The Internet has made so many parts of our lives easier, from commerce to communication, created countless jobs and revolutionized communication and the media. But there’s a darker side to the Web – communities that range from saddening to sickening, some comprised of troubled souls and others of downright terrible people.

In an upcoming TNW Magazine piece, we explore a hidden wild west that is home to a range of fringe groups, from anarchist political groups to pedophiles. Today, we look at ten of the most disturbing communities on the broader web.

1. Pro-Anorexia Nervosa communities

anorexia1 10 of the most disturbing communities on the Web

A picture of an early anorexia sufferer from William Gull's medical papers.

Most of us view anorexia nervosa as a mental illness that has devastating physical and psychological effects, but the Internet is home to many communities that celebrate eating disorders – comprised of young women who believe that starving themselves half to death (or to death, as is sometimes the case) is the road to perfection.

Blogs with taglines like “Anorexia is a lifestyle, not a disease” and posts titled “70 reasons NOT to eat!” are not difficult to find. LiveJournal has been somewhat infamous over the years as a home to pro-ana writers and communities, and other social sites such as Twitter have similar communities.

Unfortunately, these communities can make these destructive behaviors worse by validating them and providing a sense of community acceptance. For a mild sufferer, this could mean the difference between an early intervention and an accelerated path to the worst possible outcomes.

Similarly, communities of bulimia nervosa communities exist, where the term pro-mia is used. Participants in both communities anthropomorphize the diseases via these shortened names; anorexia is sometimes referred to as a girl named Ana, as is bulimia’s Mia.

2. Suicide and self-harm communities

There’s no shortage of crime shows featuring episodes where antagonists manipulated discussions taking place on pro-suicide websites to egg people on to take their own lives. What you may not know is that these communities do exist. People, teenagers and adults alike, discuss their suicidal feelings and talk about the best way to get the job done. Members of these communities tend to believe nobody can help them, that the rest of the world doesn’t understand, and that the best thing you can do is learn how to do it cleanly if you are already feeling that way.

A Practical Guide to Suicide is one infamous document from this community, with a little prefacing encouraging readers to seek medical help if they haven’t already. But the bulk of the content focuses on preparing for and executing a suicide, explaining in detail the mechanics of a huge number of methods.

Around the world, hundreds of teen suicides have been connected with involvement in pro-suicide communities. Tim Piper, a 16 year old who hung himself in 2002, was an early case. Rosie Whitaker ended her life in front of a train just last month, a case in which eating disorders played a part and were compounded by the pro-ana sites we looked at earlier. Others have opted to end their lives on webcam with the world watching, most notably the case of a Florida teenager who intentionally overdosed in 2008.

After so many cases it is impossible to argue that these sites are just information presented in the name of free speech, and do have devastating effects. Some governments have amended laws banning the promotion of suicide to cover online content.

Similarly, self-harm websites cater to cutters and other types of self-harmers, a practice that can become deeply addictive. Self-harmers are also likely candidates for suicide, given the motives for self-harming, and in some cases the problem begins with an unsuccessful suicide attempt.

3. Child pornography

The Internet has been a haven for pedophiles to share child pornography for a long time. Before Internet connections in homes were even common, it was there.

Consecutive forms of Internet discussion have harbored this material, from the old BBSes to Usenet, which only fell out of common use less than a decade ago, the web itself, and peer-to-peer file sharing programs. It is also present in layers of the deep web accessible only via software such as Tor and Freenet.

It is estimated that there are between 50,000 and 100,000 pedophiles communicating and sharing images on the Internet, not to mention the involvement of those who aren’t pedophiles but have been willing to exploit children in the name of profit.

Though the Internet has made it easier for pedophiles to commune in a potentially more anonymous way, it has also given law enforcement a new way to track or lure pedophiles into apprehension. Some Internet companies provide assistance, such as Google which attempts to track the origin of child pornography found by its spiders.

4. Drug experiences

blotters 10 of the most disturbing communities on the Web

With a tagline that says “Documenting the Complex Relationship Between Humans & Psychoactives”, one might be forgiven for thinking that the website Erowid was of an academic sort. The site is run by a non-profit organization that provides information on all aspects of drug consumption, and is praised by some commentators for providing a solid source of information for those who are going to take drugs regardless. Much of the content consists of user-generated experience reports.

