SIFF Film Review – We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists
Playing at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival, We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, directed by Brian Knappenberger, is both an explanation of the group Anonymous and a history of their activities. Who are Anonymous and what do they do? Well, the film does a pretty good job of explaining that (much better than I could), but you might be familiar with some of their cyber attacks on The Church of Scientology and Mastercard, among others. I had a general idea of who they were and what they were doing, but this film allowed me to put a few faces and motivations to the actions. Knappenberger lets the hackers to tell their stories and define hacktivism in their own terms, which works really well in some ways. But the lack of any real self-analysis from many of the participants or any strong opposing viewpoints makes this film about a fairly controversial movement (and I use that word loosely) pretty one-sided. I’m not really sure I believe that “fair and balanced” anything is actually achievable, but I think a stronger effort to look at those with conflicting feelings about Anonymous’ actions, would have made a better film. But, what it does do, it does pretty well.
Anonymous took shape on the image posting site 4chan, which launched in 2003. 4chan users post images and comments, and because they can take any name they want—including being anonymous—anything goes. And anything does; nothing is too disgusting, no troll is too rude, and no idea is too sacred. It sounds confrontational because it is; and because there is no accountability, folks who like to hassle people for fun can be as annoying as they want. I love the internet for creating a world where all ideas can be expressed, but the downside of that is that people can be crazy jerks when there is no one there to punch them in the face. But a lot of those jerks are purposefully trying to take the piss out of those who would take the Internet—and life—too seriously.
An early meme on the site dealt with the idea that all the anonymous posts were, in fact, written by the same entity, and thus the idea of Anonymous as one face/many parts was born. And when people who are like-minded get together, often times they like to do stuff, like, I dunno, prank people. Not just denial of service attacks, but low-tech oldies-but-goodies such as ordering pizzas for their victim to pay for. Over time, the pranks germinating on 4chan escalated until they started getting outside attention. Hal Turner, a white supremacist, was targeted by Anonymous in 2006, leaving him unable to pay for his Internet radio show. These actions brought a new element to Anonymous, who were attracted by what they viewed as activism, which in turn made the group more activist-oriented. This caused a lot of dissension among the “group” as to what their purpose was. Many hackers wanted to continue on with activism (chaos good) and many others wanted to focus on messing around with people/companies/groups just because they could (chaos bad). Since Anonymous is not a set organization with defined leaders, anyone could start an operation, and, if they found enough interested parties, put that idea into motion. So now you had different parts of Anonymous staging attacks for a higher moral purpose and others just creating chaos for fun.
I was pretty engrossed with this movie, and learned a tremendous amount about something I’ve only heard about in the mainstream media. Often portrayed as a collective of anarchists, Anonymous are really more comparable to grassroots organizers taking to the Internet. Someone will make an off-hand comment, others will run with it, and then a plan is hatched (for good or for bad). Many activist members view themselves as followers of a noble cause, and that is how they portray themselves on screen. And it’s easy to believe their logic; I can totally buy the idea that a denial of service attack is comparable to a sit-in or a protest. But not all of their actions have been benign, and no one really cops up to it. (It was those crazy dudes over at LulzSec!) The motivations behind the individual members of Anonymous are complicated, but the film doesn’t capture that well except in the section about the group’s beginnings. More input from Anonymous’s victims would have been welcome, as well. (They interviewed one guy, but he was kind of a douche.) I found the film invaluable as a history lesson; it’s a solid portrayal of how certain members of Anonymous see themselves, and—like them or hate them—you should probably educate yourself on a new method of protest that shows no sign of going away.
Final Grade: B+
We Are Legion: The Story of Hacktivists screens at SIFF Uptown tonight, The Egyptian on June 3rd, and The Kirkland Performance Center on June 6th.