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24. Freedom technologists: a short reading list

October 15, 2015

Freedom Technologists: Digital Activism and Political Change in the 21st Century (working title), Chapter 2, Freedom Technologists

This is the twenty-fourth post in the freedom technologists series.
See also Directory of freedom technologists 

This selection of 30 key texts is drawn from a bibliography published here on 7 September 2015 — and subsequently updated — in which I brought together a large set of (mostly academic) references on a specific category of political actor that I am calling ‘freedom technologists’. By this term I refer to those tech-minded individuals, groups and organisations with a keen interest in the democratic and emancipatory potential of information and communication technologies (ICTs). Freedom technologists combine technological and political abilities to pursue greater Internet and democratic freedoms, which they regard as being inextricably entwined (Postill 2014). Far from being techno-utopians or deluded ‘slacktivists’ (Morozov, 2013, Skoric, 2012), I find that most freedom technologists are in fact techno-pragmatists, that is, people who take a very practical view of the limits and possibilities of new technologies for political change. This reading list is part of current research towards Chapter 2 of my forthcoming book Freedom Technologists: Digital Activism and Political Change in the 21st Century (working title).

As always, I’m grateful for any further feedback or information.

Keywords: technology, politics, techno-politics, hackers, hacktivism, digital activism, internet activism, digital liberation movement, political change, social protest, techno-libertarians

  1. Benkler, Y. (2011). Free Irresponsible Press: Wikileaks and the Battle over the Soul of the Networked Fourth Estate, A. CR-CLL Rev., 46, 311.

A study of the events surrounding the Wikileaks document releases in 2010 provides a rich set of insights about the weaknesses and sources of resilience of the emerging networked fourth estate. It marks the emergence of a new model of watchdog function, one that is neither purely networked nor purely traditional, but is rather a mutualistic interaction between the two. It identifies the peculiar risks to, and sources of resilience of, the networked fourth estate in a multidimensional system of expression and restraint, and suggests the need to resolve a major potential vulnerability—the ability of private infrastructure companies to restrict speech without being bound by the constraints of legality, and the possibility that government actors will take advantage of this affordance in an extralegal public-private partnership for censorship. Finally, it offers a richly detailed event study of the complexity of the emerging networked fourth estate, and the interaction, both constructive and destructive, between the surviving elements of the traditional model and the emerging elements of the new. It teaches us that the traditional, managerial-professional sources of responsibility in a free press function imperfectly under present market conditions, while the distributed models of mutual criticism and universal skeptical reading, so typical of the Net, are far from powerless to deliver effective criticism and self-correction where necessary. The future likely is, as the Guardian put it, “a new model of co-operation” between surviving elements of the traditional, mass-mediated fourth estate, and its emerging networked models.418 The transition to this new model will likely be anything but smooth.

  1. Beyer, J. L. (2014b). The emergence of a freedom of information movement: Anonymous, WikiLeaks, the Pirate party, and Iceland. Journal of ComputerMediated Communication, 19(2), 141-154.

Online rhetoric about the Internet’s potential to change society, the need to reform intellectual property laws, and the evils of censorship is becoming increasingly similar across sites. The push for “freedom of information” is not restricted to online spaces, but it appears to be born from such spaces, with the concept itself shaped by the presence of the Internet and its effect on networked societies. Focusing on WikiLeaks, the Pirate Party, Anonymous, and Iceland, I describe the emerging coalescence of “freedom of information” advocates pushing for a simultaneous liberalization and homogenization of freedom of information regulations across democracies.

  1. Brevini, B., Hintz, A., & McCurdy, P. (Eds.). (2013). Beyond WikiLeaks: implications for the future of communications, journalism and society. Palgrave Macmillan.

Revelations published by the whistleblower platform WikiLeaks, including the releases of U.S. diplomatic cables in what became referred to as ‘Cablegate’, put WikiLeaks into the international spotlight and sparked intense about the role and impact of leaks in a digital era. Beyond WikiLeaks opens a space to reflect on the broader implications across political and media fields, and on the transformations that result from new forms of leak journalism and transparency activism. A select group of renowned scholars, international experts, and WikiLeaks ‘insiders’ discuss the consequences of the WikiLeaks saga for traditional media, international journalism, freedom of expression, policymaking, civil society, social change, and international politics. From short insider reports to elaborate and theoretically informed academic texts, the different chapters provide critical assessments of the current historical juncture of our mediatized society and offer outlooks of the future. Authors include, amongst others, Harvard University’s Yochai Benkler, Graham Murdoch of Loughborough University, net activism scholar, Gabriella Coleman, the Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Jillian York, and Guardian editor, Chris Elliott. The book also includes a conversation between philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, and WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, and its prologue is written by Birgitta Jónsdóttir, Icelandic MP and editor of the WikiLeaks video, `Collateral Murder`.

  1. Brooke, H. (2011), The Revolution Will Be Digitised: Dispatches from the Information War, London: William Heinemann.

There is more information in the world than ever before – but who’s in control? At the centre sits the Establishment: governments, corporations and powerful individuals who have more knowledge about us, and more power, than ever before. Circling them is a new generation of hackers, pro-democracy campaigners and internet activists who no longer accept that the Establishment should run the show. Award-winning journalist and campaigner Heather Brooke takes us inside the Information War and explores the most urgent questions of the digital age: where is the balance between freedom and security? In an online world, does privacy still exist? And will the internet empower individuals, or usher in a new age of censorship, surveillance and oppression?

  1. Chadwick, A. and Collister, S. (2014). Boundary-Drawing Power and the Renewal of Professional News Organizations: The Case of The Guardian and the Edward Snowden NSA Leak. International Journal of Communication, 8, 22.

The Edward Snowden National Security Agency leak of 2013 was an important punctuating phase in the evolution of political journalism and political communication as media systems continue to adapt to the incursion of digital media logics. The leak’s mediation reveals professional news organizations’ evolving power in an increasingly congested, complex, and polycentric hybrid media system where the number of news actors has radically increased. We identify the practices through which The Guardian reconfigured and renewed its power and which enabled it to lay bare highly significant aspects of state power and surveillance. This involved exercising a form of strategic, if still contingent, control over the information and communication environments within which the Snowden story developed. This was based upon a range of practices encapsulated by a concept we introduce: boundary-drawing power.

  1. Coleman, E.G. (2011). Hacker politics and publics. Public Culture, 23(3 65), 511-516.

This article examines some of the attributes that mark geek and hacker politics as distinct from other domains of digitally based activism and offers an introductory framework to assess their political significance.

