The Digital Revolt: Resistance & Agency on the Net
Posted by meaningfulconnections on September 6, 2008
Adapted from a paper delivered at a symposium on “Indigenous Cyber-Activism and Virtual Diasporas over the World Wide Web. Gothenburg, Sweden. June 9, 2001.
I would like to open with a vignette taken from anarchist philosopher Hakim Bey:
“In the late 18th or early 19th century a group of runaway slaves and serfs fled from Kentucky into the Ohio Territory, where they inter-married with Natives and formed a tribe – red, white & black – called the Ben Ishmael tribe. The Ishmaels (who seem to have been Islamically inclined) followed an annual nomadic route through the territory, hunting & fishing, and finding work as tinkers and minstrels. They were polygamists, and drank no alcohol. Every winter they returned to their original settlement, where a village had grown.
“But eventually the US Govt. opened the Territory to settlement, and the official pioneers arrived. Around the Ishmael village a town began to spring up, called Cincinnati. Soon it was a big city. But Ishmael village was still there, engulfed & surrounded by “civilization.” Now it was a slum. “Hasn’t something similar happened to the Internet? The original freedom-loving hackers & guerrilla informationists, the true pioneers of cyberspace, are still there. But they have been surrounded by a vastness of virtual “development,” and reduced to a kind of ghetto. True, for a while the slums remain colorful – one can go there for a “good time,” strum a banjo, spark up a romance. Folkways survive. One remembers the old days, the freedom to wander, the sense of openness. But History has gone… somewhere else. Capital has moved on.” (Bey 1996)
On October 6, 2000, a group of Israeli hackers succeeded in shutting down the website of the Hizbollah, setting off an international cyber-conflict unprecedented in its scale and sophistication (iDefense 2001). Various transnational groups of hackers and “defacers” split along nationalistic, religious, and ethnic lines have joined the conflict in reaction to competing media accounts of the most recent uprising in the West Bank and Gaza, alternately known as the second or Al-Aqsa Intifada. These marginalized communities, “ghettoized” and set apart from the mainstream of an increasingly capitalistic Internet, are an interesting test for recent theoretical formulations of “imagined” translocal communities (Anderson 1983), postdiscursive colonies, and postnational formations (Appadurai 1996). The actors in this conflict – virtual scions of the digital ghetto – utilize their “primordial” taxonomic divisions (Foucault 1970) as a means to channel their disruptive and essentially anarchist impulses. Appeals to nationalistic, humanitarian, and religious ideologies, while important, serve primarily as alibis by which the actors may demonstrate their skill and continue to play the “game” of taunting their neighbors in the virtual ghetto, thereby accruing status in their shared, translocal communities – i.e., the digital undergrounds. Their actions are folkways, resistances.
That the members of these communities are ghettoized “netizens” is perhaps not obvious at first glance. Website defacement connected with the Al-Aqsa Intifada is comparable to gang and hip-hop graffiti; they call into question the formation of relationships between art, artists, and resistance movements; and they lead us to question how we know and what we see on the web. How is our vision/discourse limited, and what is the role/agency of technology in this process?
In the early 1990s, only a few options existed for online discourse. Compuserve, E-mail and BBSs (dial-up bulletin board systems) were certainly important, as was the IRC (Internet Relay Chat) and MUDs (multi-user dungeons). One of the most important arenas online at the time was the Usenet and its NetNews discussion groups.
These groups were arranged alphabetically; and since there were only a few hundred (or maybe a couple of thousand) groups, each group was for the most part equally visible. Each member therefore possessed equal voice and agency. Visibility was parallel, rather than hierarchical as it is today with the widespread dependence on search engines for the production and dissemination of ranked information. (There are exceptions to this structure: for example dmoz.org is a human generated directory of the web, and map.net offers a visual non-hierarchical map of the web.) There were narratives, interactions, and discussions among group members. The groups were small and manageable. Content was key, and there were no advertisements, no banner ads. Capital had yet to encroach upon the underground. alt.hackers, alt.phreakers, alt.cyberpunk, alt.viruses—each were a forums for discussion and information trading and mportant gateways into the higher, more exclusive circles of the underground(s).
