The Hacktivist Imagination

In The Sociological Imagination, C.W. Mills set out the essential task for sociology as he saw it. His call was simple: to search for and articulate those (casual) connections between individual social environments (what he called ‘milieux’) and the wider socio-historical forces in which they were entwined. This short article reappropriates C.W. Mills’ staunch warning to sociology with a particular social phenomenon in mind – ‘hacktivism’.

Hacktivism may be broadly defined as the emergence of popular political action, of the self-activity of groups of individuals, in cyberspace (Jordan and Taylor, 2004, p.1). It can be considered ‘the merging of hacking activity with an overt political stance’, where grassroots political protest is combined with the intrusion of computer systems (Jordan and Taylor, 2004, p.12). Yet, delve a little deeper and it soon becomes clear that there are biographical departures within hacktivism. Fifty years on and C.W Mills continues to provide a valuable insight; that at the juncture between ‘troubles’ and ‘issues’ lays an immediate and everyday biographical motivation. This biographical motivation is not only a site for differences within a wider ‘hacktivist’ community, but also a potential site for the interference and criminalisation of young men.

Whether a hacktivists motivation is to challenge the ethical and practical malevolence of neoliberal doctrine, or whether it’s just about doing it for the “lulz” (a laugh), C.W Mills’ ontological realism – or ‘promise’ to sociology – reminds us of the important connection between individual and society.

The Sociological Imagination

“No social study that does not come back to the problems of biography, of history and of their intersections within a society has completed its intellectual journey”. (Mills, [1959] 2000, p.6)

To study the relationship between the lives of ordinary people and large scale social organisations was fundamental to what he termed The Sociological Imagination. In was within his ‘Promise’ that Mills would seek to enable each sociologist to grasp history and biography, to shift between the two without losing sight of either (Mills, [1959] 2000, p.7). To capture these (causal) relations, Mills set out what he felt was a ‘fruitful distinction’ between ‘the personal trouble of milieu’ and the ‘public issues of social structure’ (Mills, [1959] 2000, p.8). This became Mills’ ‘essential tool’ (Mills, [1959] 2000, p.8) for grasping the contemporary climate, for it not only excavated the individual from ‘Grand Theory’ (Mills, [1959] 2000, p.25-49), but recognised each individual as ‘minute points of the intersections of biography and history within society’ (Mills, [1959] 2000, p.8; emphasis added). As Mills distinguished between ‘troubles’ and ‘issues’ (Mills, [1959] 2000, p.8), he recaptured biography from ‘Abstracted Empiricism’ (Mills, [1959] 2000, p.50-75), and kept sight of the wider sociological context within which individuals shape and were shaped by society.

“We have come to know that every individual lives, from one generation to the next, in some society; that he lives out a biography, and that he lives it out within some history sequence. By the fact of his living he contributes, however minutely, to the shaping of this society and to course of its history, even as he is made by society and by its historical push and shove”. (Mills, [1959] 2000, p. 6)

The distinction for Mills was an important one. Troubles were considered to occur within the character of the individual and his or her immediate relations with others. This was a limited area of social life which the individual was directly concerned. Any statement or resolution of these troubles meant appreciating the individual as a biographical entity, but an entity who existed within the scope of his immediate milieux. An individual’s immediate relations were considered a ‘social setting’ directly open to personal experiences and ‘wilful activity’ (Mills, [1959] 2000, p.8). Issues, alternatively, had to do with matters that transcended these ‘local environments’. As a public matter, an issue had to do with the organisation of many milieux into the institutions of a historical society (Mills, [1959] 2000, p.8). To witness issues was to witness the values of particular publics under threat; publics which had emerged from various overlapping and interpenetrating milieux. The sociological imagination, then, was comprised in large part by the ability to show how personal milieux could be rendered into the societal issues of the day. Rather than polorising between grand theory and the minutiae of personal experience, Mills sought to define social issues through their emergence out of personal troubles.

This perspective is critical at a time when the landscape of hacktivism is changing (Ruffin, 2011). To recognise that there are different even divergent biographies within the hacktivist community is to recognise that individual motivation gives rise to different social issues and, potentially, different repertoires of contention (Tilly, 1986; Traugott, 1995, Rolfe, 2005).


That the individual resides in a causal relationship with society is an important departure point on which to critically consider ‘hacktivism’: for virtual politics has often been found upon attempts to defy state sponsored censorship of the Internet (Ruffin, 2011). As more and more individuals recognise the ‘political genealogy of technology, of virtual reality, or reality of virtuality’ (Armitage, 1999 cited in Jordan and Taylor, 2004, p.29), the hacktivist imagination may play a role in understanding the wider ideological struggles currently taking place within the realm of virtual politics (Allnutt, 2011). Indeed, it is within Mills’ own ‘fruitful distinction’ that the hacktivist imagination plays out, most notably, between ‘the personal troubles of milieu and the public issues of social structure’ (Mills, [1959] 2000, p.8).