  1. Coleman, E.G. (2014). Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. Verso Books.

John Postill review: The past five years have seen a global flourishing of political initiatives in which tech-minded actors of different kinds (geeks, hackers, bloggers, online journalists, citizen politicians, etc.) have played prominent roles. From whistleblowing to online protests, from occupied squares to anti-establishment parties, these ‘freedom technologists’ can no longer be dismissed, particularly after Edward Snowden’s revelations about the surveillance abuses of America’s NSA and allied agencies. Based on long-term anthropological fieldwork, Gabriella Coleman’s Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, is a riveting account of one these new collective actors: Anonymous.

  1. Croeser, S. (2012). Contested technologies: The emergence of the digital liberties movement. First Monday, 17(8).

The digital liberties movement is an emerging social movement that draws together activism around online censorship and surveillance, free/libre and open source software, and intellectual property. This paper uses the social movement literature’s framework to build an understanding of the movement, expanding the dominant framework by including a focus on the networks which sustain the movement. While other communities and movements have addressed these issues in the past, activists within the digital liberties movement are beginning to build a sense of a collective identity and a master frame that ties together these issues. They are doing this in online spaces, including blogs, and through campaigns around landmark issues, which also help to build the network which the movement relies upon. The 2012 campaign against the U.S. Stop Online Piracy Act has highlighted the movement’s strength, but will also, perhaps, raise challenges for digital liberties activists as they confront the tension between attempts to disavow politics and a profoundly political project.

  1. Deibert, R. J. (2013). Black code: Inside the battle for cyberspace. Signal.

As cyberspace develops in unprecedented ways, powerful agents are scrambling for control. Predatory cyber criminal gangs such as Koobface have made social media their stalking ground. The discovery of Stuxnet, a computer worm reportedly developed by Israel and the United States and aimed at Iran’s nuclear facilities, showed that state cyberwar is now a very real possibility. Governments and corporations are in collusion and are setting the rules of the road behind closed doors. This is not the way it was supposed to be. The Internet’s original promise of a global commons of shared knowledge and communications is now under threat. Drawing on the first-hand experiences of one of the most important protagonists in the battle — the Citizen Lab and its global network of frontline researchers, who have spent more than a decade cracking cyber espionage rings and uncovering attacks on citizens and NGOs worldwide — Black Code takes readers on a fascinating journey into the battle for cyberspace.

  1. Diamond, L., & Plattner, M. F. (2012). Liberation technology: Social media and the struggle for democracy. JHU Press.

The revolutions sweeping the Middle East provide dramatic evidence of the role that technology plays in mobilizing citizen protest and upending seemingly invulnerable authoritarian regimes. A grainy cell phone video of a Tunisian street vendor’s self-immolation helped spark the massive protests that toppled longtime ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and Egypt’s “Facebook revolution” forced the ruling regime out of power and into exile. While such “liberation technology” has been instrumental in freeing Egypt and Tunisia, other cases—such as China and Iran—demonstrate that it can be deployed just as effectively by authoritarian regimes seeking to control the Internet, stifle protest, and target dissenters. This two-sided dynamic has set off an intense technological race between “netizens” demanding freedom and authoritarians determined to retain their grip on power.

Liberation Technology brings together cutting-edge scholarship from scholars and practitioners at the forefront of this burgeoning field of study. An introductory section defines the debate with a foundational piece on liberation technology and is then followed by essays discussing the popular dichotomy of “liberation” versus “control” with regard to the Internet and the sociopolitical dimensions of such controls. Additional chapters delve into the cases of individual countries: China, Egypt, Iran, and Tunisia. This book also includes in-depth analysis of specific technologies such as Ushahidi—a platform developed to document human-rights abuses in the wake of Kenya’s 2007 elections—and alkasir—a tool that has been used widely throughout the Middle East to circumvent cyber-censorship. Liberation Technology will prove an essential resource for all students seeking to understand the intersection of information and communications technology and the global struggle for democracy. Contributors: Walid Al-Saqaf, Daniel Calingaert, Ronald Deibert, Larry Diamond, Elham Gheytanchi, Philip N. Howard, Muzammil M. Hussain, Rebecca MacKinnon, Patrick Meier, Evgeny Morozov, Xiao Qiang, Rafal Rohozinski, Mehdi Yahyanejad.

  1. Doctorow, C. 2012 The problem with nerd politics, The Guardian, 15 May 2012,

If people who understand technology don’t claim positions that defend the positive uses of technology, if we don’t operate within the realm of traditional power and politics, if we don’t speak out for the rights of our technically unsophisticated friends and neighbours, then we will also be lost. Technology lets us organise and work together in new ways, and to build new kinds of institutions and groups, but these will always be in the wider world, not above it.

  1. Fernández-Delgado, F. C., & Balanza, M. T. V. (2012). Beyond WikiLeaks: The Icelandic Modern Media Initiative and the Creation of Free Havens. International Journal of Communication, 6, 24.

On June 16, 2010, the Icelandic Parliament unanimously approved the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI), a legislative package that turns the concept of “tax haven” on its head by offering fundamental protections for free speech and freedom of expression. This article offers a general picture of the political context in which the IMMI is set and describes the core free speech concerns identified in it as well as the legal reforms put forward to tackle them. To conclude, we examine both the possible legal implications of the IMMI and its general significance for the emergence of the networked public sphere in general and of the networked fourth estate in particular.

  1. Freedom House (2014) Freedom on the Net 2014.

Freedom on the Net 2014 – the fifth annual comprehensive study of internet freedom around the globe, covering developments in 65 countries that occurred between May 2013 and May 2014 – finds internet freedom around the world in decline for the fourth consecutive year, with 36 out of 65 countries assessed in the report experiencing a negative trajectory during the coverage period. In a departure from the past, when most governments preferred a behind-the-scenes approach to internet control, countries rapidly adopted new laws that legitimize existing repression and effectively criminalize online dissent. The past year also saw increased government pres­sure on independent news websites, which had previously been among the few uninhibited sources of information in many countries, in addition to more people detained or prosecuted for their digital activities than ever before.

  1. Goggin, G., McLelland, M., Lee, K., Frances, S., Tkach, L., Tamura, T., & Yu, H. (2013). Internet Activism in Asia-Pacific: A Comparative, Cultural History. Selected Papers of Internet Research, 3.

As the internet has become a central delivery platform across contemporary mediascapes, activism around internet access, freedom, censorship, and openness has become more prominent. As internet freedom gathers momentum as a global media policy concept and movement, it is important to interrogate the terms in which it is constructed and understood. All too often, and certainly evident in these recent moves, is a strong, normative sense in which North American concepts of internet, media, activism and even ‘freedom’ shape the boundaries and modes of contemporary debates, policy frameworks, and action. Against this backdrop, this paper seeks to reframe contemporary notions of internet freedom, their politics, publics, actors, and movements. Drawing from the wider project on Asia-Pacific internet histories, this paper presents three case studies of internet activism –– respectively in Australia, South Korea, and Japan.

  1. Greenwald, G. (2014). No place to hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US surveillance state. Metropolitan Books.

Going beyond NSA specifics, Greenwald […] takes on the establishment media, excoriating their habitual avoidance of adversarial reporting on the government and their failure to serve the interests of the people. Finally, he asks what it means both for individuals and for a nation’s political health when a government pries so invasively into the private lives of its citizens—and considers what safeguards and forms of oversight are necessary to protect democracy in the digital age. Coming at a landmark moment in American history, No Place to Hide is a fearless, incisive, and essential contribution to our understanding of the U.S. surveillance state. – See more at:

  1. Hintz, A. (2013). Dimensions of Modern Freedom of Expression: WikiLeaks, Policy Hacking, and Digital Freedoms. Beyond WikiLeaks: Implications for the Future of Communications, Journalism and Society, 146.

The WikiLeaks project can be placed in the midst of these examples of the use of liberation technology and the various experiences of individuals and movements in advancing free expression, transparency, and social transformation. The leaks platform has bypassed information restrictions, expanded the range of publicly available information, and challenged the leading media players to change their routines and practices. Demonstrating the capacity of technical experts to challenge major powers, WikiLeaks seems to express a broader trend in which the power relations between individuals and institutions are shifting in favour of the former (Grimsson, 2011 ). In that sense, citizen journalism, the Arab Spring, and WikiLeaks may confirm some of the predictions of cyber-libertarians and techno-utopians, who have long criticized traditional institutions as outdated and have praised the power of individuals in cyberspace (Barlow, 1996). However, this reading of recent events may be premature. Just as social media have been used by activists to advance political change, they have been used by governments to control and deter such action, for example, by identifying protesters (as in Tunisia, Syria, and Iran). Vital online resources and funding streams have been cut to weaken dissident organizations (as happened to WikiLeaks in December 2010 and ever since).

  1. Hussain, M. M. (2014). Securing Technologies of Freedom after the Arab Spring: Policy Entrepreneurship and Norms Consolidation Practices in Internet Freedom Promotion. Doctoral dissertation (Ph.D.), University of Washington.

This dissertation is an investigation of the aftermath of the Arab Spring protests of 2011-2012 and their consequences for impacting contemporary discussions and efforts to promote “internet freedom” by Western democratic states. This study focuses on the key stakeholder communities that have emerged to compete, define, and consolidate the norms and frameworks surrounding internet freedom promotion: state-based, private sector, and civil society actors. This dissertation also describes the rise and failed attempt of civil society stakeholders to infuse democratically-oriented frames for approaching digital infrastructure management with the primary interests of protecting citizen rights and political activists in autocratic states. The political economy of global digital infrastructure regulation is also examined, and the positions of state-based and private sector influences within it are articulated. In doing so, this study identifies a key tech-savvy community of practice that has delineated the most comprehensive opportunities and pitfalls of using digital media tools for democracy promotion, and is struggling to consolidate and enact these practices and norms into policy frameworks. However, these efforts are cast against the competing interests of the technology providers in colluding with repressive and democratic state powers to provide functionally equivalent anti-democratic technocratic capabilities. Thus, this story is parts network analysis, part policy analysis, and part event analysis. Throughout, the proto-regime formation approach to technology policy is emphasized in contrast to existing state-sponsored telecommunications regulatory bodies.

  1. Karatzogianni, A. (2015) Firebrand Waves of Digital Activism 1994-2014: The Rise and Spread of Hacktivism and Cyberconflict. Palgrave.

Firebrand Waves of Digital Activism 1994-2014 introduces four waves of upsurge in digital activism and cyberconflict. The rise of digital activism started in 1994, was transformed by the events of 9/11, culminated in 2011 with the Arab Spring uprisings, and entered a transformative phase of control and mainstreaming since 2013 with the Snowden affair. The book’s argument is that digital activism is entering a phase of mainstreaming as ‘politics as usual’: an established element in the fabric of political life with no exceptional qualities, normalized and mainstreamed by governments through collaboration with corporations and the cooptation of NGOs. Cyberconflict will revolve more around high-level information warfare of attacking infrastructure, rather than just using ICTs to mobilise or as a weapon for low-level societal and largely symbolic attacks. The book goes on to elaborate on how the higher level character of conflict in digital networks will intensify to the extent that digital activism and cyberconflict of the last two decades shall pale by comparison.

  1. Kelty C (2008) Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

In Two Bits, Christopher M. Kelty investigates the history and cultural significance of Free Software, revealing the people and practices that have transformed not only software but also music, film, science, and education. Free Software is a set of practices devoted to the collaborative creation of software source code that is made openly and freely available through an unconventional use of copyright law. Kelty explains how these specific practices have reoriented the relations of power around the creation, dissemination, and authorization of all kinds of knowledge. He also makes an important contribution to discussions of public spheres and social imaginaries by demonstrating how Free Software is a “recursive public”—a public organized around the ability to build, modify, and maintain the very infrastructure that gives it life in the first place.

  1. Kubitschko, S. (2015b). Hackers’ media practices Demonstrating and articulating expertise as interlocking arrangements. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 1354856515579847.

The increased level of technical abstractness poses a challenge for laypersons and politicians alike to notice the political impacts specific technical developments might bring. By presenting qualitative research on Europe’s oldest and one of the world’s largest hacker organizations – the Chaos Computer Club (CCC) – the article shows that the CCC acts as a civil society organization that brings together a wide range of knowledge, skills and experiences related to media technologies and infrastructures. By deconstructing the abstractness of a given technology, the CCC materializes its formerly unrecognized political quality. Yet, the political endeavour of closing the expert-public gap, in the interests of public democracy, is only brought to life once the outcomes of a particular hack are communicated in comprehensible manners to diverse publics and audiences. Overall the article points to the emergence of new modes and practices of expertise by conceptualizing the Club’s active demonstration of expertise through hacking and its articulation of expertise through media-related practices and interactions with institutional politics as interlocking arrangements. Today, hackers – and in particular hacker organizations – are best considered actors whose skills, knowledge and experiences are ever more relevant for political cultures and democracy at large.

