On June 26th, I retreated into semi-mourning after LulzSec faded back into the woodwork, ending their hacktivity with “50 days of lulz,” in which they leaked internal data from AOL, AT&T, the FBI, gaming forums, NATO bookshop, and navy.mil, among others. The leak marked the end of the Lulz Boat’s “planned 50 day cruise,” leaving its 6-member crew to “now sail into the distance, leaving behind–we hope–inspiration, fear, denial, happiness, approval, disapproval, mockery, embarrassment, thoughtfulness, jealousy, hate, even love. If anything, we hope we had a microscopic impact on someone, somewhere. Anywhere” (LulzSec).
This begs the question I’ve been dodging forever: does spectacle, ultimately, constitute impact? When I talk to friends and family about this phenomenon, I get—in a word—hyped. I’m over-animated, over-eager, only to be halted every time with this question: But what did X, Y, or Z actually do? Apart from gathering numerous followers, supporters, and participants, LulzSec’s antics have unarguably impacted the way organizations view cybersecurity, drawing statements from NATO and prompting the Obama administration to propose stricter anti-hacking laws. (This is one year after the Australian government proposed that DDoS and script hacks be termed “cyber-terrorism” following Operation Titstorm, so that their import could be easily recognized. Notably, these attacks were performed in response to ISP-level censoring measures proposed by the government that year.)
Proposed in May, the new anti-hacking measures would allow Homeland Security to impose security measures on companies, and hackers could face up to 20 years in prison for endangering national security, 10 years for data theft, and 3 years for illegally accessing government networks. If passed, the law would double the penalties currently in place over compromising cybersecurity. The plans are designed to deter hackers from attacking financial institutions such as the IMF as well as sensitive government information (BBC), but I’m not sure that these consequences would faze them. Arrests have been made by Scotland Yard and Dutch and Turkish governments; the FBI recently raided the homes of suspected members of Anonymous in New York in a search targeting individuals in their late teens and early twenties (The Hacker News Network). One of th3j35t3r’s more recent tweets links to a Northern California district indictment of individuals affiliated with Anonymous and/or LulzSec responsible for DDoS, LOIC, and other attacks on cybersecurity. Anons have been doxed and raided left and right, and AntiSec continues to sail strong.
This movement is founded on lulz as much as it is founded on protest. While the fallen are mourned, they seem to embrace their martyrdom. I am reminded, vaguely, of old Tibetan banditry, where entire communities would perform thievery. Stealing and deceitfulness were not shameful, but being caught was cause for group ridicule (Neel-Davis). I know I make Trickster connections left and right, but here’s a tidbit that bolsters the connection: in a Need to Know segment on PBS (2011 Jul 22), Gabriella Coleman noted that Tunisian activists on the ground actually referred to Anonymous as “gods” or godlike, joking that one can pray to Anonymous but one never knows if or when Anon will show up.
Loki immediately comes to mind, as do Raven, Coyote, Eshu, Hermes, and so on: the (lesser or less popular) gods who willingly and cunningly perform the labors that their elders and betters refuse to undertake. These figures are anomizing at best, malicious at worst, and stand at a metaphysical crossroads where they mediate the chaos of exchange and communication. They are the road- and map-makers and they are fickle, though prone to appear at the moments and spaces where the seams in society are beginning to show and the people need to be reminded that what they perceive as order is arbitrary and easily upset, and that power is easily transferable from the upper echelons to the little man, if you’re clever and daring enough to do it.
Familiar as this refrain is, it fails to explain the overall impact of hacktivist spectacle to the Everyman Straw-Man I’ve set up for myself. In the PBS interview, Coleman (2011) approached this problem circumspectly, suggesting that Anonymous’s operations tend to attract participants with a political consciousness, especially regarding operations within their locale; more relevantly, she stated that Anonymous recovered and concealed information pertaining to activists and political prisoners when commandeering and defacing Government of Tunisia websites, a fact that bears a more direct, more obvious political impact.
But what about the greater portion of Anonymous’s activities? The Dadaist spectacle, the absurdity, the humorous malice—the lulz?
With regards to spectacle, Wired quotes Michael Vitale, one of the instigators of Operation Slickpubes as part of Project Chanology:
Anonymous members, he says, are “the assholes of the Internet” and should play that up, because ultimately the movement survives on attention—from the media, from potential recruits—and only one thing is sure to keep the attention coming: Anonymous’ willingness to undertake what Vitale calls “any sort of motherfuckery.”
