5 Shadowy Secret Societies of the Internet & Beyond
By Debra Kelly, Urban Ghosts Media, 7 September 2015.
By Debra Kelly, Urban Ghosts Media, 7 September 2015.
Most of us use the internet every day, whether we’re checking emails, catching up on the latest news (and gossip), or looking for something a little more obscure, like the classified tombs of top secret aircraft or the world’s most amazing lost underwater cities. But what happens when you get a cryptic message through Facebook from someone claiming to be from a secret society, or stumble across something from the dark side of the web? It’s not entirely impossible - there are plenty of secret societies out there, existing in the shadows of the internet and on college campuses. You just have to wait for them to find you - or prove that you’re worthy. This article examines a selection of secretive online groups and forums, as well as a bizarre offline secret society comprised of some of the world’s most influential men.
1. New York University’s Eucleian Society
Image: via Wikipedia
For Matt King, who wrote of his experiences for The Atlantic, it all started with a Facebook message from someone named Ernest Howard Crosby. Crosby, however, was long-dead and his picture was an old image seemingly from the time of the Civil War. They were interested in him, the message said - all he needed to do was take the initiative.
King was led to what looked like a page from a 1930s political campaign, and was asked to fill out a series of online forms. He did - and he also searched school records for the so-called Eucleian Society. Supposedly it had begun the same year as NYU, and it had disappeared in 1942. He found that it hadn’t quite disappeared but had gone deep underground, taking the ‘secret’ part of the term ‘secret society’ far more seriously than many groups of the time.
When King responded, further correspondence arrived through email, where he was instructed to choose a name for himself, set up a separate society email account, and do his research. The secret society was linked to Edgar Allan Poe, selecting its raven mascot from his work and because of his stint as a guest lecturer at the college. What followed was a weird set of often drunken, often misogynistic emails, and in between, members were given tasks on various committees and as community volunteers.
The bizarre correspondence continued for several months before they met in person, to be introduced by first names only to their middle-aged leaders. Those leaders, it was revealed, were trying to bring back the society. Unlikely stories were told, and dues were requested - hundreds of dollars in dues. When King headed to Europe and largely retreated from the society, he found that one day, his log-in information was disabled and he’d been phased out.
What the Eucleian Society really, truly was, he admits he doesn’t know. Was it a real secret society? Was it a front to prey on the young and the ambitious? We don’t know. But with the anonymity of the internet, the secret identities of shadowy cabals and their members can be even more difficult to crack.
2. Anonymous and the Peoples Liberation Front
Image: Vincent Diamante; Anonymous members wearing Guy Fawkes masks.
It’s virtually impossible not to be aware of Anonymous - as a group, at least. Yet most of their members have maintained their hidden identities, and it was only recently that the arrest of Christopher Doyon - code-named Commander X - brought more of the history of the hacktivist group to light. Perhaps surprisingly, it pre-dates even Netscape Navigator by years.
Doyon was reportedly incarcerated when Netscape was released, convicted of drug charges after selling acid to an undercover agent at a Grateful Dead gig. Selling LSD at concerts had helped support the hacktivist group launched by Doyon and several others in the 1980s, known as the Peoples Liberation Front. Seeing themselves as an “electronic militia,” Doyon watched from jail as hackers went from organizing rallies and shouting into bullhorns to using their computers to take down websites. For Doyon, who had grown up talking to people through a CB radio club, the potential was immense.
It wasn’t long before a 15-year-old Christopher Poole started 4chan, a forum for anime fans that quickly widened, all under the protection of anonymity. One of the forums, /b/, took on a life of its own, and users began referring to “Anonymous” as an independent entity. Over the next few years, they started a weird mix of righteous crusading to low-brow trolling.
The society’s first target as a collective was Scientology. When the church asked Gawker to remove a copyrighted video of Tom Cruise, Anonymous targeted them with everything from ordering hundreds of pizzas and having them delivered to Scientology churches, to shutting down their website.
Doyon and his Peoples Liberation Front started monitoring the activities of Anonymous, ultimately joining forces to take down the website of Santa Cruz County, California. The resulting partnership, tenuous at best, kicked off a saga of protests, hacks and cyber-attacks organized by a massive online secret society that anyone can join.
3. Cicada 3301, Marcus Wanner and Brood b.0h
Image: via Wikipedia; the logo of Cicada 3301.
Few internet puzzles have captured the world’s attention like Cicada 3301. Beginning in January 2012 with a cryptic and now infamous message posted on the boards of 4chan, countless people have tried their hand at solving the puzzles and following the trail of bread crumbs to whatever shadowy, secretive mastermind is behind them. No one knows for sure how many people have solved the puzzles and been accepted into the society, and only one person who’s been in has come to the surface again to speak of what he found there - Marcus Wanner.
Wanner was 15-years-old when he and his #decipher team solved puzzle after puzzle, from book ciphers to secret messages written in Mayan numerals. After completing a questionnaire that served to assure Cicada 3301 that his ideals were in line with the group’s, he was allowed into the darknet.
