A name like Anonymous may not mean much to some people. But the hacktivist collective and their projects in particular have certainly stuck. Earlier this year they performed denial of service attacks forcing PayPal and MasterCard offline as a protest against the latter companies ceasing to allow donations to be made to WikiLeaks (a raw deal considering both organisations allowed people to donate to some profoundly-racist groups).
We Are Legion is a documentary that follows the history of this often-maligned set of Internet vigilantes. Their uniform often includes the mask seen in V For Vendetta and their credo is simply: “We are anonymous. We are legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us”.
The documentary starts before the group’s inception and portrays its beginnings in the pranks found in various university halls and with people like Steve Jobs wanting to defraud the phone companies (this apparently was what sowed the seeds for Apple). From here we learn that Anonymous started on a website called 4chan and specifically the message board \b/ where the content is completely unfiltered.
Initially this unit were a bunch of merry pranksters making jokes like invading online Sims-like games with the same oddball character. Anonymous have no set leader, but they do share a common sense of humour. It is also this shared perspective and personality that has born the Internet’s biggest memes, including the infamous Rickrolling incident.
Over time things would get a lot more serious. Someone in this loosely based collective was being hassled by a neo-nazi shock jock named Hal Turner. So Anonymous’ members naturally came to their friend’s defence and targeted this bigot by ordering hundreds of pizzas to his house. There were other sorts of high jinks and hacking and this eventually cost the guy tonnes of money so he could no longer afford to fund his racism-fuelled, Internet broadcast.
Since then the group have graduated on to a very publish stoush with the Church of Scientology (and this culminated in a series of protests being staged around the world). They’ve also taken on governments like our very own one over Internet filters and censorship, and helped people in Tunisia get back online after their leaders pulled the plug on access during the Middle East uprising.
We Are Legion is an in-depth and fascinating account of these different campaigns. It shows a group divided between wanting to annoy and prank people and the Internet denizens striving to make a proper, political point.
There are in-depth interviews with the participants and leaders of different projects and campaigns. Some people have chosen to remain anonymous while others appear on the public record, most probably because they’ve already been involved with matters before the courts. The individuals range from clever eccentrics to obnoxious brats and just about everyone in-between. The group is certainly a murky one that has achieved a lot and has also had its fair share of controversy.
Writer and director Brian Knappenberger is largely sympathetic towards Anonymous even though there are some splinter groups that are doing bad or evil things that detract from the greater good of the collective. The organisations and individuals that have been on the receiving end of Anonymous’ work have not been given a right-of-reply here, though it is unclear whether they were even approached for comment or not.
Anonymous is itself a rather strange beast and We Are Legion reflects and captures most of this. The documentary is also entertaining, fast moving and at times even funny. Although it is occasionally stuck in presenting just one side of the online activism argument, it still manages to provide an interesting and exciting first chapter to one real, relevant and on-going story.
Review score: 7.5/10
We Are Legion is screening at Sydney’s Antenna Documentary Film Festival on October 11.
Runtime: 93 minutes