Threats Best Ignored

Over at Simple Justice, Scott wrote in the comments about receiving threats:

I get “threats” regularly. The difference is grown ups don’t cry about how they’re “terrified” whenever any flaming nutjob writes something on the internets. I’ve been told that’s because I’m male and can defend myself, while they’re just fragile females, but it’s a nonsense argument. Words are words, for better or worse.

It’s hardly worth my time whining about words that threaten me, but the SJWs are obsessed with it, and so the idiot children who attack them have a very different impact than the idiot children who attack me.

To which commenter DrPizza responds:

Were words just words when 4chan lunatic posts that he’s going to shoot up a school and then does precisely that?

First of all, I don’t think the 4chan link has proven out. It seems to have been a misunderstanding, a satire, or a hoax (4chan apparently has a strong discordian vibe).

More importantly, even it if were true, it would be a completely different thing. The people threatening Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn are making anonymous threats against public figures that they don’t personally know, whereas the Umpqua Community College shooter killed a teacher and a bunch of students in a class he was taking. Even if he had posted about it on 4chan, his targets were people he knew personally and met on a regular basis. These are completely different scenarios.

Sometimes words are just words.

Other times words betray intent.

How does one reliably determine the difference? Which words should be ignored; which should not?

Threat assessment is a tricky subject, but as a general rule, people who make anonymous threats against public figures almost never actually carry out the threatened attack. That doesn’t mean they’re not assholes and criminals — they’re still trying to use threats of violence to intimidate and manipulate — but it’s best to ignore them if you can find a way to do so.

That’s not always as easy as Scott makes it sound. Since these people don’t actually attack their targets, drawing attention to themselves is the best they can hope for, and so they tend to get really good at it. Scott’s probably met some genuinely dangerous people, so he can spot people who are faking it on the internet, but the rest of us have to pretty much take it on faith.

4 Responses to Threats Best Ignored

  1. I don’t know that I have any special skills when it comes to distinguishing seriously threatening people from trolls, but I do know, based upon 30+ years of being around people who have at least the potential to be dangerous that one can either spend ones life living in fear or not of the possibility that someone, somewhere, somehow, will make a threat of harm happen.

    It’s a choice.

    If a threat comes across that, for whatever reason, I believe to be serious, then I’ll address it. What I will not do is scream for the silencing of all people who express their anger or disagreement in a way that could possibly signify threatening behavior. That, too, is a choice. These are my choices.

  2. A couple of thoughts. First, anyone who uses SJW as a pejorative should be considered a bit of an idiot. Social justice is a good thing that is, indeed, worth fighting for.

    Also, the type and volume of threats are often different and produce different reactions (which they are designed to do). People like Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn can get hundreds or thousands of threats a day. Psychologically that takes a different toll than even a few dozen ever could. They are often the targets of coordinated attacks organized by script kiddies specifically to maximize the volume.

    And speaking of volume, “people who make anonymous threats against public figures almost never actually carry out the threatened attack”, is a statistical analysis. If someone gets tens of thousands of threats a year, the dice are more likely to roll bad someday.

    The specificity of the threats can also be a factor. Again, people like AS and ZQ often receive very specific threats including their home or work address that are designed to create more fear. I know a blogger who, after receiving such specific threats, also had threats sent to her parents and other family members. After her parents started getting threats, she decided to stop blogging, which is probably the same decision I would make. And, of course, that was the real goal of the threat campaign all along.

    We aren’t always just talking about general “I’m going to kick your ass” kind of kids stuff.

    Honestly, I don’t know why anyone would claim “I’m male and can defend myself, while they’re just fragile females” as a difference. I suspect that’s just something misogynist assholes say to further denigrate women in a condescending way.

    Every time I see an asshole claim “I get threats too!” as a way to minimize the real impact of large organized campaigns against others, it turns out to be a handful of generic posts like “I’m going to kick your ass” which probably can, in fact, be ignored.

    Try being the target of a large scale, organized threat campaign which includes your family then get back to me about how the “SJW’s” are too obsessed with this very real problem.

    • There’s a bunch of different issues at play here. The only one I’m concerned with is that, in regard to DrPizza’s comment, there are rules of thumb for evaluating threats, one of which is that “people who make anonymous threats against public figures almost never actually carry out the threatened attack.” You’re right that it’s a statistical statement, and I’m sure there are examples where things have ended badly for the victims, but they are pretty rare, and it doesn’t help to confuse the issues by dragging in mass shootings.

      As for the “specificity” of the threats, I think that “intimacy” is a better term. Specific details such as phone numbers and addresses are concerning because they indicate that the person making the threat is making some effort towards getting closer to the target of their threats. That works both ways: Someone who feels comfortable issuing threats in their own name is much more likely to be dangerous than someone who prefers to remain safely anonymous.

      Because there seems to be some confusion, let me make it clear that just because I think most of the threats are bullshit doesn’t mean I don’t think they’re a problem.
      Some of the messages Sarkeesian and Quinn mention in their testimony sound like true threats to me, and much of the rest are pure dickishness. These kinds of distinctions may not matter much now, but they will be important if any of this starts to translate into new laws and policing priorities.

      • Yes, I understand that misogyny wasn’t the point of your post. but since you posted Scott’s incredibly stupid comment (as background for DrPizza’s comment) without any criticism at all, I just wanted to make those points. After all, you made the decision to insert yourself into an argument about misogyny.

        Your last couple of paragraphs in your reply would have been welcome in your original post.

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