  1. MacKinnon, R. 2012. Consent of the Networked: The Struggle for Internet Freedom, Basic Books: New York, 2012.

In the early days of the web, some hoped that these two worlds [online and offline] would simply stay apart. In 1996, civil libertarian John Perry Barlow wrote ‘A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’, which demanded that the governments of the physical world not impinge on the freedom of the digital one. Yet governments and corporations did impinge, with laws, law suits, and censorship. Books by Lawrence Lessig, Shanthi Kalathil and Taylor Boas, Ronald Deibert, and Jonathan Zittrain described how the Internet was regulated, legislated, divided, and monitored. Soon the freedom of the Internet was no longer a fact, but a fragile quality.

Almost 15 years later, in 2010, Secretary of State Clinton gave a speech, which proposed that the US government should promote a free Internet because it had the power to democratize societies by freeing their citizens to publicly dissent and organize. In 2011, journalist Evgeny Morozov made a big splash with his book The Net Delusion , which directly challenged this argument. Morozov counter-argued that the Internet does not particularly empower citizens, and perhaps even empowers repressive governments more through surveillance, propaganda, and censorship.

A year later Rebecca MacKinnon has again shifted the discourse: yes, the Internet does have the capacity to empower citizens and thus increase and improve democracy, but that civic power is under existential threat. MacKinnon also breaks new ground by highlighting the tremendous importance of private firms in determining the political nature of the Internet. Google, Facebook, and their peers have been kind enough to have ‘created a new, globally networked public sphere’, she notes, but that supposedly public sphere is ‘largely shaped, built, owned, and operated by the private sector’ (p. 9). This fact poses a political threat as ‘Internet and telecommunication companies have gained far too much power over citizens’ lives, in ways that are insufficiently transparent or accountable to public interest’ (p. 10). One of her most interesting ideas is that of ‘networked authoritarianism’, the observation that a society’s citizens can be connected to one another and yet remain unfree. China, on which she is an expert, is surely the most skilled practitioner of this new form of governance. ‘Herein lies the paradox of the Chinese Internet’, she writes. ‘Public debate and even some forms of activism are expanding’ while ‘state controls and manipulation tactics have prevented democracy movements from gaining meaningful traction’ (p. 42).

  1. McCarthy, M. T. (2015, June). Toward a Free Information Movement. In Sociological Forum (Vol. 30, No. 2, pp. 439-458).

The past decade witnessed the emergence of numerous Internet-based social justice groups, some of which have readily apparent social roles and follow traditional organizational paths, while others occupy more ambiguous spaces, and blur any clearly demarcated lines of classification. Groups such as Anonymous and WikiLeaks present researchers with difficulty in strict categorization and as such are often labeled in ways that obscure their classification and understanding. Situating these two groups within network society and social movement literatures, this study offers a sociological explanation for the rise of these groups and attempts to knit their disparately understood practices of “hacktivism” and “journalism” together in a coherent framework. Frame analysis is employed to examine how each group attends to core framing tasks, finding that both groups do so in substantially similar ways, employing complementary frames concerning the asymmetrical distribution of information. Moreover, their embeddedness in digital information networks, and their particular opposition to information asymmetry, acts as a unifying thread that enables these apparently disparate actors to be studied within a single analytical framework as part of an emerging digital, peer-produced movement concerned with the asymmetrical distribution of information.

  1. Milberry, K. (2014). # OccupyTech. In Activist Science and Technology Education (pp. 255-268). Springer Netherlands.

Occupy Wall Street grew rapidly from an internet meme and tent city in the heart of America’s financial sector to a global revolt against neoliberal capitalism. Focusing on economic inequality and corruption in the banking industry, Occupy drew attention to the plight of the majority of people suffering under neoliberal globalization. Its slogan, “We are the 99 %,” references the growing concentration of income and wealth among the top one percent of income earners in the United States. Within weeks, the protest had self-replicated, with occupations cropping up in 900 cities around the world. Evidently, it spoke a common language of hope, rage and refusal that had been unleashed by the Arab Spring almost a year earlier. The internet was crucial to the birth and proliferation of the Occupy Movement, enabling protestors to overcome the initial media embargo against Occupy Wall Street and began airing their concerns via social media. The #Occupy hashtags were powerful signifiers that enabled the ideas, sentiments and spirit of the protest to diffuse, evolving from a movement tactic into a global phenomenon. This chapter traces Occupy’s roots in the recent history of internetworked social movements and examining its dual nature as a simultaneously virtual-physical phenomenon. It considers the essential role of tech activists in building the technical infrastructure of Occupy, using free and open source technology (FOSS) as well as corporate social media to bridge the online/offline divide. Finally, this chapter discusses Occupy as a distributed platform upon which a global super-movement is currently being built. Keywords: Internet • Social movements • Tech activism • Occupy • Philosophy of technology • Social media • Free software

  1. Morin, J. F. (2014). Paradigm shift in the global IP regime: The agency of academics. Review of international political economy, 21(2), 275-309.

The global intellectual property (IP) regime is in the midst of a paradigm shift in favour of greater access to protected work. Current explanations of this paradigm shift emphasize the agency of transnational advocacy networks, but ignore the role of academics. Scholars interested in global IP politics have failed to engage in reflexive thinking. Building on the results from a survey of 1679 IP experts, this article argues that a community of academics successfully broke the policy monopoly of practitioners over IP expertise. They instilled some scepticism concerning the social and economic impacts of IP among their students as well as in the broader community of IP experts. They also provided expert knowledge that was widely amplified by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and some intergovernmental organizations, acting as echo chambers to reach national decision makers. By making these claims, this article illustrates how epistemic communities actively collaborate with other transnational networks, rather than competing with them, and how they can promote a paradigm change by generating, rather than reducing, uncertainty.

  1. Morozov, E. (2012). The Net Delusion: The dark side of Internet freedom. PublicAffairs.

Two delusions in particular concern Morozov: “cyber-utopianism”, the belief that the culture of the internet is inherently emancipatory; and “internet-centrism”, the belief that every important question about modern society and politics can be framed in terms of the internet. Put so starkly, such extreme beliefs may sound laughable, yet he sees them in action everywhere: from the misguided belief that Twitter could foment revolution in Iran in 2009 (on the eve of the elections, the country had fewer than 20,000 Twitter users) to the naive hope that instant international exposure via new media will necessarily result in a diminishing of violence in Africa and the Middle East. Moreover, Morozov argues, the west’s reckless promotion of technological tools as pro-democratic agents has provoked authoritarian regimes to crack down on online activity in some style: not just closing down or blocking websites, but using social networks to infiltrate protest groups and track down protesters, seeding their own propaganda online, and generally out-resourcing and out-smarting their beleaguered citizenry.

