Giants, Hackers, Trolls: Where Mythology and Online Activism Meet

Netizens have come to know a “troll” as “someone who posts a deliberately provocative message” to fuel an argument online.

That these inflammatory net users were labeled as “trolls” was no accident. The original meaning of a troll is found in Scandinavian mythology, in which trolls are “creatures bent on mischief and wickedness.”

In fact, the online world has much more in common with the mythological world than you might expect. Many of the roles that have emerged in the Internet age are very similar to the structure used in traditional tales to impart some truth to listeners.

For instance, Loki, in Scandinavian folklore, is a trickster, a character set on breaking rules for ultimately positive effects. In the online world, a trickster is a whistleblower, the unconventional agent who will alert the rest of the world in order to trigger social change, such as former United States army soldier Bradley Manning, who is accused of passing on classified information to WikiLeaks.

In the same vein, blacksmiths and dwarves take material in its raw form and build objects that allow the gods to fight against their enemies. They give the raw material a shape that is useful and understandable, similar to what professional and citizen journalists do with information that is made available online by WikiLeaks.

And in Norse mythology, when Thor and the other gods fail to launch Baldr's funeral ship so that he may be resurrected in the other world, they call upon a giantess of supernatural power to propel the ship forward. In the online world, organizations of “giant” power such as Anonymous throw their weight behind information or causes to increase their awareness.

Whistleblowers and tricksters

Illustration of Alfred Smedberg's The boy who never was afraid, John Bauer, 1912.

Illustration of Alfred Smedberg's “The boy who never was afraid”, John Bauer, 1912. Public domain

A trickster often times effects positive change through scheming and thievery, despite perhaps having less-than-pure intentions. 

Bradley Manning himself noted this when he admitted during testimony that he took classified government information about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, according to a transcript of his statements:

I created copies of the CIDNE-I and CIDNE-A SigAct tables as part of the process of backing up information. At the time I did so, I did not intend to use this information for any purpose other than for back up. However, I later decided to release this information publicly. At that time, I believe and still believe that these tables are two of the most significant documents of our time.

His role as whistleblower (or, as the french say, “alert-launcher”) is characterized by his aim – he again testified – to trigger national debate on the role of the US military and on US foreign policy.

His actions helped to re-establish a line of communication between the government, which was holding back a certain truth, and the population, which had been deprived of it.

While his decision might be justified from a purely humanist standpoint, it nevertheless is considered a crime. Manning found himself being challenged, rejected, or even ignored by the mass media.

WikiLeaks and blacksmiths 

Manning then gave the stolen information to WikiLeaks, who worked and shaped the data in a way not dissimilar to the blacksmiths of mythology.

Figures such Julian Assange and Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a member of the Icelandic parliament, processed and analyzed what Manning had given them. The work was journalistic, identifying the context, the players, and the political implications to ensure the information's full impact.

Julian Assange described the role:

Quantum mechanics and its modern evolution left me with a theory of change and how to properly understand how one thing causes another.

In other words, so long as the key facts are not actively identified, they remain uncertain and elusive.

WikiLeaks is not the only entity to assume the role of a blacksmith. Citizen journalists also play a part in forging information into an understandable form.

The extensive research and dissemination efforts carried out most notably by Heather Mash and Jemila Hanan [fr] related to the living conditions of Myanmar's persecuted Muslim minority, the Rohingya community, are an important example of this.

This journalistic work is more than just a mediating role, as Hanan explained in a February 2013 post on her blog:

There is no precedent for using social media to stop a genocide – this is uncharted territory. We need to use social media to create and be the media, us, the people.
Our objectives are to:
1. disseminate information;
2. make connections;
3. encourage people to act.

Anonymous and giants

But Manning's information and WikiLeaks’ analysis would have been pointless without an audience. It was not enough to simply unearth and to shape the information – something needed to intervene so that information was actually read.

Hacktivist group Anonymous stepped into this role, using its might to propel the information foward, as Annie Machon, a former MI5 officer, explained in an op-ed for RT:

If you can do it over cyberspace, you get global awareness of what you’re doing, and the message you’re trying to put out. And this is precisely what Anonymous has achieved, with this publicized assault against certain Israeli websites.
Let’s not call them attacks: they are distributed denial of service attempts against certain countries and certain websites. So what we’re seeing here is a sort of automated mass influx into certain websites that cause them to crash.

While Anonymous relies on data released and shaped by citizen journalists to carry out their actions, their role is not to work the information as a blacksmith but to infuse the information with circulatory force using their extraordinary strength, like the mythological giant.

Twitter, for example, is rich with posts concerning their recent operations such as: #OpIsrael, #OpKashmir, #OpRohingya (which attracted public attention to available information concerning the genocide of this minority), #ReformCFAA (which is part of a protest movement against the Computer Fraud and Abuses Act), or #OpGabon against organ trafficking.

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