Cyberactivism

I presented a working paper, ‘Choreography of Disobedience,’ at the recent Performance Studies international (PSi) conference, ‘Performance Climates,’ at the University of Melbourne. My presentation developed an earlier discussion of the Climate Games during COP21, Paris.

Reviewing these events I was struck by the lack of ‘cyberactivism’ that occurred during the games. Despite a number of web and game developers involved in the hackathons in the lead up to the games as well as reports of organisers being in discussions with the infamous hacker collective, Anonymous (Brussels 2015), to my knowledge no such activity emerged during the COP. No winner is listed for the ‘Electronic Disobedience’ award on the Climate Games website, however the runner up was a modified online Pacman game, ‘Lobbyman,’ to be played to relax between actions. This lack of activity in a form that seems consistent with the Games’ organising processes prompted me to look into a history of cyberactivism and in particular the work of media theorist Molly Sauter and anthropologist Gabriella Coleman.

Electronic Civil Disobedience
In her book The Coming Swarm (2014), Molly Sauter discusses online activism in the context of a longer history and discourse of civil disobedience in the United States of America. Sauter is specifically concerned with Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) actions, in which a server is flooded with simultaneous requests, causing it to slow down and in theory crash, disabling access to the websites it hosts. She recalls the prescient ‘Electronic Civil Disobedience’ (ECD) manifesto written by the Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) and first published in 1994. In it, the CAE query the effectiveness of street based actions in what they argue is an age when power is no longer accessible through architectural forms such as castles, palaces, government bureaucracies, and corporate home offices. Instead the CAE claim that with the onset of computerised information management, power circulates with the flow of information.

Blocking the entrances to a building, or some other resistant action in physical space, can prevent reoccupation (the flow of personnel), but this is of little consequence so long as information-capital continues to flow (Critical Art Ensemble 1996:9).

Responding to these shifts, the CAE advocate for an ecology of activist organisations in which decentralised cells undertake relatively independent and self-determined actions, yet remain aligned with a centralised organisational body who conscious raise, train, advocate and consult (CAE 1996). At a glance, this seems similar to the relations structured according to the Climate Games platform, and scaling up, describes the relations between different climate justice movements and the global campaigner 350.org. According to CAE, ideally these activists cells would be comprised of individuals possessing a range of skills eg artists, hackers, theorists and lawyers, who would undertake forms of ECD and even electronic violence such as system crashes and the taking of data hostages. CAE emphasise, however, that activists should avoid attacking individuals or engaging in ‘electronic assassination,’ that is the erasure of personal data, as a guard against personal reprisals (1996:19).

Splitting from the CAE, the Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT) effectively transposed forms of street protest and political theatre into the online environment. Comprising the artists, activists, programmers and scholars, Stefan Wray, Ricardo Dominguez, Carmin Karasic and Brett Stalbaum, the ECD worked at ‘intersections of radical politics, recombinant and performance art, and computer software design’ (Wray 1998b). They developed DDoS actions as a form of direct-action, initially in solidarity with the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) who had made use of the burgeoning internet to disseminate information and publicise their conflicts with the Mexican and US governments.

On 22 December 1997, a paramilitary squad surrounded a Catholic church in a remote village in Chiapas Mexico and gunned down those gathered inside, resulting in the deaths of forty-five indigenous men, children and women, four of whom were pregnant. To protest and raise awareness of the Acteal Massacre a call-to-actions from the Anonymous Digital Coalition, led to early acts of ECD targeting the websites of the then Mexican President Enersto Zedillo and the US White House of President Bill Clinton. During these early actions in 1998, the EDT encouraged participants in these protests to simultaneously reload a website on their browser by manually striking the refresh button and thereby ‘blockading’ the websites of institutions regarded symbols of ‘Mexican neo-liberalism.’ Soon after they developed a Java-based software tool, FloodNet, which was programmed to reload a targeted page every few seconds. With FloodNet ‘netsurfers’ were able to participate in mass, browser-based blockades as well as ‘conceptual-artistic spamming’ (Stalbaum n.d.). For example, in protest of the Acteal Massacre, cyberactivists could manually input the names of those killed into the applet’s personal message form, which would then send a request to the targeted server. Failing to call up the requested file, the name would be stored on the servers’ error logs as a symbolic list of the murdered civilians.

