SXSW Movie Review: WE ARE LEGION: THE STORY OF THE HACKTIVISTS
There is no more wretched hive of scum and villainy on the internet than 4chan's /b/ board. Which is why it’s so endlessly ironic that the culture of 4chan - anonymous, based on confrontational trolling - has become one of the most powerful and exciting social change movements in the world. What began as an anime nerd site grew into an internet hate machine and then, somehow, blossomed into an enormous force for good whose presence has been felt on the streets of America, Australia, Tunisia and Egypt.
We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists is an essential bit of history, tracing the incredible growth and change in the culture of Anonymous, bringing it from early days of internet raids (Anons will know what Pool’s Closed means) to the modern Occupy movement. In many ways this is an untold story, a narrative that the mainstream media has ignored because of the difficult, prickly side of Anonymous.
We Are Legion proves that a documentary about computer nerds can be gripping. Most of the film is talking heads, but director Brian Knappenberger has found an intriguing group of subjects who are knowledgeable and funny. Some of them are journalists, some of them are computer security experts and some of them are actual Anons. Of those, some remain anonymous while others reveal their identity, a decision that I’m sure won’t sit well with many members of Anonymous. Sadly missing is an interview with moot, the guy who started 4chan with no idea what it would one day become.
Knappenberger finds the throughline of the rise of Anonymous and presents it as a compelling narrative. The context provided by veteran Anons - oldfags, in the parlance of 4chan - is crucial, and their childish glee at their early trolling exploits makes you understand what the culture is all about. What’s more, that glee allows you to understand viscerally how Anonymous made the jump from harassing people online to helping Egyptian revolutionaries - it’s all a form of trolling when you look at it, it’s just that the targets have become more worthy.
We Are Legion is activist filmmaking, and Knappenberger isn’t just presenting the story of Anonymous, he’s also advocating that their tactics - including denial of service attacks that have led to a number of federal prosecutions - are legitimate. I fully agree; a denial of service attack is simply a cyber version of a sit in. When PayPal cut off Wikileaks there was no strong central place to protest, so the angered members of Anonymous took their protest to where they live - online.
The film’s big weakness is the way it soft peddles 4chan’s real ugliness. The doc only focuses on the more harmless trolling, not the times Anon has gone after grieving families, and it definitely doesn’t mention that a treasured pastime on the board is the surprise posting of child pornography. While talking heads mention how vile /b/ can be, the movie just shows images that would fit in on Buzzfeed or other sites aimed at cat ladies. To me the range of Anon - to go from subhuman nastiness to supporting Egyptian revolutionaries - is what makes it so amazing.
We Are Legion is incredibly inspiring. We are living in a strange, exciting moment in history when astonishing change is happening, and that change is coming from truly unexpected quarters. At the end of We Are Legion Knappenberger ties Anonymous into the Occupy movement, and the cycle feels utterly complete - what began as individuals fucking around with each other has turned into a mass movement fucking around with the controlling powers of the world.