4 Depressing Reasons We Can't Stop Internet Death Threats
It's hard to believe now, but there was once a time when anonymously threatening to kill someone was hard work. Scaring victims required glue, scissors, countless magazines, stamps, envelopes, and more patience than most would-be murderers could muster. Just getting your death-threat supplies was exhausting if you weren't already a kindergarten teacher.
Today, claiming you're going to end the life of a fellow human being without actually putting your name on the threat is as simple as typing "ur ded" and hitting "enter." And thanks to such things as Gamergate, we're realizing that most of the people hitting "enter" will never face consequences for their threats. Here's why.
Social Media Can't Get Rid of Them
Let's go through a typical online death-threat scenario: Person A exists and does regular human things, as humans often do. Person B gets offended by one of those activities and sends Person A a horrific message through Twitter or Facebook. Sometimes the messages look like this:
And sometimes they look like this:
"For not sportsing as well as you should have sportsed, you are hereby sentenced to death."
They're all dookie, no matter how they look. You'd think that at this point the person on the receiving end of the threat could say, "Hey Twitter/Facebook/forum, this guy just said he wants me to die in a fire while my mother watches," and the Internet police would come arrest the offender, right? Wrong.
"Maybe if your wife applied herself and became a valued and productive member
of the Twitter family, this kind of crap wouldn't happen."
And, by the way ...
The Police Can't Help Much
Let's say the threats get a little more serious. Suppose that instead of using the Internet to insult you with the usual slanders like "Poopmouth" and "Baby-Eared Fool," your troll gives you a detailed murder plan, including your home address, the names of your family members, and a list of your greatest fears. It's time to get the cops involved, right? Right! But chances are your local police are way out of their league when it comes to cybercatching Internet bullies.
"Come out of the tweet with your hands up ... that's how these things work, right?"
For example, one journalist got some particularly nasty threats on Twitter, called the police, then watched helplessly as the investigating cop tried to wrap his head around the idea of Twitter. An old-timey deputy from the Old West would have been more helpful at that point. Another woman's harasser went through the trouble of putting her name and face and a bull's-eye on an album cover, then naming the album I Have a Tombstone With Rebecca Watson's Name on It. (Spoiler: She was Rebecca Watson!) Her local police offered to file a report, but only so they'd have a record of the threats if anything terrible actually happened to her. From there she called the FBI, who recommended ... nothing. She ended up hiring a security guard -- out of her own pocket -- for her next public appearance.
"It's the Federal Bureau of Investigation, not the Rebecca Bureau of Investigation. Don't be selfish."
Even if your local police are the most tech-savvy people on the block and they totally understand how scary it is to get a murder message, we're still in a murky place, law-wise.
For one thing, court rulings have determined that it is not possible to identify a person by his or her IP address, since anyone can piggyback wireless networks. This catastrophic problem was well-demonstrated when authorities did a series of child pornography raids on the wrong houses. In each case, the FBI took the completely logical action of tracing the IP addresses involved back to their sources, only to find that the actual child pornographers had merely hijacked a neighbor's WiFi to cover their tracks. Even if you could tie someone to an IP address, it is against the law to use that IP address as evidence against them. The Internet may not be 100 percent anonymous, but as far as the law is concerned, unless someone signs their full legal name on every harassing death treatise, it might as well be.
"'... in closing I, Oswald von Scuttlebutt, intend to murder my ex, Gertrude von Scuttlebutt, at 12:5- ... fucking character limit."
"i gun kil u."
Except that, even in those cases, the death threats might fall under the banner of free speech.
The Supreme Court Hasn't Decided if Death Threats on Social Media Are Free Speech
OK, let's say that the man or woman threatening your life has no shame attaching their name to your future demise. Let's say, for argument's sake, that the person in question is your ex-husband and the father of your children and is using his Facebook account to fantasize about the ways he would kill you if he had the chance. Let's also say, for argument's sake, that your ex-husband's name is Anthony Elonis and he looks like this:
And let's say that he's just as bad at relationships as growing facial hair ...
Elonis used his Facebook account to say things like, "If I only knew then what I know now ... I would have smothered your ass with a pillow. Dumped your body in the back seat. Dropped you off in Toad Creek and made it look like a rape and murder," none of which was accompanied by a whimsical, Comic Sans disclaimer that this was all just Wind in the Willows fan fiction.
Elonis also used Facebook to threaten co-workers, the cops, and a kindergarten class, none of which went over well with the FBI. In October 2010, Elonis was convicted of using interstate communication to threaten lives and was sent to jail for three years. From there, Elonis said, "JUST KIDDING!" and claimed all of those threats were "therapeutic" and "rap lyrics" and "the world's most profound exercise in free speech." And guess what? Now the Supreme Court is going to decide if he's right.
"This court declares you the weakest, most wack sucka MC in all the land."
No, really -- on Dec. 1 the Supreme Court began hearing the case to decide whose rights to protect: an artist who wants to go Eminem on his Kims, or Kim. (Spoiler Alert: Things aren't looking too rosy for Elonis' rap career.) Their decision is expected come summer 2015 -- we'll keep you posted.
This Isn't Just an Internet Problem
Real-life death threats, even those made in front of witnesses by habitual abusers, are carried out successfully all too frequently. For whatever reason, the law just hasn't been able to figure out how to stop a person who swears they're going to murder you from actually murdering you.
The horrifying truth is that if some drooling maniac wants to murder someone, a restraining order (the first -- and often only -- step in obtaining protection) is not likely to stop them. The police are unfortunately inconsistent in their enforcement of protective orders, sometimes picking up offenders as late as 48 hours after a report is made. (That's more than enough time to murder somebody, it turns out.) Temporary restraining orders have also been known to increase volatility in existing abusive relationships. In a study of 55 homicides, the victim had filed a restraining order against their eventual killer in 20 percent of them. Really, the most effective way to get the justice system involved is to wait for a person to actually try to murder you, hope that they slip up somehow, and then call the police.
Cheer up, though. If old detective movies are to be believed, the best way to catch a murderer is to almost get murdered and wait for Humphrey Bogart to show up and nab the guy. The system works!
"Here's looking down the barrel of a gun, kid."
While we're on the topic, check out 5 Things I Learned as the Internet's Most Hated Person.