On the origins of the term ‘Hacktivism’…

This blog is not about debating the definition of Hacktivism; I will leave that to the academics and self-described hacktivists. This article is to clear up confusion on the origin of the term, and point out that Wikipedia’s handling of factual information is sketchy. Further, it will point out that the Cult of the Dead Cow (cDc) happily went along with the notion that they coined the term, when they did not. Even when it was clear that their own dates and stories didn’t line up, that didn’t dissuade them from keeping up appearances.

The Wikipedia entry on Hacktivism currently states that the term was coined by cDc:

The term was coined in 1996 by a Cult of the Dead Cow member known as “Omega”.[2] However, similar to its root word hack, hacktivism is an ambiguous term (computer hacking is tied to several meanings).

There is no other reference to the source of this term today. If you look back at the page on prior dates, that isn’t the case. On May 17, 2013 we see:

The term itself was coined by techno-culture writer Jason Sack in a piece about media artist Shu Lea Cheang published in InfoNation in 1995.

This line was added by ‘Orb Weaver’ on July 23, 2009 with this edit. It was deleted by ‘Pkinnaird’ on May 20, 2013 with this edit. The notes for the edit say:

(Removed references to destructive activities since they are well described in cyberterrorism article. Clarified that the word ‘hacktivism’ is contentious and removed most discussion of hacktivists as cyberterrorists since that is a separate notion.)

This looks like an innocent edit, removing a long list of ‘hacktivism’ incidents and changing it to a few short examples. However, in doing so, this effectively killed any reference to a prior source of the word. In short, this edit is very irresponsible. I would cite you the purpose of Wikipedia and something along the lines of “factual”, but curiously enough that is not part of the mission statement. While you may quickly associate “develop educational content” as being factual, that is simply not the case. Look at the battle in the US over schools teaching evolution versus creationism. No matter which you believe in, the other safely becomes “developing educational content” as a valid argument.

The line about Omega of Cult of the Dead Cow was added on November 22, 2011 with this edit and a change message of “Term coined in 1994 by “Omega” of the Cult of the Dead Cow Hacker collective.” At the bottom of the page, the first reference is “Hacktivism and How It Got Here“, a Wired piece by Michelle Delio from July 14, 2004. Note that Delio is not known for quality journalism and was let go from Wired due to serious issues surrounding her sketchy sources and fabrications. From Delio’s article:

But no one called technology-enabled political activism “hacktivism” until 1998, when cDc members Omega, Reid Fleming and Ruffin were chatting online and were, Ruffin said, “bouncing some wacky ideas around about hacking and political liberation, mostly in the context of working with Chinese hackers post-Tiananmen Square.”
“The next morning Omega sent an e-mail to the cDc listserv and included for the first time the word hacktivism in the post,” Ruffin said. “Like most cDc inventions, it was used seriously and ironically at the same time — and when I saw it my head almost exploded.”

Interesting that Delio says it was coined by cDc in 1998 citing cDc member Oxblood Ruffin in her 2004 article, yet Wikipedia said 1994. In a different interview with Elinor Mills from 2012, Ruffin was quoted as saying it originated in 1996. The Wikipedia page has cited this source for most of the page’s history, but has changed years to mention 1994, 1996, and 1998. In most cases, Ruffin’s story is the same about the term originating in an email between cDc members, but apparently has never provided a copy of this email to journalists or made it public. It is clear that Ruffin is not a reliable source on this and is likely doing it to subvert the media, a stated objective of cDc.

An Earlier Origin

As mentioned above, Wikipedia once attributed the term differently:

The term itself was coined by techno-culture writer Jason Sack in a piece about media artist Shu Lea Cheang published in InfoNation in 1995.

A couple years ago I tried to reach out to Jason Sack to confirm this. My early attempts at reaching him did not work due to finding one email address that he no longer used. Last year, Space Rogue reached out via a different email address and got a response. We both asked Sack if he could dig up the original article and send a copy. Since he only had a copy in print, it took a while to find it, scan it in, and send it to us. But he did. As suspected, and as the original sourcing in Wikipedia says, he uses the term ‘hacktivist’ in 1995 under the pen name ‘Jason Logan’. A year or three before cDc supposedly did. Courtesy of Jason, the cover of the InfoNation magazine along with scans of the article are available as a more definitive reference (click thumbnails below for full size). As the author of this blog, I cannot update Wikipedia to correct the errors in it due to a conflict of interest. Someone else out there will have to do it.

infonation-nov-1995-00  infonation-nov-1995-01  infonation-nov-1995-02  infonation-nov-1995-03  infonation-nov-1995-04
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