FloodNet
FloodNet screenshot

Arguably the action that speaks most directly to the Climate Games was another virtual sit-in organised by the British collective, The Electronic Hippies. In 1999, the E-Hippies choreographed a campaign targeting the World Trade Organisation (WTO) summit, simultaneous to the demonstrations in the streets of Seattle. Again using DDoS techniques the group targeted the conference servers, public-facing websites and various staff and state accounts using a tool based on FloodNet. According to the group over 450 0000 activists used this tool to participate in the protests online (cited Sauter 2014:39). Following this virtual sit-in, the Electrohippies conducted a two-day ‘email bombing’ campaign, in which protesters were asked to send messages to a list of WTO affiliated addresses with large uncompressed attachments. Like the EDT, the Electronic Hippies pursued techniques of online activism that were analogous to well established physical actions, and in which the internet was defended as a public forum where people ought to be able to assemble and exercise democratic rights. Both the EDT and E-Hippies developed client-side actions representative of real and conscious participants, ‘maintaining a one-to-one participant to signal ratio’ (Sauter 2014:44), rather than exploiting server-side vulnerabilities, hacking or mobilising bots. Emphasising the use of direct-action civil disobedience as a democratising technique, the Electronic Hippies stated: ‘If people don’t vote with their modems (rather than voting with their feet) the actions would be an abject failure’ (cited in Sauter 2014:43).

Stefan Wray (1998) recalls that the effectiveness of FloodNet on targeted servers was questionable and thus the tool might be best understood as a ‘symbolic gesture’ and ‘simulated threat’ which served more as an attention director than, say, a weapon. Sauter concurs that FloodNet actions and other early forms of ECD sought media attention as their primary goal, noting how EDT took care to distribute press releases to major media outlets and announce actions publicly beforehand (2014:61). However citing media theorist Graham Meikle, Sauter questions whether these actions were successful as media stunts, given that they often received reactionary or facile coverage which rarely considered the politics behind the deeds, and were sometimes conflated as acts of cyber-terrorism (2014:64).

Doing it for teh Lulz
According to Encyclopedia Dramatica, a satrical website and repository of information related to internet subcultures, and as cited in Gabriella Coleman’s in depth study of Anonymous (2014, p: 45–46 ), the term ‘Lulz’

is a corruption of L O L, which stands for ‘Laugh Out Loud’, signifying laughter at someone else’s expense (from the German concept of ‘Schadenfreude’). This makes it inherently superior to lesser forms of humor. Anonymous gets big lulz from pulling random pranks. The pranks are always posted on the internet. Just as the element of surprise transforms the physical act of love into something beautiful, the anguish of a laughed-at victim transforms lol into lulz, making it longer, girthier, and more pleasurable. Lulz is engaged in by Internet users who have witnessed one major economic / environmental / political disaster too many, and who thus view a state of voluntary, gleeful sociopathy over the world’s current apocalyptic state, as superior to being continually emo.

Arguably, ‘doing if for the lulz’ is a motivation that marks a shift in cyberactivism from the early days of ECD as conducted by EDT to the more recent strategic DDoS campaigns orchestrated by Anonymous and breakaway groups such as LulzSec. Coleman charts the history of Anonymous as somewhat malevolent trollers operating on the bulletin board 4chan and their surprising transformation into effective and intimidating cyberactivists—even vigilantes—as they are now widely perceived.

Sauter describes Anonymous as a having a supra-identity structure, built out of the concept of the mass or the hoard, and that is evident in it’s unofficial motto: ‘We are legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect Us’ (2014: 81). Observing that Anonymous provoked a genuine fear amongst media organisations who were unwilling to appear overtly critical of their actions for fear of reprisals (2014: 67–68), Sauter goes on to discuss how the leaderless and decentralised nature of Anonymous also played in its favour. Having no official spokesperson and given that ‘literally anyone could claim to speak for the group’ (2014: 68), major news outlets would often simply republish Anonymous propaganda and call-to-actions, expanding its reach and participant base. Thus, rather than classify Anonymous as an organisation or collective Sauter describes them as a culture, or to be more precise what technology writer David Auerbach identifies as ‘A-culture.’ That is, a set of cultural norms and practices developed as a result of online communications which are fundamentally anonymous, containing no archive of interactions or development. A-cultures are an ‘internet-based subaltern counter public’ (Sauter 2014: 79) who practice trolling and other forms of ‘recreational offense’ and also exhibit a heightened ‘meta-awareness’ coupled with ‘suspicion and unreality.’ According to Sauter, they are also capable of highly democratized modes of appropriation-based production. Thus, Anonymous can seem both social and open, but also elitist and obscurant.

