Pando

Digital threats are finally being taken seriously -- as long as they're against police

By Nathaniel Mott , written on January 2, 2015

From The News Desk

A number of American citizens have been arrested for threatening the lives of police officers on social forums such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube's comment section.

The latest example of such an arrest is that of a Missouri man who allegedly threatened to bomb the St. Louis County Justice Center and called New Year's Eve "kill a pig night" on Twitter. Other recent arrests include a Colorado man who allegedly advocated for cop killings on YouTube and a Brooklyn resident said to have made similar threats on Facebook.

It's clear police departments around the country are taking threats against officers seriously after two New York Police Department officers were murdered in December. But it's not clear why the companies behind social networks are taking these threats more seriously than the rampant digital harassment against private citizens.

The man who killed the NYPD officers and then fled to a nearby subway station and shot himself in the head didn't boast about his plans or the killings on social networks. He did advise bystanders to "watch what I'm going to do" before murdering the officers, but that is the known extent of his forecasting of his heinous act.

So there's little direct connection, at least in this case, between online threats against police and actual efforts to kill officers or terrorize other law enforcement officials. The arrest of these three men is then justified only by the government's decision to take the threats more seriously regardless of their veracity or of the three men's true intentions.

If that's the case, shouldn't threats against citizens lead to similar arrests? Shouldn't the bomb threat against the Utah State University have led to an arrest? How about the threats which drove two female game developers from their homes last October? If digital threats against cops are a crime worth pursuing, these threats should be, too.

Yet in many cases, it seems threats, especially against women, aren't taken seriously. Amanda Hess wrote in the Pacific Standard almost a year ago about why women aren't welcome on the Internet, and she discusses in her report the time a police officer who was questioning her about a threat on Twitter asked her what, exactly, Twitter was.

Now it seems many police departments do indeed know what Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are, and they are taking threats published to those networks quite seriously, at least when officers are the targets. One wonders how long it will be before the near-constant online threats against women and other groups are regarded just as seriously.

[Art by Brad Jonas for Pando]