Since the dawn of mass communication in the 20th century, technology has been continually developing and expanding its limits. We can no longer ignore the intriguing futurist Jetsons-era we seem to have developed into. Despite the many negative side effects of the overwhelming amount of technology we use, we realize the fact that the birth of mass communication has achieved extraordinary things in the realm of social and political justice. Information travels globally at just a click of a button, and thanks to the World Wide Web, the term global village is now a reality.[pullquote]”They call themselves Anonymous and their motto is “Knowledge is free. We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.”[/pullquote] In the past, for example during the 1960‘s, activism was thought of as an ‘active’ duty by the community and the citizens to express their opinions, to influence society and to resist oppression. Most people will agree that the take-it-to-the-streets approach has quieted down a little in recent decades, especially since the technology we have in the present day was not available as an outlet of citizen engagement and activism in the past. Don’t get the wrong idea; there is still a lot of physical activism going on, especially in countries at war, however in most societies, it’s safe to say that there is a new kid in town.
They call themselves Anonymous and their motto is “Knowledge is free. We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us”. They are shifting the way people interpret and understand activism, and the term ‘hacktivist’ has been quickly implemented to explain their actions. Online activism and advocacy has become the new norm, as the freedom to start a petition, sign a petition, spread images, upload videos and even hack governments is now available to us. Vigilantism has been a popular topic throughout history, in fiction and non-fiction alike, allowing the normal everyday person to take direct action against injustice when they feel justice or punishment is not being assumed. Robin Hood, Batman, Watchmen, Zorro, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are just some of the examples in popular culture depicting hero-like behaviour and notions of saving-the-day.
The status of vigilantism is illegal, however there is confusion as to what is morally justifiable in the world of policing and citizens, and what constitutes being just a good Samaritan and outright breaking the law. From time to time, Anonymous will use a website called paste bin to post letters to the public, and they have stated that they do not believe in crime or punishment against the people they are after; their job is simply to release information on those guilty of crimes when the local or national police struggles in reaching that goal. The legal definition of vigilantism is as follows: “Taking the law into one’s own hands and attempting to effect justice according to one’s own understanding of right and wrong; action taken by a voluntary association of persons who organize themselves for the purpose of protecting a common interest, such as liberty, property, or personal security; action taken by an individual or group to protest existing law; action taken by an individual or group to enforce a higher law than that enacted by society’s designated lawmaking institutions; private enforcement of legal norms in the absence of an established, reliable, and effective law enforcement body.” Speaking from a legal point of view, it is assumed that vigilantism isn’t considered vigilantism if it’s protecting existing law. But does the law always determine what is morally good?
That being said, vigilantism isn’t always as positive as people would like to think. During the 1830’s, there were a lot of groups who were protecting slavery and put much effort into hindering abolitionism. The Klu Klux Klan is an example of vigilantism that isn’t politically correct and works to oppress people. Yet, there are still many inspiring examples of people aiding and protecting the community where the police may have lacked. In 1859 there was a group of people in Kansas who called themselves the Anti Horse Thief Association and their job was to be a neighbourhood watch for innocent people who were getting their horses stolen. A more contemporary example is the Alliance of Guarding Angels, who are still active in New York City (with a website too: guardianangels.org) and operate within the city, spending their days and nights patrolling the streets and subways, keeping an eye out for crime. If you visit Cincinnati, you might run into Shadow Hare, who lurks in the shadows, surveying the streets for late-night mugging and sometimes feeding homeless.
Since Occupy Wall Street became an official movement started by Adbusters Culture Jammer, Anonymous has been in the spotlight appearing at various rallies for many different causes. They have no headquarters, no assigned leader or official website/twitter or facebook account. They simply operate on the basis that anyone can join anonymous and that it is a true movement by the people since it does not have a face; it represents all of us. Nevertheless, http://youranonnews.tumblr.com/ seems to be a good source for up to date information. This group of hacktivists work behind closed doors, with the shades drawn and very quietly. The results are quite overwhelming, from hacking the FBI and North Korean websites, to re-opening rape cases (or just solving cases period) and threatening the RCMP with releasing sensitive information about criminals. Political activist Jeremy Hammond was recently arrested for being linked to the Stratfor case (a global intelligence company) and for releasing information to WikiLeaks, which subsequently began publishing over 5 million email messages. He plead guilty and is facing a maximum of 10 years in prison and compensation of up to $2.5 million. In an article published by Rolling Stone on May 28, 2013, defense attorney Sarah Kunstler said “There’s a war going on about corporate spying and access to information. Jeremy is someone who worked toward making information public.”
Another instance involves the hacking of the Westboro Baptist Church Facebook page when members of the church announced they would be picketing the funerals of the recent Boston bombing victims and claiming that “God sent the bombs” because of all the “filthy fags” in the world. Anonymous took action in hacking their page and posting countless images of social revolutionaries such as Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr, along with their famous positive quotes. Anonymous started a full-on war with the church, posting their private documents online and starting petitions against their tax-exempt status.
In the midst of this free information war, Democracy Now recently interviewed linguist, philosopher, historian and political critic, Noam Chomsky, on his thoughts on WikiLeaks. He believes that WikiLeaks is a service to the population and that “the whole operation has helped inform people about what their elected representatives are doing – that’s a wonderful thing to do.” Another instance involves a young girl who recently committed suicide after being bullied for being raped. Rehtaeh Parsons, a 17 year old girl from Nova Scotia was allegedly gang-raped by four boys, and a few months ago, frustrated by the lack of justice, Anonymous posted masked videos claiming that they knew the names of the perpetrators, threatening to release them unless the law enforcers did more to bring them to justice. However, the Parsons family has asked those involved with Anonymous not to release their names in an effort to bring peace to the family during this difficult time. Anonymous respected their wishes, but still held a demonstration outside Halifax Police Headquarters. It was also members of Anonymous who circulated images, tweets and videos of the Steubenville rape case, shedding light on that horrible night and bringing (somewhat of a) justice to that girl. While there has been much talk comparing the hackers with the rapists, it is alarming that while Deric Lostutter has not been charged with anything yet, the punishment could be up to 10 years – much more than what the actual rapists got. Gabriella Coleman, author of “Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking” was a guest on NPR on June 13, 2013 and she believes that “these technologists were not simply making technology, but reinventing the law” which brings the question, is it acceptable for citizens to take the law into their own hands when they observe injustice, or are the lines between what is just and what is opinion getting blurred? In some instances, it is interesting that technology is the only platform activists can engage and disturb social injustices, as many have heard about Anonymous hacking North Korean websites in order to embarrass and threaten Kim Jong Un.
While it is difficult for some people to make the decision to stand behind Anonymous, most people can probably agree that while technology has worked to distract people from social concerns, it is still crucial to have debates, observe society and think about the issues relating to free information, government spying and corruption within the justice system, and to recognize the tremendous influence digital activism has in the social and political realm. The medium is clearly the message, and the message is loud and clear: citizens are no longer limited to the streets, and computers, information and intelligence extend beyond government ownership.
By: Clara Musca