Before beginning to analyze Wikileaks and Anonymous group and question whether or not their respective activities qualify as hacktivism, it is important to have a clear understanding of what a hacker is. Nathan Freitas, a mobile technology enthusiast and expert in social activism using technology defines hacking as “a standalone apolitical activity focused on attaining knowledge and developing skill. The act of hacking is no different than tinkering, exploring, practicing karate or even playing in a jam session.” Held together by commonly held ambitions towards freedom, privacy and access, there is nothing inherently illegal about hacker activities. Marco Deseriis’ analysis of the network narrative does important work when applied to hacker culture. When a network lacks the hierarchical structure of the traditional organization, it must be held together by a set of narratives. We must understand that the inherent nature of the internet blurs the boundaries between traditionally static concepts of authorship, readership, narration, etc. Thus, the narrative allows for the redistribution of authority in a networked environment. While the narrative can be understood as a landscape with predefined sets of ethics, rules, and codes of conduct, the very identity of the network allows for a “second orality” in which the reader can assume control of the narrative. Applied to hacker culture, hackers functioning within a network narrative get authority through their redefinement of software. Deseriis writes, “When a reader discovers unforeseen and creative ways of reading a story, she begins to cross over to an authorial position.”
On the same plane, hacktivists use methods of computer hacking to call for social and political activist actions. What is hotly debated, however, is whether or not both (or either) of these entities can be considered hacktivist groups. Can their actions be considered a legitimate form of political activism employing tactics of civil disobedience in a demand for change, or are their techniques illegal and destructive?
The Wikileaks organization is a highly identifiable group with a public figurehead (Julian Assange) whose purpose is to make classified and secret information available to the public with the goal of revealing government and corporate corruption and fostering transparency. The organization has been responsible for the leaking of sensitive information. In 2006, Wikileaks exposed a document that showed the decision to assassinate government officials signed by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys. In 2009, Wikileaks released a number of telephone recordings of Peruvian politicians and businessmen involved in the 2008 Peru oil scandal. On the other hand, Anonymous is a highly amorphous group. They seem to be an aggregate of individuals whose actions are driven not only by commitment to transparency and freedom but by sheer pleasure. Gabriella Coleman describes Anonymous’ ways of functioning as a “democratic free for all, there is no moderation. Brute force is the logic under which something gets popular”. On one side of the spectrum, they have claimed responsibility for the HBGary takedowns and distributed denial of service (DDoS) against PayPal and Mastercard, but they are also the creators of Lolcats and were responsible for the pranking of a Justin Bieber contest. In an interview on CBC radio, Coleman made an interesting remark that ties the two groups together. In her opinion, both groups depend on the mainstream media to be effective. In the case of Wikileaks, Julian Assange has become an internationally known figurehead who drives media attention. For Anonymous, the relationship to the media is more complex. Coleman argued that DDoS attacks and the simple act of crashing a system does not necessarily help Anonymous to reach its goals (freedom, transparency, access, etc.). Rather it is by gaining the attention of the media that the group can attain a national platform.
Keeping in mind the boundaries defined for hacktivism in relation to its purpose as a redefined network narrative, our discussion of Wikileaks and Anonymous leads to a discussion of the respective groups’ legitimacy. As Marco Deseris states in his paper, a network narrative should “allow[s] for the transmission of a set of rules, an ethics, or a system of beliefs that resonate with the nodes of the network to which it is addressed.” When the act of reappropriating authored narratives into a new hacker framework occurs, the boundaries of the new network narrative retains the boundaries of set ethics and rules, albeit a remixed version of the original. That means that this new narrative should ideally take on a general linear form with the purposes of achieving the ultimate end goal. Hacktivism, by virtue of its own definition, is hacking for a cause and it is primarily in this defined sense that we can begin to respect hacktivism as a legitimate form of civil disobedience.
When hacktivism loses its’ linear sense of narrative, we can begin to question the legitimacy of the actions undertaken in the name of the group. But just because an act on cyberspace is attributed to a hacktivist group’s goals and efforts does not mean that the ultimate doctrine of the group supports it. The groups Wikileaks and Anonymous perfectly represent both spectrums of hacktivist groups with network narratives that either have free input from participating members or groups that stay immediately responsible for their actions by adhering to a primary principle.
As previously mentioned, Wikileaks and Anonymous are both loosely characterized as hacktivist groups. But the structural organizations of the respective groups are very different. Wikileaks is a strictly organized assembly with a clear public figure and authority figure: Julian Assange. They have many contributing members, all of whom are anonymous and protected by the organization, but all of whom are ultimately filtered in their participation to the group’s public activities by figureheads. This means that Wikileaks is able to maintain their linear narrative. Even though Wikileaks changes authorship of the original cyber manuscript, the organization makes it hard for further interior redirections of their story. Because of their distinct collective goal for transparency of information, Wikileaks, as an organization, is therefore acknowledging their responsibility to adhere to that goal and become liable for any cyber actions they may make to progress through that goal. They become especially prone to direct criticism as well as recognition for their various acts. But while there is increased liability on their part, that sense of responsibility the group has for their actions legitimizes their activism to a degree. The public’s perception of their willingness to stick to their agenda indicates that their agenda has significance in the public realm.
On the other hand, Anonymous is a loosely organized group with a shared “anonymous” identity. There is no rigid structure to the organization. Members gather from all corners of the internet through online forums and message boards. Anonymous, in the broadest sense, represents the concept of all people coming together in an unnamed collective. All members take on this uninhibited identity but their actions do not necessarily correlate to a single collective goal. Unlike Wikileaks, there is no doctrine to which the members adhere. Members can act sporadically, fragmenting the linear narrative of the group to a set of personal narratives in which each individual member has authoritative status. In other words, Anonymous members are “in a game whose initial rules are loosely set by the group but whose actual development is determined by the users themselves.” With this in mind, if there is no specific figurehead or leader in Anonymous, should events that occur sporadically be blamed on the collective? There is no authoritative figure or governing group that can determine which actions are acceptable to actually carry out and which actions are representative of the common goal. In this sense, Anonymous, as a group, is harder for the public to understand because the group is not directly responsible for all the actions of the individual members. Anonymous is therefore often criticized for anarchy without responsibility and their members characterized as “chaos enthusiasts”. Many of Anonymous’s attacks are not politically motivated at all. That is, these hacktivist attacks lack the very essence of activism. Members are instead doing these for the “lolz.” With a lack of group responsibility, can Anonymous’s acts be considered legitimate? And if it’s not legal, can it at least be a relevant form of civil disobedience?