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Contemporary Hacktivist Narratives, Disillusionment, & A Demand for Change (print)

The arrival of the Internet in the 1990s brought with it a slew of concerns regarding accessibility, censorship, security and crime. Today, in the height of the digital age, the possible uses and consequences of the widespread and sometimes chaotic resource that is the Web remain disputed, with some believing that access and service should be privatized and others believing that all information should be accessible to everyone, and having that access can improve daily life and society. A highly visible web-related public topic of discussion is that of hacktivism, also sometimes called “alternative computing” (Lievrouw 483). Hacktivism is the use of cracking, breaking in and/or exposing digital content in order to provoke or highlight the need for social and political change. According to Leah A. Lievrouw, people who engage in alternative computing (hacktivists) are “highly skilled programmers and engineers who oppose and work around commercial or political restraints on access to information or information technology” (Lievrouw 485).

Hacktivism has emerged as a method of protest in contemporary popular culture. Not only is the public exposed to the hacktivism and hacktivist narratives presently in the form of fictional productions like books, television shows and movies - but also the work of well-known hacktivist groups has become mainstream news and conversation. Nowadays, when popular hacker groups take on a political or social event like the Flint water crisis, the public has become increasingly relieved to know hackers are seemingly taking care of the problem. Hacking is not a recent development in web usage, and hackers have been studying cyberspace and programming since the beginning of Internet culture. The high-visibility and perceived heroism of hackers for their political efforts is recent. With hackers - or more accurately, hacktivists, being viewed in such a light, we must look at what hacktivism really stands for and then look at why the public, particularly the millennial generation (age 18-26), feel such an affinity with hacktivists and a close connection to what they represent in this contemporary moment.

Once we look at the public’s perception of power dynamics in American society and how hacktivism calls those dynamics into question, it will be clear that both fictional and real-life hacktivists and hacktivist groups are presented as the protagonists in popular culture due to a growing mistrust and skepticism towards those in power including governments, big business and the media. Since the journalistic media was originally supposed to function as the fourth estate or “watch-dogs” for the government and corporate America, hacktivists are viewed as the ones who can now keep all three powerful and persuasive entities (government, corporations, and media) accountable for their actions and expose any of their wrongdoings. The bond between hacktivists and millennials also emerges as they share common values about the possible uses of the Internet, anonymity, and the freedom of speech.

Distrust in government and authority is a huge feature contemporarily that is being mirrored and acted out in Hacktivist narratives. The percent of Americans reporting trust in the government is at an all-time low in all three branches of the United States government, with only 32%, 45%, and 53% a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches, respectively (Jones, “Trust in U.S. Judicial Branch Sinks to New Low of 53%."). Jeffrey Jones, the poll managing editor for Gallup, called this an “era of widespread dissatisfaction with the government.” Since 2009, just after the stock markets crashed, the numbers have dipped significantly. Moreover, the relationship between the U.S. government and Corporate America cannot be overlooked. In most Western countries, “many varieties of cyberactivism seem to be linked to the financial crisis, and to the perception that governments at the centre of it were subservient to the banks” (Castells). The 2010 Judicial Decision that allowed unlimited outside spending for election candidates and therefore a need for funding by Super PACs have made the government and corporations bound more than ever. This creates a system in which for a politician to be elected he must rely on major businesses, which forces the question of what the corporation believes they are getting in return. We saw how the outrage over the 2008 financial meltdown incited nation-wide protests under the name “Occupy Wallstreet,” where the effect of big moneymakers (i.e. corporations) had on politics was entered into everyday conversation. In “The Corporate Perception Indicator Survey,” only 36% of Americans felt that corporations could be a “source of hope” for strengthening the struggling economy, and 40% of millennials see corporations as a “source of fear.” 49% of Americans stated a belief that corporations had more power in their country than the government (Lam, “Quantifying Americans’ Distrust of Corporations”).