Oh, come on, my detractors scoff, what does attention ultimately accomplish? My standby retort is, What does any spectacle accomplish? There are some difficult and perhaps unjustifiable comparisons that can be made here, but images of atrocity have mobilized citizens and nations to act. Photographs that advene on us, as Barthes describes in Camera Lucida, impart accountability to both involved parties and to the viewer. Think of the iconic photographs of the Vietnam War, apartheid South Africa, the Bosnian War. Such advention translates to physical, Trickster activity as well. (I can’t remember now but I might have touched on the spectacle, punctum, and viewer animation in this post about torture porn and new media formats in Senseless.)
To bring it back to spectacle in physically active social movements, the affinity group Up Against the Wall, Motherfuckers (UAW/MF), Dada-influenced and directly active on the Lower East Side in the late 1960s, were “the middle-class nightmare” that furthered NYC’s counterculture. This group performed “cultural exchanges” of “garbage for garbage” by dumping trash on the steps of Lincoln Center, and cut the fences at Woodstock 1969, rendering it a free concert for thousands (McMilian). In the latter example, the impact is perhaps more readily evident, as a closed event became open-access; the former example, again, seems like spectacle for statement’s sake, without a genuine, lasting impact. This is even more apparent in the tactics of the more playful Yippies, who worked in street theater pranks, their goal being to mock the status quo and seek out a decentralized, collectivist, anarchic society in place of capitalist, individualistic America. They pioneered pie-throwing as a political tactic. They were billed as combining “theatricality, humor, and activism” (Morgan).
Then we have the Yes Men, “world-renowned troublemakers,” who describe themselves as “impersonating big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them. Our targets are leaders and big corporations who put profits ahead of everything else” (The Yes Men). They pass themselves off as representatives of large corporations, wait to be invited to conferences, and then—not to put too fine a point on it—lie. They make claims that corporations do not support, such as stating on BBC that Dow was finally willing to make reparations to the citizens of Bhopal, India after the industrial chemical crisis there; or declaring that HUD was going to reopen the housing projects it was tearing down so that residents could move back in post-Katrina. They describe their tactics as ranging from “scary” to “gross” to “ridiculous,” and the only immediately evident impact they have is, well, spectacle. Even, dare I say it, lulz.
The Yes Men have noted that fixing the world takes more than spectacle, but the people on whose behalf they perform these hoaxes—the residents of Bhopal, or the Lafitte housing projects in New Orleans—recognize that these hoaxes bring attention to causes the world wants to forget, or has no need to remember. Fast-forward to 4chan, an imageboard steeped in the spectacular. Here, events are recorded in visual vernacular and memes, which may be remixed and spread so that they linger in cultural memory. Where Debord’s spectacle has a field of politically neutered spectators, 4channers and others who are either in similar transgressive Internet cultures or desire to be memetically savvy must participate by modifying and spreading the meme. This culture was retained in Project Chanology, where memes featured prominently in signboards, costumes, the Guy Fawkes masks, and so on. Occupy’s participants and supporters, online at least, draw on this culture, too. Pepper-spray cop from Occupy at UC-Davis, for instance, references the brutal incident of policemen pepper-spraying down the line of student protesters linked arm-in-arm in a human chain. The photograph became an instant exploitable, meaning that users could layer it onto other images to create new statements and allow both images to accrue additional meaning. The cop was placed in Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence, the U.S. constitution, and iconic photographs of a self-immolating monk and Vietnam refugees.
If iconic photographs are politically-minded spectacles meant to advene on us, then what does it mean to superimpose fragments of other political spectacles on top of them?
According to Know Your Meme, Pepper Spray Cop, along with previous reports of pepper-spraying, skyrocketed the news story about police brutality during Occupy protests to major news media outlets. KYM goes on to call it “the defining imagery of the Occupy movement, rivaling in symbolic power, if not in actual violence, images from the Kent State shootings more than 40 years ago” (KYM). Granted, some simply find it funny, and stop thinking at the humor. But in a world where power moves only when embarrassed or directly confronted, and when media channels are directly linked to those in power, attention does bear some impact. Doxing and leaked emails caused enough of a stir—WikiLeaks alone in 2010, and HB Gary more recently—that cyber-terrorism is now in official parlance, and hacking is being met with penalties stricter than murder.
