The role of “hacktivism,” or the use of internet facilitated means for driving social discourse in a certain direction on a selected protest topic, is a controversial one. By controversial, I don’t merely mean the illegal means utilized by online hacktivists in pursuit of their objectives, but also in the way these methods are perceived and interpreted by their non-activist peers. Although “hacktivism” certainly makes for a thrilling label, it’s efficacy in achieving objectives has been ambiguous at best.
In 2011, for instance, the hacktivist community of “Anonymous” hacked into the corporate servers of the Sony Corporations’ “Playstation” videogame division to protest the prosecution of a fellow hacker who went by the handle of GeoHot (George Hotz). GeoHot had posted videoclips teaching individuals how to hack their Playstation consoles to play illegally downloaded videogame content. Perceiving the prosecution to be a violation of GeoHot’s rights to free-speech, Anonymous counter-attacked by hacking Sony’s corporate servers.
The story of Anonymous’ attack on Sony exposes several of the flaws in the “hacktivist” model, as well as several shortcomings in the study we read this week by Lindgren & Lundstrom.
It should first be pointed out that while Lindgren & Lundstrom limited their analysis to Twitter activity, Twitter has been negligibly (to be generous) used by actual hacktivist communities. Anonymous, for example, does most of their strategizing on the message board, 4Chan (link is safe, boards are wildly NSFW, for a safer look at the process, try here). Long-story short, while Twitter may work for lighter forms of social media protest, more extreme forms of “hacktivism” are too blatantly illegal to use such exposed means of communications, forcing groups such as Anonymous & LULZSEC to use more backchannel avenues.
The Anonymous-Sony narrative also exposes the ambiguity of control of many “hacktivist” collectives. Ironically, the second article we read for this week by Rattay is a little behind the times. In particular, while the attacks against Sony were positioned as activism, they also took the time to steal the credit card information of Sony network users. Indeed, even in the midst of the crisis, considerable debate raged among individuals claiming to “represent” Anonymous (such as Barrett Brown in this weeks’ readings). Some claimed that Anonymous HAD hacked the network, and others insisted that it hadn’t.
Most significantly, when Anonymous took down the PlayStation network, it accidentally drew up battle-lines in the controversy regarding GeoHot. In particular, when the network crashed (let alone when the credit card data was stolen), it positioned both Sony and its users as mutual victims of Anonymous, thus, accidentally pushing the PlayStation Network users to perceive themselves as similar to Sony as they were both victims of the Hack. This perception actually drove many users to more vociferously support Sony and to criticize “Anonymous” rather than to driving them to support the hacktivists.
Taken collectively, stories such as Anonymous’ attempt to take down Sony suggest that hacktivism may not be as effective as it perceives itself to be.