By Cory Bennett - 11/05/15 06:00 AM EST
The hacker group Anonymous on Thursday is poised to release the names of 1,000 people that it says are members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
The data dump, if authentic, could help boost the image of Anonymous, a loosely affiliated anarchist collective that has come under fire for leaking inaccurate information and failing to control its “members.”
Even in the run-up to Thursday’s KKK “unmasking,” Anonymous has been on the defensive, scrambling to distance itself from a widely discredited early leak of supposed KKK members that included several U.S. senators and mayors.
“Their ability to accept anyone and everything is both a strength and a weakness,” said Gabriella Coleman, an anthropologist who wrote a book about Anonymous. “And this is one the weaknesses playing out in real time.”
“If it delivers [on Thursday], I think Anonymous can bounce back from this,” Coleman said. “If they don’t deliver … why were they hyping something up when they didn’t even have anything in the first place?”
The decade-old Anonymous has a strong populist bent, opposing any type of censorship or violence.
Almost anyone can work under the Anonymous banner, using templates to make the robotically voiced videos that have become synonymous with the group’s cyber campaigns.
Early on, Anonymous won adherents with digital campaigns targeting the Church of Scientology and the Westboro Baptist Church. The hackers also earned plaudits for providing digital support to Arab Spring protesters.
More recently, Anonymous has even served as one of the few effective counters to the social media recruitment campaigns waged by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
“People have looked to them because generally, generally they are trying to do the right thing,” said Coleman.
The digital campaign targeting the KKK may have been launched in the same spirit, in the hopes that it would be viewed as an attempt to pull back the curtain on the group that is synonymous with white supremacy.
Anonymous initially declared a cyber war against the KKK amid the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., after a local Klan chapter threatened to use “lethal force” to defend itself from the “terrorists masquerading as ‘peaceful protesters.’”
On Wednesday, the Operation KKK team, which has been leading Anonymous’s online onslaught against the Klan, organized on Twitter an “ALL DAY town hall conversation on race, racism, terror & free speech,” based on a long list of probing questions it posted to the text-sharing site Pastebin.
Internet users applauded the team for spurring in-depth discussion, with prompts such as, “What racial stereotypes do we hold in our heads? What are the things we think but do not say? Do you act on these beliefs? How do you know?”
But others are skeptical about Anonymous's true intentions.
“The motivation of Anonymous as a whole really is to get attention,” said Matt Harrigan, president and CEO of cyber threat detection firm PacketSled, who monitors the hacking group. “It's a PR machine for causes that somebody inside Anonymous has decided are important.”
And the KKK makes for perfect prey.
“They’re a target because they're obviously not well liked, but at the same time they make a great news story,” Harrigan said. “What’s the thing that people despise more than anything? An organized hate group.”
Operation KKK has been exhaustively making the case for its digital crusade over the last week.
“After closely observing so many of you for so very long, we feel confident that applying transparency to your organizational cells is the right, just, appropriate and only course of action,” it said in a long statement released last week. “You are terrorists that hide your identities beneath sheets and infiltrate society on every level. The privacy of the Ku Klux Klan no longer exists in cyberspace.”
But the argument hasn’t necessarily won over the hearts and minds of potential allies.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) — which occasionally conducts its own campaigns to expose high-profile Klan members — is hesitant to view Anonymous as a partner in any way.
“I think it’s a dangerous game,” said Mark Potok, SPLC senior fellow. “In part because the hacking to begin with is completely illegal. And beyond that, because it is so extremely easy to make mistakes. And we have seen that again and again.”
Anonymous previously went after neo-Nazis and white nationalists in 2012, as part of Operation Blitzkrieg. Hackers took down the site Stormfront.org, the world’s largest white nationalist site, and published a list of alleged members.
While some true neo-Nazis were named, Potok said, “there were mistakes made.”
And those missteps can disrupt lives, or even damage them, he added.
Potok foresees similar difficulties with Thursday’s unmasking. The Klan, he said, is split into roughly 23 warring factions with a total membership of fewer than 4,000 people nationwide.
The diffuse, fractured organization keeps no centralized records. Even registered members on various KKK websites rarely use their real names, which would make it exceedingly difficult for digital snoops to put together an ironclad, comprehensive list.
“The Klan today is small, weak and poorly led, which is not to say that individual Klansmen don’t still pose real dangers,” Potok said.
Anonymous insists it has worked hard to ensure that the data released Thursday will be accurate.
Hours after hordes of Anonymous-affiliated Twitter accounts started promoting the early KKK leaks that included politicians — which apparently came from a rogue hacker claiming no Anonymous affiliation — the Operation KKK leaders insisted that they are holding themselves to a higher standard.
“This account has NOT YET released any information,” the team tweeted from its account. “We believe in due diligence and will NOT recklessly involve innocent individuals #OpKKK”
Thursday will reveal whether the group lives up to its promise.
“If they keep messing up, then people are not going to turn to them,” Coleman said.
“A lot will depend on what happens on the 5th.”