Hacking, Disruptive Democracy, and the War in Ukraine
From the Series: Russia’s War on Ukraine
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, was meant to overpower through disorientation and destabilization. Russian President Vladimir Putin apparently expected that Russia would conquer Ukraine, claim its territory, and subjugate its population swiftly. For two weeks now, Ukrainians, individually and collectively, have disrupted Russia’s plans and remade the war by fighting back with the resources and skills at their disposal. One woman allegedly crashed a Russian drone with a well-aimed jar of pickled cucumbers thrown from her balcony. Motorists stopped alongside a Russian tank and jokingly asked if the soldiers were out of gas and needed a tow back to the Russian border. Farmers hitched their tractors to Russian tanks and towed them away. Brewers at the Pravda (Truth) brewery stopped bottling beer and used their bottles for Molotov cocktails, emblazoned with a brewery label featuring the slogan “Putin is a Dickhead.”
In this war, small acts have huge impacts.
Less visible but no less consequential are campaigns waged by an expansive network of dispersed and relatively anonymous cyberwarriors from a variety of backgrounds: computer programmers, web designers, and other IT professionals, gamers, and legions of ordinary people with smartphones, laptops, and internet connections. Although some individuals are believed to participate via collectives like Anonymous, IT Army, and Cyber Partisans, many are simply individuals from Ukraine and around the world who have self-organized.
These cyberwarriors are waging a multifront war in the digital world. Their efforts to disrupt and destabilize the Russian government and its critical infrastructure have included shutting down Russian banking systems, collapsing Russian government servers through DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks, and halting information and routing systems on Russian transit systems. Cyberwarriors monitor Russian officials and pro-Putin elites by tracking the movements of Russian military forces and elites, leaking personal information about Russian leaders and elites, and otherwise trolling and ridiculing Russian sources and individuals. Cyberwarriors are also bypassing Russian propaganda and news censorship in Russia and bringing information directly to Russian citizens by creating websites and communication channels to connect with families of Russian servicemen killed or captured in Ukraine, by using apps to flood Russian cell phones with text messages and phone calls, and by hacking Russian websites to replace government messages with antiwar messaging. Even Russia’s most important state-controlled news outlets, such as TASS and Pervyi Kanal (Channel 1), were compromised when cyberwarriors took control of their sites to promote antiwar messaging that condemned President Putin’s war on Ukraine and censorship of journalists.
Cyber warfare is commonly described as “hacking”: digital interference typically associated with criminal activity that uses viruses and “back doors” to access and compromise computer networks, collect confidential data, and manipulate governments and corporations, financial institutions, health care providers, and transportation systems. Yet to focus solely on the digital and criminal aspects of hacking misrecognizes its scope and its power. Hacking is often, in fact, a mode of generative creativity—bricolage, making do, innovation—when people play with the tools at their disposal to solve problems. Computer programmers, gamers, Ukrainian farmers towing away Russian tanks, and neighbors throwing jars of pickles are all performing “hacks” that disrupt the status quo by breaking expected rules and structures and redefining the limits and possibilities of warfare.
As dispersed, nonhierarchical, and often anonymous groups, hacking communities “[make themselves] through hacking practices of sharing, circulation, and the constant transformation of things” (Delgado 2013, 66). Hackers embrace practical philosophies of a participatory, intellectual commons in which no one person owns ideas, knowledge, or solutions. Hacking celebrates the creativity of individuals who bring their own unique perspectives, skills, and experiences to engage in cooperative efforts of mutual support, imagination, and inspiration. Ideas and solutions are not predetermined. Instead, the process of cooperating and reimagining creates a horizon of possibilities. Futures are not anticipated but unfold through processes of emergence—what design anthropologist Joachim Halse has called “moments of becoming” (2013, 194) and what Caroline Gatt and Tim Ingold have described as “opening up pathways” (2013, 145) that can move in different, and often unexpected, directions. “What is” becomes “what might be.”
Hacking’s qualities of spontaneity, diffusion, and disruption make it a powerful weapon in Ukraine’s fight against Russia. Hackers do not resist by pushing back against the structures in which they are located. Instead, hackers violate those structures, change them, ignore them, and create new structures. Through disruption, they create new forms of warfare that effectively disorient Russian forces on the ground and in the highest offices of the Russian government.
Ultimately, disruption is a serious form of political activity that is generative, productive, and transformative. When ordinary people grab the tools at their disposal and contribute in whatever way they can, they are not simply fighting an unprovoked war but constituting a powerful and global democratic movement.
Delgado, Ana. 2013. “DIYbio: Making Things and Making Futures.” Futures 48: 65–73.
Gatt, Caroline, and Tim Ingold. 2013. “From Description to Correspondence: Anthropology in Real Time.” In Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, edited by Wendy Gunn, Ton Otto, and Rachel Charlotte Smith, 139–58. London: Bloomsbury.
Halse, Joachim. 2013. “Ethnographies of the Possible.” In Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, edited by Wendy Gunn, Ton Otto, and Rachel Charlotte Smith, 180–96. London: Bloomsbury.