  1. Postigo, H. (2012b). Cultural production and the digital rights movement. Information, Communication and Society, 15(8), 1165-1185.

The Digital Rights Movement is an effort by activists and advocacy organizations to expand consumer rights in media content use. A central argument for legitimating those rights pivots on a view of culture as a participatory endeavour. This article focuses on the Movement’s use of the discourse of culture and digital technology describing (1) how the Movement positions culture as necessarily participatory; (2) the role of mediating technologies in achieving a culture that is participatory; and (3) the connection of those visions to a discourse of free speech in the form of what is termed here, remix speech. The article suggests that adopting this view of culture and media consumption can result in a politics of participatory culture, where the political economic arrangements of the cultural industries and consumers are realigned.

  1. Postill, J. (2014) Freedom technologists and the new protest movements: a theory of protest formulas, Convergence 20 (3), pp. 402-418.

In this article, I draw from anthropological fieldwork in Spain and secondary research on Tunisia and Iceland to explore the connection between Internet freedom activism and post-2008 protest movements. I introduce two new concepts: ‘freedom technologists’ and ‘protest formulas’. I use the term freedom technologists to refer to those social agents who combine technological and political skills to pursue greater Internet and democratic freedoms, which they regard as being inextricably entwined. Far from being techno-utopians or deluded ‘slacktivists’ (Morozov, 2013, Skoric, 2012), I argue that most freedom technologists are in fact techno-pragmatists, that is, people who take a very practical view of the limits and possibilities of new technologies for political change. I also differentiate among freedom technologists, singling out three main specialists for their strong contribution to the new movements, namely hackers/geeks, tech lawyers and online journalists. The second new coinage I develop is protest formulas. This term refers to the unique compound of societal forces and outcomes that characterizes each protest movement – as well as each phase or initiative within a movement. In this article, I track the influence of freedom technologists on emerging protest movements as they interact with other agents within these political compounds.

  1. Powers, S. M., & Jablonski, M. (2015). The Real Cyber War: The Political Economy of Internet Freedom. University of Illinois Press.

“As governments, companies, civil society, and other stakeholders struggle towards a new global information and communication order in the post-Snowden world, this equally provocative and important book cuts through the Western rhetoric of ‘Internet freedom’ and draws a sobering picture of how policy-making in this space is ultimately a fight for control over information, which is largely driven by economic and geopolitical interests rather than democratic ideals and human rights.”–Urs Gasser, Executive Director, Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University

“More comprehensive than most work on global internet politics because it incorporates perspectives from a wider range of interests around the world. The treatment of China is strong, as are the examples from emerging nations.”–Vincent Mosco, author of To the Cloud: Big Data in a Turbulent World.

  1. Sifry, M. L. (2011). WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency. OR Books.

Welcome to the Age of Transparency. But political analyst and writer Micah Sifry argues that WikiLeaks is not the whole story: it is a symptom, an indicator of an ongoing generational and philosophical struggle between older, closed systems, and the new open culture of the Internet. “What is new,” he writes, “is our ability to connect, individually and together, with greater ease than at any time in human history. As a result, information is flowing more freely into the public arena, powered by seemingly unstoppable networks of people all over the world cooperating to share vital data and prevent its suppression.” Despite Assange’s arrest, the publication of secret documents continues, and websites replicating WikiLeaks’ activities have sprung up in Indonesia, Russia, the European Union, and elsewhere. As Sifry shows, this is part of a larger movement for greater governmental and corporate transparency: “when you combine connectivity with transparency—the ability for more people to see, share and shape what is going on around them—the result is a huge increase in social energy, which is being channeled in all kinds of directions.”

  1. Ziccardi, G. (2012). Resistance, liberation technology and human rights in the digital age (Vol. 7). Springer Science & Business Media.

This book explains strategies, techniques, legal issues and the relationships between digital resistance activities, information warfare actions, liberation technology and human rights. It studies the concept of authority in the digital era and focuses in particular on the actions of so-called digital dissidents. Moving from the difference between hacking and computer crimes, the book explains concepts of hacktivism, the information war between states, a new form of politics (such as open data movements, radical transparency, crowd sourcing and “Twitter Revolutions”), and the hacking of political systems and of state technologies. The book focuses on the protection of human rights in countries with oppressive regimes.

Fourth digital ethnography reading (Gehl 2014)

September 24, 2015

By Will Balmford


Here is the next reading for the digital ethnography reading group, RMIT Melbourne, to be held on Wed 14 October 2015 from 12 to 13.30. Kindly sourced by Ekaterina Tokareva:

Robert W Gehl, (2014). Power/freedom on the dark web: A digital ethnography of the Dark Web Social Network. new media & society, pp.1-17.

In the first article we read in this group Horst et al. (2012) note that we need to have a conversation around the current use of ethnography  and its relation to interdisciplinarity.

On his university Robert Gehl states that he draws on interdisciplinary fields ‘such as science and technology studies, political economy, software studies, and critical/cultural studies’ to explore social media. In this particular essay he turns to ethnographic approach to ask questions about power and freedom on the Dark Web Social Network (DWSN).

The main question to discuss are as follows:

Does the chosen approach work?
In other words, do the questions that the author asks, the method, and the concepts he draws on, work well together?

We can also discuss what this essay contributes to the some reoccurring themes such as:

  • anonymity and its functions
  • ideology of techno elites,
  • pros and cons of online vs. offline research,
  • techniques of working with anonymous groups

Here’s Robert Gehl’s profile on the University of Utah website for those interested:

I’ll also sent out Google calendar invites shortly for the meeting place.

As always, send this on to anyone you think would be interested!

Many thanks,


Will Balmford
Research Assistant
Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC)
School of Media and Communication
RMIT University, Australia
Available Tuesday and Thursday



RMIT University
PO Box 2476
Melbourne, VIC 3001 Australia

Notes on the 3rd digital ethnography reading (Kennedy 2003)

September 18, 2015

by Will Balmford
PhD Candidate
RMIT University, Melbourne

See other posts on the digital ethnography reading group (DERG)

This session we discussed Helen Kennedy’s 2003 article Technobiography: Researching lives, online and off. As has become practice for DERG, we had a wide variety of voices from different areas, including all the regulars but also adding Lucy Chen (who is studying life changes through social media), Nicholas Hansen (exploring interactive documentary) and Julian Waters-Lynch (an expert in the arena of education and support for social entrepreneurship).

