Guy Fawkes and Anonymous
Since this skillshare was originally presented on the 5th of November I thought I’d do something around Guy Fawkes day, to keep it nice and contextual.
The way I got to this topic was that I was thinking of the ‘domino effect’ meme, which features a picture of a man who’s crouched in front of these dominos that increase in size. The idea is to caption the smaller domino with something, and then caption the bigger domino with something that seems wildly unrelated but is actually somehow connected – usually by some convoluted story.
Here are a couple of examples:
One of the most interesting elements about this meme is the way it opens itself up to these really interesting and ridiculous stories, and this is where I started my thinking around the topic of Guy Fawkes and how it influenced the aesthetic of the hacktivist organisation, Anonymous, over 400 years later.
Guy Fawkes Day, as most of us know, is based on the event of the 5 November 1605 Gunpowder Plot where a group of men planned to blow up the houses of Parliament in London.
The reason for this is quite interesting. Around this time in England, Catholics were quite oppressed, and this was especially so under Queen Elizabeth I who was a Protestant. During this period, Catholic priests were being put to death, Catholic church members couldn’t attend mass, nor could they even get married.
A lot of people were understandably angry about this at the time, but there was some excitement around the death of the queen in 1603 because King James I was to take over the throne. What was positive about this was that his wife (allegedly) and mother (Mary Queen of Scots) were both Catholic, so the Catholics were hoping these relations would put an end to the oppression.
That didn’t exactly pan out, because it turns out his views were pretty much the same as his predecessor.
I think it’s because of this sort of period of hope for the Catholics that things ended up taking such an explosive turn, and by 1603 there had been quite a few failed plots against the regime on the part of the Catholics.
So it’s under this context that, in May 1604, Guy Fawkes and four of his friends met up in a bar and came up with the Gunpowder Plot. At this time Fawkes was working in a cellar, which was just below the house of Lords, and was where they were storing the gunpowder.
On 5 November 1605 the opening of the new session of Parliament would be taking place, and Fawkes was supposed to be down in the cellar to light the fuse during the proceedings and set everything off. He was then supposed to escape via the Thames, kidnap and install King James’ daughter as a puppet queen, and then have her marry a Catholic who would be the real ruler so that they could get a Catholic back in the monarchy.
That didn’t exactly work out, though, because on 26 October Parliament got hold of a letter which warned about the plot. They knew when and where it was happening, but they didn’t want to show their hand too soon, and risk scaring off the culprits. So they waited for the night of 4 November where they caught Guy Fawkes in the cellar. He had matches on him, as well as 36 barrels of gunpowder.
He was arrested, tortured, found guilty of high treason and then executed.
After this the Parliament declared 5 November as a day of thanksgiving, and would burn effigies of the Pope, which then evolved to setting off fireworks, having bonfires, and also burning effigies of Fawkes himself.
Fawkes’ image later evolved into one of a revolutionary hero.
Looking at depictions of him we can see where the stylised “Anonymous” mask comes from.
The idea and imagery of Fawkes being this revolutionary hero become extremely popularised in the 1980s comic, V for Vendetta, where a man wearing a mask in the likeness of Fawkes tries to take down a fascist regime – also by blowing up the houses of Parliament (spoilers). This became even more popular in the 2005 movie of the same name.
The idea in the movie, especially towards the end, is that anyone can be behind the mask – and that kind of safety in anonymity means people can gather in numbers and ‘fight the system’ in relative safety.
Anonymous is a hacktivist collective many people have probably heard of – especially because they have a Twitter account and are very active and proactive on there.
The word hacktivist is a portmanteau of activist and hacker, and they’re a collective of, unsurprisingly, anonymous hackers, who target different governments, government institutions and agencies, and corporations that they believe are doing bad things in the world.
This kind of activism is tricky because, as an anonymous collective, there isn’t a leader anyone can look to in terms of rules or morals, but it’s very interesting to look into them and what the collective (or those claiming to be part of the collective) have done.
Anonymous started out as a board on 4chan, which is a notorious platform mostly because you can’t have an account on 4chan – every time you comment or make a post you’re assigned a random number and that’s the only way to be identified in that context. This environment was a pretty fitting start for the Anonymous collective whose primary function is conducting virtual raids on specific targets.
