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").