By Robert Barlow

The film War Games (John Badham, 1983) romanticized the image of a bright but alienated teenager who, despite stepping across legal boundaries, ultimately uses hacking skills to save the world he mistakenly had put in danger by hacking in the first place. In the real world, many hackers see themselves as ethical outlaws for whom the motives of the act, not the rules forbidding the act, define morality.

In the real world, many hackers see themselves as ethical outlaws for whom the motives of the act, not the rules forbidding the act, define morality. Hackers have taken the tactics used by previous social reformers and incorporated those tactics with the technology of the 21st century. Many see these “hacktivists” as criminals but they might be no different than those that came before them whom we now see as heroes.

Ethical Outlaws

Taylor states that there are three key core elements of the early hacking ethic which offer the basis for the strategies of those seeking to use technology to promote rather than hinder human agency:

  • the ingenious use of any technology
  • the tendency to reverse engineer technology to do the opposite of its intended desig
  • the desire to explore systems

The mantra ‘hacking is a moral imperative’ provided the primary rules for the hacker ethic and their primary goal of knowledge acquisition. These primary rules had six “planks” which were:

  • Access to computers should be unlimited and total: ‘Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative!’
  • All information should be free.
  • Mistrust authority and promote decentralization.
  • Hackers should be judged by their prowess as hackers rather than by formal organizational or other irrelevant criteria.
  • One can create art and beauty on a computer.
  • Computers can change lives for the better.

Taylor suggests that this romantic view of being part of a social revolution was the core of the hacker identity and provided the justification for computer intrusion and attempts to subvert authority.

“Hackers freely acknowledged that their activities were occasionally illegal. But in their view, illegality did not necessarily translate into unethical behavior” (Taylor).

However, this romanticized image of hacking began to change.

According to Christensen, the Internet was initially heralded as a potential remedy for the decline in political participation that had been observed in the literature. However, in recent years scholars have grown increasingly skeptical about the positive impact of the Internet on civic mobilization.

Thomas even goes as far to say that hacking is an essentially “parasitic activity” that always requires a host system in which and on which to operate.

In 1982, members of the Roscoe Gang, a group of hackers in which the legendary Kevin Mitnick was an early member, were sentenced. Further visibility came between 1983 and 1984 with the arrests of members of the Inner Circle and the ‘414s’, a group of Milwaukee computer whizzkids who had broken into computers across the country and with other less high-profile arrests.

These arrests brought hacking and hackers out of anonymity and into the public eye.

Visible Activism Is Not New

The concept of visibility and the importance in promoting individuals’ job success and mobility emerged in social science research 50 years ago. The concept centered on a belief that a person’s attributes and/or behaviors are a focal object of others’ attention in a particular situation or context (Roberts).

Those who have more visibility are subjected to more public attention, whereas those who have less visibility receive less focused attention on their attributes and behaviors.

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., best known through his work as a leader in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s through the late 1960s, employed the strategies of nonviolent direct action to challenge the discriminatory laws and social norms during that time period. Yet, according to Roberts, his impact goes well beyond his role as a symbol in a movement that ended segregation. King’s life is often hoisted up as an example of leadership that has inspired people around the world.

Although King was hugely popular in some circles, he was vilified in many others. These differing views of his leadership required that he engage in a risky balancing act of determining the most effective times to be visible so as to maximize his strengths and deciding the appropriate content to display when the Movement captured the public’s attention. King was very strategic about the specific activities in which he was engaged, the alliances he formed, the messages he publicized, and the leaders he involved in his organization to decrease perceived threat of racial equality and to ensure that the Movement maintained a balanced amount of exposure. At times King stood out and at other times he elected to fade into the background. King’s success in navigating these situations was influenced by his ability to draw on his elite educational training as a PhD in theology from Boston University, privileged professional status, rich cultural traditions, and internal moral compass.

As symbolic leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Roberts suggests that King was under constant scrutiny. His visibility as a leader quickly spiraled into hypervisibility and he became the target of rumors about financial misconduct, political allegiances, and sexual infidelity. The earliest charges were filed by a former member of the MIA who claimed that King pocketed some donations. In response, the IRS initiated a tax case against King that continued for over three months until he was vindicated from two counts of perjury for allegedly falsely swearing to the accuracy of his 1956 and 1958 Alabama tax returns.

Hacktivism vs. Slacktivism

The mid-1990s marked the merging of hacking activity with an overt political stance.

“Politics was a concern relatively absent from the fourth generation of hackers and even when it was present, the political targets tended to be relatively ad hoc. In contrast, in hacktivism, politics provides the raisond’ˆetre of the activity” (Lindgren).

According to Lindgren, virtual sit-ins are viewed by hacktivist groups such as a form of electronic civil disobedience in which the social form of the protest takes precedence over its technological content. One example of the difference between hacker and hacktivist outlooks is the way in which elements of the former objected to the resource-hungry nature and technical inelegance of such programmes as Floodnet. They argued that the rationale for political protest did not justify the disruption of users. This digitally correct position holds that protest then becomes a form of censorship because it interferes with people’s access to the internet. For the EDT, the digitally correct are nerdishly missing the point.

Initially, according to Christensen, the Internet was heralded as a potential remedy for the decline in political participation that had been observed in the literature. However, in recent years scholars have grown increasingly skeptical about the positive impact of the Internet on civic mobilization.

Slacktivism has become somewhat of a buzzword when it comes to demeaning the electronic versions of political participation. The origins of the term slacktivism is debated,according to Lindgren, but Fred Clark takes credit for using the term in 1995 in a seminar series held together with Dwight Ozard. However, they used it to shorten slacker activism, which refer to bottom up activities by young people to affect society on a small personal scale used. In their usage, the term had a positive connotation.

