Web rebels – old wine in new bottles

April 13, 2012 - 07:02

Wikileaks and the hackers group Anonymous are the talk of the town: political web rebels are a new phenomenon. However, there's nothing new about their tactics.

Groups such as Anonymous and Wikileaks make use of new technologies such as the internet. Yet, according to Christina Neumayer they still have a lot in common with their revolutionary ancestors. (Photo: Colourbox)

Had it not been for the internet, Twitter and Facebook, it would have been a lot more difficult for the Egyptian civil resistance movement to gather their forces and coordinate initiatives in the campaign to oust the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak last year.

In the Western countries, the Egyptian revolution of 2011 has even come to be widely known simply as the Twitter Revolution.

However, Christina Neumayer, a PhD student at the department of Digital Media and Communication at the IT University of Copenhagen is not convinced that the internet has changed things all that much for political rebels.

Neumayer is currently working on the final stages of her PhD thesis on web-based political activism. She is sceptical about the perceived importance of the internet:

“Technology has changed a great deal,” she says. “The internet has become enormously important for political activism. But I have discovered that there are actually a number of similarities between today's political rebels and their predecessors.”

Cloaked web rebels

One of the most widely-known examples of how the internet has gained such importance for today's rebels is the hackers group Anonymous.

Without the internet, it would not have been possible for Anonymous in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement to support its cause so effectively that it became a concern for entire governments.

But how is it done? According to Neumayer, the donning of disguises is one of the strategies used by the opponents of the powers that be – a strategy known in information science simply as cloaking.

Members of the hackers group Anonymous often conceil their identities. When appearing in public they don the characteristic Guy Fawkes masks, symbolising the combination of revolution and disguise. Guy Fawkes (1570-1601) led the Catholic ‘Gunpowder Plot’ in 1601 that unsuccessfully attempted to obliterate the Protestant elite by blowing up the British Houses of Parliament. (Photo: Vincent Diamante)

Cloaking masks political messages in two ways:

1. By integrating them into texts that do not appear political.

2. By exploiting the potential of new technologies.

Anti-abortionists exploit cyberspace

A recent example of how political opponents weave messages into seemingly non-political texts is www.teenbreaks.com.

At a glance, Teenbreaks looks like an ordinary run-of-the-mill website for teenagers. Bright colours and pictures of smiling youths mix with the questions about love, sex and peer pressure that typically occupy the minds of teenagers.

But on closer inspection, it becomes clear that the site is actually a front for anti-abortion campaigning. On Teenbreaks.com, pregnant teenage girls considering abortion can read about the dangers of abortion and be reminded that they themselves were once foetuses.

At the bottom of one page, it reads: “Your life – it’s amazing!” along with details of an information hotline that is ready to provide further guidance.

Bush-opponents trick you

Another example of how present-day political opponents use new technologies to cloak their messages comes from American leftists.

Facts

The Occupy Wall Street movement protests against inequality and social injustice. Since its inception in New York in September 2011, the movement has spread all over the world.

The web domain www.gwbush.com may sound like the name of a website promoting former US president George W. Bush. However, a visit to the site quickly reveals an altogether different purpose: visitors are instead redirected to the site www.stickergiant.com, which sells colourful stickers displaying slogans such as “Fear Bush” and “I’ll always hate George W. Bush”.

The forerunner to Twitter is in the Hoover Archives

Neumayer was convinced that the ways of modern-day web rebels are actually just a case of putting old wine in new bottles.

In order to test this thesis, she decided to spend a semester at Stanford University doing research in the Hoover Archives, which contain a wealth of documents from the period of Hitler’s Nazi regime from 1933-45.

As it turned out, her findings fit like a glove:

“I wanted to demonstrate that although the present is in many ways different from the past, there are still a number of similarities,” she says.

“I suddenly came across something really interesting: the strategies used by left-wing opponents to the Nazi regime during WWII had a lot in common with those used by web rebels today.”

German cigarette packets had concealed political messages

Some of the documents that Neumayer came across in her search in the Hoover archives were originally placed in German cigarette packets during WWII.

Back then, a cigarette packet was not simply a piece of disposable wrapping designed to contain cigarettes, like the ones sold today. The packets contained miniature booklets with words of wisdom about anything from the ideas of Plato to the wonders of love or advice on how to avoid hair loss.

Facts

American anti-abortionists are also known as the Pro-Life movement.

Their key message is that the foetus is a human being and should be treated as such.

In the US, the Pro-Life movement is often connected with the American right wing.

Even though the vast majority of antiabortionists are peaceful, extremist Pro-Life campaigners have been known to murder American doctors who perform abortions.

At a glance, these booklets would appear to be harmless, with page after page explaining facts and innocent trivialities such as the biology of hair growth and how to combat the bald spots.

But suddenly the nature of the content would change: instructions about hair were replaced with petitions, appeals and letters from members of the civil resistance, including German social democrats who had fled to Prague following Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933.

Neumayer says the German cigarette packets are a good example of how the German resistance relied on the two types of cloaking employed by today’s rebels on the internet.

Firstly, the social democrats made use of the technology or format of the booklet that reached German smokers in 1933. Secondly, they hid their messages in non-political texts, such as the one about hair growth.

Don’t get carried away by the hype

But if modern day rebels have so much in common with their predecessors after all, why all this fuss about the web?

“Actually, every technology introduced in society is trailed by hype, simply because it is new and exciting. This was the case with printing and broadcasting, and the internet was no exception. When the telephone was first introduced, it had to have its very own table to sit on; it was practically kept on display,” she says.

“It isn’t technology that changes our political views. Left-wing supporters strive for social justice today, precisely like left-wing supporters have done in the past.”

Even though she concedes that technology does change the world around us, she remains sceptical about the hype that surrounds novel technologies and inventions:

“What does change our ideas and viewpoints are changes in the political and social landscape; for instance Hitler’s World War or a burgeoning pro-choice majority”, she says.

“So even though technology naturally has developed a great deal throughout time, much remains unchanged. There are always people striving for change and there will always be people in power to whom such change is unwelcome.”

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Translated by
Iben Thiele

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