The sound of a milk steamer roars in the background in a coffee shop, where William is sitting at a table and drinking idly from a cup. He is a young man, early 20s, dressed in a checkered red shirt and low-slung jeans, who wouldn’t look out of place wandering around his local shopping mall or riffing with friends over a beer. William has a few secrets, though, and one of his biggest is that he aligns himself with Anonymous. This is the online community of hacktivists and Internet trolls that’s been running riot across the Web for the past few years.
William (not his real name) is somewhat hardcore. He insists that he is part of the original Anonymous—like a Roman Catholic who sees himself as being part of the “one true church.” He says this part of Anonymous started it all, laying the foundations for the current nebulous community and injecting it with all the necessary elements of subculture: the memes and the lingo, the profound social acceptance and the disdain for authority, the intent to harass people for fun or “lulz.” Things that made it attractive and fun.
The “hacktivist” Anons who attacked Stratfor last year, and PayPal and MasterCard the year before, the ones who wear the Guy Fawkes masks and protest against acronyms like CISPA and ACTA: they’re a “joke,” William grumbles. A pair of elderly ladies at the table next door look in his direction over their cups of tea, and he lowers his voice a little. The real, true Anonymous lives on 4chan, William says, a website visited by millions of people each month. So-called trolls who are the Joker to the hacktivists’ Batman. Young men who, like William, are happy to watch the world burn. In essence, it’s his home.
William first found 4chan when he was in his early teens, around the same time he and his friends were “pedo-bating” on MSN chat and other websites. They would come online with a nickname like “sexy_baby_girl” and pretend to be an underage teen who wanted to see an older man masturbate on a Web cam. Once a man showed up on video, they’d suddenly type out a fake IP address, say it was his and that they were from child protection services. As the men suddenly fumbled for the mouse to turn it off, they’d fall about laughing. William always wanted to take the joke further, to get the man more excited. When it was over, he’d go home and carry out the pranks on his own.
Over the years he turned this into a skill to troll people in some of the most mortifying ways possible—manipulating men and women into sending naked pictures of themselves or their genitalia, then blackmailing them or embarrassing them with the images. Once, for instance, he hacked into a young man’s Facebook account and posted pictures of the man’s penis on the wall of a family member. “Hi mom, here’s my cock. What do you think? LOL,” went the caption.