Its members urged the citizens of Ferguson, Mo., to confront the police in the streets. They caused the city’s Web servers to crash, forcing officials to communicate by text. They posted the names and address of the county police chief’s family. Thursday, they released what they said was the name of the police officer who killed the unarmed Michael Brown, 18, on Saturday.
Anonymous — the shadowy, snide international collective of hackers and online activists — has played a key role in the growing confrontation outside St. Louis over Brown’s death, goading and threatening the authorities and calling the effort “Operation Ferguson.”
Operations in the collective’s decadelong history have included taking down the World Cup website to protest poverty, helping identify assailants in a rape case in Ohio, cheering on the Occupy Wall Street movement and carrying out coordinated cyberassaults on repressive foreign governments. But this one ran into trouble faster than most.
The St. Louis police said on Twitter that the name given out was wrong and that the man fingered was not even a police officer. Within Anonymous, there was an unusual amount of dissent. In interviews, in private chat channels and on Twitter, members accused those who had initially posted details of producing faulty information and putting one another in harm’s way by openly chatting about their methods online.
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On Thursday, Twitter suspended @TheAnonMessage, the account that had posted the dubious information, although Twitter officials declined to say why. Those behind the account said in an email that they would post information from a backup account, @TheAnonMessage2, while other Twitter accounts affiliated with Anonymous tried to distance themselves from the post.
“For the record, one last time. Operation Ferguson has NOT, repeat NOT released the name of Mike Brown’s killer, nor have we claimed to,” the individual behind the Operation Ferguson account said on Twitter.
Gabriella Coleman, an anthropologist who studies Anonymous and teaches at McGill University in Montreal, said she was taken aback that members of Anonymous would be so quick to release unverified information and would speak so openly about their methods in online chat channels.
“My jaw was dropping,” Coleman said, reading members’ communications. “I was surprised because what I was seeing was suggestive but not definitive. Anonymous tends to care about its image quite a bit, and if they were wrong, it would be really bad.”
In private chat channels early Thursday, she said, members argued about the photo of a man who resembled one of the officers at the scene of Brown’s shooting.
Some of it was reminiscent of past Anonymous campaigns, such as that prompted by a rape case in Steubenville, Ohio, and another three years ago in Manhattan, when hackers identified a high-ranking police officer who pepper-sprayed Occupy Wall Street protesters.
In the Ferguson case, many were drawn to the Anonymous campaign after Tef Poe, a St. Louis rapper, began posting video and news updates to his Twitter, Vine and Instagram feeds this week. By Monday, the Operation Ferguson Twitter account had been set up, and prominent members of Anonymous had joined the effort.
Members assert that the organization is not a group but a loose collective working to advance similar ideals — but sometimes contradictory ones. While Anonymous espouses privacy, its members use the release of others’ personal information as a tactic in cases where they believe authorities are not acting in the public interest or the media have not released pertinent information. Members are quick to condemn any individual who claims to speak for the collective, and dissent and infighting are common.
Members also sought to explain the internal bickering and uncoordinated communications.
“For those new to Anonymous, it’s a global collective of millions of autonomous individuals and groups,” they said. “Each is responsible for themselves only.”
Some members were desperate in their pleas this week that the man’s photo not be released until more definitive information had been gathered. Ultimately, some members held a vote and decided to release the photo.
But within hours, many had backtracked. Some openly said the “dox” — a hacking term for the release of an individual’s personal information — had been wrong.
“The original dox were faulty, it happens, an excess of zeal,” is how one Anonymous member put it in a direct message on Twitter.
The infighting seemed to have taken its toll. Those behind the @TheAnonMessage2 account, who were behind the initial disclosures, had grown considerably more circumspect.
“ANNOUNCEMENT: We are ceasing any future dox releases until further notice,” they posted on Twitter.