BOSTON (MainStreet) -- The Internet is full of creeps.
Amid the wonders of the Web and the many ways it has improved society, there is a troubling underbelly of cyberbullies, predators and scammers.
There are also the trolls.
For those not steeped in cyber vernacular, trolls are those folks who do their best to hijack the comment threads accompanying articles, postings and photos on Web sites. The comments, usually cloaked in anonymity, can range from absurdist and humorous (at least to them) to scathing and offensive.
The culture of trolling has become so rampant that there is even a visual representation (a crudely drawn, grotesque face) that is posted as a "gotcha." That image, this year, is popping up on Halloween costumes.
Trolls basically come in two flavors: the intentional and unintentional. The latter are those folks who are so tightly wound -- so polarized in their thinking -- that almost any observation can push them over the edge. Like the Queen of Diamonds in the classic film The Manchurian Candidate, there are key words that trigger their hate. On our Web site, the mere mention of "Obama," "Apple (Stock Quote: AAPL)," "Sirius (Stock Quote: SIRI) or pretty much any biotech company will usually guarantee a flood of caustic comments, often hunt-and-pecked with misspellings ("moran" is a common insult), the grammatical command of a Nigerian scammer and a propensity for keeping the Caps Lock button pressed.
Regardless of their own leanings -- and often independent of what an article actually says -- authors across the Internet are attacked as being "socialists" or "Nazis." Print even the slightest positive thing about Apple and be prepared for a flurry of iHate; be even slightly critical and the fanboys will swarm.
The other breed of troll are better described as pranksters (but frequently cruel ones) who are in it for the "lulz."
An online Troller's FAQ that harkens back to the heyday of Usenet newsgroups describes the typical troll as "a quasi-thermodynamic exchange between the sensitive and the cruel."
"You look for someone who is full of it, a real blowhard," it says. "Then you exploit their insecurities to get an insane amount of drama, laughs and lulz."
"The best trolls reveal their true subject only to the lurkers," it says, using a term for the average, noncommenting readers. "In every sense, those who reply to your troll are your tools. So choose a theme for your troll and stick to it. Outwardly you need to appear sincere, but at the same time you have to tell your real audience that this is blatant flamebait. Your skill is shown in the easy way that you manipulate large areas of the ... community into making public fools of themselves."
The FAQ uses the example that posting "USA Sucks" in a patriotic newsgroup or Web site is too obvious and simple. Posting an atheistic rant on a religious site, on the other hand, may garner mixed results. Participants could angrily attack or, as is often the case, may have seen it all before and realize the best way to defang trolls is by ignoring them.
It can be frightening how many people treat what they read on the Web as authoritative. This opens the door for trolls to concoct the most far-fetched, foolish "facts" and have them be accepted without much debate (other than the occasional, passive-aggressive demand for "citation please").
Then there is the elaborate "story." These are typically well-written bits of everyday drama that start out on-topic and intriguing. Running for several paragraphs, there may be several plot twists, though usually none beyond the realm of possibility. Just as the reader reaches the point where a finale or payoff should be, the post degenerates into some bit of nonsense or another. A frequent meme is to trail off into printed lyrics to the theme of from the old TV show Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
There has also been the relatively new phenomenon of using troll-like behavior for business gain -- the idea being that controversy sells.
Kenneth Tong, a former contestant in the U.K. variation of the reality series Big Brother, wrote on his Twitter feed: "Assure you that my word's aren't a publicity stunt. I wholeheartedly endorse managed anorexia as to be fat, or even not thin, is to fail life."
No matter his motivation, Tong deployed the long-standing troll tradition of trying to establish "sincerity" before dropping the bombshell.
After the tweet came a flurry of critical rejoinders, including ones by celebrities Rihanna, Khloe Kardashian, Simon Cowell and Chef Gordon Ramsay. Surprisingly, in addition to critics, there were also many women who supported Tong and expressed their own body image issues. The furor, if nothing else, brought plenty of attention to a line of diet pills Tong was marketing.
It gets worse. Teens and adults alike have committed suicide after an ongoing barrage of cyberbullying, and online obituaries have been targeted with insulting jabs at the deceased. There's a Web site that provides links to the Facebook pages of the dead, an encouragement for their family and friends to be cruelly harassed. There are "burn books" on Facebook and Tumblr dedicated to republishing photos posted elsewhere to incite insults and spread embarrassment virally.
In one notorious and particularly twisted variation on traditional trolling, a support forum run by the Epilepsy Foundation of America was bombarded by posts of flashing GIF images intended to trigger seizures and migraines among photosensitive sufferers.
The evaporation of respectful discourse has led an increasing number of Web sites to no longer allow anonymous comments (although it's doubtful a troll would shy from offering a fake identity to sites requiring registration with a name).
Efforts to combat trolling and abusive behavior have also included a proposed Blogger's Code of Conduct.
There is also "disemvoweling," the removal of all vowels (either automated or by hand) from inappropriate comments as a way to make a point -- and make offensive comments harder to read -- without outright deletion.
A project called StupidFilter is developing "an open-source filter software that can detect rampant stupidity in written English" similar to spam detection engines.
"The idea is that the most egregiously stupid comments will also be the easiest to detect while remaining ignorant of context; comments with too much or too little capitalization, too many text-message abbreviations, excessive use of 'LOL,' exclamation points, and so on," the site's founders write. "Since we're trying to build a detailed database that serves as a very verbose example of What Not To Do, we look for comments whose prose style we can point to and say, 'I don't even have to understand the content of this comment to know that it's stupid' -- based on the gross prose style alone, its stupidity is self-evident."
Sometimes commenting on websites can leave a paper trail that will come back to haunt you. Check out MainStreet's look at 8 Ways to Ruin Your Online Reputation to make sure your digital footprints are clean!