Hacktivism (Global)

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Hacktivism 🌍
World map.png
Location: Global
Definition: The commission of computer crimes to further political or social ends
Keywords: Global Data Computer networks Activism Cyberinformality Internet
Clusters: Solidarity Normative ambivalence Non-conformity Resistance
Author: Alex Gekker
Affiliation: Department of Media and Culture, University of Amsterdam, Netherlands
Website: Profile page at UVA

By Alex Gekker, Department of Media and Culture, University of Amsterdam, Netherlands

Hacktivism is a portmanteau word of hacking and activism. It builds on the notion of the hacker as a creative tinkerer and disruptor of technology (Rheingold 2000[1]). The definition rose to prominence in the early 2000s. In an influential book chapter, Dorothy Denning defined hacktivism as ‘the marriage of hacking and activism. It covers operations that use hacking techniques against a target’s Internet site with the intent of disrupting normal operations but not causing serious damage. Examples are web sit-ins and virtual blockades, automated email bombs, web hacks, computer break-ins, and computer viruses and worms.’ (Denning 2001, 241[2]). This definition has since been rendered somewhat obsolete, due to the proliferation of electronically mediated communications and the changes in velocity and volume of such communicated acts (Castells 2006[3]).

Mediatization theory looks at the institutionalised changes that media enacts as it becomes embedded in actions of everyday life (Couldry and Hepp 2013[4]). Politics and political participation is at the forefront of such changes. A process that can be traced to the early era of mass communication and the formation of public opinion (Anderson 1983[5]), it has profoundly changed the ways of political participation in the digital age. Hacktivism is the logical application of mediatized political action to the world of participatory social media and ‘always-on’ connectivity: a way to engage and challenge political and commercial institutions through toolsets and practices corresponding with users’ habitual web activities.

Media institutions and media activities become entangled with other spheres of life, in a way that reciprocally alters both (Schulz 2004[6]). Popular examples are the change in length and structure of political speeches to accommodate the televised political spectacle; the focus on the personal over the professional; the idea of political consumerism, where life choices and ideologies are wrapped together with certain purchasing habits, as in buying free-range food, or boycotting products associated with organisations or values one dislikes (Brants and Voltmer 2011[7]; De Beus 2011[8]). Simultaneously, a record low level of trust in traditional political and economic institutions is registered, prompting citizens to look for new forms of participation and expression. These alternative actions can, for instance, be seen in the creation of crypto-currencies and the Occupy movement. The resulting space of expressive political consumerism is the breeding ground for hacktivism in its current form.

The Anonymous collective has popularised the term and many associated practices. Born from the ‘4Chan’ image boards website – and specifically the infamous ‘/b/ thread’ (Herwig 2011[9]) - Anonymous resists definitions. Even the name itself is tongue-in-cheek, reflecting the default mode of displaying messages on the boards; no registration or sign-in is possible, and thus each post is defaulted to an ‘Anonymous’ user. Consistent self-identification is discouraged and even frowned upon and thus the majority of communication occurs between unknown numbers of users lacking any identifying signs.

This somewhat schizophrenic form of non-identification lies at the foundation of Anonymous as political actors and hacktivists. The movement claims to be leaderless and non-hierarchical, where everyone can join by simply proclaiming himself or herself part of Anonymous. Ethnographer Gabriela Coleman notes how such decentralised ethos of action is rooted also in the technological platforms they use for hacktivism (Coleman 2014[10]). Hacktivism is thus an inherently tiered phenomenon, encompassing a wide variety of potential actions and skills (Fuchs 2014[11]). As with many terms associated with Anonymous, the precise meaning and the extent of the actions that fall under the term are disputed.

At the lower technical end of the spectrum, activists use social media to pressure or ‘shame’ public figures and institutions. Often this is done by way of subversion, highlighting the clumsiness of traditional institutions when attempting to engage with the widely-open contemporary media platforms. In a famous example, the New York Police Department asked the public to share images on Twitter under the #myNYPD hashtag in order to highlight the community work undertaken by the police in the city. Instead, several activists led a ‘hashtag hijacking’, posting images of police violence towards protesters and minorities, which resulted in ever more citizens posting unflattering images of the police (BBC Technology 2014[12]). Other similar actions that can be roughly grouped in this category include subscribing the target to unwanted mailing lists, or filling the target’s social media presence with obscene or distracting material. The unifying characteristic of these actions is the lack of reliance on technical prowess (thus rendering the ‘hack’ prefix somewhat oxymoronic). All it takes to achieve these actions is a loose consensus on the target’s identity and the ability to coordinate (Coleman 2014[13]).

A more demanding technical practice is the coordinated attack and defamation of a target’s website and/or social media profile including publishing personal information about the target (a practice known as doxing). The most common example of this is the Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack, where multiple computers bombard the target’s IP(s) with non-stop traffic, causing it to slow down or to become completely unavailable. Anonymous has popularised DDoS attacks through the release of such tools as the ‘Low Orbit Ion Canon’ (LOIC), which allows a user to subscribe their computer to an ongoing attack without any prior technical knowledge (Gallagher 2012[14]). Like many other hacktivist tools and techniques associated with Anonymous, LOIC’s name is drawn from popular internet culture, thus giving the somewhat banal act of using basic disruption technique an aura of grandeur and adventure. This spirit of ludic (playful) political engagement is a characteristic of hacktivist collectives, who draw their inspiration from groups such as the Dadaist, the Yes Man, Spaßguerilla and the Flux collectives (Fuchs 2014[15]), famous for using absurdist and carnivalesque methods for political action.

