Accessibility links

Breaking News

'We Are Legion' Is A Great Film, But Anonymous Deserves More Scrutiny

I got a chance to see "We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists" recently. It's a great film and in 90 minutes packs in plenty of interviews with Anonymous activists and experts, putting Anonymous in a broader context of Internet culture, protest movements, and hacktivism.

The film is particularly good on how Anonymous became politicized, how the movement (for want of a better word) went from pranking to taking on the Scientologists through to supporting WikiLeaks and helping out Tunisian revolutionaries. There is plenty of nuance here and the film rightly portrays Anonymous as a multifaceted and diverse movement that's hard to pin down -- it covers, for example, the splits between the so-called moralfags and hatefags, between those Anons who wanted to do good versus those who just wanted to wreak havoc.

Where the film is less good is when the director, Brian Knappenberger, seems to be too enamored with his subject. Many of the Anons interviewed in the film speak a lot about "freedom" -- an inoffensive mix of John Perry Barlow, Occupy, and the Arab Spring. “Their [the government’s] opinion no longer mattered because someone was out on the Internet kicking ass,” says one of them, Mercedes Haefer, who could face up to 15 years in jail for her alleged role in distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks on PayPal. You won’t find too many people disagreeing with the notion of holding governments and corporations more accountable.

Yet, the problem is that Knappenberger never really attempts to unpack or challenge these sentiments. What exactly do they stand for? What do they hope to achieve? Like the film’s soundtrack, Anons talking in grandoise terms about freedom gives a seductive and intoxicating sense that something truly momentous is happening, but ultimately, when left unchallenged, it all ends up sounding a little empty.

The only person who falls under real scrutiny in the film is Aaron Barr, the security consultant who got monumentally pwned after his company intimated that it was going to expose the identities of Anonymous activists. In the film, Barr rightfully gets grilled by the interviewer about his role and he flails and stumbles when answering questions. Good, his company, HB Gary, deserves that scrutiny. But I was left thinking: why doesn’t the filmmaker take the same harsh line of questioning with the Anons? Why do they get a free pass? You can still be broadly supportive of something, yet still put it under scrutiny.

“We Are Legion” does mention some of the nastier things Anonymous has been alleged to have done, such as posting flashing GIFs on epilepsy forums. But they are just glossed over with a filmic shrug. Or as one activist says, Anonymous has done some pretty off-color things in the name of getting cheap laughs, “but that’s part of the culture.” Anonymous’s nature as a leaderless, decentralized nongroup, where anyone can act in its name, has advantages, but also disadvantages. It gives Anonymous the ultimate plausible deniability -- "that might of been in our name, but it wasn’t us" -- but it also means black-hat hackers can use the Anonymous brand to get media attention for their nefarious exploits. We hear plenty of Anonymous rhetoric about the hive mind, about the power of collective action, but there is a downside to that. What happens when the hive mind becomes the groupthink of the mob?

Underneath all the savvy visuals and revolutionary rhetoric, there are troubling aspects of Anonymous’s activism. Take the case of Amanda Todd, a young girl who committed suicide after being bullied. (The case happened well after the film was made, but it’s still a good example.) Some Anons, acting with what seemed to be decent motivations, exposed the identity of her tormentor. Except they didn’t. They got the wrong guy. Even if they had got the right guy, is that how we want society to function, with roving bands of online vigilantes seeking to expose people's identity, outside of the judicial process?

Or take the case of the 2011 DDoS attacks on Sony’s Play Station Network, which was claimed by Anon activists. Anonymous carried out the action in protest against Sony’s case against hacker George Hotz. But, while attention is given to Anonymous motivations, there is little thought given to the thousands of gamers who are prevented from using a service they have chosen to spend their money on. Whether you think taking down Sony is a legitimate form of protest or not, let’s not pretend it’s a victimless act. Just because it “happened online” doesn’t mean there are no consequences.

Of course, there are many, many Anons who get this only too well -- that, after all, was much of what the “moralfag” movement was about. There are many who spoke out against the Sony hack; there are many Anons who spoke out after LulzSec hacked PBS. Speaking in the film, security researcher Joshua Corman puts it in the context of the rise of the chaotic actor working outside the system -- sometimes they do good like Robin Hood, sometimes they’re more like the Joker.

What Anonymous did do, as one of the commentators points out in the film, is give journalists and the general public something to hold on to. There was this chaotic and amorphous Internet subculture, hard for outsiders to understand, and suddenly there was a Guy Fawkes mask and a vaguely ominous, robotic voice. It was brilliant PR and branded a movement that almost defied categorizing.

In years to come, Anonymous might be recognized more for its cultural legacy than its political acts. More than just the revolutionary PR, the 2012 U.S. presidential election was dubbed the “meme election,” a reference to the online virals that were pervasive in the campaigning. The meme has gone mainstream. We owe that to Anonymous and 4Chan, that open petri dish of thriving Internet cultures. The dog-eat-dog world of Internet memes, the ethos of remix, of irreverence, the humor, and grotesqueness -- we have Anonymous to thank for that.

"We Are Legion" is a great film, but a little bit more scrutiny and distance from its subject would have made for an even better film. Corporations and governments need to be held accountable for their actions, but so sometimes do people on the Internet.