Yesterday I organized a panel on hacktivism at re:publica. It didn’t take long to figure out who I wanted to participate. Biella Coleman, Frank Rieger and Stefania Milan were the perfect lineup. Each brought something different to the discussion and helped illustrate the complexities and occasional contradictions of hacktivism as an agent for social and political change.
Part of the challenge I faced as moderator was bringing a sense of balance and inclusion to the discussion. I am neither an academic nor an impartial observer. Hacktivism is something I have done for the past sixteen years; animated by a specific set of principles. And although I am aware of what some other actors have done and continue to do in this space, I don’t have a scholarly or disinterested approach to the history and practice of hacktivism.
I did my due diligence as moderator by reviewing the history of hacktivism as accurately as I could. It appeared to have begun in 1971 with the Youth International Party Line’s first issue, and developed further with the Franco-German coalition 1984 Network Liberty Alliance. As time marched on the scene became more dense and I discovered groups and individuals I had never heard of. Then a fortuitous link landed me in completely uncharted territory: Feminist hacktivism.
I don’t know why I was so surprised at this discovery, and eventually began to feel foolish that I’d never encountered it before. It made perfect sense that there would be feminist hacktivism and feminist hacktivists. But what was it, and more importantly where was it? I probably spent more time than I needed to delving into the thoughts of Donna Haraway, Judith Butler, and the early cyber-feminists, women whom I imagined fueled this discourse. But it’s in my nature to grok as much background data as possible before approaching a new idea. Still, I wasn’t really seeing it. Where was feminist hacktivism?
I was genuinely curious and asked our panelists at re:publica about feminist hacktivism. The answers were helpful but I still wanted more and thought, of all places, there have to be feminist hacktivists at re:publica. And there were. The next panel discussion I attended was presented by three women from the Tactical Technology Collective. Much of it highlighted digital campaigning around women’s and LGBT issues, some of it hilarious and disturbing. Certainly disruptive. This video was shown by Maya Ganesh and produced in 2013 by All India Bakchod, which proves that men can also be feminists. More importantly it demonstrates how social media can be used to get attention for important causes.
As the Tactical Tech panel unfolded I was struck by the high-seriousness of the discussion. And at the same time some parts were very LULZY. There is something about satire and hacktivism that works well together and always has. The Cult of the Dead Cow were masters of this technique, and it was definitely picked up by LulzSec and Anonymous. Satire has a way of approaching uncomfortable truths and is often more interesting to the press than receiving traditional press releases. Campaigners take note. One of the other great presentations at this panel was from Ada Stolz of the Peng Collective. Ms. Stolz was a core member of the Zero Trollerance campaign that was - and remains to be - absolutely brilliant.
Fuelled by what I had discovered at re:publica I dug a little deeper and found more feminist hacktivists on them Internets. The Crash Override Network, a support group for victims of online abuse, was founded by game developers Zoe Quinn and Alex Lifschitz, themselves victims of online abuse. Also notable is Deep Lab , an all women research collaborative who presented at re:publica. And a particular favourite, Harlo Holmes who is developing software called Foxy Doxxing that helps victims of online harassment map the connections between their harassers and collect verifiable evidence of their harassment.
Trolling women online is a particularly loathsome problem. My partner told me of an Indian friend who had been tweeted at that her children would be raped and thrown into the garbage. Certainly an extreme example of online harassment, but a common enough one. Andrea Shepard from the Tor Project became the object of spurious abuse along with some other folks. But having a technical tool or two in her pocket she decided to do something about it. Ms. Shepard found her troll and unmasked him in a very public fashion. My experience with hacktivism, and life in general, is that not everybody agrees on everything. And so it goes with feminist hacktivism. Jillian York, for one, distanced herself from Ms. Shepard’s actions which only suggests that women are wrestling with the same moral conundrums we all are.
I can’t remember which link I followed to discover feminist hacktivism, but I’m delighted that I did. This is a topic I plan to follow more closely now that I’ve seen a few of its brighter lights.