We Are Anonymous.
We Are Legion.
We Do Not Forgive.
We Do Not Forget.
So goes the credo of Anonymous, the online community of hacker-activists profiled in Brian Knappenburger’s new documentary, We are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists. In the movie, Knappenburger reverently charts the online collective’s rise from humble origins in the comment threads of 4chan.com to the position it holds today, as an often-feared, thousands-strong group of hackers capable of large scale interventions on the global political stage.
Anonymous has run a neo-Nazi broadcaster into the ground, waged war on Scientology’s culture of censorship, staged countless virtual sit-ins by overwhelming servers and taking down websites, and even helped remotely facilitate last year’s Arab Spring. Several of its members are facing charges of cyber-terrorism. Several have already served time. And to think – it all started on an image posting site better known for its vicious sense of humour and penchant for anime pornography than its moral compass.
To the average internet browser, the pages of 4chan.com look like a window into the mind of a teenage boy – the threads of comments and images are choked with insults, video game references, porn, and anime. In this dark corner of the internet, only two things really matter: lulz (a corruption of lol) and loyalty to other 4channers. And it is here that Knappenburger begins his story, focussing in on the explosive section of 4chan known as /b/, the “random” forum, as the true birthplace of Anonymous.
Jokes and pranks at the expense of others had always been a mainstay of /b/ culture, but everything began to change when they decided to go after Habbo Hotel, an online social avatar game. Creating identical afro-sporting avatars and entering the game, hundreds of anonymous 4chan users, called “Anons” for short, lined up in the shape of a swastika as other avatars looked on. The outrage of the other young players and their parents only sweetened the deal for the Anon pranksters. Lulz were obtained, and for the first time, the strength in /b/’s numbers was tapped and many anonymous users became one Anonymous.
Knappenburger then devotes himself to frenetically tracing the development of Anonymous from nihilistic jokers bent on pissing off the world to an ethical and engaged group bent on improving it. We hear from the men and women who were major players on the 4chan stage, some of whom wear masks and disguise their voices with electronic equipment, and all of whom point to one moment as the moral awakening of Anonymous: the online war against Scientology, known as Project Chanology. Taking on the church for its practice of vicious legal action against any naysayers, Anonymous dished out toxic amounts of prank calls, server-busting internet traffic, and, most notably, organized in-person protests at Scientology headquarters around the world. As the barrage progressed, a sense of righteousness took hold, and a moral code began to develop. As the Anons repeat over and over throughout the film, “information wants to be free.”
That sense of righteousness has galvanized and intensified as the years have gone on, resulting in a variety of online actions and making “hacktivism,” a conflation of hacking and activism, a household word. From defending WikiLeaks to ensuring that revolutionaries in the Middle East were able to communicate online during the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, Anonymous has come a long way since their days as message board dwellers in reckless pursuit of cheap laughs.
Knappenburger’s portrait, though overly reverential at times (Anonymous is described, variously, as a “kaleidoscope,” a “flock of birds,” and a “phoenix”) is informative and inspiring. Like a modern brood of Robin Hoods, Anonymous does what it wants. Luckily, what it wants for the most part is to combat censorship and keep the powers that be from getting too comfortable.