The Return of Anonymous

At the end of May , as protests against the police killing of George Floyd got under way, reports started to circulate that the shadowy hacker group Anonymous was back .
The rumors began with a video depicting a black-clad figure in the group’s signature Guy Fawkes mask. “Greetings, citizens of the United States,” the figure said in a creepy, distorted voice. “This is a message from Anonymous to the Minneapolis Police Department.” The masked announcer addressed Floyd’s killing and the larger pattern of police misconduct, concluding, “We will be exposing your many crimes to the world. We are legion. Expect us.”
[ Justin Ellis: Minneapolis had this coming ]
The clip generated a wave of renewed enthusiasm for Anonymous, particularly among young people. Twitter accounts associated with the group saw a surge of new followers, a couple of them by the millions.
At the height of its popularity, in 2012, Anonymous had been a network of thousands of activists, a minority of them hackers, devoted to leftist-libertarian ideals of personal freedom and opposed to the consolidation of corporate and government power. But after a spate of arrests, it had largely faded from view.
Now a new generation was eager to join. “How does one apply to be a part of Anonymous? I just wanna help out, I’ll even make the hackers coffee or suttin” an activist in the United Kingdom joked on Twitter, garnering hundreds of thousands of likes and retweets.
Anonymous “stan” (super fan) accounts remixed the video on TikTok to give the shadowy figure glamorous nails and jewelry. Others used the chat service Discord to create virtual spaces where thousands of new devotees could celebrate the hackers with memes and fan fiction. One of the largest Anonymous accounts on Twitter begged people to “stop sending us nudes.”
A series of hacks followed the release of the video. News outlets speculated that it was Anonymous who had hijacked Chicago police scanners on May 30 and 31 to play N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police” and Tay Zonday’s “Chocolate Rain,” a 2007 song that served as an unofficial anthem for the group. Likewise, when the Minneapolis Police Department website went offline from an apparent DDoS attack—a hack that overwhelms a target site with traffic—social media credited Anonymous.
Three weeks later, on Juneteenth, a person identifying as Anonymous leaked hundreds of gigabytes of internal police files from more than 200 agencies across the U.S. The hack, labeled #BlueLeaks, contained little information about police misconduct. However, it did reveal that local and federal law-enforcement groups spread poorly researched and exaggerated misinformation to Minnesota police officers during the unrest in May and June, and made efforts to monitor protesters’ social-media activity.
I had recently published a book that detailed the tangled origins of Anonymous, and until last month, I’d thought the group...