Coleman’s is an engaging, but not an entirely objective profile of Anonymous. She goes into the depths of their improvised and labyrinthine organisational structures and unpacks many of their decision making processes. She casts ‘Anons’ as ‘tricksters,’ an archetypal figure familiar to her discipline of anthropology. According to Coleman, tricksters appear in many cultures as ambiguous figures who impart knowledge, cast doubts and confusion, are selfish, shrewd and mischievous. What unites them as a typology is a ‘burning desire to defy or defile rules, norms and laws’ (Coleman 2014: 50). Coleman’s classification of Anonymous somewhat aligns with Sauter’s description of hackers as ‘folk devils’ who personify our anxieties about ‘technology, the technologically mediated society and our increasingly technologically mediated selves.’ Hackers are ‘deviant[s] of the information society’ who do not abide by social norms (Sauter 2014: 63). Possessed with technical skills and knowledge that are far beyond those of the average person, who is nonetheless tied to these technological means, the hacker-cum-folk-devil lurks in the legal grey zones of information society or is simply criminal, embodying the ‘ultimate bogeyman of the modern technological age’ (Sauter 2014: 86). While many Anons are technically not hackers, the kinds of anti-social discussions and antics that spin-off from 4chan and related IRCs that Coleman discusses would seem to confirm the impression of Anonymous as decentralised, spontaneous and prone to malevolent mischief. However, Coleman also describes how their familiarity and experimentation with internet infrastructure informs Anon’s increasing politicised activities concerning internet freedoms, such as freedom of speech and freedom of information.

is-ddos-illegal
Anonymous

Perhaps then, what is so surprising about the awakening of a political consciousness amongst this community of trickster-trollers is their willingness to take to the streets, coordinating ‘virtual sit-ins’ simultaneous to real life blockades. In February 2008, thousands of Anons, many wearing the Guy Fawkes mask now synonymous with the movement, protested outside Scientology centres located cities across Australia, Canada, the UK and USA. This marked the beginning of a sustained campaign called ‘Operation Chanology,’ that according to a now infamous (mobi?) video, intended to expel the religious organisation from the internet and systematically dismantle the church in its present form. Such videos and related e-fliers, banners and propaganda combined with street actions are all evidence of Anonymous’ capacity for theatrics.

DDoS and the law
An action Anonymous orchestrated in 2010 in solidarity with Wikileaks remains the largest act of ECD in net history. In November 2010 Wikileaks released a slew of diplomatic cables in cooperation with the major news outlets The Guardian, The New York Times, El País, Le Monde and Der Spiegel, producing a controversy that became known as ‘Cablegate.’ In response, several major companies including, Amazon, Mastercard and Paypal, refused to process donations or provide web-hosting for Wikileaks, bending under pressure from the US government. Anonymous had already began a DDoS campaign, ‘Operation Payback’ in September 2010. Using the questionably legal botnet based tool, Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC), Anons targeted the websites of institutions and organisations accused of hiring an Indian firm to run DDoS attacks on the Pirate Bay filesharing site, notably the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America (Sauter 2014: 113). Between December 4 and 10, Anonymous diverted their energies to ‘Avenge Assange,’ targeting the sites of numerous parties complicit in the ‘smearing of Wikileaks’ (Sauter 2014: 153). The operation attracted more than seven thousand participants who volunteered their machines using LOIC to carry out these actions. As a so-called server ‘stress-testing’ tool, LOIC corals a ‘zombie army’ of networked computers, sometimes unbeknown to their administrators, under a single command and control (a botnet) to launch DDoS attacks. According to an Anonymous informant it took only eight hundred computers to take down Mastercard and one thousand for Visa, although accounts of as to how long vary (Moses 2010).