Operation Payback (2010)
Operation Payback was conducted in 2010, and the name is a bit of a pun because of the payment companies that ended up being involved, but I don’t think it was intentional. What happened was that Anonymous noticed an Indian company was partnering with film companies to launch DDoS attacks on websites that were infringing on the film company’s copyright, and The Pirate Bay ended up being affected by this.
The Pirate Bay is one of the biggest torrenting platforms around, and boasts a huge library of illegal content that is notoriously protected by the online community. Anonymous took issue with this attack and launched a raid on the Indian company conducting the attacks.
This is what started off the “operation” but where it got particularly big was when a website called WikiLeaks started leaking American diplomatic cables, which contained sensitive data. In reaction to WikiLeaks being cut off from their server and finance services through MasterCard, Visa, and Paypal, Anonymous targeted these companies.
They apparently managed to take down Paypal for just over an hour over two days, and disrupted services for MasterCard and Visa for a day. Considering the scale of these companies and the protections they have in place to prevent this kind of thing, I think it’s quite impressive that they managed anything at all.
Westboro Baptist Church
Anonymous is, as a whole, against any kind of oppression or censorship, so this naturally means they’re also against homophobia. Because of this, in 2011 they launched an attack against Westboro Baptist Church, a hate group that’s homophobic, transphobic, anti-semetic, and even against a lot of Christian denominations.
What happened to kickstart this raid was that an open letter was published on the web which threatened Westboro Baptist Church because they were picketing at funerals with signs that said “God hates fa*s”. It’s unclear who the letter came from, but, reportedly, it wasn’t Anonymous. In response to the letter Westboro Baptist Church tweeted “bring it”, which led to Anonymous hacking the Westboro Baptist Church website and replacing it with their own text.
At a slightly later stage Westboro Baptist Church announced that they wanted to go and picket the funerals of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims, so Anonymous published the names, phone numbers, email and home addresses of church members, as well as taking down one of their websites.
Michael Brown – Ferguson
In 2014 after the Ferguson police killed 18 year old Michael Brown, a group claiming to be Anonymous organised online protests against the police, which included setting up a website and dedicated Twitter account. The idea was to set up a base so that people could let them know if any on-the-ground protesters were harmed by police so that they could take action.
They said that they’d take the city’s systems offline if this did happen, and the city did report that emails and phone lines went down, as well as the city hall’s internet going down.
One not so great thing in this situation was that, before anyone knew the name of the police officer who killed Michael Brown, the hacktivists were actively searching for the information so it could be leaked to the public. At one point they did release a name, but it was apparently wrong.
The Texas Heartbeat Act
One very current ongoing raid is about the Texas Heartbeat Act, which has criminalised abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. As part of this new law, anti-abortion organisations have set up whistleblower websites where you can report anyone you think may have had an abortion so that they can be punished under the law.
Anonymous took part in an effort to delegitimise these reports by submitting a huge number of fake reports to flood the system. The idea is that because no one on the receiving end is able to verify if a report is real or not, they’d have to sift through them all to ensure actual cases are attended to.
There are even reports of Texas governors being reported to have had abortions, just to further rock the boat.
Interestingly, I found out that there was a case of a group calling themselves Anonymous Africa operating mainly in South Africa and Zimbabwe.
On the 6th of July 2016, an Anonymous Africa Twitter account announced that they’d be shutting down several Zimbabwean government websites because the government shut down WhatsApp in response to violent protests happening at the time. The websites were reportedly down from about 2pm to after 10pm.
They also took down the ZANU PF website (which is the ruling party in Zimbabwe) as well as their Ministry of Defence, revenue authority, and some news outlets.
Later in that same year in South Africa, Anonymous Africa took down the EFF website, a few SABC websites (because of apparent cases of censorship), and they also went after quite a few websites linked to the Gupta family, because of the corruption allegations controversy at the time.
They described to one news outlet that they’re “just a group of people from several countries in southern Africa who are sick and tired of the injustice.”
We like to talk about the butterfly effect and how small actions can lead to much larger events, but I think that concept of the intentional link V for Vendetta and Anonymous made between the ‘small’ person directly making a lasting impact on the world is much more exciting.