The simplest definition of hacktivism is that it represents the conjunction of technologically knowledgeable hacking techniques with the values and communicational strategies of political activism. Whilst hacking involves the imaginative and unorthodox use of computers and their systems, hacktivism is the application of those techniques in the pursuit of political agendas frequently associated with new globalized social movements. Behind these initial, relatively clear definitions, however, lie more ambiguous and less easily separated relationships between old-style hacking and its new applications.
Development And Forms
Hacktivism arose in the mid-1990s largely as an attempt to remedy hacking’s innate political limitations that resulted from hackers’ over-identification with the technology. The advent of hacktivism coincided with the increasing number of new social movements seeking to engage with a politics of globalization in which material conditions on the ground in any one place are affected by immaterial, but nonetheless powerful, informational processes. It shares with its predecessor, hacking, an interest in the manipulation and exploration of technological systems. However, in contrast to hacking’s tendency to enjoy these activities for their own sake, hacktivism translates a fixation upon technical means into a diverse range of technologically informed modes of political protest using its expertise with global communications systems.
At the most destructive end of its spectrum, hacktivism may involve methods of electronic vandalism such as computer worms, viruses, trojan horses, email bombs and the defacement of websites. In these actions, the technology is foregrounded. More typically and constructively, however, hacktivism seeks to subordinate the prominence of the technological component in order to raise the profile of its political causes. 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. It is, however, based upon the adaptable and inclusive basic notion of the “hack” (see Taylor 1999, 14 –19; Jordan & Taylor 2004, 5– 9), with which hackers sought to reverse engineer the basic functionality of a range of artifacts (of which computers are merely the most socially significant). This is a new form of hacking in which the technological means are adopted, not as an end in themselves, but in order to promote a political purpose. 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.
Although usually considered separately from hacktivism, culture jamming illustrates the porosity of the definitional boundaries in this field. Drawing upon the French activist tradition of Situationism, it relates to the act of reverse engineering corporate advertising, in effect, hacking semiotic codes rather than those of computers. This link with previous hacking culture is reinforced by the relative simplicity with which powerful effects can be achieved. 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 produces the opposite message to that originally intended. Ron English is one of the most famous guerilla artists who superimposes his own acrylic paintings over a well-known advertisement, e.g. painting a bloated Ronald McDonald on an existing billboard. Other groups include Adbusters and the Billboard Liberation Front. Beyond the still image, some other groups engage in precision targeted satire, whereby various forms of performance are created to promote a subversive message. For example, RTMark is a group that mimics a conventional stock exchange except it promotes investment in subversive activities, while 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 are two groups that 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 its greater access to information. For example, Apple Computers was largely founded upon a desire to bring computing power to the masses. While this strand of the early politics of information-for-all has been superseded by the commercial pressures that have made Apple Computers a highly successful global corporation, it remains a feature of hacktivism’s network politics.
In political and legal terms the line between hacktivism as legal activism and as illegal vandalism tends to lie in the eye of the beholder. Hacktivist protests against large multinationals tend to be received well when they are based on satire or nondestructive methods, but activists who are prepared to disrupt the Internet connectivity of others are viewed much less charitably by those labeled the digitally correct (see below). As with their forebears, hackers, who became increasingly subject to moral judgment and legislative action (see Taylor 1999), hacktivists have also tend to evolve along with society’s growing dependence upon the technological systems and informational resources being disrupted.
The Politics Of Information
While a major strength of hacking is the ease and familiarity with which it manipulates information, the history of the activity suggests that both the notion of free access to information and the “kick” that derives from technological ingenuity all too often became ends in themselves. A perceived political limitation of the original hacker movement was its failure to make the most political capital out of its unrivalled familiarity with informational networks. For a period of time, hacking was arguably hamstrung by its tendency to identify too closely with the technical means of communication over the purpose of the communication itself – it fetishized the medium over the message. There are strong grounds to suggest that hacktivism has successfully compensated for hacking’s frequent lack of a political perspective. It has married computing expertise with ingenious manipulations of various forms of the mass media in order to create its own political discourse. However, the hacker tendency to over-rely on the technological means continues within hacktivism. The disputed relative importance of the role played by technology within hacktivist actions gives rise to the competing strands of mass action and digitally correct hacktivism.
Mass action hacktivism emulates traditional forms of protest and applies 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. Digitally correct hacktivism, by contrast, uses the technical features of cyberspace to amplify its message without disrupting the communicational potential of the Internet itself – the technological means are not subordinated by the desired social ends. 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. Ricardo Dominguez of EDT, for example, uses the pejorative term “digitally correct” to accuse certain activist groups of being more concerned about digital rights and the maintenance of bandwidth than with the human rights of those suffering in the offline world (Jordan & Taylor 2004, 91).
Incorporation By The System
While it is clear that hacktivists are more overtly political than their hacking forebears, they share with hackers a potentially problematic relationship with the system they are seeking to manipulate. An accusation made against hackers is that they are parasitical upon the health of the technological systems on which they depend for the site of their playful explorations, and that this dependency has continued into hacktivism with the rise of the digitally correct. Beyond the question of the basic nature of the relationship with the technical infrastructure, however, is a larger question about the likelihood of successfully using media technologies to undermine the values of a society largely constituted by those same media.
Just as the original maverick hackers were ultimately recuperated as microserfs (see Douglas Coupland’s novel of the same name) into Microsoft’s corporate system, so hacktivists are faced with the problem of maintaining their critical, radical edge in their use of the artifacts and systems for political purposes. For example, insofar as hacktivism uses the techniques of satire and culture jamming, their efforts to re-engineer are themselves vulnerable to re-engineering by the system they oppose. Satire and culture jamming can themselves be co-opted and translated into the edgy pastiche that is frequently the raw material for sophisticated corporate advertising, making it unclear as to whether any critical political point is in fact being made.
In For a critique of the 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 has become 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 (such as the “funny” or add-on item within a news program). The net effect may actually be reduction in political content as it is translated into images and stories for the media’s own particular forms of discourse.
We have seen that there is an innate difficulty faced first by hacking and then by hacktivism in their desire to reverse engineer either systems that are purely technological or that are a complex imbrication of the social and the technical. There is a tendency for actions that seek to subvert the technological and media systems to be re-absorbed back into the system. There is a growing consensus among communication theorists that the new global informational order creates a pervasive environment outside of which it is extremely difficult to step. Arguing that hackers occupy an inevitably parasitic position, Gunkel (2001, 5) asserts that “The parasite occupies a structurally unique position that is neither simply inside nor simply outside. It is the outside in the inside and the inside outside itself.” Similarly, in the context of hacktivism and social movements, Hardt and Negri (2000, 46) describe global capitalism in terms of an empire and argue that “We should be done once and for all with the search for an outside, a standpoint that imagines a purity for our politics. It is better both theoretically and practically to enter the terrain of Empire and confront its homogenizing and heterogenizing flows in all their complexity, grounding our analysis in the power of the global multitude.” Compared to hacking, hacktivism is much better suited to answering Hardt and Negri’s call but its ultimate ability to achieve this aim remains open to question.
- Baudrillard, J. (1981). For a critique of the political economy of the sign. St Louis, MO: Telos.
- Boorstin, D. (1992). The image. New York: Vintage.
- Coupland, D. (2005). Microserfs. New York: Flamingo.
- Gunkel, D. (2001). Hacking cyberspace. Boulder, CO: Westview.
- Hardt, M., & Negri, A. (2000). Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Jordan, T., & Taylor, P. (2004). Hacktivism: Rebels with a cause? London: Routledge.
- Taylor, P. (1999). Hackers: Crime in the digital sublime. London: Routledge.