Saturday, March 5, 2011

Mo/b/ rule

Activism, yeah! Wait, what?

Over break, I watched a documentary called The Thin Blue Line. It demonstrated an absurdly mixed-up murder case where a most likely innocent man was convicted and sentenced to death. It illustrated how institutions can gain their own momentum, whether because of incompetence or a misplaced sense of justice. I think the same issues apply to hacktivism, only I'd rather be on the bad side of a regulated institution than an uncontrollable faceless mob.

One story in China's Cyberposse illustrates my fear. A woman named Diebao made some insensitive comments about a recent earthquake in her blog. A "human flesh search" (internet vigilante mob) targeted her. Someone wished the earthquake would strike out at her in revenge, and another questioned whether she was human. That seems a little ironic considering her original "crime" was a dehumanizing remark on the internet, doesn't it? The mob often seems to become the victimizers and end up emulating the behavior they sought to destroy. The HBGary case also spiraled out of control quickly, with thousands of emails being stolen and one company member's social security number and other personal details posted on his hijacked Twitter. In the case of activism, I'm all for giving power to the people, and I love to see people getting politically motivated. But what happens when we become the thing we hate? As Zuckerman says, the internet grants "...the potential for amateur nastiness to be even more evil than our debased professional political culture." Who watches the watchmen?

So, while I'm glad the internet can let Bahrani activists get a better vantage point on their royal family's corruption (as Zuckerman points out), we have to draw the line somewhere. As Zuckerman illustrates, the internet is incredibly difficult to regulate. Groups like Anonymous are particularly hard to pin down, as they often don't even know other members' names. Sometimes these groups are localized in other countries, and escape our legal jurisdiction. So, I think the best solution is to have a powerful support structure for people who are victimized by online groups. The "cat bin lady" was put under police protection (also note the disproportionately violent suggestion of revenge in that article), but perhaps something more robust, akin to the Witness Protection program, will be needed.

Activists in dire situations are getting more clever about how to use the internet, and as I mentioned, that can be a good thing. I hope that the internet won't make us even more politically lazy, though. What if we had all of our protests online someday? On one hand, it lowers our barrier to entry. On the other hand, I'm afraid this will lead to "slacktivism," or groups of people doing inconsequential things like changing their profile pictures online and feeling content that they've made enough of a difference.

Thursday, March 3, 2011


Welcome back from spring break!

For the next couple weeks, we are focusing on the idea of activism on the web - specifically a kind of activism known as hacktivism. Hacktivism is a way of advancing a cause or staging a protest by hacking into the opponents' computer systems or websites, as opposed to more traditional forms of activism like demonstrations, letter-writing, or even coups.

For this week's post, consider the ethics of this form of activism, especially in reference to the specific articles and case studies you read. Also consider that these examples are international in scope, so American ideals (and laws) of free speech don't necessarily apply.

So: choose one of the examples of hacktivism and discuss its implications. Is it an effective means of protest or achieving justice? Does it seem to violate civil or human rights? Should there be more international regulation of such acts - and is such regulation even possible? What do you think the future might hold in terms of new forms of political protest online, or what might the consequences of such acts be?