collective Anonymous has asked followers to dedicate Friday to a trolling campaign against the Islamic State (IS) by posting photos and messages mocking the militant group on social media.

Many Anonymous supporters are using hashtags such as #TrollingDay and #ISISTrollingDay on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, all of which are platforms the militants use to spread propaganda and as recruitment tools. Anonymous members and supporters also plan to gather in person at protests in cities such as New York, Mexico City, and London.

Friday’s trolling campaign follows several Anonymous attempts to take down IS Twitter accounts, websites, and expose e-mail addresses believed to be affiliated with the terrorist group over the past year. Those efforts began with #OpCharlieHebdo, first launched after the terrorist attacks against a French satirical magazine in January that left 11 dead, which led to a broader Anonymous-led social media campaign against the militants called #OpISIS.

Since last month’s coordinated attacks in Paris, the hacker collective redoubled its online campaign against the militant group under the hashtag #OpParis. Anonymous claimed credit for shutting down websites, revealing e-mail addresses, and terminating Twitter handles for more than 20,000 IS supporters. Twitter has reportedly disputed that figure, as have some hacker groups.

Though the focus of Friday's trolling campaign is different from #OpISIS and #OpParis – targeting the Islamic State with pictures of goats and phony flags designed to insult the group rather than suspend accounts – it could represent a return to Anonymous’ roots, which some trace back to the website 4chan, an Internet forum often used for viral pranks and humor.

"It’s not so much a shift in strategy as it is the ongoing culture of Anonymous, which is an Internet culture that is based on trolling," says Joe Gallop, head of hacktivism intelligence at iSight Partners, a Dallas firm that tracks cybersecurity threats. "That’s nothing new, it may be the instigation of a more formal operation to do that."

But despite the fanfare on social media, some Anonymous members and affiliates who engaged in previous anti-IS campaigns say they don’t plan on trolling the militant group on Friday.

Anonpanda, an activist based in Sweden who claims to have participated in prior Anonymous operations against IS, is one supporter skipping today’s operation. Anonpanda says that the trolling day is attracting younger, less-skilled followers to Anonymous, making it hard to gauge whether the campaign is having an impact, or if the government officials are taking part in the effort.

"I support the notion of Western counterintelligence cracking down on [IS] on the Internet, but Anonymous is not a proxy for such operations," Anonpanda told Passcode through an Internet Relay Chat. "The kids of which Anonymous consists of today should not be the human shield and fall guy of such agencies."

Anonymous campaigns, including #OpISIS, use similar tactics such as denial-of-service, or DDoS, attacks to disable IS websites, broadcasting personal information about IS members, and getting their accounts suspended.

But one source who identified as a longtime Anonymous member told Passcode that most of these actions are done by people hoping to make a name for themselves who don’t embody Anonymous's broader mission.

That echoed similar concerns from Jeremy Hammond, a former Anonymous member serving a 10-year sentence for breaching computers at Stratfor Global Intelligence, who recently published an article calling on the group to reject campaigns such as #OpISIS, fearing they could be coopted by the government. 

Questions about the effectiveness of the campaign don’t just come from inside Anonymous. Some have questioned whether trolling efforts are interfering with counterterrorism operations online. 

"There is a real risk that resources will be diverted from pursuing the enemy’s accounts to groups claiming affiliation with Anonymous," said Michael Smith II, chief operating officer of the defense consulting firm Kronos Security. "I believe we can reasonably anticipate that they’re not going to coordinate with the government."

Mr. Smith said that Anonymous-affiliated individuals recently caused the website of an independent terrorism analyst and researcher to inadvertently get taken down. Smith serves as an interlocutor for Ghost Security Group, which draws from former members of GhostSec, a hacker collective affiliated with Anonymous. But unlike those groups, Smith said Ghost Security Group hasn’t been trolling ISIS or attempting to hack accounts, but is focused on providing information on the militant group to the government.

But one hacker participating in Friday's campaign, who goes by the moniker Bunnysec, doesn’t agree with that characterization.

"Keep in mind most of the counterterror groups are for profit and their mission is to collect data to sell," the hacker said. "They speak anecdotally but have yet to present any evidence to support what they are saying. It's simply a point of view or opinion."

But with Anonymous supporters split over Friday's trolling campaign, that point of view is another challenge that the group will have to contend with moving forward. 


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