Next time someone mocks your love of cat memes, direct them to Brian Knappenberger’s documentary on Anonymous. It turns out that the leaderless, decentralized group of politically minded hackers, who’ve aided revolutionaries in Tunisia and whose novel forms of online civil disobedience are now on trial here in the United States, took shape at the website 4Chan, also the source of some of our favorite LOLCats. Humorous origin of Anonymous aside, We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists’s straightforward and chronological structure is its own worst enemy. Too often it feels like the talking heads have interchangeable voices, and lost in the ordered series of events is sufficient depth on the most interesting parts of the story: the divisions that emerged when the group matured from its prankster roots.
By now Anonymous is famous in part for its recently rescinded support of Julian Assange. When Mastercard, Visa, and PayPal refused to process donations to WikiLeaks, Anonymous barraged the companies with distributed denial-of-service attacks, which overrun websites with traffic until they crash. As one person describes it in the film, it’s like “pushing the refresh button…800,000 times.” Defenders of Anonymous look at these attacks as “cyber sit-ins”: basic, if temporarily debilitating, forms of civil disobedience used against groups or people who they believe infringe on freedom of speech, particularly on the Internet. The government, though, sees the group’s methods as a more serious threat, and the 15 years of jail time that people like Mercedes Haefer face as a result of participating in such actions attests to that fact.
As Anonymous began participating in actions with moral and political weight, beginning with attacks on neo-Nazi radio host Hal Turner, and proceeding to actions against Scientology, a fissure was exposed in the group. Many who joined the group only for the laughs rebelled, terming the activists in the group “moral fags” and launching attacks on epilepsy-support sites to defame Anonymous’s reputation. Recently, more anarchic elements within the group have been decried by members opposed to indiscriminate attacks that, for example, leak details about people’s bank accounts.
But Knappenberger is too busy reading off Anonymous’s résumé to really delve deeply into any of these divisive issues, which are treated merely as points on a timeline. More problematically, we barely hear from people who disagree with Anonymous’s actions or from members unhappy with the group’s new political direction. The positions of dissenting voices are merely explained by sympathizers, calling into question whether the documentary is really a profile of the group as a whole or an attempted demonstration of its moral credibility. This is a shame, since Knappenberger’s one interview with a member of the opposition makes for the movie’s most riveting sequence: Watching Aaron Barr, a former security company CEO who advised other companies and the government on how to fight back against Anonymous, sit uncomfortably under accusations that he recommended cyber attacks on both Anonymous and journalists that supported the group, like Glenn Greenwald.
The film makes a good argument that Anonymous is one of the more unique political phenomena of our time. The group, as one member vividly points out, contains two opposing elements at once, the freedom-fighting Robin Hoods and the anarchist Jokers, and how long these can coexist is yet to be determined. But given these intricacies, We Are Legion’s telling of the story is unfortunately skeletal. A more robust version would have to cut down a bit on the cheerleading, but more importantly it would have to go beyond the entertaining, but superficial, LOLCats to freedom-fighting trajectory.