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How Trolls Work

Famous Internet Trolls
Anonymous holds a protest in Berlin against the Church of Scientology.
Anonymous holds a protest in Berlin against the Church of Scientology.
Michael Gottschalk/AFT/Getty Images

The 4chan /b/ channel has spawned a growing activist group called Anonymous. The self-proclaimed purpose of Anonymous is to bring to light certain alleged practices of the Church of Scientology. Anonymous claims that Scientology uses manipulative and harmful tactics to recruit new members and suppress information about the organization. Anonymous' activities have gone beyond the online world -- they have held several protests in cities around the globe. Whenever it's legal to do so, many of the protestors wear masks or bandanas to keep their identities secret.

Some people within Anonymous use trollish tactics to bait Scientologists. But in general, the members of Anonymous say they don't want to engage in that type of behavior to achieve their goals. From the perspective of the Church of Scientology, Anonymous is a network of religious bigots that uses the same tactics as terrorists [source: The St. Petersburg Times].

Anonymous itself has been t­he victim of trolls. Because it has no centralized leadership, there's no official voice for the organization. Trolls have uploaded videos and blog posts in the name of Anonymous that don't represent the group's philosophy. Some in Anonymous claim that Scientologists are behind some of the messages. Accusations from one group follow accusations from the other and it becomes impossible to sort out who did what to whom.

Some trolls have used Craigslist, an online classified service, to pull pranks that cross well into criminal activity. In one case in Washington and another in Oregon, people posted fake ads on Craigslist about someone else's home and property. In both cases, the ad said that the owner of the house was getting rid of everything and that people were welcome to take whatever they liked. The result was grim -- the owners returned to their homes to discover their belongings gone and their property damaged.

Investigators caught the responsible parties in both cases. The Washington incident appears to have been the result of a family feud -- the niece of the homeowner admitted to posting the ad [source: TG Daily]. In Oregon, police arrested Amber and Brandon Herbert, suspecting them of posting the ad. Later, Amber admitted to posting the fake ad to cover up an earlier theft of three saddles from the man's property [source: KGW News].

In another Craigslist incident, Jason Fortuny posted a fake personal ad that caused a big stir online. He posed as a woman seeking a male companion. He received more than 100 responses and posted them on a blog, complete with photos, e-mail addresses and other information [source: The New York Times].

Sometimes trolls are also hackers. Not all hackers are cut from the same cloth. Some use their programming knowledge to probe code and programs to see how they work. They might create their own applications based on the work of others, or modify code so that a program does something new. Others look at code and search for vulnerabilities and opportunities. These are the hackers who infiltrate networks and snoop around. Then there are the crackers, the people who not only infiltrate systems, but actively try to steal information or sabotage the code.

There's also a wide range of skill among hackers. Some hackers are accomplished programmers who can whip up an application in a few days. Others aren't really programmers at all -- they prefer to use established programs to cause mischief. In hacker culture, these people are known as script kiddies. It doesn't take much skill to use a program that infects computers with a virus. But it can affect a lot of people. That kind of return on investment appeals to some trolls.

Next, we'll take a look at the secret to dealing with trolls.