We Are All Anonymous: Beyond Hacktivist Stereotypes

(Published by SPECTRA, a scholarly journal produced by Virginia Tech. The abstract is below; the full paper is here).

This paper confronts media representations of hacking and hacktivists. I argue that the practices and identities of hacktivists are mischaracterized to the extent that its popular image poses a threat to activist work done by and on behalf of the global hacking community. Weighing popular news stories about malicious hacks in the United States and Europe against examples of socially beneficial hacks offered disproportionate media attention, I begin my argument by calling attention to the gap between the representation and reality of the politics and culture of hacking. I then argue that while assumption of the hacker/hacktivist identity is meaningful to individuals across the world, their prevalent stereotypes are exclusive of a number of marginalized demographics, including women, Hispanic, Black and American Indian/Alaska Native communities. I support this with examples from popular television shows and films, advertisements from computer science education programs and user-targeted advertisements on the Internet.

I then apply research on the effects of media messages on self-image to recent statistics on the percentage of women and the aforementioned communities who pursue STEM degrees and careers. This connection suggests that current hacker sterotypes may be accountable for disproportionate interest in computer science and activism within groups not identified as stereotypical “geeks” or hackers. I argue that because of this exclusion, hacks for social good may not represent the interests of those most urgently in need of their benefits. This is noted as particularly problematic because hacktivism is growing in popularity as a means to social change.

Finally, I offer examples of communities and actions that have counteracted this trend, indicating that alternatives to the current situation exist and can be taken as precedents to a more just hacktivist future. I conclude with a synthesis of my findings and restatement of the thesis.

⚡️ emma stamm / 2016