Pope Francis, continuing his bid to be known as His Hipness, has cast his blessing on digital communication. In a statement this week, he praised the Internet, which "offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity." He added, "This is something truly good, a gift from God."
But the Pope, having perhaps tussled in message boards with people named TomPaine666 and AngryRanter, tempered his approval. He didn't mention trolls, possibly because he couldn't remember the word in Latin. You know he was thinking of them when he said, "The speed with which information is communicated exceeds our capacity for reflection and judgment, and this does not make for more balanced and proper forms of self-expression."
Trolls are the hairy-footed bane of the online world, who sabotage Twitter feeds or message boards with rocks disguised as words: racist or sexist or homophobic abuse, death or rape threats. They usually take refuge in anonymity.
Two trolls were sent to prison in the U.K. Friday, after being found guilty of harassing a feminist campaigner, Caroline Criado-Perez, and a British MP, Stella Creasy. Interestingly, because we tend to think of trolling as a young man's pursuit, one of them was a woman, Isabella Sorley, who told Ms. Criado-Perez, "Kill yourself before I do" and "I've just got out of prison and would happily do more time to see you berried" (proper spelling is not often an arrow in the troll's quiver).
Ms. Sorley was given a sentence of 12 weeks, and fellow harasser John Nimmo eight weeks. Ms. Criado-Perez, who had drawn ire by campaigning for images of women on British banknotes, described in a witness statement the fear she felt as she was bombarded with death threats from dozens of different trolls. "These offences have caused serious and entirely predictable harm to her," the judge wrote in his ruling.
Harm – that's the key concept. There is still a tendency to pooh-pooh abuse that happens on the Internet, particularly toward women, as if it exists somewhere outside the realm of real life. But it is real life. Social media is as vital a form of communication as the telephone was 30 years ago. Imagine saying to someone who was being harassed with threatening calls: "Sorry there's a crazy guy on the phone, honey. Just stop picking it up!"
Instead, women are told to avert their eyes, block their ears. Some do, and some, sadly, pack it in. Last year, Canada's Rebecca Marino announced she was quitting tennis, partly because of the online abuse she'd suffered. British swimming champion Rebecca Adlington abandoned Twitter, fed up with basement Adonises criticizing her appearance. This week, when Olympic gymnast Beth Tweddle participated in a Twitter Q&A, she got questions like this: "On a scale of 1/10, how pig ugly would you class yourself?"
So what prompts such world-class drollery? Ms. Sorley admitted to being "off her head" on wine when she made her threats, which makes sense. Trolls are driven partly by a process called "disinhibition," brought about by being far from the target of their abuse, and alcohol would exacerbate that. But it's not like she or Mr. Nimmo sent one or two tweets – it was dozens, over hours. The Pope seems to believe the troll acts out of rashness, but that's an overly generous interpretation.
It seems more likely the opposite is true: These are deeply held, hateful beliefs that have long been waiting for a crack to spew from. The troll is calculated, not rash. Just ask Richard Sherman. The Seattle Seahawks cornerback suffered a backlash after he trash-talked an opposing player during an intemperate post-game interview. Mr. Sherman apologized for his comments, but not before he found out on Twitter what people really thought about him: He was called a "thug" and "angry monkey" and much worse.
"They showed their true character," Mr. Sherman said in a CNN interview. "They had time to think about it, they were sitting at a computer. … We haven't come as far as I've thought we've come if that's all it took to bring that out in people."
But at least it's one way to get a famous football player to take notice of you, isn't it? The practised troll can achieve instant infamy, which is almost indistinguishable from actual fame in a world measured by shares, likes and retweets. An outraged mention is still a mention.
In the U.K., where there's an aggressive response to online mischief, police issued a warning to a teenager named Reece Messer, who had sent a series of abusive tweets to Olympic diver Tom Daley. Mr. Daley passed one of the messages on to his followers, which is a bit like throwing chum to a shark. Rather than expressing contrition, Mr. Messer instead trumpeted his accomplishment to the Daily Mail: "I was trending worldwide for two days, and that's a hard feat."
One of the first rules of the Internet is "Don't feed the trolls" – for good reason. They are out there, and they breed.