In a 2004 LA Weekly piece, toxicologist Edward Boyer said the site is more dangerous than it is helpful – that dangerous inaccuracies are buried amongst the correct material, and that adverse effects are always marginalized.

Erowid is at the reputable end of the scale. There are hundreds of forums on the Web, sometimes focused entirely on drugs and in other instances focused on linked subjects such as raving, where people discuss the acquisition, consumption and effects of drugs. Drug-related threads on these forums tend to consist of pseudonymous posters with no medical credentials giving advice to inexperienced seekers, and have little to no oversight, as Erowid does, to keep content at least in a reasonable state of accuracy.

But talk is cheap. Venture into the deep web and you’ll find sites like Silk Road where you can obtain everything from Xanax to heroin in the mail in exchange for BitCoins. Silk Road might be the most well-known example, but in just a few minutes you can find dozens of alternatives.

5. Blackhat SEO, spam and follower buying

The Web is full of dodgy SEO practices, our inboxes are full of spam, relative unknowns somehow have hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers and viruses are all over the place. Much of this behavior can be traced to criminal organizations such as the Russian Business Network, which specializes in building botnets and identity theft.

On the other hand, there are sites like BlackHatWorld. These forums are home to thousands of people interested in Internet marketing – but not the kind that has become standard in the startup industry, based on trust, respect and adhering to best practices when it comes to honest copywriting and double opt-in mailing lists.

Instead, the likes of BlackHatWorld’s membership resort to the buying and selling of Twitter followers to artificially pump up social proof – something that’ll come back to bite you, as Dave Peck and Azeem Azhar now have the retrospect to tell you. They look for ways to pry your email address out of your hands in exchange for worthless downloadable gifts. They use spam bots to drive traffic. They use the worst of the worst of SEO tactics to increase their rankings – you know this fellow selling .EDU backlinks is probably some university IT staffer making a bit of cash on the side.

These people don’t believe in what they’re selling. They’re looking for those elusive quick riches that “Internet marketing gurus” like Yanik Silver and John Reese sell to the gullible. They’re the kind of gurus who will tell you that grabbing a public domain book and converting it into a PDF with some crappy bonus content is a solid approach to product development.

There are some really disturbing things in this list, but these are the guys who make our day-to-day lives on the Internet so damn annoying.

6. Hacking groups

hacker 10 of the most disturbing communities on the Web

Hacking groups have existed since the early days of the Internet, but they’ve certainly had some time in the limelight of late – starting with the PlayStation Network hackings of early 2011.

Anonymous isn’t strictly a hacking group, but among its tactics are hacking into and leaking information, as it did with 10,000 Iranian government emails last year, and using DDoS attacks to bring websites down. While the group’s methods are often illegal, these actions are motivated by an ideology that seeks and attempts to interfere with injustice.

On the other end of the spectrum was LulzSec. LulzSec was responsible for attacking organizations from Sony Pictures to The Sun to the CIA itself. This group’s sole purpose was to hack into as many large networks as they could and leak whatever they could find. Unlike Anonymous, which tries not to do any damage to the average person, LulzSec was more than happy to put the information of innocent end users on the Internet. They did things “for the lulz” rather than for any morally motivated reason.

LulzSec announced its retirement with one final release filled with usernames and passwords from a variety of sources. It didn’t last, though, and they made another appearance to post hoax reports of Rupert Murdoch’s death on News Corporation websites.

Fortunately for the innocent end users of the world, law enforcement apprehended many LulzSec members before they could come out of retirement again.

Moment of the Hacker image by Arne Halvorsen used under Creative Commons license.

7. Death trolling

Death trolling is one of the unintended and undesirable byproducts of ubiquitous social networking: the practice of groups or individuals descending upon the profile of the deceased, or a tribute page set up for them, and covering it in horrible messages and images of unrelated gruesome deaths.

