Civil disobedience is a term long used to describe non-violent opposition to perceived injustice, but if we try to define the concept more precisely we run into problems such as whether pro-active, non-violent, opposition to injustice can be rightly described as ‘disobedience’ since it is usually a political act that seeks confrontation with civil authority and a subsequent withholding of obedience to that authority. Martin Luther King (1963), in the context of opposition to racism in the southern United States, stated that ‘One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws’ http://www.digital-rights.net/wp-content/uploads/2008/01/klang_ices_disobedience.pdf . Here King posits one’s personal moral obligation to disobey unjust laws against one’s legal and moral responsibility to obey just laws and, in the context of the blatant racial discrimination against which he was campaigning, most people today would probably see that he was acting justly in a righteous cause when he engaged in civil disobedience, whether seeking confrontation pro-actively or responding to state or non-state coercion or violence. However, the civil rights struggle in the southern United states was often marked by individual acts of civil disobedience that grew into pro-active opposition such as when black students sat down at a whites-only lunch counter at Woolworths, Greensboro, North Carolina in February 1960 http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/04/101004fa_fact_gladwell . When we examine the modern concept of ‘Online Civil Disobedience’ and compare it to ‘real-world’ activism as engaged by Martin Luther King, we are clearly faced with disparities between the brave actions of individuals in a heavily policed and often violent environment and ‘hacktivists’ who, up until very recently at least, faced little in the way of consequences for their actions. While individuals attached to groups such as Anonymous and Lulzsec are starting to become answerable to the law, up until relatively recently the internet was a modern Wild West in which people could get away with doing things that would be criminally prosecutable in civil society. Whether the threat of legal sanction will outweigh the commitment of these individuals to their ‘cause’ will become clearer as the internet becomes more subject to the law, although whether or not we might find out what their ‘cause’ actually is remains questionable.
And therein lies a source of scepticism on my part at least regarding groups such as Anonymous and Lulzsec. What do they actually stand for and what are their aims? I can understand clearly what Martin Luther King stood for and sympathise with his cause. I can understand what Karl Marx stood for and sympathise with the tens of millions who died under Marxist regimes. But what exactly does Anonymous stand for and what is their cause? Is it purely an egotistical rebellion against authority? Does the authority against which they seem to be rebelling have no legitimacy in the context of democratically elected government? And why is their public countenance covered with a mask depicting a late 16th – early 17th century English Catholic rebel who sought to blow up the Houses of Parliament and replace a Protestant king with a Catholic one? It appears that the said mask-wearing originates in an attachment to the comic book and film V for Vendetta, but the fact that these people would use a brave and principled man such as Guy Fawkes as an icon, with total disregard for his beliefs, suggests to me that we are dealing with superficial egotists rather than genuinely politically engaged individuals. Originating in 2003 on the imageboard 4chan, the activities of the largely nameless individuals who make up Anonymous appear to be largely targeted at anti-digital piracy campaigns by the motion picture and music industry, but others such as the Church of Scientology have also been targeted. One self-proclaimed faction of Anonymous, Anonymous Analytics, claims ‘transparency’ as one of the areas they seek to promote – this, hilariously, is from a group who seek to conceal their identity and whose whole identity seems to be based around not having one http://anonanalytics.com/ .
Lulzsec, an abbreviation of Lulz Security apparently, is a computer hacker group that has carried out a number of high profile online attacks, including one on Sony Pictures in 2011 and another on the CIA website. The fact that Lulzsec leader ‘Sabu’, real name Hector Xavier Monsegur, has given details on his fellow hackers to the FBI in an apparent plea-bargain, might or might not speak volumes on the commitment to their ‘cause’ of these latter-day heroes of civil disobedience, or it might just expose the truth that to be committed to a cause you actually have a cause to be committed to. Is attacking Sony Pictures website, apparently to prove that it can be attacked, causing $600,000 dollars in damages http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/04/05/us-hacking-lulzsec-sony-idUSBRE8340YR20120405 , really something to be admired? Well, personally, I don’t think so. I’m sure there are some genuinely useful online activities that can be carried out in pursuit of justice – Julian Assange seems at least willing to pay a personal price for his convictions and much of what Wikileaks has published is, in my opinion, better in the public domain rather than being kept secret – but it seems to me that much of what passes for online activism is frivolous and highly egotistical.
Whether I would become politically active through targeted social media is probably as relevant a question as whether I might have become politically active through targeted leafleting back in the 1980s. But I was a lot younger then and I still haven’t decided whether young people really care more about others or just have bigger egos to satisfy.