Hackers – Could They have Found New Kinds of Activism?


A few weeks ago, while searching for documentaries to watch, I landed on two interesting ones about hackers in two free-of-charge streaming websites of UR—The Swedish educational broadcasting company—which is an independent public service company that operates together with SVT (Swedish public television). The first documentary is a 28minutes-long episode that is a part of an 8-episodes series called Aktivismens Tid (Activism Time) from 2014 that is produced by UR. The second one is almost an hour-long called Internetaktivisterna (Internet Activists) from 2015 by the French director Flo Laval. What I found interesting about these documentaries was that they show not only the different kinds of activism hackers engage with, but also the way they propagate and share technological knowledge with “ordinary people”, primarily knowledge about internet surveillance/censorship and the ways people can avoid it, that is, use the internet in a safer way. Thus, from, generally, being focused on working with other hackers on projects like open-source/free software, hackers have been engaging in a more collaborative work with others like ordinary people and different kinds of social organizations who have no previous relation to hacker culture.

The development is observed in academic literature. Both Lievrouw (2011) and Postil (2014), for example, show the way hackers, as part of a larger group of technologically-oriented agents, not only engage in projects with other hackers, but instead collaborate with different social movements. For Lievrouw (2011), hackers, or hacktivists, are a part of a group that consists of programmers, technologists, and media producer/activists who engage in alternative computing and provide the example of their collaboration with global justice activists already in the 1999 Seattle WTO protests.  Hackers, specifically, have engaged in hacktivism, electronic civil disobedience, and similar interventions involving the technological infrastructure itself (p. 173) like implementing different actions against targeted organization’s websites (p. 164). For Postill (2014), hackers are a part of a group he defines as freedom technologists that consists primarily of geeks, online journalists, and tech lawyers who played a crucial (but different) role in the three post-2008 protest movements he investigated—the 15-M, Tunisia’s 2010-2011 uprising, and the Icelandic post-2008 developments—that eventually even contributed to what he calls the mainstreaming of nerd politics, which is “the ongoing convergence of freedom technologists and broader popular struggles over freedom and social justice, to the point that the two are becoming virtually indistinguishable.” (414)

The documentaries also point out the connection to social movements but primarily show hackers’ sharing their technological knowledge with ordinary people in different contexts and projects (i.e. non-activists or activists with no prior technical knowledge about the internet). The first documentary (in the first half of the episode) contends that research can contribute to the society it investigates (like action/participatory research) and that people’s knowledge can be viewed as a seed for a change. Thus, it tells the story of a Turkish hacker Ahmet Sabanci who believes that freedom in every sense is vital in life (which is the reason he feels that nowadays he must “encrypt his free spaces”) and, thus, uses his computer skills to draw attention to Internet censorship in Turkey and help ordinary people to protect their anonymity online. He does so by helping students in his university and ordinary people in Hackerspace Istanbul to avoid state censorship and practice safer internet by using protective software and encrypted systems.

The second documentary provides a glimpse into hacker culture and shows hackers from different places and groups and the different projects and collaborations they are involved with. For example, it presents Mitch Altman, co-founder of San Francisco non-profit educational institution Noisebridge Hackerspace, who asserts he wants to share his knowledge with as many people as possible and teaches soldering in the hackers festival OHM (Observe. Hack. Make), a gathering place for programmers who wants to share their knowledge with each other. Another example, and perhaps the most interesting one in the film, is that of the main character the director follows and interviews, the French hacktivist Okhin. The film shows the way his priorities and activities have changed from primarily developing free software in the Paris-based hackerspace Le Loop into fighting against Internet censorship and surveillance by engaging in different projects: being a part of Telecomix, the group most known for technically supporting Syrian activists in the Arab Spring; holding lectures about internet security during the WSF (World Social Forum) for anti-globalisation and media-oriented activists; getting employed by FIDH’s (International Federation for Human Rights) in their IT-department to help them primarily with protecting their anonymity online and using safe programmes and software, especially in totalitarian countries that practice censorship; and holding workshops about Internet security in Simplon, a French school that teaches both social entrepreneurship and data programming that addresses the more underrepresented groups in IT-circles, like women, young adults from vulnerable areas, and people from rural areas.

