So much of people’s lives nowadays are facilitated through online and telecommunication technologies. Of course, people still live a “real life”, but much is “lived” online. There is overlap between the real and virtual worlds, but We Are Legion shows an interesting example of an online community which decided to enter the real world, together and with a vengeance. Tech-savvy people, hackers, and digital libertarians composed a fascinating, but insular subculture. The film explores how this digital community eventually coalesced under the tongue-in-cheek label “Anonymous”, and then eventually emerged on the streets in protest. The participants of this subculture are often seen as socially awkward—and ample examples are shown in the interviewees in the film—but they have important roles to play as the enforcers of a pure and free Internet.
We Are Legion does perhaps the best job to-date of presenting the early history of hackers and hactivism (hacker+activism), without any of the silly moralizing and distortions that the mainstream media is apt to make. Most “hackers” are not criminals, just people who make some technology work for a purpose that it was not originally intended. Still, more could have been done to explain what hacking is and how (it could be argued) all hacking is political behavior. Something that could helped support this argument would be more about the FLOSS (free libre open source software) movement.
Anonymous had its origins in an online message board called 4chan, where anyone could post whatever they wanted, but everyone was identified with the label “anonymous”. People joked about the absurd possibility that “Anonymous” was actually just one incredibly prolific contributor and not a legion of individuals given the same moniker. Early on, Anonymous supported pranks, but eventually became political, harassing a White supremacist radio DJ and most famously the Church of Scientology. From there, Anonymous morphed into a highly political, attack army, that was unleashed upon numerous targets, especially corporations and governments that tried controlling the Internet. It was fascinating and entertaining to see the evolution of Anonymous from crude pranksters to political revolutionaries.
Anonymous’ support of WikiLeaks and of the Arab Spring the best example of its current ethos. Hactivists kept the Internet running in North Africa and the Middle East, as citizens in Tunisia and Egypt begin rebelling against their dictatorial governments. A great line emerges in the film: when the Egyptian despot turns off its Internet, people respond by saying “fuck you”, “we’ll turn it back on”. The interviewees warn that bad things happen in the “dark” (or in this case, when the Internet is non-functioning and people are cut-off from the outside world), and that its “almost as if the Internet is a living thing that feels pain”.
I thought that LulzSec was treated a bit too harshly by the film. LulzSec was a militant, radical spin-off of Anonymous, who used their advanced expertise to directly take on state agencies and corporations. Yes, there were some excesses (like the public release of Sony user’s credit card information), but they also repeatedly “stuck it to the Man” and the world’s largest villains who are responsible for all sorts of social harms throughout the world. An added benefit of the film is that it makes former HBGary CEO Aaron Barr look like a guarded, double-talking stooge.
While We Are Legion draws connections between WikiLeaks front-man Julian Assange and the hacker community, more could have been done to explain WikiLeaks and the magnitude of its impact, which will likely be greater than most everything that Anonymous has done, in the annals of history. Some of the screen time could have be re-allocated to this story, and away from the Anonymous vs. Scientology story (which is, admittedly fascinating and bizarre, and important for understanding Anonymous’ politicization).
It would be interesting to see further exploration of the (mostly male) interviewees’ masculinist pretensions and sometimes overt homophobia. Clearly, male posturing occurs everywhere men interact with other men, perhaps especially amongst men who are unable to achieve traditionally-male performances. The filmmakers track down some of the most charismatic supporters and “members” of Anonymous, including Commander X and Barrett Brown. These colorful individuals reveal a few of the simple reasons why Anonymous has been so successful with what it does—it is populated by incredibly intelligent, driven, and creative individuals. The film itself is graphically pleasing and the electronic soundtrack is appropriately playful throughout. All in all, We Are Legion is the best film-based introduction of the online world of hackers, and it presents an accurate depiction of the usually undiscussed political dimensions of the hacker community.
Topics: technology, social change, social movements, media