by Betty and Lara

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 retain 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 lo
ses 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. As Gabriella Coleman of NYU says of Anonymous- “there is no epicenter. There is no membership structure. There is no group structure. It’s a name that people can call into being/ There is a lot of flexibility built into the Anonymous phenomenon.” 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?

The disparities between Wikileaks and Anonymous’s respective organizational structures have given ways for scholars and technologists to start discussing them in very different manners.  Some think that both groups are propagating activism to the digital world. Some say that both are forms of cyberterrorism disguised in the attempts of bettering society.  Some say that Wikileaks still adheres to tradition by ways of organization while Anonymous is revolutionary. And still more say that Anonymous represent the anarchical undertones of virtual culture while Wikileaks upholds their integrity.  It is impossible to come to a formal, general conclusion about the public legitimacy of the two groups because these words regarding “legitimacy” and “intentions” are all dependent on individual subjectivity.  But for the purposes of this travelogue, we tried to explore the characterizations of these two groups within various contexts with some of the people who are deeply educated about
and involved with hacking.

The first topic that came up in our questions was, of course, the issue of legitimacy.   Deanna Zandt, a media technologist said in her article “Legitimate civil disobedience: Wikileaks and the Layers of Backlash,” that she is careful to not dismiss the legitimacy of Anonymous’s DDOS (Direct Denial of Service) attacks because it can be easily considered a form of civil disobedience.  She regards the act as a “sit-in” which is an individually voluntary act.  Since DDOS attacks are not necessarily “hacking,” as in it does not require the removal or alteration of data, Deanna says that it is easier to consider it civil disobedience and activism rather than complete anarchy.  Deanna also brought up a good point when she says that, in some ways, Anonymous is accountable for themselves but only for themselves. In an analogy to real life protest groups, she says of Anonymous, “An anti-war group that sits-in at a recruiting station is accountable to whom? Themselves, certainly. Are they accountable to the entire rest of the anti-war movement?” Most of all, Deanna says that it would be foolish to dismiss Anonymous’s DDOS attacks as a form of cyberterrorism.  She doesn’t condone the participatory individual narratives of the group where unnecessary trolling involving misogyny and debauchery takes place, but she acknowledges that not all of Anonymous participate in acts like that and we, as the public, cannot fail to acknowledge the more important matters the group tackles in favor of sensationalizing the negative.

Nathan Freitas, another technologist who is intellectually involved in the implications of hacktivism says that he cannot even consider hacktivism to be an all-encompassing term to describe everything that Wikileaks and Anonymous do. He says, “Hacktivism is a clunky way of describing the application of this type of thinking to a cause of some sort. You could call people designing posters and banners for a protest as Artivism, or someone speaking at a rally Speechtivism. In general, I think Wikileaks is an entirely different kind of thing than Anonymous. One is an organized project of journalism, the other a social phenomenon.” He describes the organizations in a very similar fashion to that of media anthropologist Gabriella Coleman who says the terms “hacktivist, internet pranksters, hackers, and even vigilantes” do not completely contain the actions and intentions of anonymous.  It is more complicated than that. “Anonymous is a microcosm for the entire continuum of online behavior from its most idealistic to its most nihilistic.”   Professor Coleman says that while Anonymous may have a loose structure in comparison with Wikileaks, it does not necessarily mean that all the actions within the loose structure is unchecked.  She says “Within each network there are certain participants who can allow or disallow certain people. And what happens then is that people go elsewhere and set up their own network. Within a network there are techniques that are used to, quote, unquote, ‘keep people in line.’ When they were engaging in operations in Tunisia, some people were talking about attacking the media. And when you have a swell of people saying, no, no, that’s not what we do, it kind of keeps people in line on that network. So there are forms of control.” By virtue of both Wikileaks and Anonymous being a “network,” both have intrinsic rules of control that, in the case of Anonymous, are not formally announced.
We also attempted to explore the effectiveness of Wikileaks and Anonymous.  Our question was, the end of the day, were these groups achieving what they sought out to correct? At first, we had it in our minds that Wikileaks would ultimately be a more effective organization because of its organized structure and clearly proclaimed goals but the technologists we spoke to had a different take on the matter. These three technology experts seem to think that activism of any kind should be for activism’s sake. That is, the end results do not take precedence over the act of questioning.  What Wikileaks and Anonymous are doing as hacktivist groups is creating “a sense that [hacktivists] are participating in a global stage, where the political stakes of questions of information access, transparency really do matter to the future of democracy.” (Gabriella Coleman)  And as Deanna Zandt writes, “Power dynamics matter. There is a reason that David and Goliath is such a powerful story inWestern culture.”  No matter what sporadic pilfering of the internet some Anonymous members may indulge themselves in, they still collectively play the role of the democratized people analytically observing the world around them and actively participating to not let this world spin too much out of their control.

2 Responses to “Hacks for Lulz”

  1. wasante says:

    Awww. I’m sorry I didn’t get you more information on hackers. In any case, this is still a great travelogue and an impressive effort. I only wonder one particular aspect concerning how Anonymous keeps it’s consistency or it’s general if it lacks any structure and any member (or nonmember) can show up and start all sorts of chaos and deception that might shoot itself in the foot. If you have multiple persons with high level skills, all with a penchant for avoiding any form of authority, then what?

  2. mdeseriis says:

    Dear Lara and Betty, I cannot but agree with Whitney, “this is a great travelogue,” indeed! You have done an excellent job in comparing and contrasting Wikileaks and Anonymous, although I have to say that I agree with Freitas that the two have very little to do with one another, at least from an organization standpoint as Wikileaks is an organization whereas Anonymous is a social phenomenon. Further, the blanket term “hacktivism” does not really help to explain their possible affinities unless we try to define it. Perhaps one way of finding a common denominator between Anonymous and Wikileaks is to go back to the cyber-libertarian motto “information wants to be free.” Both Anonymous and Wikileaks believe in a world where information can circulate with no or minimum restrictions. This is Wikileaks’ ideal of “radical transparency” and is a common denominator of most of Anonymous’ actions–which are frequently in defense of freedom of speech and the freedom to tinker with technology. In this respect, it would have been useful to make a reference to the hacker ethics as we have encountered it in the beginning of the semester and from there to see how this ethos has migrated now to a range of practices that are no longer strictly associated with uses of technology but with a much broader spectrum of cultural and political issues.

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