Attention means not only that the people are paying attention—and the people’s attention, I think, means different things in different countries—but also and more importantly that people at the state-level are paying attention, perhaps more so than with (most) nonviolent offline demonstrations. Digital tactics are attracting a different kind of attention due to their sudden proliferation, and the fact that the culture (lulz) and motives (lulz) are inscrutable to most outsiders.
The average Joe may not be reading about all this stuff, but embarrassment works. The Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood launched a two-day campaign to end Scholastic’s partnership with the coal industry (which was paying Scholastic to distribute a controversial energy curriculum to grade-schoolers, incidentally), in tandem with the Coal Cares hoax. Dow stocks plunged after the Bhopal hoax, and a WikiLeaks dump of Stratfor intelligence agency emails revealed Dow was monitoring the Yes Men and Bhopal activists, revealing just how unsettled and paranoid Dow is about the matter.
So, spectacle itself may not effect change, but I think—-especially with digital tactics—-it serves two primary functions. It draws attention to a given cause, whether that cause is corporate greed, government oppression in any form, or genocide, and it draws supporters. While it seems far more difficult to go serve in the PeaceCorps, participating in online tactics is only one telecommute away and incorporates a wide variety of skill-sets, ranging from graphic arts to manifesto writing to coding to speech-making to video editing. Pranking tactics like Googlebombing are simple and accessible to the layperson, and becoming part of an (illegal) botnet or DDoS attack is also simple to do. Obtaining data and leaking it, also seemingly unethical, are relatively simple to do as well. It’s a matter of saving, archiving, and publicizing, anonymously or otherwise. Again, I’m uncomfortable making comparisons between armed conflict and class inequality, but at the same time if spectacle works in the former, why can’t it achieve results in the latter? Are we really so stuck on the notion that “if it bleeds, it leads”?
I’m no optimist, but I’d like to think that even the smallest change counts as change. What matters is the shift in thinking the call-to-arms engenders. I’d like to think movements like Occupy indicate this sort of shift in thinking, as disparate decentralized collectives organize operations in very separate regions. Idealistic as it is for me, I’d like to think that the revolution begins here, with spectacle and lulz, and with the exhortation that people within oppressive systems of any kind begin to think of themselves as people within an oppressive system who can fight that system. Not people who live their lives believing that the system will spare them or save them if they keep their heads low, but people who believe they can peacefully and nonviolently re-empower themselves, through circumventing oppression at the level of state apparatuses, be it police brutality, online or offline censorship, or state-sponsored killings. I have to think it starts here. It spreads to others who take hope from their compatriots, it grows in volume, it reaches critical mass, it results in events like the Arab Spring, union strikes, people who are able to realize their own power.
Fine, my Straw Man says, but won’t the problems just become worse? Won’t censorship become more stringent, and so on, to infinity?
As governments try to push more censorship onto the Internet, for instance, more and more people will be affected—not just the 4channers or Dramacrats, but also the micro-bloggers and social media users. And more and more users will want more and more ways to circumvent censorship, and more and more hackers and geeks will create the technology by which to do so. I’m thinking of one project in particular (hats off to Anonymous, as always), but I’m not going to get into it until Project Mayhem. There have also been several other initiatives to spread wireless connectivity, create relays and bridges more easily with heightened censor evasion, and stop censorship of material based on the say-so of big corporations.
I won’t rehash my earlier thoughts about the ideology seemingly motivating hacker groups like LulzSec and Anonymous. Instead, I’m going to end with the farewell statement accompanying LulzSec’s final leak, excerpted below:
For the past 50 days we’ve been disrupting and exposing corporations, governments, often the general population itself, and quite possibly everything in between, just because we could. All to selflessly entertain others – vanity, fame, recognition, all of these things are shadowed by our desire for that which we all love. The raw, uninterrupted, chaotic thrill of entertainment and anarchy. It’s what we all crave, even the seemingly lifeless politicians and emotionless, middle-aged self-titled failures. You are not failures. You have not blown away. You can get what you want and you are worth having it, believe in yourself.
This work by V. Manivannan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.