These communities are now neglected and largely forgotten. The work of the defacers I study is a means by which these communities reassert themselves in the vast matrix of information by occupying the space (sites) set aside for others. These “occupations” serve as initiatory rites for the defacer community and expressions of resistance against an Internet dominated by corporate interests. The defacers circumvent the usual paths of knowledge on the web most often mediated by corporate “search engines” like google and yahoo by engaging broader transnational mediascapes. The world press, for example, has taken note of their exploits and by this process these groups gain visibility and agency on the Web. Ways of knowing are reconfigured as information is pirated and realigned by these groups.
The subaltern status of these groups is reflected in their language, specific to the hacker/defacer undergound(s). “Fuckz” are given to opponents as defacers taunt their rivals; “Greetz” are given to those individuals and groups with which they align themselves. These attributions, written into many defaces, serve almost as a genealogy of these groups and (meta)groups and remind one of liner notes and the content of some hip-hop music, where rappers give “props” and “shout out” to their friends in the scene, and deride their enemies. Like rappers, these defacers see themselves as confronting the hegemonic discourses of everyday life and their (oppressed) positions.
Transnational networks of like-minded individuals have certainly existed for centuries if not for millennia (Ghosh 1994); however, the virtual communities of hackers/defacers possess characteristics that set them apart from transnational networks of times past. The most important distinction from earlier transnational networks is that they can operate in virtual simultaneity and can react to media constructions around them with immediacy and coordination. They can meet in virtual space and devise strategies and without relying on long-delayed mail service or inadequate – not to mention expensive – international telephone calls. These groups are also reacting to the same sorts of information from the international media including the Internet, CNN, etc. So the element of a more completely shared experience is one that earlier groups must have lacked by comparison.
“Play,” Resistance, and Identity
Until last month [May 2001], participants in the “game” (as one of the members of the m0sad team put it, defacing websites is, “just a kid’s game”) of defacing websites, two virtual locales stood out: attrition.org and its defacement mirror, along with its twin site, alldas.de, sat at the center of the defacer universe and served as the basis for the entire defacer community. But last month, attrition.org shut down its defacement mirror, due to an incredible increase in defacement activity. The volunteers who maintained the site could no longer keep up with the volume of hacked sites pouring into their in-boxes anymore; they reported that they were getting 100+ reports of defacements everyday. As a non-profit organization, the webmasters of attrition could not afford to divert this much attention away from their jobs and everyday lives. As they put it in a statement entitled “EVOLUTION,” they had “done their time.” Immediately, my thoughts ran back to the Ishmaelites. The guerrilla informationists were being marginalized, they were on the verge of extinction, and at the same time, they were growing. Alldas.de is now the only focal point for defacers, making the community that much more vulnerable. If alldas.de goes down (and sites like this often do go down periodically, due to the enormous number of denial-of-service attacks these sites endure) then the public manifestation of the hacker/defacer community evaporates.
Webster’s dictionary defines indigenous as “having originated in and being produced, growing, or living naturally in a particular region or environment.” This definition is typically meant to indicate people living in physical environments, usually bounded by certain geographical constructs (e.g., the Sami, the Inuit, Native Americans, Australian aborigines, etc.) and unified by language and culture. However, I believe that indigenous could properly refer to the groups that I am studying, who are unified within the cyberspatial nexuses of their activity (in this case alldas.de and until last month attrion.org). These hacker/defacer communities could therefore be called indigenous peoples of the Internet, since it is the Net that allowed these groups to grow and “live.” Their communities are unique and valuable sites of cultural production; that these sites can disappear so easily is disconcerting to say the least. In a keystroke, they could completely disappear.
These sites give space to Hitlerites, Pakistani nationalists, radical environmentalists, anti-capitalists, anarchists, and those playing the “game” simply for the challenge and the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and skill all found a (virtual) home at these sites, which, I would suggest, constituted the public diasporic spheres formulated by Appadurai (1996). On any given day, dozens (now hundreds) of websites are defaced, meaning that the original website is replaced by images and texts of the defacer’s choice. These defaces are then posted on one or both of these defacement “mirrors,” thereby providing a space to exhibit the exploits of the defacers and their messages. In connection to the Al-Aqsa Intifada, hundreds of websites have been defaced in support of the Palestinians and Israelis (iDefense 2001); the groups doing these defaces, their organization, group identity, and motivations are the primary subjects of my study.
