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When did hacking evolve from activism to terrorism?

Unpublished case study on the psychology of terrorism from my undergraduate psychology and anthropology university studies. I share my essays to track my growth and evolution through my research process and writing but also to inspire other academics at different stages of the journey. I have currently completed my Bachelor of Arts double majoring in psych and social anthropology and am currently working on my Masters of Arts Social Anthropology.

Essay submitted: 15/10/2022


Case Study: The Psychology of Terrorism.


Topic: Anonymous hacker group – When did hacking evolve from activism and shift to terrorism?


When did the lines between hacking and cyber terrorism become so blurred and why have we as a psychology field not addressed it in depth? In this essay I will be discussing the well-known online hacktivist group Anonymous which is well known for its unstructured and randomized political cyber-attacks that date back from 2008. We look at the origins of Anonymous and how the group was formed and the danger in the lack of predictability and being able to assess the motivations of the group with the group having multiple participants and no leader. We will then have a look at the threats of cyber-war and terrorism has changed in this modern time and is evolving fast, more damage can be done remotely now than ever before and because of this I think that psychology needs to look at how we define terrorism and widening our view on what falls under violence because as technology evolves and it becomes integrated in our everyday lives, the impacts of groups like Anonymous has the potential to cause more damage than good.

Anonymous’ ancestry lies in the often obnoxious, occasionally humorous and at times terrifying world of Internet trolling and pranking (Coleman, 2013) with the Anonymous online hacker group first originated in 2003 (Wikipedia, 2022) beginning in an online messaging forum called 4chan, this was an anonymous social community website (Huddleston, 2022). Users in 4chan did not have usernames and every user was identified as Anonymous, which was later to become the name of the collective users that formed Anonymous hackers. Users that connected within this online space on 4chan would often organize group pranks called ‘raids’ (Huddleston, 2022). These raids would consist of flooding chat rooms online, in games and online websites to cause disruptions, there was no political purpose behind this just pranking, however 4chan did crack down on organized raids as the users participating were accused of cyberbullying and posting offensive content (Huddleston, 2022).

The origins of Anonymous are a little less conventional than other groups of people, as this was not something premediated, a movement organized, it was a natural happening from people sharing in this space. Anonymous does not have a founding leader, it is a decentralized online community acting anonymously in a coordinated manner (Wikipedia, 2022) due to this lack of leadership Anonymous is often referred to as a movement rather than a group.

The online community first had their first public recognition accidentally and their rise to fame as activists, hacktivists, cyber-terrorists and cyber when trolling paved a way and turned into Project Chanology in 2008. (Coleman, 2013). Project Chanology was a pranking campaign against the Church of Scientology after a gossip website leaked a video with celebrity Tom Cruise who was a scientologist and praising religion. The Church of Scientology responded to the gossip website with a cease and desist letter for breach and violation of copyright. This outrage the anonymous users of the 4chan website who pranked and trolled the Church of Scientology, Anonymous initiated what even today is considered by Anonymous to be one of their most legendary raids (Coleman, 2013) in response as they felt like it was a breach of freedom of speech, a couple of the users created an online prank video for the Church of Scientology with a message using a robotic voice saying we dispel you from the internet, this action gained so much attention and lead to in-person protest outside the church of scientology with protesters sporting the guy Fawkes mask inspired from the vigilante in the V for Vendetta movie, alongside the name of the users being Anonymous or Anon in the 4chan site where users connected, Anonymous was officially and unofficially formed and since then the mask has remained Anonymous signature icon (Coleman, 2013).

After Project Chanology Anonymous users began to participate in online activism using digital direct action that includes leaks, hacking and mass protest (Coleman, 2013) that opposes governments and corporations that the users view or believe to be participating in censorship or promoting inequality (Huddleston, 2022).

When looking at the motivations for Anonymous it is hard to really pin down and define one set or repeating motivations as Anonymous have been responsible for spiteful and mischievous personal acts, but also for thought provoking activities of critique (Serration-Inglott, 2013) in social justice, opposing governments but also just for general pranking and trolling. Since the group is decentralized, it has no real structure or hierarchy — so there’s often much internal debate about which ideas or causes to support (Huddleston, 2013) and its clear the group runs on ideas rather than directives and it is hard to gauge the intent and motivations of thousands of participants with Anonymous, a lot of those who participate within Anonymous movement don’t leave a trace of their thoughts or motivations and from what is reported those who do opinions, intentions and motivations vary hugely (Wikipedia, 2022).

