Anonymous and the Social Contract

When, in February 2017, a hacker associated with the internet activist group Anonymous launched a cyber attack on the “dark web”, few people complained. After all, the dark web is dark for a reason – it’s the murky, largely untraceable area of the internet that supplies everything from fake passports to child pornography.

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Not all of Anonymous’s “victims” are so universally loathed. Here are just a few of their many targets:

  • government agencies of the U.S., Israel, Tunisia, Uganda, and others;
  • the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant;
  • copyright protection agencies;
  • the Westboro Baptist Church;
  • and corporations such as PayPal, MasterCard, Visa, and Sony.

They have also publicly supported WikiLeaks and the Occupy movement.

Granted, Anonymous has no centralised command and is more like a brand than an organised group with a coherent ideology, but the above list is still so diverse as to be baffling if you’re seeking to determine the group’s raison d’etre.

The American government, for all its faults, is some way off that of Uganda where, aided by the stateanti-gay sentiment is growing rather than receding. The Westboro Baptist Church has been targeted by Anonymous presumably for its vulgar, highly public campaigns against homosexuality, yet Anonymous’s activists also target Israel – the only place in the Middle East where it is truly safe to be gay.

The group’s cyber attacks on ISIS are less divisive from a western point of view, and while most will agree the Islamic State is barbarous in many respects there is something deeply illiberal about Anonymous attacking a burgeoning state simply because they have philosophical disagreements with it. As for the attacks on financial corporations, well, they are predictable, but the point of the attacks is still rather opaque. Destroy the credit card corporations and humanity will just have to start again and build new ones.

Anonymous’s support of Wikileaks suggests anarchist leanings – the anarchism of the right rather than that of the left. Their support for Occupy really tells us nothing, except that they sided with the little guy over the banking industry, but most Occupy members would probably favour expansion of the state apparatus given the choice.

When Anonymous makes decisions to attack organisations, governments, religious groups and corporations it is breaking the law. That is bad enough. But even more nefarious is that it does so without any ideological consistency.

hobbes-leviathanThomas Hobbes famously believed that the natural way of things for humanity is a “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” life. He said that in the absence of political order and law, everyone would have unlimited natural freedoms – including the freedom to plunder, rape, and murder, etc. To avoid this, he wrote, “free men contract with each other to establish political community through a social contract in which they all gain security in return for subjecting themselves to an absolute Sovereign, one man or an assembly of men”.

It is easy to cheerlead for Anonymous when they target groups we ourselves find reprehensible. However, we should be careful not to exchange law and order for populist vigilantism. Hobbes’s philosophy was clearly shaped by his experiences of the Thirty Years War, the horrors of which we can’t even begin to imagine. But the long period of peace we now enjoy in Europe is due in no small part to the Social Contract. We should not need to be reminded of its importance.

 

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The Hacker as Artist

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In her essay Hackers as Tricksters of the Digital Age: Creativity in Hacker Culture, Svetlana Nikitina refers to a general confusion as to how we should be viewing the social impact of hacking. Should we be cultivating the creative potential of people who are clearly very talented? Should we treat it as an annoying (but not threatening) calamity of the digital age? Or is it something far more insidious than both of those things, the tip of an ever-growing iceberg of computer crime?

Anyone aware of the mayhem caused by the Ukraine power cut in December 2016 will understand the very real damage that can be caused by hackers. Lose your heating in a Ukrainian winter and death suddenly becomes a very real possibility.

The Ukraine attack was clearly political, but many hackers have no discernible motives. Nikitina mentions the oft-heard hacker’s defence that they are simply highlighting systemic security issues, but Spafford’s analogy states that we would never accept burglars breaking into our homes in order to expose vulnerabilities. There can be little doubt that most people would agree with that.

It is a curious thing that such apparently obvious trespassing should be so ambiguously viewed, especially at a time when so much is at stake (international security, global finance, etc.). But this may be because we are in a confusing, transitional period between the present, material world and the virtual, transhumanist future.