Today, the term is used in a more negative sense to belittle activities that do not express a full–blown political commitment. The concept generally refers to activities that are easily performed, but they are considered more effective in making the participants feel good about themselves than to achieve the stated political goals.


The Internet and Civic Engagement

Prokosch suggests that the relationship between the Internet and civic engagement has been debated both in public and among scholars. Initially, many commentators expected the Internet to have a profound impact on how democracy functions, transforming it into an ideal e–democracy with equal opportunities for all citizens. These expectations have so far not been fulfilled and are unlikely to be so in the near future.

This failure has lead many scholars to grow more skeptical when assessing the impact of the Internet, some even claiming that the Internet may have detrimental effects for the functioning of democracy.

However, according to Ester, even if it is not possible to dismiss the skepticism about the effectiveness of online participation, it is premature to dismiss the impact of the Internet on political activism altogether. Online and off–line participation are not necessarily mutually exclusive forms of citizen engagement. Most evidence in recent years suggests that being active online promotes off–line participation as well. Although this link is not necessarily very strong, there is certainly no evidence of a negative effect from Internet activity.

This suggests that the fears raised that online slacktivist activities replace more traditional and more effective forms of participation are unfounded. Although most Internet users or slacktivists never develop deeper forms of involvement, there is no evidence that Internet activities are damaging civic engagement by replacing more effective forms of participation.

Instead, Prokosch suggests that most recent,research suggests a positive link between online activity and engagement in off–line political participation. This suggests that being involved in effortless political activities online does not replace traditional forms of participation, if anything, they reinforce off–line engagement.

Liberation and Determinism

The history of technology is the history of human development. It is through technology that our material, social, cultural, political and economic life is constructed. Given such circumstances, technology should become another component in the struggle for liberation, and within that framework the possibility of developing such a libratory technology seems perfectly conceivable (Hands).

Hands suggests that the anti-globalization movement is the first great movement of the Internet age. It is the first to have a significant impact on the global scale – an impact defined by its networked characteristics and its use of digital network communications.

The question of if technological determinist ideas have contributed to the mobilization of hackers, can be further explored with a concept from social movement theory, namely that of ‘collective action framing’. The term refers to how social movements construct narratives interpreting the world in a way that gives meaning to their struggles.

According to Söderberg, researchers working with this concept highlight the active role of social movements as producers of meaning. Thus,Söderberg concludes that meaning is understood as a process through which spaces of struggle are continually created, contested and transformed.

We are Legion

Not unlike Mitnick and King, the hacktivist group Anonymous believe in freedom. From what anyone can tell, they believe all information should be free, and they might just hit your website if you disagree (Olson).

According to Olson, Anonymous originated in 2003 on the imageboard 4chan, representing the concept of many online and offline community users simultaneously existing as an anarchic, digitized global brain. It is also generally considered to be a blanket term for members of certain Internet subcultures, a way to refer to the actions of people in an environment where their actual identities are not known. It strongly opposes Internet censorship and surveillance, and has hacked various government websites. It has also targeted major security corporations. It also opposes Scientology and government corruption. Its members can be distinguished in public by the wearing of stylized Guy Fawkes masks.


In its early form, the concept was adopted by a decentralized online community acting anonymously in a coordinated manner, usually toward a loosely self-agreed goal, and primarily focused on entertainment (Olson).

Beginning with 2008, the Anonymous collective became increasingly associated with collaborative, international hacktivism. They undertook protests and other actions in retaliation against anti-digital piracy campaigns by motion picture and recording industry trade associations.They have been called the freedom fighters of the Internet, a digital Robin Hood, and “anarchic cyber-guerrillas.”

Josh Covelli, an Anonymous  member arrested for participating in hacking Paypal’s website, said he would never copmpare himself to Ghandi or Martin Luther King. “But, they were willing to go out and change the world and their messages live on through everybody and to not to take the chance of having something like that to do, is foolish.”

After a series of controversial, widely publicized protests, distributed denial of service (DDoS) and website defacement attacks by Anonymous in 2008, incidents linked to its members increased.  In consideration of its capabilities, Anonymous was named by CNN in 2011 to be one of the three major successors to WikiLeaks. In 2012, Time named Anonymous as one of the most influential groups in the world. King was given a similar honor in 1963 when Time named him “Man of the Year.”

So, it seems as if hacktivists, while still seen as a rouge element by some, have come full circle and become the very thing they have wanted to be. Perhaps, many years from now, groups like Anonomous will be held in the same light as King and other social reformists. For now, I think they are probably happy to still be considered the “bad boys” of activism but like a band who becomes popular, that image may not last too much longer.

Works cited

Hands, Joss. “@ is for Activism.” New York: Pluto Press, 2011. Print.

Prokosch, Mike. Raymond, Laura. “The Global Activist’s Manual.” New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2002. Print.

Olson, Parmy. “We Are Anonymous.” New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2012. Print.

Roberts, Darryl D., Roberts, Laura Morgan. O’Neill, Regina M. “Insights From the Leadership of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The Invisible Work of Managing Visibility for Social Change.” Business Society, 2008. Print.

Ester, Peter., Vinken, Henk. “Debating Civil Society : On the Fear for Civic Decline and Hope for the Internet Alternative.” International Sociology, 2003. Print.

Söderberg, Johan. “Determining social change: The role of technological determinism in the collective action framing of hackers.” New Media Society. April 6, 2013. Web.

Lindgren, Simon., Lundström, Ragnar. “Pirate culture and hacktivist mobilization: The cultural and social protocol of #WikiLeaks on Twitter.” New Media Society. April 7, 2013. Web.

Taylor, Paul A. “From hackers to hacktivists: speed bumps on the global superhighway?” New Media Society. April 7, 2013. Web.

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