Hacktivism as a term originated in 1996 (Casserly). Hacktivism is similar to real life activism. A “normal” activist or a group of activists advocates for some sort of change through protests, sit-ins, and other typically nonviolent mean. Hacktivists, on the other hand, perform this kind of work online through digital means. These sections examine hacktivism and hacktivists in order to provide a more in-depth understanding.


  1. What is “hacktivism”?
  2. Who are “hacktivists”?
  3. The Power of Technology
  4. Hacktivism/Hacktivists’ Role in Digital Rhetoric
  5. Timeline: The Evolution of Hacktivism


Hacktivism can be defined as “the nonviolent use for political ends of ‘illegal or legally ambiguous digital tools’ like website defacements, information theft, website parodies, [denial of service] attacks, virtual sit-ins, and virtual sabotage” (Hampson 514). In simpler terms, it’s possible for hacktivism to be considered the online version of real life protests. That’s because hacktivism is performed “to achieve a social or political goal” (Hampson 515).

Because hacktivism is so complex, it can be difficult for organization and the government to respond accordingly to hacktivist related events. For that reason, it is important that if any legal action is taken because of a hacktivist related event, the “response should include inter-nation coordination that draws on widely accepted democratic principles of free speech” (Hampson 514). This is important because hacktivist related events have resulted in serious results for the organizations that are under attack.

While hacktivism is performed as a demonstration, hacktivism can create harm for the individuals and/or organizations that are the target of the hacktivists’ attack. Not all hacktivists or hacktivist groups are the same, meaning they don’t perform in the same ways or for the same reasons. Events that are hacktivistic are harmful to organizations and/or individuals because they occur inconsistently; it is nearly impossible to be prepared and to be less vulnerable. However, in order to decrease the likelihood of becoming a victim of hacktivists, an organization can leverage their staff as firewall (Rose). If the staff prioritises their efforts to focus on their key information and applies these efforts methodically, then perhaps they will be less prone to an act of hacktivism (Rose).

From time to time, “hacking” and “hacktivism” are confused, making it all the more difficult to understand what exactly hacktivism is. Clarifying the distinction between hacking and hacktivism is not incredibly easy because hacktivism has roots in hacking. Although that is the case, hacking is best described as accessing unauthorized data for one’s self-interest. Hacktivism is the act of exposing that unauthorized data “to achieve a social or political goal” (Hampson 515). The similarities between the two terms are clear, but it’s more difficult to clarify the differences between hacking and hacktivism.


There are all sorts of hacktivists who behave and perform in different ways. Some hacktivists or groups of hacktivists do not take as many measures—nor measures that are as intense—as others. A hacktivist intends to create publicity in order to spread information (Hampson 515). Hacktivists utilize the Internet—and all of its different assets—in order to promote a certain political agenda or to protest.

The most well known group of hacktivists is arguably the group known as Anonymous. Anonymous has not only garnered a reputation for themselves, but they’ve made a name for hacktivism and hacktivists everywhere. To many people, hacktivism is a bad ideology that should not be performed whereas hacktvisits groups, like Anonymous, believe that hacktivism is a good thing.

In the documentary We Are Legion: The Story of Hacktivists, filmmakers illustrate the the strikingly different opinions about hacktivists, especially Anonymous. Filmmakers interview some individuals who claim that Anonymous as a “cyber terrorist group of bigots,” “a group that “want[s] to prove a point,” and “a big strong kid with a low self-esteem” (“We Are Legion … FULL MOVIE.”). These descriptions reflect the harm that hacktivism can create for the victims of the hacktivistic attack.

While hacktivism may present some issues, hacktivists do not see their performances of hacktivism as a problem at all. According to We Are Legion, hacktivists, like Anonymous, believe they are exercising their right to freedom of speech. They advocate for freedom of speech and no censorship. To a hacktivist, he or she may believe that he or she is doing something positive by bringing an issue to light through hacktivism, so that other people begin to recognize and want to change the problem.

There are all sorts of mixed opinions about hacktivists and about whether or not hacktivism is good or bad. While there are some bad results of hacktivism, that is not what hacktivism is all about; in it is most basic form, hacktivism is about performing nonviolent acts to achieve a certain social or political goal.

Below is a trailer for the documentary.


According to the FBI, “cybercrime is the most significant criminal threat facing the United States” (Hampson 516). With the Internet constantly expanding and its features continuously improving, hacktivism progresses just as quickly as well. The reason for that is because there are more methods and tools hacktivists can utilize in order to promote their political agenda.

There are all sorts of methods and tools that hacktivists frequently used, including redirects, site defacements, virtual sit-ins, and denial of service (DoS). Below these four methods/tools are explained:


Redirects are as clear as it sounds. This type of hacktivism is used to (literally) redirect users to a site different than the site the users are intending to look at (Hampson 520).