In 2010, Alexis Pilkington killed herself after she was harassed via anonymous Formspring messages. That sounds like a horrible story in itself, but after a Facebook tribute was set up, anonymous Internet trolls by the hundreds defaced the page and posted similar content on unrelated sites.

In another case, 25 year old Sean Duffy was imprisoned for 18 weeks for similarly trolling two teenagers. 15-year-old Natasha MacBryde, who was hit by a train, was his first target – he posted several jokes about trains on her Facebook tribute page and created a YouTube video called “Tasha the Tank Engine” in which her face appeared on the children’s character, Thomas the Tank Engine. Duffy also victimized other teenagers who died in various accidents, including 14 year olds Jordan Cooper and Lauren Drew.

The 4chan community is infamous for death trolling, but we’ll get to them later – they have quite the rap sheet.

8. Horrible Subreddits

planet 10 of the most disturbing communities on the Web

Reddit can be a great place. I spend quite a bit of time there both looking for news and enjoying content that is pertinent to me. If you’ve got a hobby or interest, you can connect with others like you around the world and have meaningful, open discussions about that subject — if you’re into something, chances are there’s a Subreddit for that.

But Reddit is not the purest of places on the web. Any user can open a new Subreddit, and Reddit administrators have long been of the opinion that if they start shutting down Subreddits they find distasteful, they’re setting a precedent to hamper free speech on the site.

That changed last year. While Reddit has always closed illegal Subreddits promptly, the site came under fire for allowing legal but distasteful Subreddits that sexualized children. “Jailbait” and others like it allowed users to curate and post images of teenagers in underwear and sexually suggestive but non-nude situations. Some groups made attempts to have it shut down, but they were never successful. As one user in a Something Awful thread commented, “American authorities aggressively pursue children who infringe on copyrights, but a massive website is allowed to knowingly host mountains of child pornography with no real consequences.”

After the Subreddit was exposed in the mainstream media and became the subject of a widespread controversy, Reddit finally closed Jailbait and several related Subreddits. Some escaped the bans unnoticed, but were shut down earlier this year.

But — as bad as the sexualization of children is — there’s much worse than pictures of 14-year-olds in bikinis out there. I don’t want to make them too easy to find from here so I won’t name them. A Nazi Subreddit has headlines such as “What do I do with all of my dead Jews?”. A pro-rape Subreddit user suggests the Denver Batman shooter should have raped someone for fun, and is accompanied by Subreddits on beating women, the disabled, homosexuals and the transgendered.

There are Subreddits dedicated exclusively to pictures of abortions, and worst still is a horrific forum for the posting of pictures of dead children. There are 1,022 people sick enough to elect to be subscribers, and the forum advertises an associated Subreddit for the sharing of pictures of starving children.

For me, Reddit is about the strong communities that form around both common and obscure hobbies, pastimes, beliefs and more. There’s encouraging support for those on the ketogenic diet; unbridled enthusiasm for an unreleased game; a suicide watch Subreddit that provides support for the suicidal and saves lives; help with finding biological family, saving small businesses and assistance with funeral costs; and of course, plenty of pictures of cats.

But this dark side of the site reveals that no matter where you go there will always be people who make you want to say, in Reddit style, “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore.”

9. 4chan

4chan 10 of the most disturbing communities on the Web

4chan has been around since 2003, and was started by Christopher Poole — you may know him as ‘moot’ — as an English language version of a Japanese imageboard. It has many boards, most of which are more commonly known by their designations than their names. Anime & Manga is /a/ and Otaku Culture is /jp/. But the most infamous board is known by most simply as /b/, proper name Random, and is responsible for the bulk of 4chan’s bad reputation.

/b/ has few rules regarding the content that can be posted, and like the rest of the site, requires no registration and can be used completely anonymously. Child pornography and other illicit content is not allowed, though given the anonymous nature of the site, keeping such things off the boards is harder said than done. There’s a rule against invading other sites, implemented after the board’s users became infamous for flooding and destroying other Internet communities at random — always for fun and not motivated by any moral or ideological objection.

Before Anonymous became the poster child for DDoS attacks and general destruction on the Internet, 4chan held the title. People would assume 4chan’s responsibility for major website attacks before the self-styled “/b/tards” even claimed responsibility.

