Hacktivism (a portmanteau of hack and activism) is the use of computers and computer networks as a means of protest to promote political ends. The term was first coined in 1998 by a member of the Cult of the Dead Cow hacker collective. If hacking as ‘illegally breaking into computers’ is assumed, then hacktivism could be defined as ‘the nonviolent use of illegal or legally ambiguous digital tools in pursuit of political ends.’ These tools include web site defacements, redirects, denial-of-service (DoS) attacks, information theft, web site parodies, virtual sit-ins, typosquatting, and virtual sabotage.

If hacking as ‘clever computer usage/programming’ is assumed, then hacktivism could be understood as the writing of code to promote political ideology: promoting expressive politics, free speech, human rights, and information ethics through software development. Acts of hacktivism are carried out in the belief that proper use of code will be able to produce similar results to those produced by regular activism or civil disobedience.

Hacktivist activities span many political ideals and issues. Freenet, a censorship-resistant network, is a prime example of translating political thought (namely, that anyone should be able to speak) into code. Hacktivismo is an offshoot of Cult of the Dead Cow; its beliefs include access to information as a basic human right. The loose network of programmers, artists and radical militants called 1984 network liberty alliance is more concerned with issues of free speech, surveillance and privacy in an era of inceased technological surveillance.

Hacktivism is a controversial term, and since it covers a range of passive to active and non-violent to violent activities, it can often be construed as cyberterrorism. It was coined to describe how electronic direct action might work toward social change by combining programming skills with critical thinking. Others use it as practically synonymous with malicious, destructive acts that undermine the security of the Internet as a technical, economic, and political platform.

Essentially, the controversy reflects two divergent philosophical strands within the hacktivist movement. One strand thinks that malicious cyber-attacks are an acceptable form of direct action. The other strand thinks that all protest should be peaceful, refraining from destruction. Essentially, violent or non-violent protest in digital form.

‘Reality hacking’ is a term used to describe any phenomenon which emerges from the nonviolent use of illegal or legally ambiguous digital tools in pursuit of politically, socially or culturally subversive ends. As a principle of political activism, reality hacking takes advantage of the insight of linguists and sociologists who argue that post-twentieth-century popular culture in the advanced world has become particularly impervious to either positive or negative rethinking of community. Negative assertions about community—in the form of negative news stories and mass political protests—tend to fall on ears overloaded by daily tragedy in the news, even when the causes and facts they relate are valid and deserving. Positive reimaginings of community—in the form of utopian havens, alternative religious or political structures, or idealistic protest against the status quo—equally tend to fall upon unbelieving ears of busy individuals who have already accepted the standards, sacrifices, and limits of the reality in which they normally operate.

As an alternative to these dead ends of twentieth-century political activism, reality hacking tries to capture the attention of individuals in their normal course of regular information consumption. It may involve attracting mass media attention to an attention-getting fringe political issue more liable to generate rethinking of cultural norms than standard debates to which the public has already become jaded. Or it may involve harnessing the means of information dissemination itself, using online information sources to disseminate alternative definitions of commonly accepted facts.

Some people describing themselves as hacktivists have taken to defacing websites for political reasons, such as attacking and defacing government websites as well as web sites of groups who oppose their ideology. Others, such as Oxblood Ruffin (the ‘foreign affairs minister’ of Hacktivismo), have argued forcefully against definitions of hacktivism that include web defacements or denial-of-service attacks. Within the hacking community, those who carry out automated attacks are generally known as script kiddies.

Critics suggest that DoS attacks are an attack on free speech; that they have unintended consequences; that they waste resources; and that they could lead to a ‘DoS war’ that nobody will win. In 2006, Blue Security attempted to automate a DoS attack against spammers; this led to a massive DoS attack against Blue Security which knocked them, their old ISP and their DNS provider off the internet, destroying their business.

Following denial-of-service attacks by Anonymous on multiple sites, in reprisal for the apparent suppression of Wikileaks, John Perry Barlow, a founding member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (a non-profit digital rights advocacy group) said, ‘I support freedom of expression, no matter whose, so I oppose DDoS attacks regardless of their target… they’re the poison gas of cyberspace.’

Depending on who is using the term, hacktivism can be a politically constructive form of anarchic civil disobedience or an undefined anti-systemic gesture; it can signal anticapitalist or political protest; it can denote anti-spam activists, security experts, or open source advocates. Critics of hacktivism fear that the lack of a clear agenda makes it a politically immature gesture, while those given to conspiracy theory hope to see in hacktivism an attempt to precipitate a crisis situation online.

A Haction usually has the following elements: political motivation; a premium on humor, and often resembles a digital form of clowning; moderate ‘outlaw orientation’ as opposed to severe; capacity for solo activity (while most forms of political activism require the strength of masses, hacktivism is most often the result of the power of one, or small group); most often carried out anonymously, and often over transnational borders.

In order to carry out their operations, hacktivists use a variety of software tools readily available on the Internet. In many cases the software can be downloaded from a popular website, or launched from a website with click of a button. For example, defacing web pages: the hacktivist will significantly alter the front page of a company’s or governmental agency’s website. Web Sit-ins: hackers attempt to send so much traffic to the site that the overwhelmed site becomes inaccessible to other users in a variation on a denial of service. E-mail Bombing: Hacktivists send scores of e-mails with large file attachments to their target’s e-mail address. Code: Software and websites can achieve political purposes. For example, the encryption software PGP can be used to secure communications; PGP’s author, Phil Zimmermann said he distributed it first to the peace movement. WikiLeaks is an example of a politically motivated website: it seeks to ‘keep governments open.’ Website Mirroring: is used as a circumvention tool to bypass censorship blocks on websites. It is a technique that copies the content of a censored website and posts it to other domains and subdomains that are not censored. Geo-bombing: a technique in which netizens add a geo-tag while editing YouTube videos so that the location of the video can be displayed in Google Earth.

Art movements such as Fluxus and Happenings in the 1970s created a climate of receptibility in regard to loose-knit organizations and group activities where spontaneity, a return to primitivist behavior, and an ethics where activities and socially-engaged art practices became tantamount to aesthetic concerns. In the mid-to-late 1990s new forms of counter-culture protest emerged: virtual sit-ins, electronic civil disobedience, denial-of-service attacks, as well as mass protests in relation to groups like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The rise of collectivies, net.art groups, and those concerned with the fluid interchange of technology and real life (often from an environmental concern) gave birth to the practice of ‘reality hacking.’

The 1999 science fiction-action film ‘The Matrix’ is most responsible for popularizing the simulation hypothesis—the suggestion that reality is in fact a simulation of which those affected by the simulants are generally unaware—and ‘reality hacking’ as reading and understanding the code which represents the activity of the simulated reality environment but also modifying it in order to bend the laws of physics within simulated reality.

In a location-based game (also known as a pervasive game), reality hacking refers to tapping into phenomena that exist in the real world, and tying them into the game story universe. Reality hacking relies on tweaking the every-day communications most easily available to individuals with the purpose of awakening the political and community conscience of the larger population. The term first came into use among New York and San Francisco artists, but has since been adopted by a school of political activists centered around culture jamming.


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