Site defacements “involve obtaining unauthorized access to a web server and either replacing or altering a web page with new content that conveys a particular message” (Hampson 519). This form of hacktivisim is perhaps the most popular form. Using this method does not limit a hacktivist to targeting one website; a hacktivist can target multiple websites—hundreds if he or she would like—at once. Although the name suggests that this form does not damage the website(s); hacktivists use this method merely to show their technical expertise.


While virtual sit-ins share commonalities with DoS. The biggest difference is that virtual sit-ins require individual hacktivists to reload the webpage. In some cases, the hacktivists has to manually reload the webpage, but sometimes hacktivists can download software that automatically reloads the webpage for them.


DoS is a frequent form of hacktivism that’s utilized by hacktivists. DoS attacks “involve attempts to block access to websites by any of several means” (Hampson 517). This form of hacktivism slows down access to the server in charge of the website or prevent access to it entirely. Depending on the software, beginners can even engage in the attack. For example, in the 2010 hacktivist attack against WikiLeaks, Anonymous used the software called Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC). LOIC allows users to participate in two different ways: (1) “directly, by entering the target IP address and clicking ‘fire’” or (2) “alternatively, by volunteering their computer or network to the so-called ‘LOIC Hivemind,’” which allows others to create direct attacks from the surrendered server (Hampson 519).


A really important tool that aids hacktivists tremendously is social media because it is a quick, compelling way to reach numerous types of audiences. Anonymous proved how powerful social media can be in hacktivism during periods of social unrest. During the immediate days following Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, Anonymous took action on Twitter. Anonymous posted photos of the St. Louis County Police Chief and his family on their Twitter account, threatening to “wage a war” (Bever). Anonymous used Twitter as a way to promote their political agenda. In a press release, Anonymous made it clear that they were unhappy with how Ferguson and Missouri government was reacting to Brown’s death and the protestors.


Hacktivism/hacktivists play a significant role in terms of digital rhetoric. To understand digital rhetoric, one must understand “rhetoric.” Rhetoric can be defined as “the art or skill of speaking or writing formally and effectively especially as a way to persuade or influence people” (Merriam-Webster). Digital rhetoric is the act of using these skills for the same reasons through digital means.

Hacktivism is performed as a way to promote a political agenda or to protest an issue. The spread of information is done to convince the hacktivist’s audience that they dislike what they are doing or to convince their audience that what a particular organization is doing is wrong. This is crucial in digital rhetoric because it’s a tool used while reflecting the basic, fundamental ideas of digital rhetoric—persuading or influencing an audience.


The following is a timeline showcasing the evolution of hacktivism by highlighting hacktivistic events, laws that have emerged because of hacktivism/hacktivists, and even groups or people who have influenced hacktivism.

  • October 1989 – NASA and the U.S. Energy Department Computers Attacked by an anti-nuclear “WANK” worm (McCormick)
  • November 1994 – Intervasion of the UK (McCormick)
  • Communications Decency Act of 1996 (Hampson 515)
  • July 2001 – “Hacktivismo Declaration” is coined by the hacktivst group called Hacktivismo (McCormick)
  • October 2003 – Christopher Poole created 4chan.org (McCormick)
  • November 2010 – Anonymous launch “#OpTunisia,” to attack Tunisian government (McCormick)
  • November 2010 – Anonymous attack WikiLeaks (Hampson 511)
  • August 2014 – Anonymous attacks St. Louis Police Chief & Government because of social unrest in Ferguson, MO.


Bever, Lindsey. “Amid Ferguson Protests, Hacker Collective Anonymous Wages Cyberwar.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 13 Aug. 2014. Web. 27 Jan. 2015.

Casserly, Martyn. “What Is Hacktivism? A Short History of Anonymous, Lulzsec and the Arab Spring.” PC Advisor News RSS. PC Advisor News, 03 Dec. 2012. Web. 12 Apr. 2015.

Hampson, Noah C.N. “Hacktivism: A New Breed of Protest in a Networked World.” B.C. Int’l & Comp. L. Rev., 2012. Web. 26 Jan. 2015.

McCormick, Ty. “Hacktivism: A Short History.” Foreign Policy. N.p., 29 Apr. 2013. Web. 24 Jan. 2015.

Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 12 April 2015.

Rose, Andrew. “Hacktivism: How Worried Should Organisations Be?” TheGuardian.com. The Guardian, 27 June 2013. Web. 24 Jan. 2015.

“We Are Legion – The Story of the Hacktivists FULL MOVIE.” YouTube. YouTube, 25 Nov. 2012. Web. 24 Jan. 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-zwDhoXpk90


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