Governmental and corporate corruption has been around for ages, the three-branch checks and balances format of our United States democratic government was structured in order to limit a political body taking advantage of its citizens. After the advancement of the printing press and the creation of a mass media, the press was seen as the unofficial fourth branch of government called “The Fourth Estate.” They were meant to be the “watch-dogs” for governmental and corporate corruption and unethical behavior, keeping other systems of power in check. The press was to increase transparency among government officials and proceedings, therefore creating a knowledgeable society, who would have enough information to keep the government ethical.

However, audiences have become increasingly skeptical of whether or not the media is still doing that job, or if they have joined the government and corporations to become a kind of three-headed dog to maintain the imbalanced and unjust status quo. In a September 2015 survey of 1,025 American adults for Gallup it was found that only 4 in 10 of all Americans trust the mass media, and younger people are even less likely to have faith in the press than older generations. We see how incorporated the media and government are perceived in that trust in the media also plummets during election years - 2004, 2008, 2012 (Riffkin). Now that we understand the perception of governmental, corporate and media powers in the eyes of the American public, we can look at how hacktivist narratives bring these viewpoints of corruption to the forefront.

Hackers, in some sense or another, have been around since even before the Internet came to be. Before computers there were phones, and there were people called “Phreakers” who studied their connections and altered/reproduced phone technologies in order to make international phone calls for free (Coleman 101). Even at that point there were phreakers looking to use their talents for political change like YIPL (Youth International Party Line), who had a newsletter with sentiments of the importance of education and the need to rebel against the domination of communication that telephone companies held (Coleman 104). The invention of computers and Internet access becoming readily available meant that engineers and programmers looking to investigate their talents had more space to explore. Hacking for social good started with spreading the cause through computer viruses and worms. DOS (Denial of service) attacks were started early around Internet’s emergence as well. Through DOS attacks, a website loses its ability to function because it becomes it’s networks can’t handle the number of messages or users interacting with the website at once. These coordinated attacks are still popular among hacktivists today, as DDoS is a kind of “online sit-in” that disrupts a website’s functionality. The early ease of altering another website for people who were familiar with online code was often used - as it is today, though security measures on most websites have been beefed up to make it more difficult (Denning). A DDoS attack, though most popular, is not the only type of onlineprotest that hackers have at their disposal. Other examples of cyber-activism through hacking are the free distribution of computer technologies, or publicizing a company or website’s security flaws by obviously hacking and tampering with publicly viewed online content (Lievrouw 485).

Cyberactivism is the central theme in a television show that has been gaining a huge fanbase for USA network called “Mr. Robot,” created by Sam Esmail. The show follows a socially anxious young man, Elliot, talented in computer programming and hacking, who enters an underground hacker group with aims to completely dismantle corporate America. Premiering this summer, it was third most popular (after AMC’s “Fear the Walking Dead” and “Better Call Saul,”) for a scripted basic cable drama series of the year (Kissell). USA President Chris McCumber said of the show, "We had to find scripts that had millennial appeal, and we've clearly hit that mark" (Dawn). The anxious but lovable Elliot succeeds with his group of hackers “Fsociety” in completely shutting down the financial system in America during season one. Its popularity among young people speak to how it is mirroring their values.

Another popular hacktivist narrative, which received a high score of 8.1/10 on Comic Book Round Up, is the “Hacktivist” comic book series, created by Alyssa Milano in 2013 and published by Archaia Entertainment. Audra Shroeder in her article for The Daily Dot said of the series, “It’s more realistic as a way of explaining hacking to mainstream culture and how it can be a forum for positive social change” (Shroeder). The comics revolve around the story of two friends and social media entrepreneurs, who use their computer-savvies to impact worldwide social change. Collin Kelley, a writer for the books says that during the second volume of the books they are “exploring the current issues America has with race, wealth, class and technology … this volume may be the most complex — and rewarding” (Towers).