In the broadest sense, hacktivism penetrates public discourse intermittently as social movements and popular protest “go online” in a variety of ways in the twenty-first century. Most recently, hacktivism has exploded into the public domain with the actions of the hacking collective known as Anonymous. News stories are now replete with examples of Anonymous’ efforts (Gizmodo, 2012;
Guardian, 2012; New York Times, 2012), as this decentralised collective declares cyber war on a number of operational targets including, most recently, the U.S Government (International Business Times, 2012).

Emerging as the new face of hacktivism, Anonymous’ amorphous structure makes them particular hard to describe (Guardian, 2011; Ruffin, 2011). As a structurally disarticulated network of hackers, each collectivity that exists within Anonymous may have a different ideology or cause. What is easier to categorise, however, are their tactics, which can be roughly broken down into three different repertoires: (a) web site defacement; (b) distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks; and (c) data theft. Each exploit now regularly reported on within world news (Guardian, 2011; Forbes, 2012; Washington Post, 2012).

There are many sides to hacktivism and the tactics of Anonymous are not “typical”. Political activism in cyberspace is a broad field and should be recognised as such. For example, not everyone agrees with the nature of Anonymous’ activities. Oxblood Ruffin, a Canadian hacker and member of a computer underground group known as ‘Cult of the Dead Cow (cDc)’, has detailed the word ‘hacktivist’ (Ruffin, 2004). For Ruffin, hacktivism has an altogether different philosophy: a way of thinking bolstered by some definite tactics (Ruffin, 2004). ‘Using technology to improve human rights’ (Ruffin, 2011), Ruffin realised the potential to shape and maintain human rights discourse through the development of technologies in line with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Ruffin, 2011; Hacktivism FAQ, Undated). Ruffin makes two things plain: (a) that there are differences within hacktivism; and (b) that the activities of Anonymous are illegal (Ruffin, 2011).

“Some Anons have claimed that DDoSing is a form of civil disobedience but that argument is difficult to swallow. Civil disobedience entails breaking the law for a higher good; placing a burden on the system to arrest and process dissidents; and having one’s day in court …Far from being civil disobedience, Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow has described DDoSing as “the poison gas of cyberspace”. (Ruffin, 2011)

It is Anonymous’ theft of data which is seen by Ruffin as the ‘game changer’ (Ruffin, 2011). Where he derides the hijacking of information for its ‘pyrrhic’-like politics, and argues that Anonymous represent nothing but an ‘excrescent trend in cyber-espionage’ (Ruffin, 2011).

“Already the clouds are forming. The OECD is seeking tighter regulatory control on the internet. And the UK is seeking stricter laws to deal with cybercrime And when the whip comes down – and down it will come – Anonymous will have to accept part of the blame when online privacy rights are scaled back even further”.

‘Hacktivism, real hacktivism’, argues Ruffin, is done with ‘accepted rules of engagement’ in mind.

“There’s a reason why the Geneva Convention exists. Hacktivists need to be careful about the tactics they choose”.

So there can be serious consequences to forms of protest online. Hacktivism (and its tactics) are not homogenous, but heterogeneous when different ways of thinking are properly considered. But what does C.W Mills offer to this understanding? There are two points need to be made.

The Hacktivist Imagination

The first important consideration is that an individual’s biography, as his or her experiences relate to their immediate milieux, plays a role in the implementation and execution of particular forms of online protest. Moving beyond personal minutiae, hacktivists develop values, ideas, beliefs and
tactics in correspondence with others. In The Sociological Imagination, C. W. Mills provides the framework needed to do this. In asking sociology to recognise the importance of personal troubles, of an individual’s biography, sociology may be able to begin to gain a wider grasp on how and why particular forms of political activism emerge online. Suffice to say, that in appreciating the divergent nature within hacktivism, sociology may also appreciate that wilful activity stands in juxtaposition to wider societal issues. To witness hacktivists taking their troubles online is to witness the values of particular publics, however disarticulated, defend notions such as privacy and freedom of speech (Electronic Frontier Foundation, 2010). To witness hacktivists take their troubles online is to witness the societal issues of day in contention. Whether it be on piracy law, or the trial of Bradley Manning; hacktivists exist within a wider dialogue that sociologists can capture. And this dialogue is about how human activity continues to shape the institutions of a historical society.

Where there is a difference within hacktivism, a second (criminological) consideration is necessary. The tactical repertoires of hacktivists are considered emergent causal entities of their personal troubles and their immediate milieux. But what gives rise to those tactics which are considered particularly nefarious? At a time when the term hacktivism has been colonized and is even synonymous with cyber terrorism (GlobalPost, 2012), how appropriate is it to proceed without a careful articulation of biography. Criminological research now considers peer-influence and self- control as major factors fuelling juvenile cybercrime (Holt, Bossler and David, 2011). If the activities of young men on the internet are to be defined, regulated and  increasingly policed (BBC News, 2012), then one must recognise that young men have circumstances, pressures and ‘troubles’ which lead them to forge solidarities and pursue forms of resistance online. These considerations are central to a critical appreciation of the depth that exists between individual circumstance, motivation and the collective forms of political protest.

Dr. Thomas Brock is currently a postdoctoral research associate at Durham University. His research interests lie in realist social theory, histories of radical thought and movements of political action”.


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