A US Federal judge recently ruled that Twitter had to reveal the identity of the twitter user who recently threatened to rape Michele Bachmann with a machete. Hallelujah!
While anonymity is both the best and worst part of the internet, that’s no excuse to let people commit crimes or threaten people. As many women have experienced, being stalked and harassed can be terrifying, and sometimes that behavior escalates into physical violence. Stalking, harassment, blackmail, and threats that happen online should be investigated. No one should be afraid or wonder what if. No person who engages in this type of behavior should feel protected from facing consequences.
The judge ruled that Michelle Bachmann’s status as a presidential candidate made it important for law enforcement to evaluate all threats against her safety. I would argue that it’s more important for the average woman. Public figures are going to attract some attention from crazy, angry, and weird people, and the majority of the time it will not ever amount to anything. But if you’re not a public figure, and all of a sudden someone is threatening to hurt you, well, that’s personal. That person has targeted you for personal reasons, and I would argue that makes them more likely to hurt you.
I was stalked and threatened online and through the mail by an anonymous person who went on to harass my friends and family. Even though this person did not threaten violence, the sexual content of the text messages and letters, the escalating anger, and the prolonged period of harassment had everyone worried, police included, that this person was going to physically hurt me. Thankfully, this person stopped after law enforcement got involved. If you ever find yourself in this situation, please do not downplay this type of behavior because it’s happening online.
There are two types of people who threaten women anonymously online. On the scarier side, there are people who fantasize about hurting women, but are afraid of getting caught in real life so they indulge themselves online. On the other end are people who want to silence women by intimidating them out of the public sphere.
People say offensive things online all the time. But when people start describing specific actions or plans or the intent of doing someone harm, it’s a threat and not a vulgarity. People may think they have the right to threaten to rape or murder women online as part of their First Amendment right (they don’t). But law enforcement does have the responsibility to investigate if there is a reasonable belief of someone being harmed.
Right now, there is little to no legal recourse for the average citizen and law enforcement often will not look into anonymous online attacks due to time and resources. But I think making an example of a few people could curb this type of behavior through old fashioned public shaming.