At the highest technical tier of hacktivist activities, actual hacking (as in, unauthorised access of privileged computer data) takes place. These techniques are not different technologically from any other computer hacking. The tools and skills used to hack a cache of credit card data is the same, regardless of whether it is done by Anonymous or a criminal organisation. The difference is in the motivation; the intent of hacktivists most commonly is to publically release the data in order to embarrass or pressure their target. Even in this environment, the playful and mocking tone often remains. For example, LulzSec was a small group of hackers, loosely affiliated with the Anonomous brand, who were responsible for a few high-profile ideologically motivated attacks on corporate websites and databases, such as defacing the US Public Broadcast Service (PBS) website in response to an unfavourable documentary about WikiLeaks (Poulsen 2011[16]). However, since such types of activities require coordination between a small group of highly-skilled individuals, it is far easier for the authorities to understand and circumvent through traditional law enforcement than mass distributed low-skill action (Lee 2011[17]). Thus, although the high-profile hacks of major organisations attract attention, the hacktivists carrying out the action are often caught and prosecuted, as occurred in the cases of LulzSec and its offspring AntiSec (Coleman 2014[18]).

Overall, hacktivism proves that despite the participatory promises of some new media evangelists, the skills levels and technological proficiencies of users still very much limit their possible roles in constitutive political action. The difficulty of defining the scope of hacktivism and defining what kinds of actions it includes creates issues for both researchers and activists. For instance, the oft-repeated critique of ‘slacktivism’ accuses web-activists of low-effort, low-risk type of undertakings that rarely result in actual change. Yet, as can be seen in the brief typology drawn above, some types of hacktivist action is successful in spite of the minimal demands of individual members, simply by virtue of mass coordination; whereas in other cases, activists pay a heavy personal price for their actions. As the (mobile) web increasingly integrates into the daily lives of millions, resulting in a hybrid reality of the physical and digital entwined (de Souza e Silva 2006[19]), we can expect hacktivism to become an even more potent tool in the activists’ playbook.


  1. Rheingold, H. 2000. The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  2. Denning, D. E. 2001. 'Activism, Hacktivism, and Cyberterrorism: The Internet as a Tool for Influencing Foreign Policy', In J. Arquilla and D. Ronfeldt (eds.), Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy, RAND: 239–88.
  3. Castells, M. 2006. 'Communication, Power and Counter-Power in the Network Society.' International Journal of Communication 1 (1): 238–266.
  4. Couldry, N., and Hepp, A. 2013. 'Conceptualizing Mediatization: Contexts, Traditions, Arguments.' Communication Theory 23 (3): 191–202. doi:10.1111/comt.12019.
  5. Anderson, B. 1983. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.
  6. Schulz, W. 2004. 'Reconstructing Mediatization as an Analytical Concept', European Journal of Communication 19 (1): 87–101. doi:10.1177/0267323104040696.
  7. Brants, K. and Voltmer K. (eds.) 2011. Political Communication in Postmodern Democracy: Challenging the Primacy of Politics. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.
  8. De Beus, J. 2011. 'Audience Democracy: An Emerging Pattern in Postmodern Political Communication', In Brants, K. and Voltmer, K. (eds.) Political Communication in Postmodern Democracy: Challenging the Primacy of Politics. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan: 19–38.
  9. Herwig, J. 2011. 'The Archive as the Repertoire: Mediated and Embodied Practice on Imageboard 4chan. Org.' Minds and Matter: Paraflows 10 Symposius. http://homepage.univie.ac.at/jana.herwig/PDF/Herwig_Jana_4chan_Archive_Repertoire_2011.pdf.
  10. Coleman, G. 2014. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. 1 edition. London ; New York: Verso.
  11. Fuchs, C. 2014. 'Hacktivism and Contemporary Politics', In D. Trottier and C. Fuchs (eds.), Social Media, Politics and the State: Protests, Revolutions, Riots, Crime and Policing in the Age of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. New York: Routledge: 88–106.
  12. BBC Technology. 2014. 'NYPD Twitter Campaign ‘Backfires’ after Hashtag Hijacked', BBC News. April 23. http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-27126041.
  13. Coleman, G. 2014. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. 1 edition. London ; New York: Verso.
  14. Gallagher, S. 2012. 'High Orbits and Slowlorises: Understanding the Anonymous Attack Tools.' Ars Technica, February 17. http://arstechnica.com/business/news/2012/02/high-orbits-and-slowlorises-understanding-the-anonymous-attack-tools.ars.
  15. Fuchs, C. 2014. 'Hacktivism and Contemporary Politics', In D. Trottier and C. Fuchs (eds.), Social Media, Politics and the State: Protests, Revolutions, Riots, Crime and Policing in the Age of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. New York: Routledge: 88–106.
  16. Poulsen, K. 2011. 'Hacktivists Scorch PBS in Retaliation for WikiLeaks Documentary.' WIRED. May 30. https://www.wired.com/2011/05/lulzsec/.
  17. Lee, T. B. 2011. 'LulzSec Spokesman in Court after Police Find 750k Passwords on His PC.' Ars Technica, August. http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2011/08/lulzsec-spokesman-in-court-after-police-find-750k-passwords-on-his-pc.ars.
  18. Coleman, G. 2014. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. 1 edition. London ; New York: Verso.
  19. de Souza e Silva, A. 2006. 'From Cyber to Hybrid: Mobile Technologies as Interfaces of Hybrid Spaces.' Space and Culture 9: 261–278.

Further reading

  1. Rogers, R. 2009. 'Post-Demographic Machines.' In A. Dekker and A. Wolfsberger (eds.), Walled Garden. Amsterdam: Virtueel Platform.