On Wednesday night, at about 5pm, I received my first ever death threat. As my phone beeped cheerily, I snatched it up in expectation of a fun ‘ironic’ hashtag from some Twitter pal, only to read the following bizarre information from apparent bald egg @98JU98U989:
I’m not sure what this says about me, but my only feeling was mild disappointment over a boring notification: I hadn’t gained a new addition to my swaggering collection of 130 followers, and Harry Styles hadn’t finally noticed me — 0/5 :(. Some nobody had just threatened to blow up the home of my immediate family. Yawn.
It wasn’t until a few hours later that I gave it a second thought. Reports were appearing in the nationals of bomb threats made to three female journalists, and I was surprised to see the messages were identical to mine, right down to the minute of detonation. This was classic @98JU98U989.
Wait, it might not be a random computer? An actual person might have messaged me for a reason? … Someone thinks I’m a real feminist journalist!! What an honour! Thanks, anonymous and potentially violent tweeter. After a considerable period of gazing starry-eyed/grinning into the distance (like that bit in Mean Girls where Lindsay Lohan realises she’s been nominated for prom queen — “you mean I’m really targeted as part of a sexist hate campaign!?”), I started to think about what to do next. I had instinctively planned to ignore it, and it was only after hearing that the police were urging anyone who had received the threat to report it that I even considered it a crime at all. It was at this point that I started to feel a bit unsettled. The other women had called the police over to make sure their lives weren’t in danger, and so far I hadn’t even got off the sofa.
I decided to be a responsible adult about it, and asked my mum what to do. She told me to report it.
A more eventful evening than usual for the Leszkiewicz household followed, the climax of which saw my mother dashing outside in her nightie to reassure three policeman that the dodgy brown wire running the perimeter of our house was not a bomb — but a dog alarm installed by my Irish auntie on her latest visit so she could contain her over-pampered long-haired collie.
The police I encountered were very sensitive and professional. They insisted on checking the house, came over well before 10:47PM, and even offered victim support. But I was repeatedly surprised by the confusion surrounding digital threats. At every stage, officers freely admitted to a real lack of understanding of online crime and the methods used to deal with it. I found myself explaining the concepts of @ usernames, account suspension, and screenshots. Almost every officer I spoke to told me they had never dealt with “something like this” before. One thing is overwhelmingly clear — no one really knows how to deal with this kind of crime.
Up until now, the much-repeated motto “don’t feed the trolls” has been the guideline for dealing with all varieties of anonymous online abuse. A kind of digital version of the “just ignore them and they’ll leave you alone” response to playground bullying (“They only want to provoke a response — don’t rise to it!”); this kind of approach is tempting because it trivialises both the sender and the threat they pose. Like playground bullies, people who send anonymous hate messages online are often immature, thoughtless, and powerless when they come face to face with the ‘real’ world.
But they can also be nasty little shits. The alarming — and growing — number of users comfortable with making copious rape and death threats online, from angry misogynists to teenage fangirls, illustrates that our attempts to dismantle cyber crime by giving its perpetrators a silly name and trying to sweep them under the carpet (or bridge) isn’t working. Instead, our digital etiquette has encouraged intimidation and victim blaming that provides the perfect conditions for a lively culture of sexism, racism and homophobia. While it might be uncomfortable to take these messages seriously, and consider their motivations, we can’t continue to reinforce inequality and nurture an environment in which violent threats are normal.
My experience with online abuse was brief and inconsequential. I at no point felt genuinely fearful of @98JU98U989’s intentions to bomb me and DESTROY EVERYTHING. But I’m glad I reported it anyway. It’s very true that it’s impossible for Britain’s law enforcers to chase every abusive tweet from the four corners of the internet; but if digital threats become more clearly culturally defined as unacceptable, illegal hate speech, we can start to work towards addressing them more effectively.