Both creators of those narratives, Sam Esmail and Alyssa Milano, say that they were in some way “inspired” by real-life hacker groups who use their skills to promote social change, one hacker group especially that goes by the name Anonymous. This group, which has no leader or official membership, grew out of the /b board on 4chan, which is a discussion thread created for random thoughts and photos (Sorrell). Sam Esmail said of Anonymous, “Anonymous was by and large the first true organized hacker group I read about. Of course you would hear about groups prior to that, but Anonymous was the first group that energized me, that compelled me to learn and study them” (Pangburn). Anonymous only entered the public eye in 2008 when it targeted the Church of Scientology for its corrupt ethical and business practices and eventually leaked it’s “bible” (Denning). Anonymous is frequently talked about on social media as they challenge controversial current events and happenings. A large and decentralized group means that members of Anonymous have very different values and ethics, but publically their politics are usually seen as confronting and exposing corrupt or unethical behaviors in corporations or governmental operations. For example the first time I had ever heard of Anonymous was in 2012 during the Steubenville Rape Case, when a pair of high school football athletes were under trial for the rape of a 16-year-old girl. But before there were any indictments of school officials or the athletes themselves, Anonymous began an operation called “Justice Ops” in order to seek justice for a victim who was being ignored by those in power in order to keep a football program in good standing (Kushner). Anonymous’s involvement exposing incriminating videos of members of the football team on the night of the attack and emails between school officials gained a great amount of media coverage for the heinous events taking place in Steubenville at the time.

This year the two most-talked about topics on Facebook, which is the most popular social media network used in 2015, were the U.S. Presidential Race, particularly regarding Donald Trump’s candidacy and politics, and the November ISIS attacks in Paris (Mei-Pochtler, Nusca). Anonymous launched cyber-attacks on both. After the terrorist attacks in Paris which sparked worldwide fear and outrage, Anonymous released a video in which they “declared war” on ISIS and said they had major cyber attacks planned. Since then, they have been responsible for taking down thousands of ISIS twitter accounts, hacking an ISIS website to show ads for Viagra and a message to “calm down.”

The presidential race and ISIS are closely bound with each other as presidential candidates have been voicing opinions on accepting Syrian refugees, potential terrorism threats in the US, and Islamophobia. After Donald Trump reported that he would like to ban all Muslims from the States, Anonymous posted a video on December 9, 2015 declaring him as a target for his racism, and proceeded to take down his Trump Towers website, frequently used for campaigning (Moon and Whaley). Topics that attract national upset are those that the hacktivist group is very public about going after, and they are often publically cheered for launching attacks against racism and sexism, hot topics in the contemporary era.

The fiction and nonfiction narrative formation of hacktivism are blended together with the creation of the biopic film “Fifth Estate” that came out in 2013. The movie, directed by Bill Condon and distributed by Walt Disney Studios, followed the creation of the real-life website Wikileaks and discussed its entry onto the internet as well as some of the policies they uncovered, starting with the takedown of a Swiss bank with unethical business practices. Daniel Domsheit-Berg, the protagonist in the story, is wooed by Julian Assange’s ideas of government and corporate revelations through the use of a new media website he’s beginning called “Wikileaks” which will be a whistleblower on world-wide immoral happenings.

