Thursday, February 7, 2008

Hacktivism, hierarchies and hubris

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2008

Incoherent, messianic, slightly bonkers. Even the control-freakiest of Hollywood stars can let their carefully-crafted image slip from time to time. And so it was with Tom Cruise, whose video for the scientologists has been doing the rounds on YouTube for the last few weeks.

Repeated efforts by ‘Church’ lawyers from this famously litigious charity to have it taken down have been met with failure as, like a game of whack-a-mole, every time they hit it, the video pops up again elsewhere.

Whilst ridiculing both Scientology and the rather self-righteous Cruise have been the principal drivers of the YouTube outbreak, a more serious group have emerged to challenge Scientology’s well-funded and highly-resourced operation.

Using techniques developed amongst cyber-terrorists and the hacktivist community, a group called Anonymous has been associated with Denial of Service attacks (overloading a web server with millions of requests for pages) to bring down their website, and using facebook groups and Google maps to share information and organise protest events.

Anonymous publish extensive toolkits for hacktivists and cyber-protesters, allowing them to conceal their identity and cause damage to their targets, together with resources to enable communication between ‘Anons’.

Whereas before, political, social and commercial protesters have operated in small groups, Anonymous adopts a decentralised structure, making use of wikis (websites that can be edited by all their users) to allow the organisation to be collectively driven by all its members, rather than hierarchically driven from the top.

In doing so they have changed the model for internet protest and taken it to another level.

And it’s this combination of the collective (web 2.0) approach with more established hacktivist tools that is likely to set the toolkit for future protests.

Activists have long used the internet to support protests against commercial enterprises as well as political and social ones. claims “McDonald's spends over $2 billion a year broadcasting their glossy image to the world. This is a small space for alternatives to be heard”. The website is primarily an information resource with news on campaigns, issues and links to other protest organizations. provides a vast information repository on the Union Carbide disaster at Bhopal and the company’s twenty-year history of avoiding its responsibilities in the aftermath. It makes grim reading, and is the work of the UK Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, providing a resource for the media to counter the company’s PR.

These sites, and hundreds like them, are an effective way of reaching the media and a useful way of coordinating campaigns. But they require dedicated people and substantial work to keep them relevant, up-to-date and useful.

What makes Anonymous significant is that it has taken to user-generated ‘ground-up’ nature of Web2.0 and applied it in the activist space – in doing so, making it many times more powerful.

The campaign can now be a collective effort between people who may be geographically distant – operating across borders and time zones to create and maintain content and organise the campaign.

This is significant because in the past, companies had a innate advantage – better resourced and funded, they could coordinate media coverage more effectively. That advantage has now perhaps been lost.

But this decentralised approach has given them something else. Hierarchical organisations are vulnerable to the key people being targeted, either politically or personally. An organisation without identifiable leaders is very hard to sue.

So the web is now the key battleground for activism from political to commercial. Consumers have been empowered by these technologies, using them to connect to the mainstream media to expose everything from poor customer service to corporate manslaughter.

But now they’re using web2.0 techniques to connect with each other, allowing them more effectively to leverage their scale – and with this, we can only expect to see online activism grow as a force for change, whether for serious purposes or just the sheer pleasure of pricking the hubris of a celebrity.