Bernard E. Harcourt | Hacktivism and the Problem of Ideological Drift

By Bernard E. Harcourt 

It is challenging to critically explore and theorize “hacktivism” the same week that the revelations surrounding Cambridge Analytica return to the front page and that President Trump fires F.B.I. deputy director Andrew McCabe for his purported role in the investigation of Russian hacking of American institutions and voters.

A few years ago, perhaps, hacking and hacktivism were much more solidly associated with anarchist-leaning attacks on the establishment. They were almost exclusively linked to radical Leftist forms of truth-telling and whistleblowing—to the hacker collaborative Anonymous, to WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, to Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. In effect, to forms of political contestation that had an anarchist, sometimes libertarian, but certainly radical nature to them, predominantly on the Left, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist side of the spectrum.

To be sure, as Gabriella Coleman emphasizes in her article “Weapons of the Geek,” we need to be more nuanced about the politics of hackers—as she correctly argues, “the ideological sensibilities that animate hacker politics are diverse: just as we can locate liberal hackers and projects, so too can we identify radical hackers and projects and see how both engender social change” (p. S98).

But it is fair to say that these sensibilities were and still are predominantly on the more radical Left. Emmanuel Goldstein provides a brilliant history in his essay on “Hacktivism and the Hacker Promise,” as does Coleman in her article. The political valence was linked, theoretically and historically, to what Coleman refers to as “the cultural cultivation of antiauthoritarianism” within hacker circles (p. S95).

This remains true today and one can hear a powerful expression of it in Simona Levi’s marvelous essay “Working Notes for a R-evolution.” It rings loudly in her call to “study the law, understand it, explain it in other words, make fun of it, hack it to render it useless, destroy its authority by replacing it with a positive one that will ultimately be coopted with the bad taste and time-lag that characterises the system, clearing away whatever had been there previously and leaving a blank slate.”

But I worry that, today, things may be changing, at least in the public imagination. Hacking has undergone some kind of ideological drift—no longer so tightly associated with resistance to power, and often, now, connected to more authoritarian political tendencies. If I had to identify a moment, a tipping point, I think it would be when Julian Assange threw his support, effectively, behind Donald Trump. It was at that moment that hacktivism began to feel as much authoritarian as anarchist.

Today, I fear, it almost seems as if hacking has become superpowered and militarized. It is as if the power of hacking was recognized to be so great, in our digitized age and geopolitics, that it was captured by the military superpowers. With news stories about Russia’s ability to turn off the American power grid, for instance, now dominating the public imagination of hacking, at least more so than denial of service attacks, there is a new militarized valence to hacking.

Perhaps I am wrong. I would like to be corrected—especially after having embraced forms of hacktivism in my previous book, Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age. I hope that our seminar Uprising 11/13 will straighten me out on all this. Surely, when I read Emmanuel Goldstein’s essay, I think otherwise and am persuaded that, in his words, “Fighting the level of surveillance that we now know is being built and used against us became the raison d’être for a growing number in the hacker community. And here we are, as relevant to politics as any community is.” And when I read about Simona Levi’s work and Xnet, I see the continuity in action.

But I confess that this does raise, for me at least, one pressing question: Have hacking and hacktivism drifted from a mode of resistance to merely a technology, a weapon? Has the ideological drift substantively transformed hacking from a modality of uprising to simply a technological tool? Gabriella Coleman talks about hacker’s “technological artifacts” (p. S91). Are these artifacts now the weapons of everyone, including authoritarian players?

Another way to ask this is, does hacking still have a political or ethical valence, or is it now just like a machine gun or armored vehicle that can be used and deployed by any faction? In his fascinating post, Emmanuel Goldstein defines hacktivism as “the subversive use of computers and/or computer networks to further societal/political change.” The question is, do we need to qualify the term “change”?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *