Religious Hacktivism — @DearShirley v @CosmoTheGod part 2

19 Dec

[I can see from the WordPress statistics that folks are searching for more information about Cosmo’s (@CosmoTheGod) hack of the Westboro Baptist Church‘s Twitter feed (@DearShirley). After yesterday’s post I thought I’d write a bit more about it to provide broader background. This is more general information, and I’m happy to provide more if there continues to be interest for it. Also, please let me know right away if you spot anything that isn’t accurate or that you suspect might be misleading. -Dave]

The Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) is an extremely conservative Christian congregation out of Topeka, Kansas led by Fred Phelps. If it helps, you can remember that most Baptists in pre-Revolutionary America grew out of the Calvinism found in Jonathan Edwards during the Great Awakening (c 1730-43). So get out those copies of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, okay? Before the Civil War, Southern and Northern Baptists split over the issue of slavery. The WBC’s branch of this lineage, the Primitive Baptist tradition split even earlier because of its opposition of engaging in any social activism. That may seem surprising because from the outside the WBC appears to be very political and socially active (against homosexuality, for instance). Yet their protests continue a tradition of rejecting social movements (such as the expansion of liberties). Underlying their protests is their claim that all of these un-Christian activities need to be confronted with the WBC’s more ‘authentic’ religious message.

The WBC has protested a variety of events and places including military funerals, natural disasters such as tornados in Missouri or the Sichuan earthquake, Jewish heritage institutions like the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and federal courthouses where cases involving homosexuality are being considered. The American public’s response to these activities has been rather visceral, as my previous post suggest. Other more deliberate responses include action directed at placing the WBC on hate group watch lists (e.g.,, Anti-Defamation League) and human walls to block the WBC from being seen by mourners.

Texas A&M Students form human wall to block visibility of Westboro Baptist Church's protest

Texas A&M Students form human wall to block visibility of Westboro Baptist Church’s protest

The responses to the WBC–from op-ed pieces to reactive social engagement like the students at Texas A&M–reflect largely non-violent strategies. They seek to displace WBC’s visibility or to use legal means to restrict their ability to protest. They do not seek to attack the group physically, personally, or financially. By contrast, the role of hacktivism, as seen in the activities of Anonymous and Cosmo, is far more active. The takedown of the WBC’s twitter feed, for instance, was a substantial attack because it wasn’t just used to displace or disrupt the WBC’s ability to communicate its conservative messages. Cosmo posted personal information about @DearShirley including her home address, telephone number, and ISP. (That user account has been suspended so the link is no longer there and I don’t wish to post it myself; I’m sure you could Google it if you want to see it.) Anonymous went even further, publishing a variety of personal information about the entire congregation of the WBC.

Spy vs. Spy

Spy vs. Spy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some commentators, naturally, have called this a war of competing trolls. Both groups, they argue, seek to gain attention they do not merit and should not receive. It is best to ignore them. I can appreciate this view. After all, it’s certainly one of the ways parents must train their screaming toddlers. Yet in this instance it seems an inappropriate categorization of the dynamic we’re seeing. Anonymous doesn’t simply want attention. They want to draw attention to specific under-represented issues–lack of financial regulation, free-roaming hate groups, unduly invasive privacy and business terms for internet users, and so on. We could say the same of many of the issues the WBC addresses, even if you don’t happen to agree with their politics.

Troll v. Troll is not what we’re seeing here. We’re seeing a committed group of radical activists using the internet to promote a social and political agenda that is moving, for them, far too slowly. The actions of hacktivists are rapid-responses. They remind me not of the WBC’s protests but of radical environmentalists of the 1970s.  It appears more like spiking trees with metal nails to break saw-blades to save the forest.

But maybe that’s being too generous. I can’t be sure–and neither necessarily can anyone. After all, we don’t know the extent of the hacktivism that is being waged. And much of it does appear to be pretty minor, against agents that are relatively susceptible to hacking. Even the more famous instances of email breach were works not of sophisticated Hollywood-style computer tricks but social engineering. (Somewhere in the security chain a real live person was tricked into giving up access to the goods.)

English: Walter Rauschenbusch

Social Gospel Pioneer Walter Rauschenbusch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So where does this leave religion? One of the key issues that drew my attention to the hacktivism against WBC was that it seemed to move out of a social ethic that was repulsed by the WBC’s plans to protest the funerals of slain Newton children and teachers. Hacking is so often seen as the domain of anarchists and social radicals that lie far outside of the religious mainstream. I think we see here, however, a relatively clear convergence of moral perspectives. The public sphere and the private hacking community seem to share one kind of moral outrage. Notice how it didn’t take shape in the hacking of gun companies or bullet manufacturers or gun lobbyists. Nor did it take shape as action against stalled health care policies. Or any number of other issues related to the tragedy at Sandy Hook. For me that suggests there is a strongly public-centered, compassionate narrative that one could construct behind the hacking. It is socially responsible, a kind of religiously-inspired internet justice. Is this the internet’s Social Gospel? Are we really seeing hackers leading the way? (That would be pretty amazing, right?)

The Twitter hacking in this instance attempted to preserve the dignified solemnity of mourning. Its ulterior motivations, whatever they may have been, appear secondary to that end. Can I say the same for the disclosure of personal information about the congregation? Probably not. It isn’t clear how concerned individuals will responsibly use such information to put pressure on the group. Did giving personal addresses out constitute a suggestion to picket these individuals’ homes? To contact their employers? Their neighbors? That aspect of the attack remains obscure in terms of both activism and religion. If it is a movement toward taming the wild wests of the net, then it still lacks structure, order, and leadership. That’s ok, though, because in nearly all the western the stranger rides in to save the day but the leaders imposing structure and order turn out to be the villains.

You may see more here–I can’t keep up with every aspect of this! So go ahead and leave me a comment so we can continue the discussion.

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