I recently encountered a blog post that handles the typology of online criminal activity and, amongst others, defines online activists as criminals. Needless to say I was outraged.
Well, to make things short, online activists are not criminals. I like to assume that the author didn’t mean all online activists are criminals, but defining online activism as a type of criminal activity per se is very problematic.
Even more problematic is to include the three groups criminal organizations (organized crime), cyber activists and secret services (state institutions!) in the same category.
What and who are cyber activists?
You, me, and everyone else who ever supported a cause in Facebook or Twitter; signed an online petition; made an angry comment on a company’s website or Facebook-page etc.
Evgeny Morozov (in contrary to Clay Shirky that almost mystifies the power of online tools to mobilize people) also warns of Slacktivism.
This is a kind of conscience relieving act (liking a cause in FB) that makes a person feel she did her part and thus negatively affect her activism in offline life, which is much more important in many cases (more on the subject of social media and collective action in my thesis ‘CollectiveAction 2.0′).
Sandor Vegh defined three general categories for Cyberactivism: Awareness/advocacy, organization/mobilization, and action/reaction.
The most distinct type of cyber activists, the action/reaction category, is the one addressed in the mentioned article. The activists directly attack certain aims. These aims are the online presence of real-world organizations and entities; these could be companies or corporations, governments and state institutions, NGO’s or political organizations.
The attacks serve a social or political statement and usually cause reversible damage such as taking websites offline; sometime the damage is less reversible when, for example, sensible information (that has to do with the statement that is to be made) is published. In the majority of the cases, the information turns out to be of public interest by proving the unjust that was done.
The people who do it (the cyber activists) are usually idealistic motivated with limited financial resources but if they are devoted enough to their cause or mobilize enough like-minded, they have significant human resources.
Now it is quite clear that centralized groups such as WikiLeaks, as well as decentralized groups such as Anonymous (theoretically, anyone can be Anonymous), are all cyber activists of the third category (action/reaction).
Also individuals, such as Paolo Cirio and Alessandro Ludovido with their genius Hacking Monopolism Trilogy, are cyber activists of that category (or at times of the first one).
But is it really a criminal act to expose unethical and corrupt behavior? To expose scandals on national and international scale? To expose information of public interest that was hidden from the public for the sake of personal interests?
The targets of cyber activists (and of the offline world activists as well) are mostly very powerful, politically and financially, so there is no surprise that they have the ability to criminalize the activity against them.
Take a look at some comparisons that run around the internet:
But why criminalize?
A criminal target is an easy target. It is much easier to neutralize a person or a group that were declared as criminal.
But more important, when criminalizing a person / group / type of activity, their place in public discourse is affected – the person (group, activity) is being delegitimized and contra-positioned against the law-obeying (and thus “ethical”) public.
And in democratic societies, control over public discourse – that is control over information, communication, and public opinion – is the strongest and most important weapon.
Cyber activists are criminals
Just like in non-cyber-space, it doesn’t matter if your activity is ethical or not; for the benefit of society or of your own; legal but unjust, or just but illegal.
It matters if you’re in position of power (political, financial, lobbying…) to legitimate your activity and criminalize those who oppose you.
Cyber activists are criminals just because they have high-profiled targets.
Society on the other hand, should support a reflective and ethical discourse, not populist accusations and sweeping criminalization of activists made by corrupted politicians and lobbyists.