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Criminal law: Are Twitter threats taken seriously?

As threats of violence become increasingly common online, law enforcement is taking stronger action against the perpetrators

Online threats are no joke to criminal law enforcement. As more and more people use Twitter to express their strongest emotions behind a screen of anonymity, threats of violence and even death are becoming commonplace.

Not only are celebrities such as Taylor Swift receiving these messages, but by 2014, 65 people had been indicted on charges of threatening online to assassinate then-US president Barack Obama. What qualifies as a threat? And what people and organisations are receiving these threats?

Twitter is constantly trying to find ways to stop the flood of harassing and abusive tweets that flow from some accounts. Instituting automatic restrictions on post visibility for regular offenders, known as “Twitter Jail”, and limiting the ability of serial abusers to open new accounts may help to arrest the spread of toxic trolling.

Reporting violent and threatening messages is getting easier, and new safeguards are being put in place at regular intervals. But what about messages that seem more like actual threats of harm, rather than simple trolling?

Representing the ultimate threat level, any online threats against the US president or his family will result in an immediate visit from the Secret Service. Even verbal threats by an intoxicated person in a bar will be brought to the attention of law enforcement, according to the Washington Post.

Unfortunately, there is no absolute standard to determine whether a tweet constitutes a punishable threat. Female celebrities complain that the threats of violence they receive often receive no attention when they are reported. Threats to heads of state and other powerful political figures often receive immediate attention.

In 2014, American Airlines received a tweet from an account claiming to be affiliated with Al Qaeda, threatening to “do something big”. The sender turned out to be a 14-year-old Dutch girl who thought the threat was a joke. She was arrested, the airline threatened to turn her over to the FBI, her account was suspended by Twitter, and she had to appear in court.

Threats against Obama

The US Secret Service investigated about 10 death threats a day against Barack Obama in 2013, and there were as many as 30,000 such threats a day during the first year of his presidency. Death threats against a sitting president are par for the course, but the growth of social media has made it far easier for people to spread their messages across cyber space, where they can influence others – and be more easily brought to the attention of the authorities.

Twitter itself was the target of death threats to its employees in 2014, when an Islamic State (IS)-affiliated account invited “lone wolves” to “assassinate” them as they left work. The account was immediately suspended, according to Twitter’s policy for IS accounts.

Women who experience online harassment, including death threats, have been quick to point out how they have to rely on law enforcement to demand that the perpetrators’ accounts be closed (when law enforcement can be persuaded to take their complaints seriously).

Celebrities and private individuals can be threatened with death by their fans for offences ranging from “dissing” an ex to wearing an offensive Halloween costume.

Out of the 500 million messages tweeted every day, the vast majority are not reported for violent threat. Many of the accounts that are reported are not suspended and no action is taken against them. Because of rules protecting the details of active investigations, it is impossible to determine exactly how many death threats are followed up by law enforcement and pursued by the criminal justice system.

It is clear, however, that law enforcement is taking social media threats seriously, and increasing numbers of those who issue online death threats are ending up behind bars.

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