Anonymous tends to ride the wave existing events and causes and amplify them (Coleman, 2013) and one motivation that seems to show up consistently within the movement although it is free speech is non-negotiable and anyone who might oppose this, will be exposed (Coleman). Anonymous likes to be in the limelight because they can maintain that anonymity.

Although Anonymous does not have a leader and their actions are unpredictable because it relies on multiple users who do not centralize on any fixed ideas, or issues it can seem harmless and more vigilante but as we look further into political psychological theories that connect with terrorism, we can begin to see that lines blur.

Terrorism is one of the most complex social problems of our time (Horgan, 2017) and the view of terrorist behaviors and connections relates to whether we connect with the behavior or impacted by the behavior. When things sit right on our own moral compass value wise we may not view certain behaviors by groups as criminal, we may view them as a means to an ends just like the users of Anonymous and the millions who support them see the behavior and actions of Anonymous as empowering and necessary, although members of the Church of Scientology or others who have been impacted by directed actions from Anonymous may view it differently and as cyber-terrorism, terrorism occurs both in the context of violent resistance to the state and swell in the states interest (Crenshaw, 2012) the practice of terrorism is highly diverse (Crenshaw, 2000).


The psychological projection of fear and intimidation is the final attribute of cyber-terrorism, the vehicle through which cyber-terrorists publicize their cause to broader audiences, be they governments or societies at large (Kenney, 2015) Anonymous has the unpredictable potential to be within this category because they do make online threats, it's all down to individual values to how we view the threats and if we side with them or not which comes down to our political views, do we stand with them?

We have seen that a common theme in terrorism is mental impact, terrorists aim for mental as well as physical destruction, and our research has found that, depending on who the attackers and the victims are, the psychological effects of cyber threats can rival those of traditional terrorism (Gross et al, 2017). Cyber-terrorism belongs to the same metaphorical class or “genus” of events as cyber- attacks, cyber-war, and “hacktivism.” (Kenney, 2015) and although Anonymous movement lacks defined structure and violent motives and intent, we usually see associated with terrorist groups we can see they do defiantly have mental impact with the cause for potentiality of physical, “Anonymous is not unanimous.” This message has yet to penetrate public consciousness — the mainstream media still tends to describe participants only as hackers, technological actors already freighted with simplistic and pejorative associations (Coleman, 2013) but anyone could be involved or lead a raid because there is no real criteria for joining Anonymous and moral compasses do vary between hackers.

In the latest noticed orchestrated raid at the time of writing this essay Anonymous has declared a cyber war against Russia (Pitrelli, 2022) with it already being noted that 92 Russian databases has been compromised and email addresses and administrative credentials exposed(Pitrelli, 2022), a factor and quality of terrorism is that it is meant to hurt (Crenshaw, 2000) but in this new modern age the definition of terrorism may need to be reevaluated and modified to assess and include these new threats.

The Anonymous users pranking using Cyber hacking to impact the Russian war, have no control over the other users that may have access to the information that they are hacking, how they will use the information and what impact will come from that. Then I also bring arise the question where does our moral line lie? The addresses for those people who may be in fact be working against their will, be put in additional threat by having their private details released, this is where I believe the line between hacktivism and terrorism blurs as the real impact for those having private details released could be unintended physical violence.

We are now living in a modern society that is increasingly dependent upon information technology (Furnell & Warren, 1999), prior to this those seeking to oppose governmental policies would have struggled to have their message relayed publicly, hacking has now made these non-violent acts sometimes more impactful than physical assault, cyber-warfare more now than ever so before has the ability to wreak havoc (Lewis, 2002) and now at the hands of the general public through movements like Anonymous decentralized online community acting anonymously in a coordinated manner (Wikipedia, 2022) which has been compared by critics to have a similar structure to that of al-Qaeda. The inconsistency in patterns of activity makes the group unpredictable with some members protesting using legal means only, while others employ illegal measures such as DDos (Denial-of-service) attacks and hacking which is criminal and illegal behavior, all done by average people in society but the participants are difficult or impossible to pin down as some work independently, others in groups but usually all with anonymity to each other (Coleman, 2013), Social facilitation is extremely powerful in bringing civil strife (Crenshaw, 2021) and Anonymous has an easily accessible way of facilitating but lacks the consistent internal sets of values that most terrorist or extremist groups have (Crenshaw, 2012) this is extremely dangerous.