The actions undertaken as Operation Payback and Avenge Assange, in particular the attacks on Paypal’s blog (note: not its credit processing site) triggered a series of FBI raids in late December 2010. By July 2011 the US agency had arrested fourteen alleged participants, labelled the ‘Paypal 14’, exploiting a kink in the LOIC process that revealed the addresses of end users. By 2013 thirteen of those arrested pleaded guilty to participating in a ‘worldwide conspiracy’  by coordinating ‘cyber-attacks’ against a number of corporate entities. The court case confirmed that DDoS attacks were prosecutable in the US under its Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), with penalties much harsher than if one were to participate in similar offline actions such as a street protest or blockade that similarly infringed on private property (Agence France Press 2013). Arguably, this confirms the CAE’s claims in the nascent days of the world wide web, that power resides not in the lobbies of corporations and institutions, but in network flows of information.

Most jurisdictions have laws against DDoS actions yet there is still some discussion as to their legitimacy. As they are effectively the equivalent of thousands of people refreshing a browser simultaneously, those in support argue they are an appropriate protest technique on internet-facing websites. Those that oppose its use argue that such actions block access to information, in what amounts to a restriction of free speech. Sauter argues that DDoS actions disrupt the constant whirl of communicative capitalism and that the ‘lack of signal that is the external manifestation of an external DDoS action should be interpreted as making space for unheard dissent’ (2014: 93). Coleman takes into account power relations in her analysis of DDoS actions, noting that:

By enabling the underdog—the protester or infringed group—to speak as loudly as its more resourceful opponents (in this case, powerful corporations), we might understand a tactic DDoS as a leveler: a free speech win (2014:166).

An issue that would seem more current to this debate is the waning effectiveness of DDoS techniques given the development of websecurity processes and infrastructures. How can masses of ‘netizens’ leverage their concerns online and make room in what is now wholly privatised netspace and particularly in social forums such as Facebook?

A mass participation transmedia action framework
One possible reason for the lack of cyberactivism during Climate Games is that at the time Anonymous were already focused on ‘Operation Isis’ for which they took control and removed pro-ISIS websites from the internet and ISIS-recruiting user accounts from Twitter and Facebook. Following the terrorist attacks in Paris, Anonymous launched ‘Operation Paris’ and announced December 11, the second last day of the Games, to be ‘Isis trolling day.’

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IsisChan

It is also possible that heavy fines associated with DDoS and potential criminal charges were are a deterrent to those considering such actions during the COP. Such concerns would have been heightened during France’s state of emergency. However, writing from an activist point of view, one must be wary of the conflation of anti-capitalist protest with terrorism by states and private interests, particularly in an era where it appears more acutely that states serve to facilitate those interests. This is evident by the presence of the energy company Engie and bank BNP Paribas, who both have significant interests in coal, gas and oil, as ‘official sponsors’ of the COP. Such ‘corporate greenwashing’ of the summit was notably satirised by Brandalism’s billboard campaign during the Games.

eyesawweb
Brandalism during COP21, Paris 2015. Artwork by Eye Saw

The Climate Games online platform was described by its organisers as ‘a mass participation transmedia action framework’ that exists across public space and cyberspace (Labofii n.d.). In addressing the lack of cyberactivism in the Games I have also attempted to find some resonances between the operational and organisational modes of group identities such as Anonymous and the climate justice movement.

Certainly, both may be regarded as subcultures with their own set of references, beliefs and practice-specific tools. Arguably, the figure of the trickster is also familiar to counter-culture and activist movements and such characteristics may have become more pronounced given the turn towards ‘creative disobedience’ and the ‘gamification’ of protest. Actions undertaken during the Climate Games were not direct actions to physically stop C02 emissions, or significantly disrupt the COP negotiations. Rather, they were symbolic gestures designed to interrupt the ‘business as usual’ of ‘climate criminals’ identified by those within the movement. Brazen stunts such as Brandalism, received favourable attention from major media outlets and raised awareness of grass-roots activist groups, as all eyes were on Paris. The prankish and meme-like actions of the popular Ensemble Zoologique de Libération de la Nature, (who coincidently lift the acronym of the Zapatistas, EZLN), suggests they are exemplar tricksters of the Games. While some are critical of this turn towards novelty in recent protest actions, might it also be indicative of the lulz arising as a motivating factor within climate justice movements?

