Kevin Mitnick, the New York Times, and the Media's Conception of the Hacker
Forthcoming, Making Our World: The Hacker and Maker Movements in Context. Eds. Hunsinger, J. & Schrock, A. (under contract). Digital Formations. New York: Peter Lang.
26 Pages Posted: 3 Apr 2017
Date Written: January 5, 2016
The New York Times coverage of Kevin Mitnick (47 articles from 1994 to 2012) reflects the changing popular conception of hackers, as well as legitimatizing and solidifying those evolving images and stereotypes. In this chapter, I examine how over the course of the this coverage the term "hacker" shifts from an identifier of a particular technological subculture to a stand-in term for criminality. Kevin Mitnick is most consistently referred to as a "hacker" throughout the New York Times coverage, but from 1994 to 2012, the use of "criminal" terms to modify "hacker" terms decreases, until eventually "hacker" terms are used a pure synonyms for "criminal" terms, as well as referencing general hacking culture in contexts where criminality is assumed. This transition is reinforced by the introduction of the term "ex-hacker" following Mitnick's release from prison as a theoretically rehabilitated member of society.
The "hacker equals criminal" move is reinforced by a variety of persistent metaphors, characterizations, narratives, and other repeated references that appear throughout the New York Times coverage. Following Lakoff (1980), I show how the repeated use of metaphors of "house and home" to describe Mitnick's illegal acts characterize the actions of hackers as a threat to individuals, not just states or corporations. The news articles also repeatedly describe Mitnick and the hacker community at large in the context of anti-social behavior, insanity, addiction, and the cultural narrative of juvenile delinquency, resulting in a persistent association of "hacking" with bad or broken actors. This aspect in particular follows conclusions previously made by James Aho (1984) and Helen Nissenbaum (2004) on the use of certain associations to create social enemies and out-groups.
Keywords: hackers, media coverage, New York Times, computer crime, metaphor analysis
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