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The Challenge of ‘Hacktivists’ for Political Science

The recent unmasking of the membership of LulzSec by the FBI and pronouncement of the organisation’s leader (Sabu) as a government informant has led to suggestions that LulzSec have been decapitated. Following an international policing operation, the arrest of Sabu (real name Hector Xavier Monsegur) alongside five other alleged co-conspirators has been reported as a significant counter-attack against hacktivism. The importance of this “decapitation” for the wider hacktivist movement has, however, been grossly over-stated by the media and, unsurprisingly, the FBI.

Quite simply, as Topiary (another LulzSec member) tweeted: you cannot arrest an idea.

Undoubtedly LulzSec, and other hacktivists, are ‘ideas’ not structured organisations that can be dispersed or decapitated. They have a potentially limitless membership and extremely fluid parameters of what does and does not fall under their ‘activities’. LulzSec could be immediately reformed with an entirely different membership. Moreover, intertwined hacktivist networks such as Anonymous continue to operate. Anonymous (from which LulzSec originally developed) is a radically decentralised political movement made up of disparate networks of individuals without an overarching organisational structure.

For political science, hacktivist networks present a significant challenge as existing conceptualisations of social movements and activism cannot be applied.  Anonymous pose a challenge to our understanding because they challenge (seemingly) relevant analytic paradigms, such as social movement theory, which assume the existence of a (more-or-less) continuous political programme. Anonymous lacks anything approaching this, other than being hedonistically ‘for the lulz’ – an exhortation to action for its intrinsic comedic properties. The movement – such as it is – lacks almost any degree of ‘holism’; there is essentially no central purpose shared between people who claim to be ‘members’, other than operating in a particular arena ‘for the lulz’.

Indeed, Anonymous exists almost completely without organisation; there are no requirements of membership, nor a list of members. Anonymous exists primarily online, and the actions of the movement are coordinated over the internet. However, Anonymous are not restricted to an online presence; the online coordination of Anonymous can and does lead to actions in the physical world. The objective of the actions of Anonymous as a movement is ‘formally’ described as ‘for the lulz’ (laughs).

Whilst pursuit of comedic outcomes may be the rubric of the movement, the substantive goals of their actions are often to support their conception of freedom. One set of members of Anonymous described their substantive concerns as:

[The] erosion of privacy and fair use, the spread of corporate feudalism, the abuse of power and the justifications of executives and leaders who believe themselves immune personally and financially for the actions they undertake in the name of corporations and public office.

The dynamics of Anonymous – its make-up, purposes and characteristics – could shift, at any time, to such an extent that the existing social movement model would no longer apply. In this sense, Anonymous is not a traditional social movement. Instead, Anonymous is a repository of discrete social movements which emerge in a way which cannot be adequately described by social movement theory.

The core ideas which drove LulzSec, and which remain embodied in Anonymous, can lead to the spontaneous formation of social movements. It is the idea, not specific members that matter. As such the arrests, while politically useful, mean very little.

Deirdre Duffy and Jonathan Rose
Postgraduates, @NottsPolitics
Published inUncategorized

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