These groups can be divided according to their sympathies. Notable pro-Palestinian groups include (but are not limited to) the World’s Fantabulous Defacers (the WFD), the Silver Lords (who are currently the most prolific defacing group in the world according to alldas.de with 821 websites attacked so far), and GForce Pakistan; pro-Israeli groups include the m0sad team and InfernoZ. Each group is essentially translocal in character and each possesses unique transnational characteristics. Interestingly, the “realspace” locus of the pro-Palestinian groups is urban Pakistan, their sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians apparently being grafted onto their earlier support for Kashmiri separatists. The pro-Israeli groups are primarily Russian Jews and Russian immigrants to Israel.
All of these groups post their defacements in English, although some members of these groups (especially the Russian-oriented pro-Israeli ones) are not at all fluent in English, as I found out to my dismay while conducting e-mailed interviews. My feeble attempts at communicating with InfenoZ (2001) in computer-translated Russian were a miserable failure. Luckily, he did put me in touch with the m0sad team, the most active of all the pro-Israeli groups, and much to my delight, the m0sad team’s members were able to respond to my queries in English, although it was somewhat broken. All of the pro-Palestinian groups that I interviewed were fluent in English. Ironically, knowledge of colloquial and classical Arabic, the primary language of discourse in Palestine and the larger Arab world, did me no good in my research. That English is currently the lingua franca of these groups raises a number of important questions regarding homogeneity and globalization that perhaps cannot be fully answered or even discussed here. It can be said, however, that the use of English by these groups acknowledges the language as a prime facilitator of global cultural flow; defacements in Urdu, Portuguese, or Russian could and would limit the target audiences of the message(s).
One similarity that members of all these groups share is their youth. When I contacted InfernoZ I was a little shocked to discover that he was only 14 years old. This young Russian defacer, no doubt responsible for keeping more than a few systems administrators up at night, sweating over their system’s security, was probably just passing through puberty; and, at a time when many of his peers were busy watching or playing soccer and entertaining nascent sexual fantasies, InfernoZ was a member of an underground, transnational group shutting down websites across the world. This is not at all anomalous in the hacker/defacer underground, where children as young as seven or eight years old have been known to write their own code breaking programs or “scripts.” These children are usually referred to as “script kiddies” a term that implies a lack of sophistication and skill.
It turns out that most of the members of these groups are in their late teens; all, to the best of my knowledge, are males. macwiz, of the group Silver Lords, complained to me that he hardly had time to hack much these days, as he was busy preparing for his college entrance exams (2001). Of course, the ages of these defacers closely parallels the ages of those involved in street-level resistance in Palestine, where over half of all those killed in the conflict have been children under the age of 15. Perhaps an interesting question might be—do the children rock-throwers of Palestine’s streets see their resistance in terms of “play” as these defacers see their actions?
The images and texts making up the defaces reflect the engagement of these groups with competing mediascapes constructed around ideologies of post-diasporic nationalism (in the case of the Israeli and Russian defacers) and global Islamic unity (in the case of the pro-Palestinian defacers). The Russian/Israeli defacers disrupt Islamic websites and the public, online faces of the resistance. For example, these groups altered the hamas.org website, making a porn site appear in place of the normal hamas site; the Hizbollah site was replaced with a graphic of the Israeli flag waving in the (virtual) wind. The pro-Palestinian defacers focus on Israeli and external pro-Israeli groups in defense of their Muslim brothers. The WFD was responsible for defacing Ariel Sharon’s website only four days before the last Israeli presidential election; a hacker calling himself Dr. Nuker defaced the website of AIPAC, the powerful American-Israeli lobbying group, near the outset of the recent uprising. For the most part, The pro-Palestinian defacers tend to channel their efforts on .il (Israeli) commercial and governmental domains.
The words and images contained in these defaces mirror the most common representations of the conflict made by either side. Those taking a pro-Israeli stance say that the Israelis desire peace and security, but the Palestinians prevent this peace because of their violence. Pro-Palestinians say that violence is an expression of resistance against a tyrannical occupation. The statements of these defacers hold closely to these lines; these stances are, however, amplified in their tone and explicitly designed to shock and offend the opposition. One pro-Palestinian defacement, for instance, features the cartoon character Calvin urinating on an Israeli flag. By the same token, one pro-Israeli defacement features the proclamation “we will destroy all Arabs.”