To understand what I mean, consider the following: for ancient humans, fats were seldom found in the wild. Whenever our ancestors acquired them, they gorged on them, not knowing when the chance to do so would next come along. Now of course we live in an industrial age of plenty, and cheeseburgers cost pocket change, but the evolutionary programming of our bodies hasn’t yet caught up with what our brain knows. Our bodies are hard-wired for the past.

Modern humans can see the damage caused by hacking. The hacker hacks, the lights go out, the hacker goes to prison. But his actions seem epiphenomenal. The hacker didn’t cut the city’s power supply with a giant wire cutter. He didn’t spill Mountain Dew over a control panel in the local power station. He did it in a dark bedroom. By typing. Typing. Such an abstract crime! For many of us, there is still the feeling that his actions aren’t in the real world. Our technology is in the future, a William Gibson novel, but our minds lag behind, still out in the savannas hunting antelope.

Nikitina writes that “for the most part, the thefts and hacks of tricksters and computer wizards are not deliberately destructive”. This is an important point. Our planet has pretty much been completely explored (with a handful of exceptions). We do not yet have the capability to visit other worlds. So what else is there to do except explore cyberspace? When the great mountaineer George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, he replied “Because it’s there”. That most hacking is non-destructive (in intent if not in outcome) hints at the idea that hackers are 21st century techno-conquistadors, experts living on the fringes, taking great risks to explore the unknown.

All that said, we shouldn’t overstate the romantic artistry of the hacker. That does a great disservice to the engineers and programmers and coders – the architects – who’ve built and continue to build the beautiful world hackers perform their tricks in.

Bibliography

Nikitina, Svetlana. “Hackers as tricksters of the digital age: creativity in hacker culture.” The Journal of Popular Culture 45.1 (2012): 133-152.

Culture, Social Media and the Arab Spring

The established narrative among many political observers is that the Arab Spring initially represented a Maghrebi desire for democracy and freedom. Summing up the mood of the western liberal intelligentsia Brian Whitaker, writing in The Guardian in early 2011, declaimed boldly that “Arabs now have a shared, unstoppable drive for freedom”. Prima facie nothing appears off about such a statement. We hear the word “freedom” all the time. Yet in this context it demands analysis.

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Mohamed Bouazizi: the Arab Spring’s Franz Ferdinand

The Project on Information Technology & Political Islam (pITPI) published a paper in 2011 entitled Opening Closed Regimes: What Was the Role of Social Media During the Arab Spring? and the same baseless assumptions about North Africans’ desire for liberty and democracy were made. According to the report, Egyptians and Tunisians used digital technologies “to spread ideas about liberty” and to have conversations about democracy and revolution. But what do these words mean, really? The American linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir theorised that “no two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality”. So when a Tunisian demands “liberty” does he want the same thing as, say, a Californian?

Revolution itself is easy enough to define, and the Merriam-Webster definition is provided below. If you kill the king and announce the establishment of a republic you can be quite certain you had a revolution. The Arab Spring ultimately failed in its ambitions (which were vague to begin with), but that’s not to say the movement wasn’t revolutionary.

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If the immense crowds of protestors weren’t enough to convince you that the movement was indeed revolutionary, then its ubiquitous motto surely does the trick: Ash-sha`b yurid isqat an-nizam (“the people want to bring down the regime”).

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A call to revolution: “The people want to bring down the regime”

But what about “democracy” and “freedom”? Are their meanings as easy to agree on? Unfortunately not. Democracy is famously hard to define. Generally speaking there is “no consensus on how to measure democracy, definitions of democracy are contested and there is an ongoing lively debate on the subject”. From the same article (in The Economist) we read that “although the terms ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ are often used interchangeably, the two are not synonymous”. Yet both concepts appear together, conflated, throughout the pITPI report.

