There’s something admittedly spooky about the mask used by Anonymous, the collective that conducts hacking as a form of activism. Since 2008, the group has gained worldwide attention for its efforts, which include attacks against Scientology and opponents of internet piracy. And the group’s fame has been helped by its impressive branding, including an emblem depicting a headless man and that spooky mask.
The mask itself has an interesting history. It pays tribute to a man who is best known for trying to blow up the House of Lords in London in 1605. Coincidentally, though, the mask was already a part of pop culture when Anonymous adopted it. Its long history is perhaps more fascinating than the hacktivist group itself.
The man behind the mask
There’s a reason Guy Fawkes has become a popular symbol of protest. In the early 1600s, there was a great amount of religious upheaval in England, with Protestants and Catholics battling for dominance. Fawkes was part of a group of Catholics who were unhappy with the direction the government was taking. In protest, they sent a threatening letter to Lord Monteagle, a member of the House of Lords who was planning to attend the opening of Parliament.
The letter was forwarded to King James I’s chief minister, which led to multiple searches of the Palace of Westminster where the House of Lords meets. During the second search, a royal official discovered a man guarding a storeroom filled with firewood and 36 barrels of gunpowder. The man identified himself as John Johnson, but his name was actually Guy Fawkes, and he and his co-conspirators were executed as examples to others.
Fawkes and the mask that emerged later became the symbol for what would later be called the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. When discovered guarding the gunpowder, Fawkes was wearing a cloak, boots, and spurs, and that’s the image that was depicted throughout history. On November 5th of each year or Guy Fawkes Night, his image is burned in effigy throughout England.
How Guy Fawkes became a meme
The history of the Guy Fawkes mask dates back to the late 1700s when children reportedly began wearing paper masks with his image on them to beg for money. But it entered mainstream culture in the 1980s in a comic magazine called Warrior. In 1988, the Guy Fawkes image was introduced even wider in the graphic novel V for Vendetta, which was adapted as a film in 2005.
In 2006, the Guy Fawkes image appeared on a 4Chan bulletin board with the label “Epic Fail Guy.” Epic Fail Guy represented the man who seemed to fail, no matter what he did. That same year, a group of protestors appeared outside the DC Comics office to protest V for Vendetta, with an opposing group wearing Guy Fawkes masks in counterprotest. It was during this event that the Guy Fawkes mask became a symbol of protest.
Anonymous takes the mask
The Guy Fawkes mask first gained international attention when it appeared in September 2011 as part of the Occupy Wall Street protest. The Huffington Post declared the mask the symbol of the Occupy Wall Street movement and a month later, Julian Assange wore the mask while leading a protest called Occupy London Stock Exchange.
The masks had a practical use for Anonymous. In 2008, the group needed a way to leave the safety of their homes to protest Scientology, and the Guy Fawkes masks seemed the perfect disguise. It has never been officially stated, but experts have identified a scene inV for Vendetta where a group of protestors march on Britain’s Parliament as likely inspiration.
Since 2008, Anonymous has used its collective technological prowess to launch cyberattacks at various institutions. Using its hacking power, the group became known for shutting down websites and exposing members of hate organizations. However, the group seems to have lost effectiveness in recent years as its membership has split in various directions. In an interview with Vice, a spokesperson from YourAnonNews revealed that the 2016 election divided the group.
The last known major cyber-based threat from the group came in 2016 when members of the group threatened both the Clinton and Trump campaigns. The Guy Fawkes mask lives on, though, most recently being used during an attack on a Minnesota county website. Whether aspiring hacktivists are paying homage to the original protestor or Anonymous remains to be seen.