Do you know ANONYMOUS? A look inside the shadowy international hack-tivist group.

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They’ve been called everything from modern day Robin Hoods to cyber-terrorists. They rally for free speech, champions of democracy, and even work to protect us from Isis and Al Qaeda. They are malicious pranksters who hide their identities behind masks, vandals that cause billions of dollars in damage and ruin lives, and lawbreakers.

You may have seen images of them on the news during Occupy Wall Street, adorning the front cover of Time Magazine in 2012 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world or in the shadowy corners of the online reality. They are both our best protector against all-powerful corporations, governments, and ideologies, and our biggest threat to topple the stability of economies and nations.

Somehow, the online hacker group known only as “Anonymous” is all of these things, often at the same time, and represents even more. But no matter whether you love the work they do or think they are dangerous criminals, it’s clear by now that Anonymous is more powerful and significant than ever.

Here are a few bullet points on the group Anonymous:

“Anonymous” is the self-appointed name of the world’s largest and most powerful network of activists and cyber hackers.

However, Anonymous has no central leadership, hierarchy or even infrastructure, just “a very loose and decentralized command structure that operates on ideas rather than directives”.

They commonly adopt the mantra, “We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.”

Anonymous started innocently enough in 2003, on an online message board called 4chan. Members of that board that posted comments without sharing their real names were just listed as “Anons”.

This group started pulling online stunts and pranks, focused only on entertainment value (called ‘lulz’) without any social or political conscience.

But all of that changed in 2008 when they launched Project Chanology, an orchestrated string of online protests and hacks against The Church of Scientology after the church sued an entertainment website for copyright infringement after it posted a video of Tom Cruise lauding the religion.

Anonymous quickly took on many aspects of a smart brand, including the highly-recognizable yet faceless representation of the group using masks like the ones worn in Guy Fawkes’ graphic novel and film, V for Vendetta.

That feud led them to more focused involvement targeting big media and entertainment companies like Sony, the Motion Picture Association, and the Recording Industry Association, opposing internet censorship and control. In 2010, Anonymous launched Operation Payback, which collectively shut down industry websites for more than 500 hours.

Spurned by their success and crystallizing their mission, Anonymous leaked hundreds of thousands of US diplomatic cables that same year.

Next, with Operation Avenge Assange they picked a fight with Internet commerce and banking giants like PayPal, Visa, MasterCard, and Amazon, and even US government officials who rebuked the band of pranksters-turned-cybercriminals. Some of their efforts were more successful than others, but PayPal alone estimated that Anonymous cost the company more than $5 million, and 14 members that worked on behalf of Anonymous were brought to justice.

The group’s vision took a huge jump to the political realm in 2011, as many operatives and subgroups of Anonymous helped spark the Arab Spring, condemning government surveillance and persecution and helping to attempt to topple regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Jordan, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia by attacking government and ant-rebel groups online. In fact, the Arab Spring was largely successful only because of the organization, communications, and methodology used by protestors through social media and online.

Anonymous gained household recognition I the US in 2011 and 2012 as it supported the Occupy Wall Street movement, leading Time Magazine to recognize it as one of the 100 most influential “people” in the world.

Anonymous reportedly launched attacks in 2012 against the Brussels Sock Exchange in Belgium, New York Stock Exchange, and London Stock Exchange, though this create a fissure in the group, as many “Anons” condemned the actions.

There were smaller scale social and civil rights campaigns in play during those same years, as Anonymous took on the Westboro Baptist Church for their homophobic rhetoric, even publically releasing names, emails and phone numbers of church members after Westboro Baptist announced their plans to picket the funerals of the children and teachers killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting massacre.

They took on the Klu Klux Klan in 2014 after the white-supremacist organization issued death threats in the wake of the Ferguson riots, similarly promising to release about 1,000 personal details and identities for Klan members.

They were closely involved in the police shooting deaths of Michael Brown and then Tamir Rice. Anonymous released the name of the police officer in Cleveland who shot Rice, though when it did the same with the alleged officer in the Brown case, they reportedly named the wrong policeman.

And just when the media and public opinion is ready to condemn Anonymous for blunders like that, anarchism and hypocrisy, we realize they’ve been working tirelessly since 2011 to fight child pornographers online with their Operation Darknet, infiltrating and hutting down networks and leaking names and details of thousands of members.

Anonymous rallied to raise money for victims of the storms and floods in Oklahoma, raised awareness for the plight of homeless people internationally with Operation Safe Winter, and strongly condemned the Paris terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo that killed 12.

With that attack, Anonymous vowed to fight al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations around the world by disrupting and eradicating their websites and social media accounts. And while we might be comforted by their well-intentioned activism, they’ve also been criticized by some international crime enforcement and military organizations, which say it’s harder to track the terrorist cells when their online fingerprints are erased.

These days, it’s hard to even tell what actions are really performed by Anonymous, and which can be attributed to the myriad spinoffs and castoff members. In fact, membership is open to anyone who wants to claim to be a part of Anonymous and join in the fray, and the group still has no easily defined philosophy or allegiance, only operating by a few rules (that nostalgically, make us think of Fight Club): not disclosing one’s identity; not talking about the group; and not attacking the media.

Where will Anonymous attack next? Will they help or hurt our society? What do they truly stand for? After almost a decade of social and political activism, there are more questions than answers, more horror film masks than human voices, as we can’t easily discern anything about Anonymous except never to underestimate them. But I guess that’s the whole point, right?

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