As protest leaders in Ferguson, Missouri, contend with "outside agitators" they say have disrupted their peaceful demonstrations, the hackers in Anonymous have run into a similar problem: An "uncontrollable pest" whose reckless decision last week to accuse an innocent cop of killing Michael Brown embarrassed and marginalized the would-be activist group.
Anonymous, famous for its righteous hacks against Scientology and Pay Pal, quickly attempted to latch on to Brown's shooting by a police officer last week when it launched#OpFerguson, a drive to bring Brown's killer to justice and legislate police violence against minorities.
But public opinion took a turn against Anonymous when one Anon, tweeting under the handle @theanonmessage, misidentified that police officer as Bryan Willman, driving the wrongly accused man's family to tears.
According to multiple Anons and secret chat logs, that user went against group objections, pushed a vote in his favor, and rushed to publish Willman's name without proof or corroboration that he had his story right. The result was an unforced error—and a round of recriminations—that highlights the challenges that a willowy confederation of online activists faces when vying for action and and legitimacy.
"@TheAnonMessage knew his d0x was likely incorrect but he still released the information," Crypt0nomous, one active social media user with knowledge of Anonymous' deliberations, wrote on his Tumblr late last week:
He called a quick vote on #vote early in the morning at 8 a.m. when very few people were around and despite objections. This is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Bryan's Willman's life was put in danger and the whole operation was jeopardised by a hasty decision and serious lack of judgment.
Crypt0nomous also wrote on Twitter that he and other members of the activist group had shared several possible names of Brown's killer in an Anonymous IRC channel and members were far from unified on @the anonmessage's strategy:
The wasn't the first time @theanonmessage had overreached on OpFerguson. Earlier in the week, he had targeted St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, threatening to release personal info about Belmar's daughter if the chief didn't identify the cop who'd killed Brown. A swift social media backlash convinced him to jettison that plan at the 11th hour.
But @theanonmessage's plan to move forward with a supposed cop's name without proof was a critical-mass event. Members of the group took the remarkable step of sharing logs from Anonymous' secure chat, showing how hesitant some members were to go along with @theanonmessage's plan. Many pointed out that they couldn't even confirm Willman was a member of Ferguson's police department.
"Please be sure…" one Anon wrote. "like i said it's not just about a mans life, Anon can easily be turned on by the public if something truly unjust comes of this. It's as much about Anon's reputation as Scoobys life/livelihood."
Crypt0nomous even suggests in his Tumblr post that @theanonmessage may have made up another chatter in the discussions—Anonymous|1157, the only other Anon who seemed to unequivocally favor releasing Willman's name:
(07:33:02 AM) Cry: I would not suggest the core group of opferguson the release any name, once we hit the wrong person. oh boy shit is gonna gegt hot there
(07:33:06 AM) Cry: would turn into lynch
(07:33:15 AM) Anonymous|11057: that's why it's another 30 mins before its released.
(07:33:27 AM) Anonymous|11057: i want to see *any* sign pointing away from him.
Minutes later, the deed was done.
(08:05:30 AM) TheAnonMessage: yup
(08:05:32 AM) TheAnonMessage: just did
(08:05:34 AM) anondepp: its up
(08:05:39 AM) Anonymous|2252: shit
(08:05:41 AM) TheAnonMessage: Lord in heaven..
(08:05:51 AM) Anonymous|3549: …have mercy on our souls
On the chat, some Anons reacted with glee, but some were clearly horrified.
(08:52:29 AM) anondepp: he has deleted his facebook
(08:52:29 AM) miraRed: the fb is gone
(08:52:34 AM) _nameless: Why the fuck did you just release his address?
(08:52:37 AM) TheAnonMessage: and everything else
(08:52:43 AM) miraRed: what do you think this means
(08:52:47 AM) Anonymous|44900: What is this?
(08:52:48 AM) anondepp: lol we got his ass
(08:52:50 AM) Anonymous|buss: Hea oing dark.
(08:52:52 AM) Anonymous|3549: it means nothing
(08:52:53 AM) Vitriolic: Pretty sure he's not at home.
(08:52:53 AM) anondepp: he running now
(08:52:55 AM) Anonymous|3549: neither guilt nor innocence
"if he's guilty, it's because he's afraid," wrote Anonymous|3549. "if he's innocent…. it's because he's afraid."
As it dawned on everyone that @theanonmessage had fingered the wrong cop, other Anons went public to criticize his methods:
And the doxer was suspended from Twitter, possibly because of the work of other Anons.
"Social media has changed the rules of your game," Anonymous says to government and police officials in its latest OpFerguson video, above. "That's why we call the people on you."
But "the people," in Anonymous and outside it, are a willful and unruly agglomeration, as unlikely to form consensus in a secret activist chat as in the voting booth or on the streets of Ferguson. @theanonmessage started a new Twitter account, @theanonmessage2, which was quickly commandeered by activists fed up with his rogueism. But the damage to Anonymous' reputation was done, and it continues to be undone.
[Image by Jim Cooke]