The shadowy side of the internet, the darknet was the perfect place for the secret society to live. It was there that Wanner was told that he and the others who had solved that year’s puzzle were initiated into what was called Brood b.0h. Within 3301 were independent cells, called broods in reference to the life cycles of the cicada, and they were all working on secret projects. No one knew what the other groups were up to, just that there was a whole secret society dedicated to preserving individual liberties on the internet, and making sure privacy was always an option.
Wanner’s group was assigned the task of creating some kind of software to further the cabal’s mission. They chose CAKES, the Cicada Anonymous Key Escrow System, which could be used to automatically release sensitive data to the internet should a whistle-blower be inactive for a certain amount of time.
Their project was said to never have been finished, as team members wandered off one at a time. Wanner was ultimately the last one left on the project, and in spite of assurances that there were new members being recruited, he found his darknet site simply gone one day.
Puzzles continued to pop-up, but Wanner never heard from Cicada 3301 again. He wasn’t sure why, and there’s a lot that was kept secret even from him. Exactly who was behind Cicada 3301, their true motives, their other plans, their other projects…even members aren’t sure.
4. The Intranet of Starship Titanic
Sci-fi fans will remember Starship Titanic. Idea by Douglas Adams, book by Terry Jones, and a game with voices from the likes of John Cleese. The origins of the Starship Titanic stemmed from an off-hand mention in Life, the Universe and Everything, which would grow into the full-fledged story and – bizarrely - give rise to a weird society accessed through a back door of the official website, uncovered during Kotaku UK’s interview with Digital Village designer Yoz Grahame.
Sitting behind the official website was a hidden forum, originally designed as a read-only site where visitors could check out the interactions of the ship’s Senior Management. Grahame also added a regular forum where the fictional ship’s equally fictional, non-senior staff could hang out. He made the most basic forum he could, and left it at that.
When people signed up for updates, they received an email from the website stating that with much demand from Starship Titanic’s employees, a private intranet had been set up. The email contained what was supposedly a “level 6 secure password,” and immediately afterwards, people got another email apologising for the leak, and assuring them that Dave Stevedave was now only responsible for emptying the bilges.
If we know anything about human nature, it’s that when we’re told not to look at something, we automatically do. Those that did found the hidden forum that Grahame had created, and when he happened to look back at it some six months after the emails started going out, he found tens of thousands of messages, all posted by users who had created their own community of Starship Titanic employees and spawned an extension of the game itself. People were role-playing stories worthy of Douglas Adams’ lost works, from getting sucked back to the moment of the Big Bang and finding a burger bar to the divorce of a two-headed minor employee.
Grahame likened it to forgetting some vegetables in the fridge, then looking to find they had developed their own civilisation. The community lasted way beyond the playability of the game, and it’s still there…if you know where to look. Insider Tip: it’s at starlightlines.net, and although it’s sadly empty, Grahame is keeping it going.
5. Bohemian Grove
Image: Owen Lloyd
Now for our token offline group, a truly bizarre cabal indulging in what must be one of the world’s weirdest camping trips. With a few exceptions - like the fun Starship Titanic group - many of the shadowy groups we’ve looked at here (and in our previous feature on some of history’s most obscure (offline) secret societies) have fallen into one of two categories. On one hand, there are secret societies comprised of the custodians of hidden knowledge or mysticism, whose esoteric purpose - according to conspiracy theorists - is the pursuit of power. On the other, there are groups working to take those powers away, or at least reign them in. But in few cabals do these two tenets intersect more potently than Bohemian Grove.
Located about 75 miles north of San Francisco stands 2,700 acres of redwood forest, a man-made lake, and more than 100 camps. The initiation fee is around US$25,000 (not including annual dues), and would-be initiates should ideally meet several unwritten requirements to have any great hope of getting into the club: being male, being powerful, and being Republican. The membership is filled with impressive names, from Dwight D. Eisenhower, Henry Kissinger and Walter Cronkite to Clint Eastwood, Jack London and Theodore Roosevelt.
They take their security seriously. Most of what we know of the recent ceremonies and goings-on there came thanks to Alex Shoumatoff, a Vanity Fair writer who was arrested for his infiltration of the high-and-mighty camping trip. When rumours began circulating that they were going to start logging the old forest, Vanity Fair was asked by a club member to run an expose.
According to Sonoma State University sociologist Peter Phillips, Bohemian Grove is nothing short of a “global dominance group,” 2,500 strong, of a certain ethnicity, wealth and belief system. Even though it’s generally said that policies and agendas are left at the door, it’s also said that the Manhattan Project got its start there, and when Gerald Ford was at the Grove, he found that one employee was a rather polite ex-Nazi whose jeep still bore a swastika. Nixon’s bid for the White House, it’s said, began in earnest with his speech there, and who knows how many other global affairs got their start among the redwoods of California.
Shoumatoff’s glimpse inside the camp was an intriguing one, but we still don’t know all of what goes on behind the figurative closed doors of Bohemian Grove - doors that, for the vast majority of Americans, will remain firmly closed.
Top image: Anonymous. Credit: Mattia Notari - Foto/Flickr.
[Source: Urban Ghosts Media. Edited.]