Although “it has long been an ethical principle of hackers that ideas and information are not to be hoarded but are to be shared,” certain type of hacking can be used for good reasons and sometimes it will be used for unethical purposes (Ludlow, “WikiLeaks and Hacktivist Culture”). Hacking into computers is against the law and obviously the hackers who break into and sell personal banking information, or the ones in the news for leaking celebrities’ nude photos are acting unethically. But people using their computer programming skills in an effort to promote social and political justice and stimulate change fall into a different category of ethics. This is a major feature of the way in which hackers embody a modern day recreation of the “trickster” archetype. Tricksters, born out of old mythologies, are characters who have a great amount of wisdom or intelligence, and use their information to pull pranks and jokes, using the very knowledge they possess for unconventional purposes, often breaking the rules of the government (Hyde 7). Hackers have all of the internet’s information at their fingertips, they have the smarts to do whatever they like with it - and the way in which they utilize their talents is what classifies them as today’s tricksters. Lewis Hyde in his book, Trickster Makes the World, states that the “trickster is a boundary-crosser… he also attends the internal boundaries by which groups articulate their social life. We constantly distinguish - right and wrong, sacred and profane, clean and dirty … and in every case trickster will cross the line and confuse the distinction” (Hyde 7). Modern trickster-hacktivists blend the line between right and wrong in that their activities are illegal but their intentions are for social good. We see this duality in the advertisements for the Wikileaks biopic film “Fifth Estate,” where on some of the posters the main characters, Julian and Daniel have “Hero” written across their faces, and on others the word “Traitor” is displayed. Tom Sorrell in the Journal of Human Rights Practice describes how hackers navigate and confuse societal boundaries regarding right and wrong. These questionable heroes do not need to fall under a label of good or evil - as a trickster, their main function is to “expose contradictions, initiate change and move the plot forward” (Norton, “Anonymous 101: Introduction to the Lulz"). Tricksters are the splints of rebellion, which is exactly what hacktivists aim to be. Hyde would argue that the ambiguously moral trickster is necessary to culture as they “continue to keep our world lively and give it the flexibility to endure” (Hyde 9). At the center of tricksters and social-justice-hackers, their purpose is stimulation for revolution. Hackers have been known to represent “a commitment to information freedom, a mistrust of authority, a heightened dedication to meritocracy, and the firm belief that computers can be the basis for beauty and a better world” (Coleman 99).

Whether or not this is true for all hackers (like I said, there are still hackers who are just using their computer skills against public interest), that is most frequently the way that hackers in popular narratives like Mr. Robot, Hacktivist and Anonymous group members are perceived. The purpose of my argument is not to judge the validity of claims regarding the moral ground that hackers stand on, it is to look at why Elliot (Mr. Robot), Ed and Nate (Hacktivist Comics), and the group Anonymous are seen by audiences as the protagonists. These character as political and social activists are displaying the way the public feels about systems of power present in today’s society.

In a lot of ways, these hackers have transcended the trickster-hacker role and have become vigilante-hero figures. Though vilified by politicians and sometimes the media, popular opinion puts hacktivists in the “good” label for the most part. Hacktivists are seen as the real-life superheroes of the Internet, who can achieve for the public freedoms that they are being kept from.

Mr. Robot ‘s creator, Esmail, said of the main similarity of the Mr. Robot hacking group “fsociety” and Anonymous: “The one thing in common with a lot of hacking groups is anger. Anger at the status quo, of the ones in power who they deem abusive. They also have a lot of confidence and can level entire companies with pure intellectual skill” (Pangburn). In a Forbes article with Alyssa Milano, the writer, Mark Hughes said, “We live in a society where a lot of people are increasingly starting to feel that certain of the anonymous hacktivist community are better examples of protecting the safety and integrity of our democracy than agencies like the NSA” (Hughes). Some government information and documents that have been leaked by hackervigilantes like Wikileaks and Anonymous should be open for public view according to the objection that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have to excessive privacy and secrecy by international governments (Sorrell).

We have seen hacktivists ask and answer the same questions that government skeptics are concerned with. Julian Assange in the movie, Fifth Estate says, “Two people, and a secret: the beginning of all conspiracies. More people, and, more secrets. But if we could find one moral man, one whistle-blower. Someone willing to expose those secrets, that man can topple the most powerful and most repressive of regimes” (Fifth Estate). In the real-life narrative of Wikileaks, a hacker and contributor to the website stated that he released the information instead of selling it to countries who would have benefitted from the material because “Because it’s public data…it belongs in the public domain…information should be free…if it’s out in the open…it should [do the] public good" (Ludlow, “WikiLeaks and Hacktivist Culture”). This is the exact kind of transparency that the public would like to see. Popular fictional shows released in recent years like House of Cards (Netflix) and Scandal (ABC), that show political corruption and cover-up at the center of the U.S. government represent a public perception that crooked government secrets are standard and normal. It is also through hacktivist whistle blowing that enforce the belief that the government cannot be trusted, and promote the idea that hackers can be. From 2011 to the present moment, the most popular topics called into question by Anonymous are government oppression and police brutality. In fact, 42% of all Anonymous operations have been against government bodies (Brown, “The Hacktivist Encyclopedia”).

