Yesterday, a hacker claiming to be affiliated with Anonymous released a list of email addresses and phone numbers he said were scraped from the websites of regional chapters of the Ku Klux Klan.
Among them: the names of four United States senators and the mayors of five mid-sized American cities.
In a Pastebin post entitled "Political Figures Involved with the KKK," the hacker wrote, "these are the officials that have political power in the usa that are associated with either kkk or racist related. addresses will not be released so nobody gets it in their mind to take out their own justice against them.... i do not want anybody to easily see this and take criminal action against these racist scum... #Exposed #YouMadBro".
The revelation didn't come out of nowhere: The amorphous hacker collective Anonymous, which had antagonized the Klan through Operation KKK for more than a year, had been claiming for weeks that it would reveal members of the white supremacist group to coincide with its Million Mask March on Thursday.
Yet it was still a shocking assertion, that powerful politicians belonged to America's most notorious hate group, and it quickly found a microphone in liberal blogs, news sites, and on social media.
"Several Republican Senators outed as members of the KKK by Anonymous,"
wrote the Daily Kos.
"Anonymous KKK List Names US Senators, Mayors: Alleged Ku Klux Klan Members Include John Cornyn Of Texas," wrote the International Business Times.
In the following hours, many of the politicians named issued staunch denials. It was quite a sight — elected officials forced to deny their affiliation with the KKK because of a Pastebin page without any specifics or corroboration.
The only problem? The dump had nothing to do with the forthcoming "Operation KKK," as several Anonymous-affiliated accounts tweeted yesterday afternoon:
The blowup highlighted two major problems with dumps and doxxes of this kind: First, anyone can claim association with Anonymous, a faceless and leaderless movement. Second, the personal information gleaned from these kinds of hacks is often highly dubious.
To understand why, it's important to know that this isn't the first Pastebin dump claiming an affiliation with Anonymous that purported to out members of an anathema organization. Over the summer, #OpISIS released a dump of email addresses that it said had been scraped from an ISIS website. It included the email addresses of government officials throughout the Arab world, and one American congressman, Sam Farr, of California. As BuzzFeed reported at the time, many of the email addresses listed were dead or hadn't been in use for years, or were general purpose mailboxes used by several people (or all three, in the case of the Farr email.)
These email addresses, which #OpISIS referred to as an "ISIS Listserv," came from a newsletter signup prompt on an ISIS website. An email address was the only necessary field to sign up for the site. In other words, anyone could sign anyone else for the ISIS site, for any reason.
That seems to be the same methodology behind yesterday's KKK "hack."
The hacker, who goes by Amped Attacks on Twitter, told BuzzFeed News, "Several databases was dumped from different kkk websites that all linked their emails to the politicians in question and the only way their emails would have been on there to begin with is if they showed support when signing up for filled out an application."
The hacker did not produce the email addresses in question.
It bears repeating that anyone can sign anyone else up for a newsletter on the internet, a fact that an Anonymous Twitter account repeated yesterday:
It's good that Anonymous came out against yesterday's fishy dump. But it also underscores the real, and inherent, bind the group is in. Because of its past accomplishments, people take Anonymous seriously. Yet Anonymous's fiercely protected loose and leaderless structure ensures that almost anyone with a computer can claim affiliation with those accomplishments and leverage that reputation into news coverage.
This does more than force public figures to respond to lone-wolf Pastebin attacks. It also undermines the actual work being done by Anonymous, including that forthcoming dump of KKK member information, which the organization claims is authentic.
Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Bernstein reports on and writes about the gaming industry and web culture.
Contact Joseph Bernstein at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.