Ryan Findley
“We Are Legion”

Anonymous and the new era of activism

Several philosophic and moral conundrums are raised in the documentary "We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists," screening at the Milwaukee Film Festival.

By - Sep 29th, 2012 11:28 am
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An Anonymous Hacktivist at work. A still from “We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists,” directed by Brian Knappenberger. All photos courtesy Luminant Media.

The Internet is a wild place. It’s been said before, so many times that it’s a trite nothing to say it again, but the Internet is a bit like the old American West. It is inhabited by ordinary citizens, by robber barons, by the rich and greedy, by those thirsting for new horizons, by those wishing to stand for something and stake their lives in it. And it is new; it does not have a police force; it does not have a rule of law. It is outside of known boundaries. The rules of the Internet are still being written: what rights do we have, what responsibilities exist? The thing about the Internet that is wholly and completely new, unlike anything that has come before, is that it is global. The Internet is everywhere. The Internet is anywhere.

Much like the Internet that gave it life, the group Anonymous is wild. It is composed of ordinary citizens, of robber barons, of those thirsting for new information, and those wishing to stand for something. These members come from everywhere, and anywhere. The only common thread between all of them is anonymity. From shock jocks to pranksters to a new breed of global democracy activists, Anonymous is quite possibly the largest tent in the world. We Are Legion traces the development of the loose collective colloquially known as Anonymous from its origins in shock-jock antics through to the Arab Spring and then into what is referred to as the Occupy movement, and all the growing pains and ongoing internal conflicts along the way.

We Are Legion has almost impossibly high production values. This is a documentary, but it is a documentary for the children of the Internet era. It has narrative and plot structure; it has aesthetics; it has design and artistic value. Luminant Media deserves at least an accolade, if not several, for understanding the aesthetic and entertainment demands of information consumers that grew up online.

As one of those people, I was both impressed with and taken aback by how effectively and totally I was sucked into the vision of the world that We Are Legion presents. I am sure that someone, somewhere, will call this movie propaganda, and while I’m not entirely convinced the label is deserved, if it is, We Are Legion is the best-done piece of propaganda I have ever encountered. When I finished watching it, I wanted to immediately jump on the Internet and teach myself encryption basics and start that Code Year project I’d heard so much about in January and see how quickly I could catch up now that I was ten months behind.

There is no doubt that this film could be called propaganda. The film is not unfair, or untruthful, but it is remarkably sympathetic in its portrayal of Anonymous, and rather savage in its portrayal of some of the more draconian punishments being leveraged against participants in some of the group’s more well-known actions.

One young woman, facing fifteen years in prison for participating in the DDoS (distributed denial of service) attack of Mastercard and Paypal in 2010, laments, “The average pedophile gets eleven years. I’m facing more time than the average pedophile for participating in what amounts to an electronic sit-in.”

I was struck by the savvy choices and editing of interviews, both with members of the collective, former members of the collective, academics that deal in the Internet, and media. All of them, to a person, are intelligent, eloquent and occasionally astoundingly self-aware. One of them, when talking about the struggles that grew out of moving from pranks to social activism, says “what Anonymous is. Or, rather, what Anonymous thinks Anonymous is.” That’s a display of self-awareness not generally seen in real life, much less in documentaries. It’s also said by a man that in some earlier screen time can’t stop himself from commenting on the number of “awkward geeky guys” that probably got laid when Anonymous members started to do direct, real-world action (against the Church of Scientology in 2008). It’s not as if the filmmakers coached interviewees or cherry-picked segments.

That is, perhaps, why this movie can’t quite be called propaganda. Or if you’re feeling cynical, you might say it is incredibly well-done propaganda. It doesn’t gloss over or even hide from the warts and the dark places. Both the actions of the group as a whole and the individuals that represent the group for the film are laid bare to be judged without being presented as perfect or even better than the average person. The sum effect is that much like anything or anybody, there is good and bad, but this group and most of these people are far more good than bad. They do more good than harm.

Several interesting philosophic and moral conundrums are raised during the course of the film, and they are questions that we will need to find answers to, since we do now live in a world in which at least part of our lives is conducted online, electronically, over the network. Should we be forced to adopt a persistent identity, even in online interaction, that can never be abandoned? Can we never put a mask over our Internet identities?

Anonymity can be used to bully and harass, but it can also be used by ordinary people trying to overthrow a brutal dictatorship that’s been entrenched for fifty years. It can be used to spread hate, but it can also be used to combat hate without fear of reprisal. A friend said to me that anonymity was much like a gun: it can be used to terrorize, or it can be kept under the bed as a weapon of last resort. How easy should it be for us to be anonymous online? How simple or difficult should we be making it to put on an electronic mask? What are appropriate punishments for doing so?

A large chunk of the film is devoted to linking DDoS attacks on websites to the sit-ins of our parents’ generation. A DDoS attack doesn’t permanently damage anything; no data is taken or corrupted. All such an “attack” is, is a large number of people jamming a website with so much traffic that “legitimate” customers can’t get through. And in that light, it is a sit in: you can’t shop from this store, because this group of people has decided to protest whatever policy by “sitting in” and making it impossible for “legitimate” customers to enter or shop. If we now are committed to the idea that we live parts of our lives online, we must also deal with how we can make statements of personal and political belief in that space.

We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists raises questions that we will have to grapple with as a collective society, and for that, it is worth seeing. There is certain to be something in this film that startles you, regardless of your opinion on Anonymous. And the issues raised by the actions of Anonymous do need to be grappled with collectively, not just all of us together here in the United States, but all of us together everywhere. The definition of local is changing, and we will have to accommodate it. Your opinion matters, no matter who you agree with or who you disagree with. It is having an opinion, and the ability to voice it effectively, that matters.

We Are Legion screens at the Fox-Bay Cinema on Monday, Oct. 1, and Tuesday, Oct. 2, and at the Oriental Theatre on Thursday, Oct. 4.

The Milwaukee Film Festival runs through Oct. 11 at the Oriental TheatreDowner Theatre and Fox-Bay Cinema. Check out TCD’s Flick by Flick guides for films opening this weekend and throughout October. For more information, visit the MFF website.

Categories: Arts & Culture, Movies

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