Anonymous marchers
Masked Anonymous supporters march away from the U.S. Capitol during a 2013 demonstration. Reuters/Jim Bourg

It's shockingly easy to enter the world of Anonymous. With some free time, a little bit of digging and a willingness to expose themselves to the murkier depths of the Web, people can quickly find themselves in a debate over anything from police misconduct to the ethics of knocking major corporations offline.

Anonymous, the online protest movement that has defined vigilante justice in the age of the Internet, has become an increasingly regular fixture in incidents that have produced international headlines. The “hacktivist” collective is made up of tens of thousands of “Anons,” as members refer to themselves, around the world who often have little in common other than a willingness to insert themselves into red-hot social and political situations.

The death of Mike Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, last Saturday, has been no exception, with Anonymous seeking to pressure police into disclosing the shooter’s identity by identifying what turned out to be the wrong man. (Police finally identified Darren Wilson on Friday.) The decision to name an officer, and its aftermath, have become one of the group’s defining traits, a desire to stand up for the voiceless while using methods that are often, at best, ethically dubious.

Much of the public still has little idea what Anonymous stands for, even as the ominous white Guy Fawkes masks that the group has adopted have become a mainstay in international protests. The name “Anonymous” itself was born when early members of the group connected on 4Chan message boards posting as “anonymous,” creating a long-running joke that a single person named Anonymous was simply talking to himself.

It was at 4chan that they would alternatively engage in thoughtful conversations while also organizing pranks that ranged from joke phone calls to threats of violence. The Guardian, in describing the Rickrolling phenomenon that also was born on 4Chan, described the underground community as “lunatic, juvenile …brilliant, ridiculous and alarming.”

“At some point people realized that to people who are unfamiliar with 4chan culture, being raided by a random crowd of people all saying ‘We are Anonymous’ was pretty formidable,” one member told International Business Times. As seriously as they take themselves now, the movement started very much as a joke.

Those conversations could last for hours or days, with members forming into smaller cliques who would launch small cyber-attacks on each other in an effort to improve the group’s overall online security. The no-holds barred conversations also fostered an environment of acceptance for female and gay users (an anomaly in often misogynistic online subcultures), with the only requirement being a thick skin for sarcasm.

“Anyone can join and anyone can come on the network and watch or be a part of it,” another participant said. “There’s no secret passcode.”

The rancorous debates over the politics of Internet freedom have also been a focus for people who sometimes have difficulty finding a reason to get through their day.

“We’ve built ourselves a beautiful community,” one member who wished to be identified only as Whitey explained. “Before it, I felt as though I had no friends, I felt as though my life was a waste. I was contemplating suicide, but I thought it over repeatedly and went and researched and I connected. In just a matter of weeks I felt so much better because I am doing something.”

The movement first made headlines in 2008 when it launched Operation Chanology (or “OpChanology,” a reference to Anonymous’ beginning on 4Chan), an assault on the Church of Scientology. Anonymous perceived the church’s attempt to strike critical websites from the Internet as an act of censorship and launched what would quickly become its calling card, a distributed-denial-of-service (DDoS) attack.

The method – a favorite among hacking groups – essentially involves taking control of thousands of unwitting computers and directing their Internet to a single website, with all the traffic overwhelming the server and knocking it offline temporarily. OpChanology also included black faxes, prank phone calls and, eventually, legal measures that sought to convince the Internal Revenue Service to examine the widely hated church’s tax-exempt status.

That effort quickly led to another DDoS attack, this one on the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America in retaliation for the news that the two entertainment lobby groups had contracted a software company to shut down websites that make pirated movies, music and software available.

“Anonymous is tired of corporate interests controlling the Internet and silencing people’s rights to spread information, but more importantly, the right to share with one another,” the group said in a press statement at the time, signing with the characteristic “We Are Legion.”

Pushed on by media headlines that only attracted more Anons, by 2010 Anonymous had enough momentum to bring down PayPal. This was retaliation for PayPal’s announcement that it would stop facilitating donations to WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy organization that leaked hundreds of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables. The hackers also interfered with Master Card and Visa pages, while trying but failing to knock offline. The PayPal and MasterCard hacks ultimately led to the arrest of Hector Xavier Monsegur, a notorious hacker known as "Sabu" who was converted into an FBI informant.

That same anti-corporate mindset fueled Anonymous’ involvement in a series of attacks on Sony and then Koch Industries. Goals became more diversified, however, as membership grew, with operations launched against child pornography sites, the revenge porn site Is Anyone Up, the Westboro Baptist Church site and the Middle Eastern governments seeking to quell the Arab Spring.

The Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 was also a major rallying point. The Guy Fawkes mask became as ubiquitous on news reports as the 99 percent and the human microphone. Anonymous became involved when members leaked the personal information of police Lt. John Pike, who pepper-sprayed a line of California college students peacefully seated on the ground.

The event sparked national outrage, resulting in Pike’s dismissal from the force and his cell phone number being made available in corners of the Internet where he was despised. The disclosure was a preview of the tactic Anonymous would use many times, including in the Michael Brown case. When asked about the thought process that goes into such a decision, though, one member of the movement didn’t mince words.

“If a non-policeman assaulted/killed someone, their identity would be released,” said Anon Whitey.

“Immediately,” another member, assuming the identity of Vladimir, added. “They are public officials and they should have no problem answering for their behavior. They have power over others and can kill in the name of the state. They are not entitled to special protections above others.”

That mentality was on full display again in the Steubenville rape case in 2012, in which two football players from a small town in Ohio were accused of sexually assaulting a girl who was too drunk to stand at an unsupervised high school party. Anonymous’ response, dubbed OpRollRedRoll after the “Big Red” football team, was announced in one of its warning videos:

The emotion around the case propelled headlines everywhere from the New York Times to think-pieces about rape culture. When reports surfaced that the police were unable (or as Anonymous asserted, unwilling) to find pictures taken of the girl, hackers were able to access deleted communications. A video dug up by members of the movement showed Michael Nodianos, a friend of the accused players, explicitly joking and laughing at the girls’ victimization as it happened.

Many of the stories credited Anonymous with making an investigation possible after what appeared to be a townwide coverup. Some time for reflection, though, and a New Yorker investigation into the matter, revealed that the two suspects had already been investigated before Anonymous became involved, and the attention that followed may have only complicated the situation.

Without Anonymous’ bloviation, for instance, it’s unlikely that the victim would have been mistakenly identified on national television. It’s also difficult to picture a scenario in which Nodianos’ family members would have their lives threatened as a result of the young man’s disgraceful actions.

“We help more than we hurt, and force action,” said Vladimir. “Not every [operation] is run well, but the ones that are outweigh those that are not run well.”

For evidence of how dangerous a reckless attitude can be, though, look no further than Kathie Warnack. The 48-year-old St. Louis resident told USA Today her stepson is the man who was misidentified as the police officer who shot and killed Brown.

“I guess I’m going to have to sleep with my gun and put cameras on the house,” she said, crying on the front porch of her home when told the group had fingered her relative, who has never been employed as a police officer in Missouri. “Now I have to defend myself and I didn’t do anything wrong. Anonymous has really gotten out of hand.”

Attempting to describe the group as a cadre of vigilantes, or anything other than a network of individuals, is missing the point, members say.

“It’s a movement, to put it simply,” one Anon explained. “A fluid ideology that is only part hacker, and the rest of it is simply a voice.”