Digital activists now have the tools to change the world. Expect disruption

A new era of digital disruption is dawning (Photo: Getty) A new era of digital disruption is dawning (Photo: Getty)

How many people does it take to topple VISA’s website – a company that can process 10,000 transactions per second? A million? Surely hundreds of thousands, at least?

Just 2,000. That’s how many were needed to overwhelm The actual damage was relatively minimal since credit card transactions take place on a separate system, but for ”Anonymous’’, the online collective that co-ordinated the attack, and those on PayPal and Mastercard, it was an unparalleled propaganda coup – and as word spread, with curious internet users trying to visit, the company’s servers were only strained further.

While Anonymous has been breathlessly described as a group of expert hackers, this kind of ”distributed denial of service attack’’ (DDoS), in which thousands of computers repeatedly visit the target website is a relatively simple operation – it just requires volunteers to download and run a piece of software that does all the work. Other activists are using Twitter, Facebook, Google Maps, and weblogs – similarly simple technologies – to organise protests and flashmobs in the real world, whether they’re against tuition fees, government spending cuts, Philip Green’s Topshop, or The X-Factor’s hegemony over the music charts.

With more and more of our lives spent online, virtual protests like those by Anonymous – who were carrying out “revenge” attacks on companies that had withdrawn support for WikiLeaks – make a correspondingly bigger impact. In the past, even a large protest by tens of thousands might struggle to make a few headlines for a single day, but now a small number of online activists can block websites and organisations used by hundreds of millions of people globally. The activists’ anonymity certainly helps, given that DDoS attacks are illegal in many countries including the UK, and that targets like the Church of Scientology are well known for their swift litigation.

But would people still protest if they weren’t anonymous? Perhaps not quite with the same confidence or disregard for the law, but the recent protests against tax avoidance and tuition fees were all organised out in the open using Facebook and Twitter, with activists using their real names and profiles. Even members of Anonymous were willing to put themselves on the line when they organised protests in the real world against Scientology, with most not wearing masks.

Anonymity isn’t necessary or even desirable when it comes to the new wave of direct-action protests. What distinguishes them from the past is their speed and decentralisation, made possible by the widespread uptake of social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter. It’s almost as if millions of people were holding their breath, waiting for the opportunity to pursue their pet cause, when the tax avoidance protests and Wikileaks showed that you don’t need to set up an office or appoint directors to create a movement – you just need a Facebook page, a Twitter hashtag, and a free blog.

These new online tools have traditionally served two purposes; first, to make money for their Silicon Valley creators, and second, to disintermediate a wide range of otherwise time-consuming and tricky processes, from setting up social groups (Facebook) to publishing (Twitter and blogs) and receiving payments (PayPal). That they are being used to organise highly effective direct-action protests and movements is not particularly surprising to anyone who’s read a William Gibson novel, but their sheer speed and effectiveness has shocked even the most die-hard futurists.

Anti-Scientology activists use social media to mobilise Anti-Scientology activists use social media to mobilise

The importance of these tools, not just to online activists but to everyone, explains why people get so upset when they don’t work in the supposedly neutral way expected of them. The anger of The X-Factor audience, who suspected that their votes were being tampered with, might strike most people as being unbelievably trivial, but it speaks to the betrayal of the trust we place in organisations and institutions that purport to represent our interests.

So imagine the fury when Facebook and Twitter – darlings of the internet, both of them – removed Anonymous’ profiles, and Amazon and PayPal ditched Wikileaks. People had thought that these companies shared their ideal of the internet as being a place for unfettered free speech and commerce, whereas in fact these internet giants were only interested in free speech insofar as it didn’t interfere with commerce (of course, Anonymous created replacement profiles only a few minutes later). Yesterday, we had the bizarre spectacle of Anonymous debating whether or not to attack Twitter, hardly a company associated with evil; eventually, Anonymous decided that Twitter was too important as a medium of mass communication to disrupt.

Many citizens stopped believing long ago that their elected representatives actually represented them, but they expected better from their new internet leaders. Now it appears that there is no one they can trust, and so disparate groups of activists are learning from each other about how to use social networks and DDoS tools to pool their individual resources, and taking matters into their own hands. You can only imagine the bind that Twitter and Facebook are in – they need the goodwill of their users, but they don’t want to upset governments, or even worse, advertisers.

Is this development good or bad? Are we about to see a revitalised citizenry exposing corruption and improving the world, or will bands of anonymous activists start shutting down critical parts of the web? It’s worth noting how internet users see it themselves. A popular notion amongst them, taken from role-playing games, is that the world can be classified into moral and ethical ”alignments’’. This system combines a moral continuum (from good to neutral to bad) with an ethical continuum (from lawful to neutral to chaotic) to create nine alignments, such as ‘Lawful Good’ and ”Neutral Evil’’.

Whether or not they, or others, see themselves as forces for good in the world, activists act in a rapid, decentralised, and unpredictable way – in other words, they’re Chaotic, not Neutral, and certainly not Lawful. That’s not to say that they go around breaking laws all the time, it’s more that they don’t adhere to any explicit structures or rules of behaviour. Within the student protest movement, nimble grassroots organisations taking direct action, such as the UCL Occupation, have arguably made more of an impact than lumbering entities like the NUS, even as the traditional media erroneously insists on identifying movements with single figureheads.

It’s even more difficult for governments to respond to this level of chaos. The short-term effect of Wikileaks is that US diplomats will circulate markedly less candid cables to fewer people, and use the phone more often; but by doing so, they deny themselves the very technologies that allow online activists to move so quickly.

Nor can Western governments step up monitoring or begin restricting the use of social networking tools without appearing hypocritical (see the West’s criticism of censorship in Iran and China) and generating a massive backlash from internet users, who might even resort to routinely encrypting private communication – a development that security services truly dread. In a way, David Cameron has got the Big Society he wants, a nation of volunteers self-organising for the pursuit of shared interests – it’s just that they aren’t the same as his.

By itself, technology can’t do anything; its creators can’t even predict the full range of uses to which it might be put to. It takes real people to demonstrate applications, and over the past few months, Wikileaks, Anonymous, student protesters, and X-Factor activists have all shown the rest of the world exactly how to use Twitter and Facebook – familiar tools to millions – in a new way. They’ve shown that self-organisation is possible, it’s easy, and for the most part, it goes unpunished.

Expect disruption.

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