Like their fictional counterparts, the worst type of internet trolls are murky, underworld creatures. They spend their days trawling the web hunting for victims to harass and wreaking havoc, with the aim of provocation. Last week, their shadowy existence was brought into the real world, with the conviction of Sean Duffy. The 25-year-old has been jailed for 18 weeks for ‘trolling’. As well as mocking dead children on memorial sites, Duffy also created and uploaded videos to YouTube, taunting the victims and their families.

One of them was Natasha MacBryde, 15, who committed suicide by throwing herself under a train. The following day, Duffy hijacked her Facebook tribute page, leaving abusive comments including, “Spoiled little bitch” and “I fell asleep on the tracks lolz”. And he created a video called Tasha The Tank Engine, which featured an image of Natasha’s face on
a picture of Thomas The Tank Engine.

Duffy also targeted Lauren Drew, 14, who died from an epilepsy attack, posting images on her Facebook memorial page captioned “Lauren’s epifit” and “Lauren’s rotting body”. Targeting the girl’s grieving mother, he impersonated Lauren, writing: “Help me Mummy, it’s hot in hell.”

Duffy, from Reading, an alcoholic who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome, didn’t know any of his victims and hid behind bogus usernames. According to Dr Emma Short, from the University of Bedfordshire and the co-director of the National Centre for Cyberstalking Research, anonymity is key for trolls. “In any environment where you think you’re not seen and if you think you won’t be punished, people behave in a more disinhibited way,” she says.

And when it comes to the characters behind trolling, Short believes there are two types of individuals.

“Some of it is organised and is part of a group who would probably identify themselves as ‘trollers’ and they are doing it with a particular agenda; to create an emotional reaction, to create a flashpoint that makes people feel upset or angry.

“And then you’ve got the people who are doing it
who are not conscious of the impact they’re having.

“On the internet, people tend to behave in ways that are unacceptable to other people, partly because it feels like you won’t be punished for it. So as well as being hidden, what’s the comeback?”

During Duffy’s court hearing, the prosecution told how the victims’ families had been disgusted by his actions, which Short compares to desecrating gravestones in the real world.

She adds: “For the impact of having any negative information or information that is not under your control when you’ve lost a member of your family is entirely unbearable and very similar in terms of the degree of
distress caused.”

But there are different types of trolling – the term for which is said to derive from a fishing technique of dragging
a baited hook from a moving boat. There are ‘RIP trollers’ or ‘flamers’, such as Duffy, who made outrageous comments on memorial pages “just for LULZ”, or laughs. Other trolls frequent forums, where they post for maximum impact.

Duffy, who was described as living a “miserable existence” during his trial, is at one end of the spectrum – it’s something Short refers to as having an “anti-social personality”, with the motivation of “wanting to be destructive and seeing society as something that should be damaged”.

At the other end, are those who want to make their voices heard, similar, Short says, to those involved in last month’s London riots, those with “less pathological reasons”.

This is something Peter – a former troll living in London – agrees with. Calling RIP ‘flamers’ “vile”, he agreed to speak anonymously to TNT about how he got into trolling after being sent a link to a right-wing website by an Asian friend, who was upset with the racist comments being posted. So, Peter, “decided to have some fun”.

He explains: “The whole point, at least for me, is to pinpoint people who are a bit stupid and offensive, and subtly tease them into looking even more foolish and reacting. Trolling is like fishing for idiots.

“I used to create multiple pseudonyms with ethnic sounding names, and join in the racist banter – eventually someone would notice and the conversation would start being drawn to what the hell was I doing there. This would get them off topic, and the ones who had previously supported me would then start getting very aggressive.

“Job done, thread sidetracked, idiots humiliated. It can get quite addictive – it’s all about feeding off the reaction.”

Short believes, though, what can start out as behaviour with minor results can soon escalate into something darker. And when it turns into cyberbullying, and hits the anti-social level of Duffy’s posts, consequences can be severe – trolling is an offence under the Malicious Communications Act, which carries a maximum penalty of six months in prison. Duffy pleaded guilty to two counts of sending malicious communications, relating to MacBryde. Three further offences were taken into consideration.

Social networking sites are cracking down on the behaviour, with Facebook saying it encourages users to report any misuse or abuse. But, Short adds, until the police and associated agencies bring their technology up to the level of that used by trollers, they’ll always be one step behind those willing to post inflammatory – and in some cases criminal – comments online, just for LULZ.