For consistency’s sake let’s look at Merriam-Webster’s definition of democracy. file_000-2When we talk about the kind of democracy desired by those who protested in the Arab Spring (and there are multiple democracies) what was it they wanted? Rule of the majority? Representative government? The removal of corrupt, tyrannical elites? Most likely they wanted all of these things.

Yet the western understanding of democracy is somewhat different, and crucially absent from Merriam-Webster’s list of definitions is the idea that the protection of minority rights is now an essential element of democracy. John Stuart Mill, one of the most important liberal thinkers of all time, warned against ochlocracy (or mob rule), stating that “the tyranny of the majority is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard”. Certain information in pITPI’s report hints at this kind of liberalism’s absence in the region.

The report mentions the role Tunisian and Egyptian women played on social media during the protests. It informs us that 41 per cent of Tunisian Facebook users are female while in Egypt the corresponding figure is 36 per cent. This is in stark contrast to the Facebook gender gap that exists in the United States, where women have an eight point lead over men in their use of the social network. So what gives? Well, there is a proven gender gap in social media participation in the Arab world.

women-cyberactivism-arab-springRacha Mourtada, a research associate at the Dubai School of Government, says that “female users in the Arab World constitute one third of Facebook users, whereas on a global level, they represent 50% of Facebook users”.

Fadi Salem, a director at the same school, says that a regional survey found that “the cultural and societal limitations and barriers that exist for women in the region, for participation in general — political, economic, and civic — these cause the number of women users to be less than men. So access, education, the sense of empowerment, all of these are factors”. In other words, many women are treated as second-class citizens. Women are not technically a minority, but if we view democracy as being essentially liberal in the Millist sense, then these findings are disheartening and suggest a fundamental misunderstanding in the region of what modern democracy actually constitutes. If women can’t participate equally in something as innocuous and accessible as social media, on what basis can anyone believe they would see equality in a successful, Arab Spring 2.0?

Certainly Iraqi voters “have tended to follow the decisions of clerics, tribal leaders and political leaders since 2003”, and “cling to their collective identities, leading to chauvinistic, sectarian and tribal divisions”. Many of Iraq’s problems have their roots in European colonial ignorance, but the consequences may have drained Middle Easterners of their tolerance for pluralism and the sanguinary aftermath of democratic, post-Saddam Iraq indicates that the average Iraqi’s understanding of democracy may not go beyond the superficialities of inked fingers, ballots dropped in boxes and voting for one’s tribe. Similarly, it is hard to believe that when Egyptian and Tunisian men protest for “democracy” that it is in any way related to the kind of democracy found in Ireland or the United States or Sweden.

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So if these protests for democracy weren’t about democracy as the west understands it, what then? As in Petrograd or the Bastille, anger at prevailing economic conditions was surely a factor: Tunisia’s GDP per capita was a mere $4,200 when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010. For a nation just a stone’s throw away from a Europe perceived as having streets paved with gold, the result can be what Victor Davis Hanson calls an “unhealthy stew of envy, anger, and desire for the west”. It is easy to understand why some would look to France or Spain and assume that it is the simple machinery of democracy that makes a nation prosperous.

The Austrian socio-political theorist Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn has written about this assumed causal relationship between democracy and prosperity. “The only monument to democracy I have ever seen I found in Bangkok. This is lip-service in stone to the ideological American export drive to the ‘imperialism’ inherent in American political thinking. The force of this drive lies in the expectation that the material living standards of the United States might be the natural reward for accepting American political ideals. This superstition is quite common”.

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Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn

It seems altogether likely that the superstition still exists in much of the world today, and causes people to ignore the kind of environmental reasons for prosperity put forward by Jared Diamond, the civilisational “killer apps” posited by Niall Ferguson, and other highly developed theses that explain the “European miracle”.

In a previous post I pointed to the high level of support for harsh punishments that exists in Egypt. Four out of five Egyptians favour death for those choosing to leave the Islamic faith. This indicates an overwhelming absence of liberalism in Egyptian society, and when words like “liberty” and “freedom” are used by protestors we must be confident that their understanding of liberty matches up with that found in the west, and that both civilisations aren’t experiencing different social realities.