The great part about this session was the clarity of hindsight reading an older article gave us. Writing in 2003, this article is visionary in some respects, and rather off the mark in others. This is no real criticism against Kennedy, simply a recognition of what we all felt – the digital space shifts, moves and changes incredibly fast. Predating widespread social media, blogging and their integration into everyday life, Kennedy explores the interesting idea of studying empowerment through identity, discussing anonymity right at the forefront of digital research. We noted the fascinating dualism between concepts such as material/social or digital/real to explore experiences (perhaps dual experiences) that are everyday based and how this perhaps sits in contrast to today, where the ‘everyday’ is increasingly including interactions between the two previously separate spaces and their associated ideas.

Another area of interest to Kennedy in the article is the idea of ‘Digital elites’. Referencing Tim Jordan’s Cyberpower, she unpacks and problematises the binary relationship between ‘ordinary’ and ‘elite’ users of the digital medium (124). This was fascinating to us. The idea of ‘digital elites’ has changed drastically over the years. Where once being techno-savvy meant using a computer, even people with little or no knowledge of the algorithms, code and connections have ‘everyday’ skills in using digital programs, social media and web browsers. John (Postill) recalled a rather amusing anecdote; upon being shown a Netscape browser in 1994, he remembers thinking that this thing call the World Wide Web would never catch on – it would remain the domain of the digital elites, removed from the lives of the ordinary other.

So what spaces do the digital elites occupy now? We explored this idea in a few directions, maybe they are the coders writing the programs we use, or the marketers tweaking ads based off complex algorithms assessing our behaviour. We also discussed the Deep Web in relation to what Kennedy explores – small networks of digital elites finding new spaces. However now people are far, far more away of the public relations side of things, and these are heavily taken into account when navigating digital spaces, regardless of your techno-ability. This led us to ask: does a digital divide still exist? (Admittedly a rather complex question, but it is these questions that make reading groups so fruitful!).

Although Kennedy’s article was excellent for discussion, we had several problems with it. Despite all of us reading it, we were still hard pressed to explain what ‘technobiography’ actual is. When we asked ourselves ‘What is technobiography?’ we could only really elucidate that it:

  • entails a playful exploration of technological experiences
  • includes accounts of everyday lives and the relationship to technology
  • speaks to theory, hoping to open up a space where the relationship between theory and experience might be explored

This however, did not help us understand how exactly we might go about conducting technobiography. So when John asked the question: ‘Can technobiography be combined with a theory of practice?’ we couldn’t reconcile the key tensions between everydayness/life history, where the present becomes the normal, and the past/future are ignored. We felt that these temporal dimensions need to be clarified in the text, also acknowledging the importance of time and its relationship to authenticity in our own research.

The concept of time and authenticity side-tracked us somewhat into a discussion around surveillance, both as a researcher and the parallels between digital and non digital surveillance, authenticity and identity. Moved into a discussion of surveillance and the future of techno history, the notion of deleting history as we become technocentric and how we have issues with some types of surveillance and not others, as made very clear in the recent book The Wiki Leaks Files.

Unfortunately, we quickly ran out of time, and were left with several questions still burning in our brains. Perhaps you can help shed some light on them, or maybe they will just make you think a bit differently for the next few hours.

  • Is the scale of surveillance changing?
  • Is ‘techno’ (or ‘digital’) just a genre of experience?
  • How important is authenticity to the narratives people tell?

If you’d like to sign up to the Digital Ethnography Reading Group (to attend or even just to get an interesting reading every now and then) please just send us an email.


  1. Henwood, F. , Kennedy, H. and Miller, N. (2001). Cyborg Lives? Women’s Technobiographies.
  2. Kennedy, H. (2003). Technobiography: Researching lives, online and off. Biograpy, 26(1), 120-140.
  3. Jordan, T. (1999). Cyberpower: The culture and politics of cyberspace and the internet. London: Routledge.
  4. Wikileaks (2015). The WikiLeaks Files: The World According to US Empire. United States: Verso Books.

23. Freedom technologists bibliography

September 7, 2015

Freedom Technologists: Digital Activism and Political Change in the 21st Century (working title), Chapter 2, Freedom Technologists

Annotated bibliography
** last updated 15 Oct to 4 Nov 2015 (Balkan 2014, Cost of Freedom 2015, Karatzogianni 2015, Milberry 2009, 2014, van de Ven 2015) **

(see also earlier Doc version, 73 pp.)

This is the twenty-third post in the freedom technologists series.
See also Directory of freedom technologists 

In this working bibliography I bring together a large set of (mostly academic) references on a specific category of political actor that I am calling ‘freedom technologists’, namely those tech-minded individuals, groups and organisations with a keen interest in the democratic and emancipatory potential of information and communication technologies (ICTs). Freedom technologists combine technological and political notions and skills to pursue greater Internet and democratic freedoms, which they regard as being inextricably entwined (Postill 2014). Far from being techno-utopians or deluded ‘slacktivists’ (Morozov, 2013, Skoric, 2012), in my experience most freedom technologists are in fact techno-pragmatists, that is, people who take a very practical view of the limits and possibilities of new technologies for political change. This working bibliography is part of current research towards Chapter 2 of my forthcoming book Freedom Technologists: Digital Activism and Political Change in the 21st Century (working title).

Many thanks to Sky Croeser, Chris Csikszentmihályi and Vesna Manojlovic for their recommendations. Further suggestions are always welcome via email, or the comments section.

Keywords: technology, politics, techno-politics, hackers, hacktivism, digital activism, internet activism, digital liberation movement, political change, social protest, techno-libertarians

Aday, S., Farrell, H., Lynch, M., Sides, J., Kelly, J., & Zuckerman, E. (2010). Blogs and bullets: New media in contentious politics.

In this report from the United States Institute of Peace’s Centers of Innovation for Science, Technology, and Peacebuilding, and Media, Conflict, and Peacebuilding, a team of scholars from The George Washington University, in cooperation with scholars from Harvard University and Morningside Analytics, critically assesses both the “cyberutopian” and “cyberskeptic” perspectives on the impact of new media on political movements.

Akser, M. (2015). The Revolution Will Be Hacktivated. Digital Transformations in Turkey: Current Perspectives in Communication Studies, 275.

The democratic rights claimed to be enshrined but curtailed under the AKP government’s repressive regime was counterbalanced by Redhack, a Turkish hacktivist group online. Through their diverse tactics such as resistance, revelation and countering Redhack’s activity led to a digital transformation in Turkish politics. Redhack’s opposition is towards AKP’s neo-liberal patronage policies. The resistance took many forms: (1) defacing government websites that misuse public resources. (2) revelation to counter censorship against traditional media by the AKP government. By revealing documents related to AKP government’s corruption, Redhack led the way for traditional media to bring the issue to public scrutiny. The third tactic of taking direct action in the form of counter-attack came as a result of the Gezi Park Occupy Istanbul movement. Redhack actively used television to voice their agenda and called people to action. A networked discourse analysis that looks at mediation of playful tactics by hacktivists is a new transformative phase in how cyber security shifts from terrorism into information resistance, revelation and countering.

