The term “cult” often leaves a bad taste in the mouth. If someone says you’re in one, it usually triggers some kind of fight-or-flight response, as you either want to disprove the notion, attack the accuser, or just try to ignore the insinuation.
But, be that as it may, take it from someone who was once in an actual cult: hacktivist collective Anonymous is a cult. A cult of personality.
What does this mean? A cult of personality refers to a collective or group of people that idealizes a leader (for instance, 17th-century British revolutionary Guy Fawkes) and holds shared political, social, religious, or philosophical convictions.
Such cults generally exhibit common characteristics, such as unwavering belief in the idealized leader (Fawkes), a sense of patriotism (or radicalism, in the case of the Anonymous brand), and a penchant for large-scale demonstrations – but also for distorting the facts.
Anonymous the franchise
While Anonymous is typically not religiously motivated or patriotic, these terms can be transferable to similar characteristics. It should also be noted that Anonymous claims to be a decentralized “hive mind” and follows no supreme leader, although it does idealize the concept of a heroic figure.
However, Anonymous isn’t a single organism operating in tandem to facilitate its ideals. Rather, it exists primarily in the form of subcompartment groups led by their own leaders who are largely responsible for setting their own agendas, which oftentimes conflict with the agendas of other sub-groups under the Anonymous banner.
Additionally, the conditions conducive to the rise of a cult of personality happen when an individual or group leverages the media as a platform to disseminate their propaganda. Additionally, a cult of personality is identifiable when an individual or group crafts an idealized, heroic, and sometimes worshipful image.
Once more, for Anonymous, the heroic image is the Guy Fawkes mask, derived from a contemporary depiction found in the graphic novel V for Vendetta from the 1980s. The historical figure Guy Fawkes participated in the Gunpowder Plot, attempting to detonate explosives beneath the House of Lords in London on November 5th, 1605.
The 2005 mini-series named after the plot (Gunpowder) was adapted from this historical event. Guy Fawkes is portrayed as a revolutionary who bravely opposed tyranny and dared to challenge the system. This is why he is considered the perfect symbol for the hacktivist movement, Anonymous.
It started with a bang
Over the decades, numerous hacker groups have risen and faded into obscurity, many without even a Wikipedia page to so much as mark their existence. However, from 2003 to the present day, Anonymous burst on to the scene, originating from the 4chan image board that gained widespread popularity until it began to explore hacktivism in 2008 with Chanology – a protest campaign against the Church of Scientology.
After that, it found its calling and subsequent identity within the hacktivism landscape during the onset of classified State Department leaks by the whistleblower website, WikiLeaks in 2010.
Since then, Anonymous has left an indelible mark on history.
Without delving into an evaluation of the merits of Anonymous, let’s explore the overarching effectiveness of a cult of personality in shaping a successful movement that’s focused on projecting an influential and viral image.
Any individual or group with an idea, ideology, or agenda aiming to resonate with a broad audience and amass a significant following to achieve specific goals can potentially leverage the cult of personality, if the image and message are strategically conveyed.
Leaders within any given Anonymous sub-group are praised and highly respected, even revered for the extent of their hacking abilities, contributions to an important cause, and the power they wield to gain advantage over their adversaries. However, in order to maintain supremacy, the cult of personality plays a vital role in sustaining such power in the court of public opinion.
Anonymous will stop at nothing to silence and destroy even its own members in an effort to discourage open criticism, and justify whatever agenda it pursues. People who criticize Anonymous often face retaliation.
Anonymous has adeptly weaponized the media to convey powerful messages against corporations, governments, cartels, and terrorists, distinguishing itself from other groups.
The group also maintains a powerful residency across all social media platforms to connect with audiences worldwide, attracting like-minded individuals who contribute to their cause daily, whether through sharing videos, messages, and images or actively participating in their activities.
Although its ideas are noble, how it is facilitated is not exactly on par with its image or the virtue of its message. That is because the Anonymous cult of personality is driven by a strong mob mentality. This makes its members susceptible to suggestion, manipulation, and ultimately exploitation as it seeks willing and able followers to carry out its agenda, which is often driven emotionally and not intellectually.
Because of this, and especially because the group does not have centralized leadership, it is extremely easy for an agent provocateur to influence Anonymous into carrying out cyberattacks. This is largely because its members often act impulsively without inquiring too deeply into the reason why this or that target is being selected.
In the course of my own threat intelligence research, I have observed cyber trolls with malicious intentions enticing influential Anonymous groups for the purpose of enlisting them. Subsequently, they exploit their affiliation to manipulate those members into acting as a sort of virtual personal army.
Consequently, without asking too many questions, in the absence of investigating the merits of a target, the hacktivist group ends up attacking a lot of innocent people, businesses, and educational institutions. Anonymous simply needs to direct an accusing finger toward a country or another entity, and the entire collective consciousness swiftly mobilizes to support the cause and achieve its objectives.
Feeding the ego
The continuity of Anonymous is heavily dependent on how it utilizes the cult of personality in its propaganda, as this is critical in how it recruits others to join its cause. Anonymous excessively glamorizes its persona through YouTube and TikTok videos and other social media platforms, presenting itself as a champion of the innocent, revealer of injustice, and, significantly, collective of cyber vigilantes.
By interpretation, the resulting revolutionary image can appear almost god-like, untouchable. Because of this impression, Anonymous fights to maintain the image, even if the very opposite is true. For emphasis, it is not uncommon to find memes and other images posted by Anonymous portraying itself as synonymous with God or Jesus Christ – a savior of the internet. This can indicate a form of narcissism, but it’s open to personal interpretation.
Its members used to provide something unique, which was seen as a relatable form of justice. They liberated information, exposed corruption, and went toe-to-toe against corrupt law enforcement. But alas, all the old heroes of the hacking world are long gone: they were the ones who knew how to cause real change, and did so without seeking attention to feed a starving ego.
It seems every day a new Anonymous sub-group emerges on the internet. Sadly, they are all cookie-cutter copies of the other, offering nothing different. They fight and betray each other across social media, carrying out Machiavellian schemes as each actor strives to further their own moral high ground, fame, and level of recognition – but doing nothing that will likely be worth mentioning in the future annals of history.
It really does beg the question: is this the end of Anonymous?
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