Beyond Hacktivism: Komen and SOPA Fights Show How to Win Online

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Hacktivist protests have had a lot of collateral damage, and the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street all required a physical space. Now there's a new model.

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Buried amid news last Friday of Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation's decision to re-fund Planned Parenthood in light of intense online objections was a little-noticed item about the hacking of a conference call between British law enforcement and the FBI. The relative weight given to each of these stories is revealing. After all, it was only a year ago that the world seemed overrun by hackers prosecuting a kind of vigilante-style digital justice. With exploit after exploit, groups like Anonymous and Lulzsec were putting paid to that adage, "the geek shall inherit the earth." But the force that dealt deathblows to SOPA and PIPA before bending Komen to its will wasn't a hacktivist mastermind -- it was a transparent bunch of civic-minded citizens. What we've seen in the last several weeks is a new kind of 21st-century protest, different even from the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. It's fast, effective, takes place almost exclusively online and, most of all, helps tell a larger story about the rise and fall of hacking as a legitimate form of Internet politics.

For a moment last year, it was as though the Internet had suddenly wandered into a Philip K. Dick novel. Hackers chafing against what they saw as authoritarian systems of control seized the Western world's attention in May. They staged high-profile attacks on Sony and the Arizona state police, among other targets. Aspiring revolutionaries left provocative and conspiratorial messages on YouTube, forums and chatrooms exhorting the sleeping masses to action. Painting the picture of a dystopian present, the hacktivists announced they sought nothing less than an overthrow of establishment orthodoxies. Not knowing when and how the hackers would strike next only heightened the sense of their potential power.

But then came the inevitable police crackdown, followed by a creeping public skepticism that gradually eroded hacktivism's credibility. The latter was far more damaging. When it was discovered that Lulzsec had gotten a hold of -- and was releasing to the open -- highly sensitive data like credit card numbers, passwords and even home addresses, onlookers began questioning whether hacktivism's dark side was worth tolerating. It didn't help that Lulzsec took a casual attitude to the collateral damage, nor that their reputation as codemasters collapsed when their amateur techniques were revealed. The group's tone-deafness, indiscriminate behavior and technical brutishness gave disenchanted supporters reason to look elsewhere for inspiration.

No account of Internet-enabled protests would be complete without mention of Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring. Yet in many ways, to view these movements as hacktivism's foil would be a mistake. As many were quick to point out in the days following successful regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt, the Internet actually played a peripheral role in what were fundamentally offline demonstrations. Physical protests were also a hallmark of the Occupy movement. And though these attempts at political action netted more dramatic results than the hacktivists could ever claim, the ultimate outcomes remain inconcluslive (see Egypt, Syria and Yemen).

By contrast, the kind of political expression that killed SOPA and PIPA and that convinced Komen to reverse itself last week took place almost entirely on the Internet, and produced decisive and nearly immediate results. Regime change and social reform are no doubt far more complex than stopping legislation or petitioning a board of directors with executive powers. But as any political advocate can attest, achieving limited aims will always be easier than shooting for the moon. Making the movements all the more potent were key Internet companies such as Reddit, whose early steps to protest the Internet bills established a precedent for others, and public figures like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who in response to Komen's actions pledged on Twitter to match donations to Planned Parenthood up to a limit of $250,000. The rippling influence of these major anchors not only spread the word about what was happening, but also helped persuade average citizens that they could play a role in the unfolding drama. As one reader of Andrew Sullivan's wrote in:

When I heard that [SOPA and PIPA] would not be brought to the floor of their respective chambers of Congress, I honestly couldn't believe it. Something that I did had real-world impact. And fast. This is the kind of revolution that my generation can get behind. Relatively tiny victories, but quick.

This year's cyberactivists have been more transparent, more popular and more directly successful than their hacktivist predecessors. They took an inclusive approach to advocacy, helping newcomers understand the precise issues at stake and what they could do to help. Participants grasped intuitively that coalition-building would be vital, and they all set out to activate the social networks they'd been carefully tending for so long for fun. There will no doubt be more of these to come, but the crowning moment so far in the short history of virtual protests came on Jan. 18, when a slew of respected websites -- Reddit, Google and Wikipedia, among others -- all announced they'd black themselves out to call attention to the perils of SOPA and PIPA.

Compare that collaborative, constructive model of online politics with the hacktivist approach -- a system that depends on the technical skills of an elite few who choose their own targets, despite claiming to speak for all; a system that envisions political action more as fait accompli than as part of a collective dialogue about what ought to be; a system that has led to a great deal of collateral damage -- albeit with some successes, such as a website supporting Iranian democracy activists.

Unlike those who protested SOPA, PIPA and Komen, groups like Anonymous operate on the assumption of democracy but are neither accessible nor accountable to the general public. In some ways, they are the definition of opaque. This creates problems when it comes to their representative claims -- theirs is a self-appropriated form of support. Moreover, although hacktivist methods can come off as highly technical, to achieve the kind of revolution such groups imagine would require vastly more sophisticated tactics. As it happened, hacktivists have had to settle for what they could get away with, which meant only indirectly addressing their grievances.

All of which is to say that, almost as quickly as it came, hacktivism is being replaced as a form of 21st-century protest. In its place is emerging a more evolved form of digital politics related to -- but distinct from -- the online manifestations of Occupy and the Arab Spring. The new digital activism draws from the Web's best traditions: transparency, network effects and an opt-in mentality -- and is proving surprisingly effective. A week after Reddit administrators announced what would become the world's biggest virtual protest, SOPA and PIPA were both postponed indefinitely in Congress. It took just three days for Komen to buckle under public pressure last week. How long the next virtual protest will last is anyone's guess, but to measure it in hours wouldn't be a bad bet.

Image credit: REUTERS/Gary Cameron

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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