When Is Online Nastiness Illegal?

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Digital life has complicated an already tricky question: How can authorities tell the difference between hateful or threatening abuse that contains empty threats and those that could lead to violence?

My colleague Nicole Hong, who writes on law enforcement and criminal justice, said drawing that line has never been easy, but social media has increased the volume of both political rhetoric and dangerous threats. This has challenged the police and the legal system in the United States to figure out what simple words and what red flags are for a credible threat.

Nicole spoke to me about how law enforcement is assessing online threats and what may have changed after the US Capitol uprising in January.

Shira: Where is the line between constitutionally protected language and illegal threats?

Nicole: One question is whether the words incite violence to others. Another is, if you threatened someone with violence, would a “reasonable person” see it as a serious threat?

I imagine that most of the people who post hateful or threatening messages online do not respond to them. But sometimes contributions are a precursor to violence, as we have seen with several Mass murderer and Believers in the QAnon conspiracy theory. How do law enforcement and criminal justice know the difference?

Law enforcement has really struggled with this for a long time, and it has only gotten tougher with social media.

When there is threatening rhetoric online, law enforcement officers can wait and see if someone takes concrete action, such as: B. making materials for making bombs, or committing a crime that allows them to intervene. Or law enforcement could talk to the person about an online threat.

When online threats cross the line between protected language and crime, it is a largely unresolved area of ​​the law and there are so many people on the internet saying things that are violent or threatening.

Part of the challenge is that some people are more likely to post threatening news online than threatening a member of Congress or the school principal over the phone or in person?

That’s true. Law enforcement sources have told me that threatening rhetoric on the internet has increased exponentially. By looking at a social media site, you can see how overwhelming it is for law enforcement to figure out who is at risk for violence in real life and who is just scolding them.

Law enforcement should do more against that Online threats of violence before the Capitol attack in January?

There were so many places anticipating what was going to happen, but it is still not clear whether there have been any people who should have been arrested solely for violent rhetoric.

Americans have constitutional protections for political language. And many people in law enforcement have told me that posting broad threats – storming the Capitol or rushing elections, for example – is most likely not specific enough to warrant an arrest.

It’s all difficult. Now some people in Congress, law enforcement, and the public are asking whether more should be done to pre-monitor or stop people. Police officers have told me that the attack on the Capitol made them less willing to wait and see if someone posed a violent threat online would do so.

you wrote this week about a man in New York who threatened members of Congress after the Capitol uprising, but failed to get through and is being prosecuted. Is this an example of how to lower the bar on threats?

It is unusual for someone to face criminal charges based solely on language, and that’s why I wanted to write about it. A similar case in 2016 ended without conviction for a man in Orange County, California who blogged about the beheading of FBI members. He said it was satire and a speech protected by constitution.

In this new case, the man’s lawyers say he never bought guns or searched for guns on Google, had no plans to use violence and no one did so on his behalf. We’ll see how the jury rates it all.

Even if someone does not intend physical harm, verbal assault can feel threatening to the recipient.

Absolutely. This shows how the boundaries of the law diverge from the lived reality of the people being targeted.

The government has set very high standards for prosecuting people and depriving them of the freedom to say threatening things online. Law enforcement tries to target the most specific violent threats. That leaves untouched a vast universe of rhetoric that humans fall prey to. This likely shifts the burden on internet companies to better monitor themselves.

  • The people were authentic, but their messages weren’t: Facebook has rules designed to prevent people from faking their identities online in order to coordinate and distribute messages. BuzzFeed News reported on a company valuation following the Capitol attack that found that focusing on fake identities was preventing Facebook from cracking down on real people who worked together to spread falsehoods about the election.

  • Deceived by a chain on the steering wheel: Using a weighted chain and a roll of duct tape, engineers with consumer reports easily bypassed a Tesla feature designed to prevent people from using driver assistance technology without someone in the driver’s seat. The car itself drove on a closed test track. It would be illegal and dangerous to do so on public roads.

  • Turn the tables on the criminals. A student who is a computer security researcher found a bug in a payment system used by hackers who lock people up for ransom on people’s computer systems. Some people have been able to take back their computers without paying the criminals, CyberScoop reported. (A reminder: “ransomware” is bad.)

Hunter, a chocolate lab puppy, dropped to the floor to take a nap. It is Friday. Let’s all be hunters.

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