Alcazan et al (2012) Tecnopolítica. Internet y R-Evoluciones. Icaria.

#Error 404. Democracy Not Found. El 15 de mayo de 2011 salimos a la calle des­pués de meses de trabajo en la red. El 15-M es inimaginable sin internet y el uso político que las multitudes conec­ta­das han hecho de él. El 15-M es impen­sa­ble sin la red de redes, somos una red dis­tribuida de cambio social. Con este li­­bro queremos hacer una con­tri­bución a una lectura del 15-M abierta y en cons­­­trucción, que valore su dimen­sión tecnopo­lítica. Entender la relación del 15-M con internet, con sus preceden­tes, con sus dispositivos de comunica­ción y orga­nización, es esen­cial para com­­­­prender las posibili­da­des abier­­tas para la ac­ción colectiva en la sociedad red. La r-evolución está en marcha y se mul­tiplica de manera glo­­bal. Se extiende la in­­dig­nación, el deseo de cam­bio y emerge el potencial de transfor­­mación de las redes abiertas y distri­buidas.

Al Hussaini, A. (2011). Tunisia: Anonymous vs. Ammar–who wins the battle of censorship?. Global Voices, 3 January 2011,

The Tunisian censor, commonly known as Ammar, continues to wreak havoc on activists’ accounts, in a country that has been witnessing a wave of protests since the middle of December. Just today, activists claimed that the government has hacked into their email accounts, accessing their blogs and social networking sites, and disabling them. The move seems to have come in retaliation to an attack by Anonymous, which has targeted vital Tunisian government sites and gateways.

Andrejevic, M. (2014). WikiLeaks, Surveillance, and Transparency. International Journal of Communication, 8, 2619-2630.

The place for WikiLeaks was, in a sense, carved out in advance by the dramatic failure of conventional channels for challenging power or holding it accountable. It is a fact that deserves more attention than it gets that, in the United States, the two political newspapers of record (The New York Times and The Washington Post) issued extended public apologies for failures in their coverage during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. In no uncertain terms, these influential newspapers conceded that they did not provide adequate information to the populace about one of the most important decisions facing the nation—a decision that would claim the lives of tens of thousands of people and redefine international relations on a global scale. The Times noted that, on reviewing its coverage of the lead-up to the war, “we have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been” (The Editors, 2001, para. 3)—a failure that it identified as structural.

Appelgren, E., & Nygren, G. (2014). Data Journalism in Sweden: Introducing new methods and genres of journalism into “old” organizations. Digital Journalism, 2(3), 394-405.

Data journalism is an evolving form of investigative journalism. In previous research and handbooks published on this topic, this form of journalism has been called computer-assisted reporting and data-driven journalism, as well as precision, computational or database journalism. In Sweden, data journalism is still fairly uncommon. The purpose of this paper is to provide an overview of the development of data journalism at seven Swedish traditional media companies, using action research methods. The content of this paper is based on an online survey of journalists and in-depth interviews with editors at these participating companies. The results indicate that, based on how this field is currently perceived by journalists in the interviews, there is a common definition of data journalism. Furthermore, the survey shows that the attitudes towards data journalism during the process of introducing new methods and genres of journalism into “old” organizations are correlated with the level of perceived experience in data journalism working methods. The main challenges facing the working methods of data journalism today are a shortage of time and the need for training and developing data journalism skills.

Armitage, J. (ed.) (1999) ‘Special Issue on Machinic Modulations: New Cultural Theory and Technopolitics’, Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 4(2) (September).

Assange, J., Appelbaum, J., Muller-Maguhn, A., & Zimmermann, J. (2012). Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet. Singapore Books.

Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet is an important wake-up call about a possible dystopian future, which is a technological reality now… While messengers of dangerous outcomes are always met at first with hostility and even mockery, history shows that we disregard such warnings as these at our peril.” —Naomi Wolf

Baack, S. (2015). Datafication and empowerment: How the open data movement re-articulates notions of democracy, participation, and journalism. Big Data & Society, 2(2), 2053951715594634.

This article shows how activists in the open data movement re-articulate notions of democracy, participation, and journalism by applying practices and values from open source culture to the creation and use of data. Focusing on the Open Knowledge Foundation Germany and drawing from a combination of interviews and content analysis, it argues that this process leads activists to develop new rationalities around datafication that can support the agency of datafied publics. Three modulations of open source are identified: First, by regarding data as a prerequisite for generating knowledge, activists transform the sharing of source code to include the sharing of raw data. Sharing raw data should break the interpretative monopoly of governments and would allow people to make their own interpretation of data about public issues. Second, activists connect this idea to an open and flexible form of representative democracy by applying the open source model of participation to political participation. Third, activists acknowledge that intermediaries are necessary to make raw data accessible to the public. This leads them to an interest in transforming journalism to become an intermediary in this sense. At the same time, they try to act as intermediaries themselves and develop civic technologies to put their ideas into practice. The article concludes with suggesting that the practices and ideas of open data activists are relevant because they illustrate the connection between datafication and open source culture and help to understand how datafication might support the agency of publics and actors outside big government and big business.

Read more…

Third digital ethnography reading

August 31, 2015

by Will Balmford
Research assistant
Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC)
School of Media and Communication
RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia

Hello all,

Welcome to round three of DERG! We’ve got an article by Helen Kennedy this week, entitled ‘Technobiography: Researching lives on and off’. It takes a bit of a different approach to earlier readings, but is an interesting read that will hopefully get us all thinking about how we conceptualise digital experiences.

Remember, DERG sessions run on the second Wednesday of each month. Please forward this email to those you think may be interested in attending this or future DERG sessions.  I’ll send out calendar invites shortly so that we’re all digitally synced up.

And, here’s a couple of questions to get us thinking in the lead up to the meeting:

1. How could a technobiographical approach change the way we approach research into digital experiences?

2. What are the relationships between digital ethnography and technobiography?

  • What does technobiography do that ethnography does not?
  • What does ethnography do that technobiography cannot?

3. Kennedy argues that technobiography better elucidates the relationship between online and offline lives/selves/identities/agency.

  • How do we understand these relationships and is it problematic to imagine them as separate yet related lives?

And, as always, please feel free to bring lunch, snacks or whatever you fancy. We’re going to be in the same room as last time (Building 9, level 2, room 9), so it should be nice and easy to find.