The Hacktivist comic books as well call governmental bodies into question, as the two protagonists, Ed and Nate, are asked to work for the government betraying the privacy of Internet users in exchange for their immunity regarding past computer hacking. They also have a social media website which is touted as free from “big brother’s watchful eye.” In Volume one, the government’s effort to silence those with opposing views is at the forefront. In episode one of Mr. Robot titled,, his therapist asks Elliot what about society disappoints him so much. He responds, “The world itself's just one big hoax. … Is it that we voted for this? Not with our rigged elections, but with our things, our property, our money.” In this quote, Elliot clearly marks out how capitalism and a widespread reliance on big business is forcing us into a powerless society where corporations are the ones making the big decisions instead of the government, therefore making him someone who is voicing the viewer’s real-life concerns.

Given American’s skepticism over governmental powers and their ties to corporate America, it makes sense that they would feel an affinity with people who are also questioning those same power schemes. Wikileaks states on their website, “Through governmental corruption, political influence, or manipulation of the judicial system, abusive corporations are able to gain control over the defining element of government the sole right to deploy coercive force” ( It is exactly these fears that are provoking Americans to see government and corporations as the sketchy ones, and hackers as the good guys. As I said, Mr. Robot’s “Fsociety” hacktivist group’s primary goal is to shut down the Financial sector and one of the largest conglomerate at the center of corporate greed and corruption is called “E Corp.” Jackson McHenry in his article for GQ says, “ look closely and you’ll find E Corp has its ethical slipups, but it’s only about as evil as any real-life company that sells you phones, loans, eggplants, or Elsa dolls” (McHenry). Mr. Robot’s Elliot even mentions the corrupt nature of nonfictional corporations and says (still responding about what in society disappoints him so much) “Is it that we collectively thought Steve Jobs was a great man, even when we knew he made billions off the backs of children?” (Mr. Robot Episode 1).

But Hacktivist narratives don’t stop at displaying government and corporate corruption, they also force the question of if the media is still acting as the fourth estate. “In the years leading up to the founding of WikiLeaks, we observed the world’s publishing media becoming less independent and far less willing to ask the hard questions of government, corporations and other institutions. We believed this needed to change” ( In those same shows like Scandal and House of Cards, which put government secrets and corruptions at the forefront, also prominently display the work of media publications, both knowingly and unknowingly, helping distribute government lies - yet another example of how popular shows are ones that promote a need for skepticism over American power roles.

Cybervigilantes and hacker narratives also carry so much appeal for millennials especially because they mirror and enact a lot of commonplace values we have in this contemporary moment. We see hacktivists silencing and censoring the online posts of those they disagree with, finding a necessity for honesty under anonymity, but also the idea of online acts of resistance are very popular among millennials.

Anonymous and other hacktivist groups come into fire frequently for taking down web content of opposing views. For example, during their attack against ISIS, Anonymous took credit for taking down thousands of ISIS accounts on Twitter, and infiltrated and shut down several of their messaging boards. Although online activists see this as a way to prevent recruitment for a dangerous terrorist organization, Anonymous has been criticized (particularly in mainstream media outlets) for censoring views (however disgusting they may be). Among Millennials the idea of “free speech,” as a provision where anyone can say anything they want, may be changing as well. When asked by the Pew Research Center to answer a few questions about legally silencing of particular ideas, a massive 40% of millennials stated that they believed government should be able to prevent people from saying things “offensive to minorities,” This number is 13% higher than what Gen Y responded and 16% up from the Boomers’ responses (Poushter). Although some may feel as though this is contradictory to the idea of free speech and freedom as a whole, I believe it is more of a view on the violence that words can carry with them - and a viewpoint that offensive, hate speech can function as a call to violence for those who are persuaded by bigoted words, like the ones plastered on ISIS Twitter accounts and websites.