These exchanges are typically antagonistic, and I believe constitute a resistance not only to opposing viewpoints but also to the hegemony of corporate controlled media altogether. Disruptive actions create media coverage of their own, allowing those engaging in these defacements some modicum of voice and agency. The actors in this conflict therefore are media participants and not merely consumers, which I might suggest is a motive at the center of all activist movements in an era where much of the shape of social reality is determined by competing media: books, newspapers, pamphlets, radio, and, of course, the Internet.
An interesting fact that came out during interviews with these defacers is that they bear no animosity for defacers working the opposite side of the conflict. There seems to be a level of mutual respect between these groups, however different their politics may be. n00gie, from the sophisticated and very active group the World’s Fantabulous Defacers, told me, when speaking of the m0sad team, which is the premier pro-Israeli defacer group, that he had started out much like the members of the m0sad team, performing relatively unsophisticated, low-level hacks at a young age (2001). Given the rhetorical severity of his groups’ defacements, I had imagined that n00gie would condemn the m0sad team, whom I thought he would consider his opponents and rivals. Instead, he identified with them and did not indicate that the m0sad team was an opponent. The m0sad team defacers spoke of the WFD in much the same deferential and sympathetic tone (2001). The explanation for these attitudes I believe lies in the nature of these groups and the larger community to which they belong, that of the hacker/defacer underground.
Residence in this virtual ghetto implies that one is committed above all to the hacker ethic that information, in all its forms, must be free. Although I believe that all of these defacers are sincere in their political beliefs, without a doubt, these individuals would be disrupting digital spaces with or without an overt, conventional political cause. Most of the members of these groups were recruited by these groups because of their past exploits, many of which had no political motive. These compelling political causes exist as a motivation to individuals in these groups and offer an opportunity for exposure and status-enhancement. Random, apolitical defacements typically garner no media coverage; dozens of these pass relatively unnoticed ever day. Politically driven hacks, however, do attract attention within the larger mediascapes: the disruptions caused by these groups’ defacements have been covered widely by the world media.
In conclusion, these transnational groups represent deterritorialized post-national formations of the first order. Most of the members of these loose-knit organizations have never met face to face and probably never will. These groups’ involvement with what is an essentially territorial dispute (the Palestinian/Israeli conflict) is secondary to their larger interaction with the flow of cultural information globally and their engagement and participation with deterritorialized post-national mediascapes.
As of May, 2001, the “digital revolt” concurrent with the Al-Aqsa Intifada is still alive, although the intensity of the conflict is greatly reduced since its peak in late 2000. The WFD has recently engaged in a “Marathon for Global Awareness” and has defaced at least a dozen Israeli sites between May 5th and 7th. The Silver Lords have changed the text and images of their defaces to emphasize their support for Kashmiris seeking independence from India. The pro-Israeli groups InfernoZ and the m0sad team continue to deface websites in support of Israel, but at a lessened pace. Interestingly, a new cyber-conflict has arisen online in the past month or so (April/May 2001) between supporters of China and supporters of the United States. This conflict threatens to be even more extensive than the one surrounding the Al-Aqsa Intifada. Several hundred websites have been defaced in the past few weeks and this conflict shows no signs of cooling down anytime soon. This most recent conflict was triggered by the international incident involving the collision of an American spy plane with a Chinese fighter jet in early April. The only interlocutor of mine to participate in this new conflict thus far has been the WFD, who defaced a Chinese site in support of the United States.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. London: Verso,1983.
Appadurai, Arjun.. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
Bey, Hakim. “Notes for Ctheory“. In Digital Delirium, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. Accessed Online: http://www.ctheory.com/event/e046.html.
Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Random House, 1970.
iDefense. “Israeli-Palestinian Cyber-Conflict”(IPCC). Accessed Online: January 3, 2001 at: http://www.idefense.com/.
InfernoZ. Interview, personal correspondence (e-mail). April 11th and 13th 2001.
Ghosh, Amitav. In an Antique Land. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.
m0sad team. Interview, personal correspondence (e-mail). April 12th and 15th 2001.
n00gie. Interview, ICQ. April 17th 2001.
Phillips, Susan. Wallbangin’: Gangs and Graffiti in L.A. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Silver Lords. Interview, personal correspondence (e-mail). April 12th and 13th 2001.
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Here is a sample of some of the defacements that have occurred in connection with the Al-Aqsa Intifada (as of May 2001).
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