See you Wednesday 9 September, 12-1:30pm
Looking forward to it,

CFA: Theorising Media and Conflict workshop, Vienna, 23-24 Oct 2015

August 27, 2015
A Media Anthropology Network event
European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA)
Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology
University of Vienna, Austria
23-24 October 2015

** Financial assistance available, see below **

In a recent survey of the interdisciplinary literature on media and conflict, Schoemaker and Stremlau (2014) found that most existing studies display Western-centric biases, normative assumptions and unsubstantiated claims about the impact of media in conflict situations. With their ethnographic methods and ground-up theorising, anthropologists are therefore well placed to make a strong contribution to the advancement of this area of scholarship. Although a growing number of anthropologists have studied media in conflict and post-conflict contexts – working on diverse topics such as media representations, cyberwar, internet activism, social protest, video-making, or radio dramas – so far they have done so in relative isolation from one another. The result is a fragmentation of the field and a dissipation of efforts.

The aim of this workshop is to remedy this situation by bringing together media anthropologists and other media and communication scholars working on the complex relationship between media and conflict.

Having presented and discussed their own research (Day 1), workshop participants will then ask the following collective questions (Day 2):

  1. What is the present state of anthropological and interdisciplinary knowledge on media and conflict?
  2. What are the main questions in need of urgent research and writing?
  3. How can media anthropologists and others contribute to the interdisciplinary effort of theorising the elusive relationship between media and conflict?
  4. What topics and themes should an edited volume arising from the workshop focus on?

In addition to its networking function, the workshop will lead to an edited volume provisionally titled Theorising Media and Conflict. This will be the third in the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) Media Anthropology Network’s series of theoretical volumes published by Berghahn. The first volume came out in 2010 as Theorising Media and Practice (Bräuchler & Postill, eds), and the second volume, Theorising Media and Change (Postill, Ardevol & Tenhunen, eds) is forthcoming. The aim of the series is to place media anthropology at the forefront of theoretical advances in both anthropology and media and communication studies.

Please send your questions and abstracts (max. 300 words) by 20 September 2015 to John Postill ( and Philipp Budka (

N.B.There will be financial assistance with travel and accommodation expenses available to participants who require it. Please contact the organisers for further information if you require such assistance. The organisers are grateful to EASA, the Austrian Research Association (ÖFG), and the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Vienna, for their generous support of this event.

22. Notes on the second digital ethnography reading

August 20, 2015

This is the twenty-second post in the Freedom technologists series.

by Victor Lasa
PhD candidate
RMIT University, Melbourne

In this second session of the monthly Digital Ethnography Reading Group meetings at RMIT we discussed the Introduction and Chapter 5 of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. Gabriella Coleman. Brooklyn, NY: Verso Books, 2014. 464 pp.

In attendance were Will Balmford (digital gaming), Kate Cawley (digital gaming), Andrew Glover (sociology of consumption), Allister Hill (organisational ethnography), Victor Lasa (radical transparency), John Postill (internet activism), Jolynna Sinanan (digital ethnography), Katya Tokareva (Russian internet) and Ge Zhang (digital gaming).

This was a productive and thought-provoking meeting. The group read and discussed Gabriela Coleman’s (2014) fascinating analysis of Anonymous: from the informal beginnings to their intriguing role in contemporary global socio-politics, focusing on the case of Anonymous’ intervention in the 2010 Tunisian revolution (Chapter 5). Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous is a daring and unique attempt at deciphering the origins, structure, internal dynamics, motivations and strategies of Anonymous, the cryptic global hacking group.

Perhaps because of its complexity, some participants found the reading somewhat undefined, as if the general goal of the book wasn’t clear. Bearing in mind it is a work of popular scholarship rather than an academic text, the aim is not clearly spelled out until the book’s conclusion. In fact, the book’s structure seems to mirror Anonymous’ operational behaviour, since many of their missions remain a mystery until the end.

One issue we discussed was the ethnographic challenge of doing research on a collective like Anonymous. By immersing herself in the collective as participant observer, Coleman was able to go beyond the popular stereotype of Anons as unsocial ‘white boys’ out to wreak havoc. Instead she highlights their heterogeneity, inspired adhocery and team-based politicisation over time. In exploring the complexity of Anonymous’ morphology, Coleman also shows that sometimes it only took the leadership of one or two people to drive significant missions, as was the case with the Tunisian uprising in 2010-2011.

Despite a growing political nature in its actions, Anonymous still conserves an important element of mischief and havoc, or ‘motherfuckery’ as they call it themselves. There is a factor of having fun, doing ‘cool’ things by selecting challenging missions that will have a strong impact. However, some reading group members questioned the real impact of Anonymous’ actions in situations like the Tunisian revolution. The question of how serious Anonymous really got in Tunisia and how strong their political motivation was seems to remain unanswered in the book.

At any rate,  Tunisia was Anonymous’ first major foray into international politics. It was no more just about ‘internety’ issues, as Coleman point out. They seemed to realize their own power, becoming one of the pioneers in the new information geopolitics. In fact, their actions provoked envy in other non-state agents that were aiming to become geopolitically significant, like Al-Qaeda. More recently, the Islamic State seem to have learned about the potential of the internet to create action collectives and maximize the impact of its operations.

Anonymous’ turn into a political player can be partly explained by the actions of authorities on them, like the FBI, which hit their structure and provoked anger. The innovative and baffling nature of the organization made authorities nervous in many countries and led to repressive actions. A desire of revenge or reaffirmation might have driven the organization towards more political actions against institutions. However, participants realized that the tension between acting just for the ‘lulz’ of it or for political reasons still exists and has probably not been resolved. Part of the same debate is the legality versus legitimacy discussion, with Anonymous members justifying illegal actions for the sake of justice. Others believe that that kind of actions, i.e. distributed denials of service (DoDS), are counterproductive. Meanwhile, Pirate-style political parties have tried to get the movement to work through political institutions. Participants recognized this as a classical tension within activist groups.

The discussion then moved on to other examples of ‘freedom technologists’ moving towards conventional politics, like the citizen movements in Spain, now governing in big cities like Madrid and Barcelona or the Bernie Sanders campaign in the US. A representative of ‘nerd-friendly’ politics in Australia would be Scott Ludlam, Federal Senator for the Greens. John Postill 3MP theory the forging and spread of post-Global Financial Crisis (GFC) social uprisings is a useful framework to explain the transition from freedom technologist activism to social movements and conventional politics. The theory exposes the instrumental role of ‘nerds’ and specialized journalists and lawyers in this transition. Interestingly, the presence of anthropologists has not been that strong in these environments.

Back to Freedom technologists series…


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