Type the word “hacker” into any stock photo search engine and you’ll be greeted with pages and pages of images of someone sitting in the dark, typing threateningly at their laptop, and more often than not wearing a balaclava or Guy Fawkes mask. That Matrix-inspired 1990s aesthetic of green code on black is still prevalent — and still implies that hackers have inherently nefarious ends.
More recently, however, the idea of hacking as a prosocial activity has gained more attention. Earlier this year, one group of hackers made headlines for donating $10,000 in Bitcoin to two charities, the result of what they say was the extortion of millions of dollars from multinational companies.
While the charities declined the donations, social media responses were more mixed, with some praising the hackers. And in a new study, Maria S. Heering and colleagues from the University of Kent argue that our view of hacking is somewhat malleable: when people were treated unfairly and the institutions responsible did nothing to redress their grievances, they felt more positive about hackers who targeted the source of their anger.
In the first study, 259 participants were asked to imagine themselves taking an exam which was crucial to their future career prospects. The questions in the exam, they were told, were vague and unrelated to the content they’d been taught — and when looking at the transcript after the exam, they found they had been marked unfairly. Participants were then asked to imagine taking their grievance to the university with several classmates.
Following this introductory scenario, participants were split into two groups and given different information about how responsive the university was (these kinds of beliefs about the responsiveness of an institution are known as “external efficacy”). Half of the participants read that the university system was unresponsive to their requests (low external efficacy); the others read that the university was willing to address their complaints (high external efficacy).
Participants then completed measures related to their anger against the system (e.g. “I am furious about the way in which the exam office handled my complaint”) before reading that the university had been targeted by hackers, who left the message “learn to do your job” on the institution’s homepage.
Finally, participants indicated how much they agreed with statements related to the hackers’ legitimacy, whether or not the hackers deserve respect and admiration, and how positive or negative they felt the hackers’ actions were for both the university and democracy more generally.
As expected, participants who read that the university had been unresponsive to their unfair treatment felt more anger towards the system; in turn, this anger led to stronger feelings that hackers’ actions were legitimate.
A second study replicated the first, only this time participants were told that a researcher had rejected the work they had submitted on an academic survey platform. In the low external efficacy condition, the site did not help participants who felt their work had been unfairly rejected, and in the high external efficacy condition participants received support and were told a new system would be put in place to query rejected work. All participants again read that hackers had targeted the platform and left the same “learn to do your job” message.
As in the first study, participants felt more anger against the platform in the low external efficacy condition — and again, this anger positively predicted how legitimate they perceived the hacking to be.
On a small scale, it may seem obvious that if someone attacks a system or institution you feel has wronged you, you’re likely to be supportive of them. But the results also prompt interesting questions about wider society. The team notes that the key factor determining legitimisation of hackers is an unmet demand for fairer social arrangements — an issue that comes to the fore time and time again on both big and small scales. During lockdown, for example, much attention has been paid to the increase in wealth of a few very rich individuals whilst others around the world struggle to make ends meet.
In cases of wider societal unfairness, therefore, our views of those who disrupt that uneven power imbalance may become more and positive. In an age where trust appears to have been eroded precisely because people feel their demands are not being met, it’s worth exploring these issues in more detail.