If writing on the internet can be seen as a bit of a bloodsport in this day of comment sections, message boards, and RSS feeds, making a film that’s essentially about the birth of the internet and the rise of the cyber activist could be even thornier territory. First time feature director Brian Knappenberger takes a look at internet history and culture in We Are Legion: The Rise of the Hacktivists, and as one should with such a topic, the director seems to let minor criticisms and petty comments simply slide as he creates a timeline through which the audience can trace the route of the information superhighway in a single 90 minute burst.
Focusing more specifically on the rise of Anonymous, the famed, anomalous and shapeless “police of the internet,” Knappenberger makes the case for the internet being both a useful tool for social and political change and the other side of the coin where people just do things for the “lulz.” Of course, no one film could ever bring together a complete history of the internet and its role in activism from Anon’s tussle with the Church of Scientology to Twitter’s role in the Egyptian quagmire, but Knappenberger approaches the material from a purely factual manner from many of the people on the frontlines of internet activism.
Knappenberger talked to Dork Shelf briefly and almost in passing just before the premiere of his film at the Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival about the difficulties one faces when trying to take an objective look at something as anomalous as the internet.
Dork Shelf: How daunting does it seem at first when throwing yourself into this wide open, yet oddly hermitic world of the internet? Because you aren’t only making a film about online activism, but also about the history of the net.
Brian Knappenberger: (laughs) “Don’t worry, the internet’s here.” Or like the classic meme “Oh fuck, the internet’s here.” You know, I’ve been fascinated by the internet and internet culture for a while now. I’m an independent documentary filmmaker and journalist, and I did a lot of tech stories before this, and I was really fascinated specifically with Anonymous before we started making the film. The first time I had ever heard of them was the origin of that particular meme and when they attacked the Church of Scientology. I think it’s something to really look back on and find out exactly what it was that happened there. That was something that was really innovative in that it was one of the first times that any group on the internet was ever able to actually mobilize human beings to stand up for something they didn’t think was right and to do it all over the world. I think all internet activism after that point really started to follow that model.
DS: Well, there’s that and in the film you also show how something as simple as Twitter can be used as an object for change.
DS: But at the same time when you go to look back at the beginnings of this cultural shift, you start to go down this sort of rabbit hole that can point you in different directions. We’re you ever surprised at how far reaching the historical context for the film was despite taking place mostly over a couple of decades?
BK: Yeah. I didn’t know how far down that hole I was going to go, Yes, it’s really amazing because everything gets out into the open so quickly that it builds exponentially. You can look at any of the Anonymous Twitter accounts for evidence of that and just how quickly that message can be brought out now. And watching the evolution of memes and protests, you can really see that. Take, for instance, the SOPA blackout. A certain chapter of Anonymous was beating the drum on that for a really long time, including even Google and all of their lobbyists in Washington even jumped on that bandwagon. Anonymous was relentless in pushing this, and suddenly it kind of got roped into the mainstream.
Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see how that message really gets out there by any means other than that and through something like Anonymous. Then it broadens out to other tech people and it becomes inevitable, but it’s an unbelievable prescedent.
DS: Were you surprised that you were able to get a lot of these previously anonymous activists to come forward and talk to you for the film? I mean, many of these people aren’t hard to find if you know them in real life, but it’s another issue entirely to go on camera and on the record to talk about it.
BK: I don’t know. For us it was interesting, because on the one hand, it’s actually not that hard to be in contact with members of Anonymous because you can very easily and freely engage in online chats and absorb the dialogue and participate, and sometimes you have to dodge some bullets, but it’s almost always a passionate discussion. But there is a kind of level – particularly with people who have a huge respect for their own anonymity – there is a level where you have to gain their trust to go on camera and describe some things that are sometimes illegal. We’re careful not to be cavalier about that.
DS: It’s part of what makes the internet sometimes a scary place for everyone because even those who are proud of their activism might still fear reprisal or that big brother will somehow find a way to them.
BK: That’s exactly right. We’re living in this post-9/11, post-Patriot Act culture with increasing surveillance moving into our lives. Anonymous just sort of serves as that axis that such protesting can revolve around.
DS: Were you ever personally afraid as a filmmaker as to how the internet would react to your film?
BK: Sort of, but I think that kind of criticism is fine. If you look at the comment section in our trailer – which has almost 500,000 hits in a short amount of time, which is huge for a documentary – there are people who think that the idea of using Anonymous as a force for good is ridiculous, and we do touch on that a lot in the film. “We are not good. We are not trying to do something worthwhile. You guys are idiots.” And I mean, the name of my film has the word “Hacktivist” in the title, and for some people that’s just a patently wrong or ridiculous idea.