Another similarity may come from the experience of mass action itself. As Anonymous, individuals willingly submit to or, as many would argue, hide behind a supra-identity. Strength arises in the sheer numbers of the crowd participating in disobedient acts, brought together by a common objective or set of beliefs. Aspects of such a mass identity are evident in the swarm actions of the identically-dressed crowds participating in Ende Gelände. Following their occupation of the Grazweiler coal mine in 2015, the eight hundred or so protesters who entered the pit were arrested. Most were later released without charge after collectively refusing to reveal their identities and overwhelming the authorities’ capacity to process them all. Notably this is in contrast to the early virtual sit-ins organised by EDT and the Electronic Hippies who claimed:

We have nothing to hide, as we believe that our purpose is valid, and so we do not seek to hide it from any authorities who seek to surveil us. Likewise, we do not try to bury our identities from law enforcement authorities, any authority could, if it chose to, track us down in a few hours….The right to take action against another entity on the ‘net must be balanced with the principle of accountability. (The Electrohippies cited in Sauter 2014:96).

Arguably for Ende Gelände activists anonymity is a delaying tactic, and has some affinity with the way DDoS attacks slow down processing speed and have the potential to lead to system crashes.

ende-gelnde_20406296909_o-_web
Ende Gelände, Grazweiler, 2015. Photo: Ruben Neugebauer / 350.org

We might draw again from the CAE who argued for small independent cells of multi-specialist activists to work together rhizomatically (as a ‘meshwork’?), a mode of operating that is evident in the Climate Games. I also find it instructive that EDT were comprised of two kinds of writers: theorists and coders. Tentatively, what might be fruitful by bringing together different approaches to civil disobedience in a transmedia environment is the development of new metaphors, concepts and tools that negotiate publicly accessible yet privatised space both online and off, and are able to take advantage of the way online and offline protocols are collapsing into each other, as the ‘internet of things’ suggests. A concerted effort to develop transmedia strategies might also overcome the criticisms of ‘folk-political thinking’ (Srnicek and Williams 2014) often levelled at street protesters and social movements. By pressing activists to innovate we might find new means, sites and reasons for undertaking civil disobedience and producing disobedient spectacles, for leveraging counterpower and, of course, for the lulz.

References
Agence France Presse, 2013. ‘13 Members of hacker group ‘Anonymous’ indicted on federal charges,’ Business Insider Australia, 4 October.

Brussels, Arthur Nelson, 2015. ‘Activists promise largest climate civil disobedience ever at Paris summit,’ The Guardian, 8 October.

Climate Games [website].

Coleman, Gabriella, 2014. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous, Verso, London and New York [ebook].

Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), 1994. ‘Electronic Civil Disobedience,’ In: Electronic Civil Disobedience and Other Unpopular Ideas, 1996, Autonomedia, New York, p: 6–32. [PDF]

Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination (Labofii), n.d. ‘Hacking the COP: The Climate Games in Paris 2015’ [PDF]

Graeff, Erhardt, 2014. ‘Molly Sauter and The Coming Swarm: A fireside chat,’ MIT Center for Civic Media [blog].

Moses, Asher, 2010. ‘The Aussie who blitzed Visa, MasterCard and PayPal with the Low Orbit Ion Cannon,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 December.

Srnicek, Nick and Williams, Alex, 2015. Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, Verso, London and New York [e-book].

Stalbaum, Brett, n.d. ‘The Zapatista Tactical FloodNet: A collaborative, activist and conceptual art.’

Wray, Stefan, 1998. ‘Electronic Civil Disobedience and the World Wide Web of Hacktivism: A Mapping of Extraparliamentarian Direct Action Net Politics,’ Switch, vol. 4 no. 2.

Wray, Stefan, 1998b. ‘The Electronic Disturbance Theater and Electronic Civil Disobedience,’ 17 June.

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