Another criticism people have of online activists is the difficulty of verifying sources and claims based on their anonymous nature. Millennials are critiqued for their reliance on anonymous online sources and usage of anonymous messaging sites like Anonymity can be hurtful and makes it more difficult to decipher truth from deceit. However, as Julian Assange said in the film Fifth Estate, “Give a man a mask and he will tell the truth.” It is exactly this concept that Anonymous users and Wikileaks contributors must employ in order to protect themselves. Their actions are against the law, and hacktivists including members of Anonymous and contributors on Wikileaks have been convicted of cybercrimes several times - making anonymity a necessity.

Protesting online is incredibly popular among the young adult generation, where people feel that their voices can be better spread through social media and web content than through inperson protests. Therefore, the idea of people online making a difference in democracy is one that feels comfortable for the younger generations, creating a common value between hacktivists and millennials. Intelligence Group, which is a business investigation and intelligence firm, reported that two-thirds of millennials believe that spreading the word via the Internet is more effective than rallying or protesting on the street (Braunstein). Protesting online protects the activist from danger that demonstrating in a street may lead to including arrest, physical violence, and governmental surveillance (Sorrell). The world watched while Occupy protesters were pepper-sprayed by policemen during Occupy Wall Street protests, the mob mentality of protesters in the Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore turned violent, and in Ferguson protests nationwide dozens have been arrested.

Given that we have seen the ways in which people show their diminishing trust in the people in power concurrent with the rising popularity of hacktivism and hacktivist narratives, it is important to consider if the visibility of these stories in popular culture can help make a difference in a society, or if this is an example of how inclusion into the existing cultural dialogue surrounding power can just pacify audiences to feel like a difference is being made, while the current power schemes revolving around the government, corporations and media remain static.

Dick Hebdige wrote in great length about subcultures and their effects on hegemonies in his works, “From culture to hegemony” and “Subculture: The unnatural break.” According to Hebdige, subcultures, which are counter-hegemonic bodies of knowledge, introduce interference to the system of hegemonic values, or ideologies that are portrayed as normal/natural by modern society’s standards. When it comes to hacker-activists, they are undoubtedly a subculture that wishes to introduce noise to the structure of power worldwide. However, when subcultures are creating enough of a disruption, hegemonies criminalize them or adapt them to popular culture in order to maintain the state of affairs for those in power (Hebdige 124-136). We can see both scenarios taking place in regards to hacktivism and the values hacktivists perpetuate. The man who took responsibility for hacking Steubenville during the rape trials was arrested and stood trial for his illegal activities, even though without his revelations there is a possibility that the men who raped a teenage girl would have never been punished. The entry of hacktivism narratives into popular culture is the other way to end the life of a subculture. Mr. Robot and Hacktivist are both distributed by major corporations. The protagonists in Hacktivist end up working for the government, Mr. Robot’s Fsociety succeeds in season 1 in deleting all debt and credit information from E-corp, which ultimately leads to chaos. At the end of Fifth Estate, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is depicted as a shady character and Daniel just a dreamer. Anonymous is in the news by large part because major media outlets write about them whenever they do anything - and their failings and missteps are equally represented and discussed as their success stories.

Does this mean all hope is lost, that the emergence of entertaining and inspiring hacktivist narratives are just strengthening the oppressive hegemonies that the Western world lives under? On the one hand, hegemonic powers are what allow these narratives like Mr. Robot and Hacktivist to come to light. On the other hand, creating an interest in hacktivism as a whole can inspire someone to do his or her own research. By seeing these representations in popular culture, a person could be inspired to learn more and to join the movement.

Digital media is still relatively new, and the full scale of benefits and consequences within such a platform may not be known for a long time. Many Americans now are feeling like the current state of affairs regarding the U.S. power structure needed revising - particularly when it came to the relationship between institutions like government, corporation and media. There is a call for change. Mr. Robot, Hacktivist, and Fifth Estate are artistic creations that came out of that demand for action, Anonymous gained support and attention for fighting for that cause as well. While it may not be clear what the future of this movement of disillusionment towards powerful institutions may be, with more exposure of the issues, fictional and true-life, comes the opportunity for people who would not necessarily know about these issues to become informed and join the fight.

Works Cited

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