Brian Knappenberger on Anonymous, Scientology, and Freedom
There was Ghandi. Now there is Anonymous. OpenCanada talked to Brian Knappenberger, director of We are Legion: The Story of Hacktivists, about why the group that pranked the Church of Scientology is "the civil disobedience group of our time."
What drew you to a group without a name?
The first time I ever heard of Anonymous was when they attacked the Church of Scientology back in 2008. I was mesmerized by that. Here you had a church that was created by a science-fiction author being protested by people wearing masks [created] by a science-fiction author. [It was] a very strange situation. I don’t think it had happened, up until that point – the internet calling forth live humans to protest in the street in those kinds of numbers. I think it was a moment of innovation.
I was paying close attention, but I didn’t start making the documentary until [Anonymous] transformed, about a year and a half ago, into a slightly different group when they attacked MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal. That’s when we started charting their progress.
Scientology is one thing, but Mastercard another. What changed?
There were two huge shifts. The first shift happened with the attack on the Church of Scientology, because before that, Anonymous was just a group of chaotic, disruptive presences on the Web, pranking usually for the sake of humour and “lulz.”
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The Scientology thing wasn’t planned. There was this Tom Cruise video that was leaked on the Web, and [Anonymous] thought it was funny. When the Church of Scientology tried to cease and desist anybody that put up that video, and issued a Digital Millennium Copyright Act against them, Anonymous kind of had this feeling of being censored. “You’re taking a joke away from Anonymous.” It was that spark. I think they had no idea it would be that big or transformative.
The second shift occurred when they protested MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal cutting off certain financial services to WikiLeaks. This was a much bigger shift.
It’s tough to say what caused either shift. These things just happen.
They happen, but clearly certain targets galvanize Anonymous more than others.
A lot of people [in Anonymous] are suggesting operations all the time. If you’re in their IRC [Internet Relay Chat] chat rooms, you’ll see people trying to get people to do things all the time that don’t happen.
But when they cut off financial services to WikiLeaks, there [was] a sense among everybody [that], “We have to do something.” So some ideas, some raids, really catch on. And a lot of them, probably thousands of them a week, don’t.
Technology allows these raids to catch on. Beyond technology, is there anything that makes Anonymous different from past anarchist groups?
I think you have to think about Anonymous in the context of the environment from which they’ve emerged. They emerged in a post-9/11 world where there’s a greater intrusion (i.e. surveillance) into our lives, and where the internet has become a tool for those kinds of intrusions. There’s a lack of privacy.
You may love Facebook, but the concept of Facebook is kind of radical: That you are the same person through all walks of your life – at a party, at school, at work, in bed – and all of those things should be transparent to everybody. This is a radical concept in human history. Usually people are different in different circumstances. So there is a case for anonymity – a case for not revealing your entire identity, and yet still participating in the largeness and the wild creativity of the Web.
So it’s not necessarily the numbers of [people involved in] Anonymous that are greater – though the internet allows numbers to be greater because you can communicate with anyone around the world. Anonymous speaks to a specific issue of our time: privacy.
Do the people within Anonymous see themselves in these revolutionary terms?
They believe it’s a new community. A new culture. Outside of geopolitical boundaries.
A lot of times, people don’t know who [the members of Anonymous] are. So race doesn’t really matter, and gender doesn’t matter. The assumption is that these are all 15-year-old boys in their parents’ basements. But they have members in their 50s and 60s, easily. Soccer moms in Napa Valley. It would surprise you.
Would their political persuasion surprise me?
It probably tends slightly Liberal and Libertarian. A sense of freedom – maximum freedom.
There are people fighting all over the world and using the Anonymous call and banner. They don’t all become famous. But there’s heavy activity in Europe, and in the Arab world. Bahrain is going very strong right now. There’s a huge presence in Brazil.
Bahrain and Brazil, very different places. There must be disagreement in such a diverse group.
There are many contradictions within Anonymous. One of the most surprising things is how much [those contradictions are] discussed, particularly the issue of attacking the press. Some people really strongly believe that you should never attack the press. Other members of Anonymous believe you should. One famous example is the splinter group, LulzSec, which attacked PBS Frontline for a story they did on Bradley Manning. That was a very hotly debated attack.
How did you, a documentarian, get inside Anonymous - and not end up like PBC Frontline?
On one level, it’s not wildly difficult to communicate with Anonymous, as long as you know where they are. There’s a degree of caution amongst some people. They’ll be willing to talk about certain things or joke with you.
I would describe it as a process of getting to know one person at a time, having people understand what I was about and what I was doing. I wasn’t trying to dox them. (Dox is the word for revealing private information and finding out who they are.)
There are huge numbers of people out there, like [people in] security companies and guerrilla-journalist types, who just want to dox Anonymous. They look at a handle and they want to figure out who that person is, and be the first one to do it. It was pretty clear early on that I wasn’t doing that. I was trying to figure out the culture: What is this group? Why are they so transformational? Why are they so disruptive?
Photo courtesy of wearelegionthedocumentary.com