Hacktivists is the term used to describe those who engage in hacktivism – acts that combine technologically knowledgeable hacking techniques with the values and communicational strategies of political activism.
From its initial origins as a term used to describe the imaginative re-engineering of any technology, hacking has come to be specifically associated with the imaginative and unorthodox use of computers and their systems. Hacktivists derive their name from the way in which they apply hacking techniques to the pursuit of political agendas frequently associated with new globalized social movements.
The line between a positive view of hacktivism as legal activism and a negative characterization as illegal vandalism, (or in more recent years – cyberterrorism) tends to be an amorphous one depending upon the political complexion of the beholder.
Hacktivism appeared in the mid 1990s as a politically orientated response to hackers’ alleged over-identification with computer technology for its own sake rather than the more outwardly looking social purposes it could be used to serve. Hacktivists create innovative nontraditional forms of politics for an increasingly globalized world – a world in which material conditions on the ground are over-determined by immaterial, but nonetheless powerful, informational processes.
In its most destructive forms, hacktivists may engage in acts of electronic vandalism such as computer worms, viruses, trojan horses, e-mail bombs and the defacement of web sites. In these actions, the technology is foregrounded. More constructively, hacktivists subordinate the technological component of their activities in order to raise the profile of their overarching political aims. Tactical media refers to the attitude of ingenuity hacktivism applies to the media in order to produce actions that have a wider, social and political impact than are normally seen within hacking.
Examples of such actions include:
Virtual sit-ins and denial of service (DOS) attacks – as part of an ethos known as electronic civil disobedience, the purpose is to replicate in cyberspace the physical presence of a large number of politically motivated people. The Electronic Disturbance Theatre (EDT) group originally developed a project called Floodnet which depended upon a concerted mass effort to request web pages in order to overload the computer servers of specifically targeted organizations. In later versions the process has become more automated.
Culture jamming – although usually considered separate from hacktivism, culture jamming draws upon French Situationism, to reverse engineer corporate advertising – in effect, hacking semiotic codes rather than computers. For example, huge advertising budgets and designs can be undermined by billboard protestors armed with nothing more than ladders and spray cans. In a form of semiotic aikido, a few well-chosen additions or blacking outs with a spray-can uses the power of corporate advertising to produce the opposite message to that originally intended. Other groups include Adbusters and the Billboard Liberation Front. Other groups engage in precision-targeted satire, whereby various forms of performance are created to promote a subversive message. For example, the group RTMark mimics a conventional stock exchange – except it promotes investment in subversive activities. Likewise, The Yes Men have targeted organizations such as the World Trade Organization with tongue-in-cheek presentations at formal gatherings in order to satirize their free-market values.
Open source and free software – various groups seek to undermine capitalist values by creating software that does not follow the frameworks of conventional proprietary rights. Software is produced on the basis of a collective effort and made freely available to all users. In the early days of hacking, computers were viewed as an essential tool for empowering the citizenry of heavily technologized societies by encouraging their greater access to information. Hacktivists still subscribe to this philosophy.
Mass action hacktivists – emulate traditional forms of protest and apply them within cyberspace. Electronic civil disobedience, for example, seeks to involve large numbers of people who carry out acts that are technically simple but which derive their strength from the sheer weight of numbers involved. In a mass action denial-of-service attack, for example, large numbers of people seek to crash computer servers by simultaneously requesting information from a targeted site. Mass action hacktivism is technically inelegant, but its deliberately simple, manual nature means that it is good at encouraging active political involvement. It creates networks of coordinated people rather than more sophisticated technical techniques that may achieve the same end but involve less people.
Although originally portrayed as pioneering mavericks, hackers were ultimately recuperated back into the capitalist system as microserfs (see Douglas Coupland’s 2005 novel of the same name) into Microsoft’s corporate system. Similarly, Hacktivists are faced with the problem of maintaining a critical, radical distance from the artefacts and systems they seek to use for political purposes. Their re-engineering efforts are themselves vulnerable to further re-engineering by the capitalist cultural system they wish to undermine. Satire and culture jamming can themselves be co-opted and translated into the edgy pastiche that frequently provides the raw material for yet more sophisticated corporate advertising.
In his For a Critique of a Political Economy of the Sign (1981) Jean Baudrillard refers to “the mortal dose of publicity” that tends to accompany events designed to make an impact within the media. Like Daniel Boorstin’s (1992) notion of a pseudo-event, Baudrillard’s interpretation is that creating “real” political events is increasingly difficult because events reported within the media event contain their own particular grammar. Rather than promoting political action, publicity stunts designed to create a media stir tend to be processed according to the media’s own internal logic. The risk hacktivists constantly face is that their overtly political acts are translated into images and stories designed to suit the media’s own particular and preferred forms of discourse.
SEE ALSO: Anti-Capitalism; Autonomist Social Movements; Globalization.
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