Their list of exploits is long. Radio host and Nazi Hal Turner was one of their early targets, taking his site down and flooding his radio show with prank calls over a two month period. They caused the swastika unicode symbol to appear at the top of Google’s Hot Trends list in 2008.

They were responsible for hoaxing major news outlets into running a story on then-Apple CEO Steve Jobs having a heart attack, causing the company’s stock price to dive. In response to DCMA takedowns of music on YouTube, they swarmed the site with pornographic uploads in 2009. There have also been several cases where 4chan users around the world posted on the site threatening to set off bombs at schools and sporting events or go on a shooting rampage. All of these threats have been hoaxes.

Perhaps more understandably, they have directed some of their power at pranking Justin Bieber. They put “Justin Bieber Syphilis” on the Google’s Hot Trends list, redirected his YouTube videos to pornography, lead people to believe he had died in a car crash, and rigged a poll regarding his next tour destination to put North Korea in the number one spot. It’s worth pointing out that few people in North Korea would have been able to vote on the site.

Attacks and pranks aside, /b/ is responsible for a whole lot of popular Internet culture. Lolcats and Rickrolling are phenomena attributable to the 4chan community. They are also responsible for the viral popularity of Chocolate Rain, Boxxy and the grown male viewership of the TV show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

10. Hitmen

hitman 10 of the most disturbing communities on the Web

The availability of hitmen on the Internet has been a long-running element of web folklore. The media is not afraid to play this one up, but evidence for serious and professional assassins using the Internet to find clients is scant. Of course, one can argue that a hitman is only as good as his ability to remain uncaught, but it’s a weak argument at best.

There are two well-publicised cases involving a hitman who was hired via the Internet. In both, the assassin was Essam Eid, who was caught and charged in both cases, proving that the Internet is perhaps not the best way to advertise such services. In 2006, he was contacted via email by Sharon Collins for a hit in Ireland on Collins’ partner and his two sons for 15,000 Euros.

In 2006 in the US, Marissa Mark used Eid’s website, HitmanForHire.net, to hire the would-be assassin, putting $19,000 down on the $37,000 fee. Mark wanted her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend dead. In both cases, Eid’s biggest blunder was informing the target of the contract and offering to call it off in exchange for funds. In Ireland, he asked for 100,000 Euros to call off the hit against Collins’ partner. In the US, he only asked the target for the remaining $18,000 balance.

Because he never followed through and killed anyone in either case, Eid was charged with extortion both times. He was extradited to the US once his sentence in Ireland was served, where he is still incarcerated.

The ‘deep web’ accessible via anonymizing services such as Tor, which stands for The Onion Router, is full of advertisements for hitmen willing to be paid in BitCoins, but it is unlikely that there is any legitimacy to these. That said, with two cases out in the open it’s definitely possible that other more competent assassins have been hired in the past.

Hitmen image by Michael Heilemann used under Creative Commons license.

A Balanced Perspective

Unfortunately, it’s too easy to get carried away when we are faced with the brutal reality that some parts of the web are really, really disturbing. Reactionary responses are rampant, with many groups and supposed experts recommending we shut down Tor, regulate and censor the Internet like never before and allow law enforcement to view our most private information without cause.

But the Internet brings us a great deal of good and its utility as a vehicle for free expression is important. This, on its own, might seem a weak reason to find less destructive methods of stopping criminals, except for the futility of such strategies. These measures wouldn’t be effective in stopping illegal activity and would simply result in pedophiles and criminals using means that are even harder to track, giving law enforcement one less tool to find them. Services like Tor are built in such a way that the technical difficulty in dismantling them is ridiculously high, resulting in massive financial cost in the restructuring of the Internet’s infrastructure and would result in a high social cost for the rest of the Internet. As with DRM, the only people losing out would be law-abiding citizens.

That doesn’t mean we should ignore disturbing content. Sites like 4chan are largely harmless, but I’m all for the owners of Reddit stamping out Subreddits such as those that glorify pictures of dead children, and the future of the free Internet, unencumbered by laws that do more harm than good, is up to such companies to self-regulate responsibly.