Freedom means many things to many people. The neoreactionary philosopher Mencius Moldbug had this to say about freedom:

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To a young westerner, freedom might mean the ability to marry someone of the same sex or smoke marijuana or drink alcohol on public transport. Social media may be opening the eyes of many young Egyptians and Tunisians to attractive (yet ill-defined) concepts like equality, liberty, democracy, etc., but freedom as understood in Egypt may simply represent a desire for political change and not a de facto acceptance of the fundamental social changes that go hand in hand with modern European liberal democracy.

Bibliography

Howard, Philip N. et al. “Opening Closed Regimes: What Was The Role Of Social Media During The Arab Spring?”. SSRN Electronic Journal n. pag. Web.

Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Erik von. Leftism Revisited. 1st ed. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1990. Print.

The revolution will not be tweeted

In his essay This Time It’s Personal: Social Networks, Viral Politics and Identity Management, Nils Gustafsson argues that “viral politics” (i.e. the rapid online dissemination of political activist material) as well as social media’s growing importance could mean the emergence of a new kind of political elite.

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A number of things struck me about Gustafsson’s thesis. The first of these is his disinterested stance; Gustafsson displays no particular optimism about social media’s ability to alter existing political power structures. This is refreshing, and several years after his essay was published and with the benefit of hindsight we can see that – politically speaking, and from the point of view of totalitarian and anti-democratic states – social media is a paper tiger.

The Arab Spring erupted in Tunisia in 2011 before spreading rapidly to Egypt, Libya and Syria. Six years have now passed since the so-called Facebook Revolution began and the Middle East has experienced massacres, wars, coups, jihadism, and a body count in the hundreds of thousands. Social media was perhaps a catalyst for those events (not everyone agrees about this) but few could honestly argue that things in the region have improved since Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in late 2010.

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Gustafsson acknowledges that “social media is deeply related to existing social structures and ideologies in society” and that it is “produced by and for certain types of people – stereotypically young, web-savvy, able-bodied people”. This is a telling observation and sheds some light on why the Arab Spring may have failed. The western media, which was overwhelmingly optimistic about the uprisings, focused too heavily on relatively liberal, young, tech-savvy Egyptians and Tunisians, while ignoring the inconvenient reality that Egypt is a country in which over 80 per cent of the population supports the death penalty for apostasy and 82 per cent consider stoning to death a suitable punishment for adultery. How could anyone be so naive as to think liberal democracy would flourish in such a fundamentally religio-political environment?

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Late in the essay Gustafsson says that participation in online political campaigns fills two functions. The first is that it builds a certain kind of “public or semi-public identity by expressing political views and concerns”. The second is that it functions as “an excuse [for not] taking a more active part in a [political] campaign”. What Gustafsson has done is essentially describe in their embryonic forms both “slacktivism” (which Malcolm Gladwell coined – or at least popularised – in 2010) and “virtue-signalling”, which was coined by James Bartholomew in The Spectator in April 2015. Kudos to Gustafsson for mapping part of the social media littoral as far back as March 2009. (The coastline as metaphor here is intentional – we are entering unfamiliar territory, like conquistadors run aground in the new world. What future awaits us beyond distant mountain ranges in the cyberinterior is infinitely vast and terrifyingly unknowable.)

The final point to be made about the essay (and also the introduction, and presumably the rest of the book) relates to the sloppy editing and seemingly non-existent proofreading. Leaving aside for a moment the fact that the author uses words like “equality” and “inequality” as if they are empirical realities and not nebulous concepts in a sociological context that require clarification and perhaps even definition, there were a number of spelling and grammatical errors that made it very hard for me to take his work (or the book itself) seriously.

Bibliography

Nils, Gustafsson. “This Time It’s Personal: Social Networks, Viral Politics And Identity Management”. Emerging Practices In Cyberculture And Social Networking. Daniel Riha and Anna Maj. 1st ed. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2010. 3-23. Print.