This blog post by Citizen Lab Post-Doctoral Fellow Stefania Milan reflects the content of a talk she gave at Media@McGill titled Beyond WikiLeaks: Journalism, Politics and Activism one year after Cablegate on November 29, 2011.

One year ago, on November 28, 2010, five major newspapers including The New York Times and The Guardian simultaneously published the first 220 of 251,287 confidential US diplomatic cables collected by the whistle-blower organization known as WikiLeaks. Many things have changed since then, including our perception of hacktivism and of its role in the cyberpower game.

To the eyes of cyberactivists, WikiLeaks was more than just an online drop-box amassing leaked classified documents. As soon as the organization came under pressure following the publication of the US cables, and companies like PayPal, Amazon, and MasterCard started to withdraw their services, WikiLeaks became the fetish of online free speech, and the mainspring of a cyber-crusade. The pressures enacted on WikiLeaks spurred the mobilization of hundreds of people not directly linked to the WikiLeaks core group. These people provided technical support to the WikiLeaks infrastructure; they mirrored the site when it was taken offline, contributing to the spread of WikiLeaks content; and mobilized in support of the organization, for example by attacking (i.e., taking down, defacing, making temporarily unavailable) the websites of companies that had taken action against the whistle-blower website.

The most famous network of WikiLeaks cyber supporters goes under the name of Anonymous. Looking at Anonymous and similar online networks I reflect on the legacy of WikiLeaks and its impact on cyberactivism.

Anonymous is an umbrella term indicating an online community whose self-identified members engage in disruptive activities using civil disobedience techniques in support of freedom of speech online. Membership in the group is informal and fluctuating: amongst its members are techno-savvy activists but also digital natives and netizens who believe in the potential of the Internet for collective action. Anonymous originated in online chat rooms focused on politically-incorrect pranks. The group later mutated into a politically-engaged collective of hacktivists, but maintained an orientation to the “lulz” – a neologism that derives from LOL, “laughing out loud”, and indicates the fun associated with pranks. Anonymous activists define themselves the “guardians of the Internet.” Their support to Wikileaks brought them under the spotlight. They became so visible and so much of a threat to security forces that Anonymous was named in the 2011 NATO Spring Report.

This type of cyberactivism is called “hacktivism”. Hacktivism indicates the politically-motivated use of technical expertise like coding – in other words, activists seek to fix society through software and online action. However, hacktivism is a contested concept, and different groups of people associate different objectives and tactics under its umbrella, not all of which are compatible. For example, while some hacktivists may not hesitate to deface websites or launch distributed denial of service attacks (DDoS), others consider these tactics a fundamental breach of freedom of speech that are counter to the aims of hacktivism. With this contention in mind, I outline a few general characteristics of contemporary hacktivism.

Partially owing to cyberlibertarian thought, some hacktivists see cyberspace as a secluded free space where rules and norms of real life do not apply. Cyberspace functions as a cultural laboratory, and a place to have fun at one’s own rules, regardless of whether having fun implies politically incorrect or law-breaking behaviors. It also provides a platform for identification with peers, where to experience a sense of safety and solidarity.

Hacktivists are a subcultural community, albeit one with loose and permeable boundaries. Like any other subcultural community, they share a set of core values and defining behaviors which set members apart from the dominant culture. They share an oppositional and pro-openness ethos, which explains their frequent actions on government and security companies’ websites.

Hacktivists step out of their secluded niches on cyberspace to take action against companies, governments and individuals in retaliation of behaviors that are a threat to their norms and values. Such threats include attacks on openness and the uncensored internet. For example, Anonymous mobilized against Scientology, accused of censoring its members’ opinions, and in defence of the Swedish file sharing website Pirate Bay. Threats act as “moral shocks” fostering reaction, as activists find themselves at odds with norms that conflict with their own.

Hacktivists adopt both transgressive and defensive tactics. Transgressive tactics include DDoS attacks aimed at disclosing the cyber-weakness of their enemies, but also trickery and nuisance cyber-campaigns intended to ridicule and destabilize targets. Occasionally hacktivists step out of cyberspace: for example, since 2008 Anonymous members have periodically taken to the streets wearing Guy Fawkes masks – the same masks appeared at Occupy Wall Street protest sites around the world. There is however a fundamental divide among hacktivists concerning legitimate tactics, which in part reflect different attitudes towards the so-called hacker ethics of access and world improvement.

Most of this kind of activism existed long before WikiLeaks came under the global spotlight on November 28, 2010. Electronic disturbance and electronic civic disobedience had been theorized and practiced already in the 1990s by groups like the Critical Art Ensemble, an art and technology collective. Tactical media, too, have been extensively explored as hit-and-run media interventions into society. But the WikiLeaks saga changed the scale of things and the ambitions of activists.

First, by giving visibility and fame to hacktivism interventions and to groups like Anonymous, it encouraged people to take part, spurring an unprecedented wave of activism. Certainly the popularity of Anonymous and the support the network received is a consequence of the sheer number of people with access to technology and to some degree of technical expertise. But the extraordinary visibility hacktivism acquired with the WikiLeaks case encouraged more young people who do not care about the consequences to join the struggle. Hacktivism no longer is a marginal struggle by a bunch of geeks, nor the terrain of skilled hackers in dark basements. What were back in the 1990s sporadic cell-based cyber-performances are now tactics practiced on a regular basis by decentralized networks of individuals seeking to intervene regularly into real-world struggles where their cyber-support might be needed.

Second, the WikiLeaks-spurred wave of hacktivism showed that activism that originated and lives in cyberspace is possible and worth it. Compared to other activism tactics such as campaigning or street demonstrations, cyber disruption and electronic disturbance have an intense and real-time impact with limited deployment of resources. (On the other hand, this visibility resulted in negative attention: as soon as Anonymous and LulzSec actions became popular, renewed efforts at repressing these types of actions have been launched by governments and police forces. Their cyberpower agency is often mistaken for cyberterrorism or cybercrime.)

Third, the attacks on WikiLeaks fostered the creation of an “army” of hacktivists that can be readily mobilized in case of future threats, both to online and offline freedoms. For example, recently we have seen hacktivists in action to support the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and Occupy Wall Street protests. In fact, contrary to scholarly expectations, this type of online activism does originate strong networks, a solid sense of belonging and a strong collective identity. This is true for four main reasons: for the large part, these newly recruited hacktivists are netizens domesticated to interact with friends and peers through the mediation of the Internet, making face-to-face interactions redundant; threats to their values strengthen the perception of being part of a group (a typical subcultural mechanism); the awareness of being engaged in a global “information-war” fosters transnational solidarity; and the immediacy of outcomes and the intensity of effects of hacktivist interventions contribute to a sense of empowerment that cements activist networks.

What we have seen in action with Anonymous and LulzSec is a manifestation of a wave of movement activity that is virtual, distributed and individualized. The Internet is no longer just a tool for networking and mobilizing but has become the main platform for action, recruitment and identification. This development is certainly not enough to claim activism is moving online. But it tells us that activism can no longer do without a strong online component – where the Internet is not only a platform for networking and exchange of information or a mirror of offline actions, but the very same locus of activism, where new narratives of participation and empowerment as well as new identities are created and reproduced.

About the Author

Stefania Milan is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Citizen Lab. She studied communication sciences at the University of Padova, Italy, and holds a PhD in Political and Social Sciences from the European University Institute.