"We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us." That's the creed of the hacker collective Anonymous, but it sounds like something the Borg would say. And that's not really a coincidence. As We Are Legion, a new documentary about the amorphous group shows, the hackvists emerged from the internet message boards of 4chan, where adolescent nerdom runs rampant. They began as nothing more than that site's anonymous users posting weird lolz-y memes. But when people started trying to censor them, they fought back with practical jokes and a bit of hacking. And when the Church of Scientology threatened to sue people for posting that bizarre Tom Cruise promo video, the users on 4chan went a step further: they didn't just flood Scientology offices with prank phone calls and crash their websites with traffic; they organized protests, too. Hundreds of people showed up in cities all over the world, brandishing placards, wearing Guy Fawkes masks, calling themselves Anonymous. And it worked. According to the experts interviewed in the film, that pretty much marked the end of Scientology's ability to stamp out all online criticism of the "church". Suddenly aware of their own power, the internet activists found more ways to flex their muscle, supporting fights against censorship and in favour of the free-flow of information. When credit cards companies blocked donations to Wikileaks, people calling themselves Anonymous crashed their websites. When Occupy protesters needed tech support, people calling themselves Anonymous were there to help. And when dictators in Egypt and Tunisia tried to block access to the internet during the Arab Spring, people calling themselves Anonymous helped pro-democracy activists get around the restrictions. As the film's director, Brian Knappenberger, suggested in the Q&A after the film, Anonymous are now "the most important civil disobedience group of our time."
But they are a loose and chaotic group. Literally anyone who wants to call themselves a member of Anonymous is allowed to. That's kind of the whole point. So as you would expect, not everyone involved agrees about what the collective should stand for. Some are more interested in simply creating online chaos than in specific political causes. An Anonymous sub-group has posted flashing gifs on epilepsy comment boards. Others have hacked into banks and released confidential customer information. We Are Legion doesn't shy away from exploring the darker side of the collective. And there definitely is one.
The government's reaction, though, is plenty dark too. There is open debate about which of the tactics Anonymous uses should legal, which should be considered valid forms of protest and which are truly harmful. Denial of service attacks — which crash sites essentially by hitting refresh a lot — seem a whole heck of a lot like an online version of a sit in. But teenagers who've engaged in it as part of Anonymous campaigns are facing ridiculous legal sanctions: up to $250,000 in fines and 15 years in prison.
That, of course, is exactly the kind of ridiculous censorship that gets Anonymous pissed off. And rightly so. As We Are Legion makes clear, the battles between online activists and the powers that be are only just getting started.
- Adam Bunch
We Are Legion plays again this afternoon (Thurs. May 3) at 3pm and Sat. May 5 at 7pm. Both screenings are at the Lightbox. Tickets 'n' stuff here.