In a publicity bid this week, German website Populeaks.org announced The NRA Bet, challenging the National Rifle Association - in fractured English - to use its guns to "keep all non-public data a secret till April 30, 2013." If the NRA manages to protect its data, the site promises to provide two unrequested staffers to provide unwanted services – in this case, helping to polish 500 guns at the NRA's next annual meeting.
I'm sure Wayne LaPierre is thrilled. "The NRA Bet" may never amount to much. It's not as if Populeaks, which was created only three months ago, can really call down the fury of a mighty hacker horde.
Still, by framing its call to action as a humorous contest, Populeaks staggers across an interesting point. What if instead of threats, hactivism groups tried offering their targets something they wanted in return for complying with their demands (er, requests)? And what if instead of anger and outrage, the conversation included a little humor and satire? Would that kind of lighter approach be more likely to achieve the desired results? Or at least make the hacktivists more likable?
First things first: You might be asking "What the hell is Populeaks?" That's an excellent question. According to its About Us page:
- POPULEAKS confronts governments, corporations and non-governmental organizations with the assertions made by our whistleblowers – and demands substantiated replies or information within a time window of ten days.
- In order to increase people’s readiness to respond, POPULEAKS informs up to 6,000 journalists and bloggers from its custom media mailing list - at the same time it receives an inquiry - and publishes the full text of the inquiry, word-for-word, on www.populeaks.org.
In other words, the site encourages users to spam it with gossip, attempts to force the subjects of the gossip to reply, then turns around and spams "6,000 media contacts" (including us), hoping to get coverage. It's an annoying business model, and it's highly unlikely you'll see the group mentioned here again unless it actually breaks some news. But the tactics employed in this particular case (which actually has nothing to do with PopuLeaks' stated whistleblower mission) are worth a look.
Taming The Shame Game
Public shaming by the hacktivist community is hardly new. Anonymous has made a fetish of it, following grand pronouncements about unchecked corporate greed and disregard of the common man with threats to tear down Facebook, Egypt and Iran, among others.
Demand => Threat => Resolution. It's a time-tested formula that's been around since the Greek siege of Troy (probably since Gok threatened Gom with a rock if he didn't quit hogging the mastodon leg). The problem is that after a few years of constantly threatening people, you kind of seem like a jerk, particularly if you have to follow through on your threats. Facebook may or may not be evil, but if you're the one keeping the masses from sharing their kitten videos, you're the bad guy.
Groups like Anonymous tread a fine line between Robin Hood and (in the words of BreitBart.com) "terrorist" in the court of public opinion. Mixing it up could help the hactivists' image. Populeaks is an unknown site, and the NRA Bet isn't even particularly witty or creative - or even coherent. Overall, it's pretty low-rent, and offers nothing of value to the NRA.
But if someone with a bit more street cred offered to do something useful, relevant and funny if their target complied with their requests, we might actually see some progress.
Friendly rivalries and side bets with conservative pundits like Bill O'Reilly and Mike Huckabee have earned Jon Stewart and the Daily Show a legitimate place in the political discussion, increased everyone's likability and actually put substantive political discussions back on the air. Maybe injecting some of that into the cyber-rights battlefield wouldn't be such a bad idea. I bet the EFF's leaders would gladly pump gas for a week at a Chevron station if the company would drop its lawsuits and admit it was wrong about Ecuador.
There will always be intractable situations that call for severe responses, but dangling a few carrots couldn't hurt.
Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock.