Internet Death Threats – Reality, Not Fantasy

“The Internet changed our life enormously…in a positive way.”

Markus Temmel

“…there are no boundaries, both geographical and political, with easy access to information.”

Martina Theuermann

“…one of the most negative aspects of the impact of the internet on our daily life is, in my opinion, that it alters the social behaviour, habits and abilities of people.”

Tanja Vogrin

“The making of a threat to kill is an offence where the defendant intends the victim to fear it will be carried out. It is immaterial whether it is premeditated or said in anger. Although the normal maximum sentence is ten years, offenders deemed to present a “significant risk” of “serious harm” to the public can now receive a life sentence under the Criminal Justice Act 2003.”

Section 16, Offences against the Person Act 1861

If you enjoy (debatable) celebrity status, it’ll be a safe guess that you will have, at one time or another, experienced a death threat. A recent example of this was the disclosure by comedienne Sue Perkins that she was withdrawing from Twitter after tipsters claimed that she was the front runner to replace Jeremy Clarkson as Top Gear host; resulting in a flood of threatening and aggressive tweets. “My timeline has been full of blokes wishing me dead…this morning, someone suggested they’d like to see me burn to death.”

Additionally, the alleged social commentator (substitute offensive professional big-mouth) Katie Hopkins, has installed a panic button at her Exeter home due to the number of death threats she has been receiving, having recently tweeted: “Dementia sufferers should not be blocking beds. What is the point of life when you no longer know you are living it?” HELLO! EARTH TO KATIE! How do you expect people to respond to such obscene views?

Historically, the death threat was an act of extreme punishment for transgressions. There was Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini celebrated fatwa on Salman Rushdie following the publication of The Satanic Verses. Rushdie went into hiding for 13 years as a result, being constantly under the very real threat of assassination. Then, a death threat was exceptional and shocking; now, it seems inconsequential. A default setting for anyone with two thumbs and a keyboard whenever someone does or says something they don’t like. Feminists nominate Jane Austen to be printed on £10 notes? Death threat. Someone looks at you wrong? Death threat. Someone spills your pint? Death threat.

Most of this can easily be dismissed as idiotic dross, the last retort of the unimaginative and ignorant. But how to differentiate between a knee-jerk hot air rant and a genuine death threat?  No threat should go unreported, and the most credible threats should be investigated immediately. Also, how, when language has become more extreme and hyperbolic, can we distinguish between credible death threats and people venting steam?

Similar threats were made to the US consul general in Okinawa by Japanese resentful over the continued existence of American airbases on the island. But should the threats have been taken seriously? Yes, because they occurred shortly before the US ambassador to South Korea, Mark Lippert, was slashed by an anti-American activist in Seoul, requiring 80 stitches to his face.

This highlights another problem for policing: one person’s death threat is another’s freedom of speech. Perhaps if the police and courts struggle to decide whether death threats are credible, still less to effectively punish trolls, the social networks might work harder to protect their users from abuse. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said as much in a leaked memo in February. “I’m frankly ashamed of how poorly we’ve dealt with this issue during my tenure.”

This whole issue requires stricter control by not only law enforcement agencies, but ISP/service providers in every way. Algorithms do exist that can rapidly detect trolls and their behaviour patterns, and this is applicable to the issue of death threats as well. With the rise of radicalism, this being especially applicable to the IT and media-savvy IS, it can only grow and take a stronger form in reality if left unchecked.

Let’s not go to sleep on this one. It might be us someday.

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