As argued in the second documentary, the change in hackers’ priorities—their new way of sharing their knowledge with people who lack this technical knowledge—have emerged in a time in which surveillance programmes have become weaponised. Kelty (2008), who refers to hackers generally as geeks, explains further that the reason free internet and software, specifically, are so important to them and the reason they fight is because they do not only argue about this technology, but argue with and through it, by “building, modifying, and maintaining the very software, networks, and legal tools within which and by which they associate with one another.” (p. 5, emphasis added) Lievrouw (2011) elaborates that this technological infrastructure is the one they articulate themselves through and have become a cause for a social change, but a social change not merely as a means to an end, but as a manifestation of social and political expression and participation (p. 100).

Consequently, it can be argued that the act of sharing knowledge about the Internet and new media is another kind of new media activism that Meikle (2016) refers to as media literacy in order to understand the “increased embedding of networked digital media in every aspect of civic, economic, and personal life “ (p. 144). Whether it is by helping to save the lives of activists in the Arab Spring, or helping to protect people through organizations like FIDH, or “just” sharing knowledge with “ordinary people” that are media illiterate—these are examples of new kinds of interlinked and internet-connected activism.


P.s – Here is the original Flo Laval documentary, Les Gardiens du Nouveau Mond, in French: [youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5tBsVX5g0g[/youtube]

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  1. Without a specific cause, Anonymous is like an International Digital Militia:
    //A militia /mᵻˈlɪʃə/[1] generally is an army or other fighting unit that is composed of non-professional fighters, citizens of a nation or subjects of a state or government who can be called upon to enter a combat situation, as opposed to a professional force of regular, full-time military personnel, or historically, members of the warrior nobility class (e.g., knights or samurai). Unable to hold their own against properly trained and equipped professional forces, it is common for militias to engage in guerrilla warfare or defense instead of being used in open attacks and offensive actions.// (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Militia)

  2. Great post, Alona! Quite long, but worth read it 🙂
    It is interesting to note how hackers are present in our life much more than we expect. For example, the mail scandal that is investing Hillary Clinton has put hackers on the spotlight, with many arguing about Wikileaks’ real intentions behind their release of many of such emails.

    Also, we often think at hackers thanks to cultural cliché – finally broken by tv series such as Mr Robots and the journalistic work of Wikileaks – but in reality internet security is crucial for everyone who works with sensitive data, as we do in the Development field. As a journalist, I took a course about it and it is pretty simple to defend yourself against the vast majority of such attacks: however, way too many people overlook this issue.

    I also like your distinction between hackers and geeks, and the amount of research you out in it – thanks! Just a pity I don’t speak French… 🙂

    • Alona Polanitzer

      Thank you for your comments, Ian and Ilario 🙂

      Ian – yes, and there is always Anonymous, even though their activism is not directly connected to my post (though the French activist was indeed in Telecomix who acted together with Anonymous…)

      Ilario – Glad you enjoyed the post 🙂 I tried to make it shorter but got interested in the academic literature’s discussions around hackers. As well, as I keep being reminded of, I am aware that practicing “safer Internet” should be an easy thing to do, but I suppose, just as myself, most people don’t take the time to do it even if they wish to, which may also be a part of the reason why so many of the hackers founded these hackerspaces – quite accessible for all people…
      Definitely agree with you about Mr. Robot and the likes who try to change the perspective on hackers. Was indeed a great programme, which I suppose, was a part of what lead me to present the documentaries I watched and discuss them – they, too, show a different perspectives on hackerculture, a different perspective that is always welcomed if it changes stereotypes/lack of knowledge/adds new knowledge.
      Finally, I sincerely tried my best to look for the documentary with English subtitles for everyone to watch, but I only found the original in French and the one I watched that is with Swedish subtitles…

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