It's official. People who leave ugly comments on the Internet are sadists and psychopaths, a Canadian study says. That's more elegant than what I call them.
In the wild freewheeling world of Internet, such creatures are called "trolls." In the garden of Internet delights, trolls are big ugly weeds. Anonymously or with bold audacity, they invade civil discourse with off-topic messages or cheap, vulgar shots at individuals or entire groups of people with all the glee of a monkey flinging excrement at the bars of its cage.
That's why it strikes me as no surprise to hear that a survey set up by Canadian psychologists Erin Buckels, Paul Trapnell and Delroy Paulhus to psychoanalyze commenters by their "Internet commenting styles" found distinct signs of an ominous "Dark Tetrad" of personality flaws: "sadism (a delight in harming others), psychopathy (an antisocial personality disorder) and Machiavellianism (a tendency to be unemotional and deceitful)."
Still, I don't want to make too much of the pinheads who elbow their way into our online picnic table. Most people who post comments on forums, blogs, chat rooms, YouTube, newspaper websites and elsewhere, it is important to note, behave themselves.
There may be therapeutic value for some troubled souls in blowing off steam on the Web rather than against their friends, neighbors or relatives in the offline real world.
As a free-speech advocate, I also begrudgingly find some value in the open venting of racist, sexist and otherwise bigoted comments as a chastening counterpoint to those Pollyannas who think such bigotry is a thing of the past.
But on the downside, mounting evidence suggests that trollish behavior can dangerously distort civil discourse and, in some psychopathic cases, even pose threats of violence.
Popular Science magazine turned off its online comments last September, not only because they were fed up with troll incivility, but also because of evidence that vicious, insulting or ignorant comments actually distort readers' perceptions of a story.
The magazine cited one study led by University of Wisconsin-Madison science professor Dominique Brossard that found "Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed (the reader's) interpretation of the news story itself."
A small but troubling percentage of online trolls slither over the line into what amounts to cyberstalking with comments that not only are vulgar but threatening.
The result, Amanda Hess wrote in a widely discussed article for the current Pacific Standard magazine, turns the Internet into a hostile environment, particularly for women, according to surveys that she cites -- and her own experience as a journalist.
"You are going to die and I am the one who is going to kill you," reads one of the more printable messages she has received from hostile readers. "I promise you this."
Simply appearing as a woman online is enough to attract abuse. A 2006 University of Maryland study that Hess cites set up fake online accounts in chat rooms. It found female usernames attracted an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages per day, compared to only 3.7 for masculine names.
Among other cases she cites, Hess understands the problem first hand. She's been dealing with her own cyberstalker for the past four years who, as she recounts, has resumed his harassment of her with messages even after a one-year restraining order that she brought against him expired.
What is to be done about the troll menace? Free speech concerns in the wild world of the Web are understandable. But the First Amendment does not protect blatantly threatening messages or behavior. Unfortunately, this entire area of crime is so new that police and the FBI are slow to respond or to prioritize it over more familiar criminal threats.
Some legal experts suggest that civil rights law offers a new way to push back against harassment on the Internet. Since cyberspace increasingly is the workspace for many individuals, it may increasingly fall under such laws as the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which, among other benefits, unmasked and prosecuted the Ku Klux Klan that harassed and intimidated minorities from behind their hoods.
I don't like to see restrictions on the freewheeling marketplace of ideas that the Internet provides. But, as in other realms, abusers can ruin the online world for everybody.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.