Title: We Are Legion: The Story of Hacktivists
Director: Brian Knappenberger
You may think you know about Anonymous, the decentralized online collective who have merrily pranked and disrupted high-level corporate and governmental websites, and gone to war with Scientology to boot. You don’t, proves Brian Knappenberger’s wildly new engaging documentary, “We Are Legion: The Story of Hacktivists.”
Over the past couple years, Anonymous has been associated with raids or denial-of-service attacks on hundreds of targets, from Mastercard, Visa, PayPal and Sony to the Motion Picture Association of America and cyber-security/intelligence firms like HBGary Federal. “We Are Legion” not only details their exploits, but also delves inside the roots and culture of the group, exploring early hacktivist collectives like Cult of the Dead Cow and Electronic Disturbance Theater before charting Anonymous’ birth and fitful “maturation” from an offshoot message board on the website 4Chan.
The film’s technical package is fairly unexceptional, save for two notable elements. Composer John Dragonetti’s contributions provide “We Are Legion” with some extra oomph, and Skype-recorded video chats with various masked Anonymous members — though perhaps tangentially reminiscent of terrorist videos to some — help give a rounded authenticity to the project. While tech authors like Richard Thieme and Steven Levy, amongst other talking heads, provide wonderful mainstream context and recap, it is these chats (and other more professionally recorded interviews with outed Anonymous members) that give Knappenberger’s movie a real personality, and charged sense of self-narration.
Anonymous started out pulling goofy stunts en masse — think videogame-crashing, Rick-rolling, LOLcats, and other popular Internet memes. Then, in 2006 and ’07, they turned their sites on Hal Turner, a white supremacist with a self-syndicated radio show. Internet-based pranks were paired with other means of disruption of his hateful messages, and a kind of greater activist consciousness was born. Some of its other battles — including its tangles with Scientology, over their serial harassment of not only ex-church members but also any journalist who deigns to write something critical about them – are epically hilarious, and their narrative recap here is fun and entertaining on a level completely devoid of any other sociopolitical context.
Still, while Anonymous’ support of WikiLeaks and its embattled founder, Julian Assange, got big press when the group targeted online financial companies who disabled their contribution buttons on the site, a lot of folks in the world at large don’t realize the group’s connection and indeed critical importance in not only fomenting the Arab Spring, but providing crucial support to besieged democracy activists in various Middle Eastern countries — validating SSL keys and certificates to help circumvent Egyptian shutdowns of the Internet, and sending out tips on how to make homemade gas masks, protective body armor and the like. The pat soundbite gained some traction even in the mainstream media — these governmental overthrows were made possible by Facebook, Twitter and social media — but “We Are Legion” shows that it’s no cliché.
For this reason and others, the governmental crackdown on some of these hacktivists should give freedom-of-speech-and-assembly town criers plenty of pause. There are sometimes laws broken, but a lot of what Anonymous does and supports could easily be described as civil disobedience. After all, we live more and more of our lives online these days, so do we not have a right and space to also protest online?
NOTE: In addition to its theatrical engagements, “We Are Legion” is available for digital download pre-order, and streaming. For more information, visit its website at www.WeAreLegionTheDocumentary.com.
Written by: Brent Simon