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Donald Trump vs. Anonymous: Does it matter?

Donald Trump spoke at a news conference in Florida earlier this month.
Donald Trump spoke at a news conference in Florida earlier this month. Brynn Anderson/AP/file

Articles about Anonymous ‘‘declaring war’’ on things are starting to become the John Oliver recaps of writing about Anonymous: It’s a catchy headline; it’s not, strictly speaking, factually wrong; and it often touches on issues currently in the news. So when a video emerges showing Anonymous declaring ‘‘total war’’ on Donald Trump, as one did earlier this month, people pay attention.

Just as they did the last time Anonymous declared war on Trump. Or when Anonymous declared war on ISIS, or the other time Anonymous declared war on ISIS. Or when it declared war on the KKK. Or any of the many other war declarations in the years-long history of the hacking collective. But what the actual effect of an Anonymous ‘‘war’’ is -- or, for that matter, what declaring war means in this context -- is less discussed.


In the case of the most recent ‘‘war’’ against Trump, the declaration promises a couple of things: first, that the people behind this particular operation will try to take down several websites connected to the Trump in retaliation for his ‘‘hateful’’ campaign for president; second, that it will take place on April 1. And third, that if enough people participate, somehow all of this will ‘‘dismantle’’ the campaign of a man who has thrived on moments that would have politically destroyed anyone else, and ‘‘sabotage’’ his brand.

(For the record, Trump seems to have survived Anonymous’s successful Distributed Denial of Service attack against the Trump Towers’ website in December.)

It’s not that Trump doesn’t make sense as an antagonist for Anonymous, the vigilante collective of activists and hackers: The candidate has floated a plan to ‘‘close up’’ parts of the Internet in order to stop terrorism; a voicemail account purported to be his was recently accessed and leaked; his position on the First Amendment appears to be, well, selective. The question is whether the DoS onslaught can achieve what is being promised -- a question causing internal disagreement among Anonymous right now.


A different Anonymous-associated YouTube account released a video to ‘‘terminate’’ the anti-Trump operation on Wednesday arguing that the April 1 DoS pledge is ‘‘nothing more than an empty message,’’ urging Anonymous supporters to instead focus on changing ‘‘the entire system.’’

Still others worried inevitable ineffectiveness of the new Trump operation -- given what it’s promising to do -- will only make Anonymous look bad.

When Anonymous said it was going to war with Trump in that month over his advocating for a total ban on Muslims entering America, we argued that the war was largely a symptom of an ‘‘identity crisis’’ within Anonymous. The truth is, Anonymous is not, and has never been, a monolith. It was never intended to be. Instead, it’s more of a gathering point of people -- some old timers, some new; some dedicated, some just visiting -- who work together on different, distinct operations. Sometimes, multiple operations have very similar goals and targets, but disagree strongly on the best approach to accomplish what they want. One great example of that in action? The various Anonymous and Anonymous-connected operations targeting the online influence of the Islamic State.

Anonymous famously ‘‘declared war’’ on ISIS in November. But really, the video declaration was more like a recruiting strategy for one of a handful of existing campaigns within Anonymous, #OPISIS, targeting the Islamic State’s Twitter presence, Gabriella Coleman, the author of ‘‘Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous,’’ told us at the time.


#OPISIS, then about a year old, was mainly a crowd-sourcing operation. Specific Twitter accounts thought to be connected to the Islamic State were flagged, examined, verified, and reported to Twitter for possible suspension from the site. The November announcement of ‘‘war’’ came as some within the operation lobbied for an escalation: The new proposal was that Anonymous should dox the personal information of the people behind those accounts, an idea that caused a lot of intense internal disagreement, which largely unfolded out of sight of popular interest in the idea of a bunch of mysterious Internet vigilantes going to war with the Islamic State.

And its worth noting that the idea of fighting terrorism -- in other words, aligning Anonymous with the interests of a government, as opposed to the group’s traditional antagonism to governments -- is also very controversial within Anonymous, as Coleman has explained before. That larger fight caused an even more stark split within the group recently, with one group of former Anonymous participants forming a totally separate identity in order to try and position themselves better to work with government intelligence officials.

As New York magazine pointed out, Anonymous has been ‘‘declaring war’’ on things for years, starting with its well-known war on Scientology in 2008. Those wars almost never lead to the total defeat of their enemies, as promised. The melodramatic language of these declarations tends to occlude the actual purpose and result of the operations behind them -- for better or for worse -- turning the popular understanding of Anonymous from what it is into a fantasy image of a bunch of elite hackers in Guy Fawkes masks, sitting behind computers doing some great hacks all day long.


There’s something that sticks about that fantasy. For some, Anonymous is the ultimate vigilante -- I spotted multiple, genuine expressions of relief online in the wake of the ‘‘war’’ on Trump headlines this Monday from those who believe someone needs to do something about the current GOP front-runner. For others, Anonymous has been a possibility to fear.

But that latter reputation might be fading: Many of the hyped-up wars launched in the name of Anonymous in recent memory have been chaotic, underwhelming, or disastrous.