Our first task will be to try to pin down a contemporary definition of hacktivism, seeking, where possible, to distinguish it from political activism in cyberspace, cyberterrorism, and cyber warfare. We will rely on scholarly accounts, cyber manifestos, published chats, and original interviews.*

We will look at groups that have historically sought to pursue their political agenda through what Jordan and Taylor have called ‘mass action hacktivism,’ frequently activities that mimic traditional modes of resistance (the sit-in, defacement, etc.) in the cyber spatial realm. On this subject, the Electrohippies wrote:

“What we’re all about is bringing community accountability to the internet…We have to treat cyberspace as if it were another part of society. Therefore, we must find mechanisms for lobbying and protest in cyberspace to complement those normally used in real life. Without public pressure cyberspace will have no moral or normative controls to control the excesses of politicians, groups or corporations who would seek to dominate that public space.”

We will be particularly attuned to the ethical challenges posed by disembodied agents acting against embodied power structures. Members of the Electrohippies were quick to point out the danger of using a technology that has the capacity to magnify the efforts of a single actor to extents unimaginable in the ‘real’ world. While they may have had the technical expertise to launch bot powered DDoS attacks, they opted for programs that required human participation, so that the scale of the intervention fairly reflected the support of the cause.

We will attempt to disentangle the thread of actions that should be identified with activists who have recognized the internet as a new plane for power relations from the actions of hackers who have become politicized. We would be remiss if we ignored the significance of the artful hack in hacker culture. It is an element often (but not always) missing from efforts that take the form of mass action hacktivism. We could compare these attacks to more digitally correct methods, exploring actions that are more fully oriented around the hack, require greater levels of technological expertise and demand fewer participants.

Through this, we will inevitably run up against the tensions between the hacktivism of theory and that of practice. We will have to interrogate that ostensible aims of culture that aspires to create a space of free access to information, circumvent censorship and undermine monopoly control of technology, and yet engages in practices that infringe on the opposition’s right to free speech (see metac0m, “What is Hactivism 2.0?”).

We will also look at impact. To what extent are hactivist efforts successful? How can such a success be measured?

*There are, obviously, security issues raised by engaging directly with this community. Certainly, it is unlikely that we will attract significant attention or present any material that could be perceived as threatening to the anonymity or aims of any of its members. However, to err on the side of caution, we have approached a network security specialist and will be following his advice to protect ourselves and preserve our own anonymity.

(Marisa and Daniel co-authored this proposal)

7 Responses to “Hactivism: Theory and Practice”

  1. Kevin says:

    Since this is a topic I have no idea about, I am really interested in the research you will be doing. I have heard of hacking in the broad sense of people tempering with online content, but never delved into the motivations for hacking and its political implications. I think you are on the right track in looking at both the theory and practice of hackivism, especially in the sense of its relation to former, real life ways of protest. Hopefully you will be able to fully, and safely, access this community in order to get an inside prospective on hacking.

  2. arosen says:

    I agree with Kevin in that this could be interesting to read since I am not very familiar with the concept of hacktivism. I think that you guys could find a lot of information by interviewing hackers and figuring out why exactly they hack. Is it to make a statement, to cause chaos, challenge authority, or to bring justice and reveal information that they think is imperative for people to know about (in the case of WikiLeaks)? It seems like you guys have found a safe way in since I feel like it can be a touchy subject to interview people about, but it would probably be beneficial to try and get some kind of firsthand answers to the questions you have posed.

  3. Danielle Spano says:

    I have to agree with Kevin & Andrew in saying that I am pretty unfamiliar with the concept of “hacktivism.” It seems to a somewhat established concept having first been used in 1995 by designer/author Jason Sack in a InfoNation article (a fact I learned from Wikipedia). I think a historical perspective might help to shed some light onto this practice that is otherwise foreign to many of us, in addition to grounding your further research (and by historical I mean in the last 15 years). I keep trying to imagine an example of said “hacktivism” so perhaps it might help if before you evaluate the impact of hacktivism you could research some significant examples because as of right now it all sounds a little intimidating. This also leads to me to my next suggestion, which would be how does it differ from practices such as cyber terrorism? Good luck to both of you!

  4. Elizabeth says:

    I am bouncing off all of Danielle’s comments tonight–I agree that a few examples of hacktivism would be helpful to understand all this work you’re doing. It sounds like you really understand the topic though, and I’m excited to see where it takes you.

    What I kept thinking about while reading your proposal was how hacktivism came into existence. Of course, I understand about creating movements on the internet and using the power of the internet, but how were the people hacking trying to make change or get involved in issues before the internet? Or was it when they finally saw the power of the online world that they became enthralled with finding a way to use it? I’m also curious what activists and leaders of ten, twenty years ago think of hacktivism. I realize you may not have the means to find all of that out because it requires interviews with all sorts of people, but I think it’s important to look into the newness of hacktivism and where it came from in order to discover how it works.

  5. janakalnina says:

    Great topic, definitely thought provoking! I’m curious whether hacktivism has progressed the agenda of some of the more controversial issues we face today, such as abortion, immigration, etc. Is there such a thing as liberal or conservative hacktivism? It would be interesting to see if there is a common demographic of “hacktivist” or if it appears in related issues. This could help answer the question of whether hacktivism is beneficial for society or not, i.e. Republican hacktivists undermining the Democratic platform could be considered simple party bashing with little progressive purpose. Or perhaps there is no distinction or demographical preference?

  6. Jessica Yu says:

    The topic is definitely really interesting! Like many here, I’m not really familiar with hacktivism so I’m really excited to see what you guys uncover. It is great that you guys will be first defining hacktivism and attempt to pin point the tension between theory and practice. I think it would be helpful for people like me who knows nothing about hacktivism to also include some example or case study. WikiLeaks can be a good starting point to take example from and see the impact it generated in the political world.

  7. tommers says:

    You mention the “danger of using a technology that has the capacity to magnify the efforts of a single actor to extents unimaginable in the ‘real’ world” but is this technological empowerment inherently dangerous? Or does it rather provide just the right amount of magnification to enable individuals, who would otherwise be squelched, to question/ challenge institutional abuses?

    Also, I’m wondering what are the “more correct” practices of hacktivism you refer to… For example, a mass DDoS attack on Amazon is kind of like a ton of people standing in front of the Amazon store (if there were such a thing) and barring entry to others because they disagree with Amazon’s actions or policies. Is this less “correct” than a crack team of self-styled ninjas going into the Amazon store and rearranging all of the shelves into a maze that customers would be unable to navigate? (what I envision to be the “artful” hack — more of a prank, really)

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