How do we define what actions online are political activism and become cyber-terrorism? I think there is a huge gap in modern research here that needs to be addressed, more defined and a wider concept of violence (Serration-Inglott, 2013). Terrorism is behavior, and thus rests firmly in the sights of psychology (Horgan, 2017) and I believe that social psychology will be able to assist in this deeper understanding on the complex actions of groups like Anonymous and how the online space has changed especially in the last 10 years and will continue to change and how much more impactful these actions will be on society in whole and how terrorism activities may adapt and evolve to include more harm in cyber-space than the usual physical bombs. Social psychology also offers insight using the “staircase model” of terrorism (Lemieux, 2006) and how joining movements like Anonymous in the online cyber-space could move them up the floors of terrorism in this model but also the impact in identities and how this shifts in society, we see increasingly within more traditionally accepted terrorist groups with extremist activities that continued exposure to these beliefs has an impact on people and their willingness to join or align with extremist beliefs, now with the internet being so big and wide spread, less exclusive these beliefs can be wider pushed out and that exposure on the internet can also be a new form of violence, because for an act to be reliably categorized as terrorism or terroristic in nature, it must feature the proxy- mate victimization of noncombatants (e.g., civilians) to influence far-more-distant actors (e.g., governments) and agendas through violence (Horgan, 2017) and if we reassess and extend this research to look more at the impacts of online spaces this could all change the social acceptance and perspective of groups like Anonymous and recognize the real potential and threat they are,

in this essay I have discussed Anonymous, and the potential identification move from hacktivists to terrorists using social psychology research to further define what qualities, actions and beliefs align with the definition of terrorism in these modern settings as the impacts of online reach change. Anonymous gives everyday people a voice who wouldn’t usually have opportunity for political participation (Crenshaw, 2012) under the umbrella of activism, even though it is illegal the general public are on board in supporting the unpredictable movement because it lacks the same shock as extreme conventional terrorism, cyber terrorism is no different from conventional terrorism it's just more subtle (Gross et al, 2017) when we can begin to understand that further I believe our strategies and policies will change to support this but we will also see the potentiality of how dangerous the online space really can be for all of us as a society especially when all rely on it so heavily now for our day to day to living, the impact of cyber-terrorism now more than ever has the potentiality to impact us more quickly as terrorists can sit at one computer connected to one network and can create worldwide havoc... and don't necessarily need a bomb or explosives to cripple a sector of the economy, or shut down a power grid (Kenney, 2015) or wipe out bank accounts, with the impact that online warfare has it seems now is the time to reassess the definition but to also begin educating the public and changing societal views.


References:

Coleman, G. (2013). Anonymous in Context: The politics and power behind the mask. Internet governance papers, (3). Retrieved from https://www.cigionline.org/sites/default/files/no3_8.pdf

Crenshaw, M. (2012). The causes of terrorism. Terrorism Studies: A Reader. 99-114.

Crenshaw, M. (2000). The psychology of terrorism: An agenda for the 21st century. Political psychology, (21)2, 405-420. Retrieved from http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0162-895X%28200006%2921%3A2%3C405%3ATPOTAA%3E2.0.CO%3B2-A

Gross, M., Canetti, D., & Vashdi. D. (2017). The psychological effects of cyber terrorism. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 72(5), 284-291. DOI: 10.1080/00963402.2016.1216502

Horgan, J. G. (2017). Psychology of terrorism: Introduction to the special issue. American Psychological Association, 72(3), 199.

Huddleston, T. (2022). What is Anonymous? How the infamous ‘hacktivist’ group went from 4chan trolling to launching cyberattacks on Russia. CNBC Website. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2022/03/25/what-is-anonymous-the-group-went-from-4chan-to-cyberattacks-on-russia.html

Kenney, M. (2015). Cyber-Terrorism in a Post-Stuxnet World. Foreign Policy Research Institute, 111-128. doi: 10.1016/j.orbis.2014.11.009

Lemieux, A. (2006). Social Psychological approaches to understanding and preventing terrorism: Toward an interdisplinary perspective. Journal of security, 1(4), 75-83. Retrieved from https://www.ojp.gov/ncjrs/virtual-library/abstracts/social-psychological-approaches-understanding-and-preventing

Pitrelli, M. (2022). Anonymous declared a ‘cyber war 'against Russia. Here are the results. CNBC Website. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2022/03/16/what-has-anonymous-done-to-russia-here-are-the-results-.html

Serration-Inglott, P. (2013). Is it ok to be an Anonymous?. Ethics & Global Politics, 6(4), 217-244. https://doi.org/10.3402/egp.v6i4.22527

Wikipedia. (2022). Anonymous (hacker group). Wikipedia website. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anonymous_(hacker_group)

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