From: “How did death threats become so casual?” by Stuart Jeffries at The Guardian
If, in 1989, a death threat was exceptional and shocking, today it has become part of the background blah of everyday life. It’s the go-to response of anyone with two thumbs and a keyboard whenever someone does or says something they don’t like. Feminist campaigner suggests how lovely it would be to have a woman, say Jane Austen, on a £10 note? Death threat. Thirty-four-year-old Heidi Agan dares to make a living as the world’s leading Duchess of Cambridge lookalike? Anti-royalist death threat. Can’t bear to live in a world so unfair that Jeremy Clarkson no longer presents Top Gear? Then tweet your hopes for the imminent demise of third parties. One Twitter user, for example, said they hoped Tymon “visits the morgue very soon”; while another wrote: “Tony Hall BBC director, I wonder if Oisin’s and your head can stop a bullet!!! just wondering.” Someone looks at you wrong? Death threat. Someone spills your pint? Death threat. I exaggerate, but only slightly.
I fundamentally disagree with the premise of this piece. Going back to the 80s, before the public had general access to the internet, even minor celebrities used to get a significant volume of death threats and otherwise creepy or disgusting mail, which is why so many employed readers to screen it. Just two incidents I remember from my youth:
Sarah McLachlan’s song “Possession” was based on letters from fans she got when she was still relatively unknown outside Canada.
Rebecca Schaeffer’s killing by a “fan” in 1989 (the same year as Rushdie’s fatwa cited by Jeffries) led to the reform of privacy laws and the enaction of anti-stalking legislation in California, and significantly changed how seriously stalking was regarded by law enforcement. Prior to that very public and shocking killing, the attitude of law enforcement ranged from “meh”, to, “Blah hasn’t actually done anything illegal or physically threatening yet, so we can’t do anything about it”.
There are two minor things that have changed recently with regard to social media, only one of which was addressed by Jeffries.
The argument Jeffries did make is that social media make it physically and psychologically easier to actually send threats. This has possibly has increased the incidence of those threats a bit, but there’s no real evidence of that other than his assertion that a death threat is less “shocking” now than in the past.
Granted, the bar is far lower than physically creating a letter and mailing it off, so there might indeed be more death threats numerically, though I would doubt that there’s much of a difference proportionally. The sheer volume and number of contact points between a celebrity and the public has probably increased the number of messages of all sorts that a celebrity would come into direct contact with by an order of magnitude.
In my opinion, a far bigger amplifying effect would be the immediacy of making a threat online. There’s no several-day delay between sending a letter and its receipt; a troll knows that the victim received it nearly instantaneously. Sports fans have complained that Twitter can be a few seconds faster than a live broadcast of the game, which has minor signal processing delays on both ends.
This immediacy has a positive effect as well — the instant feedback from Twitter or Facebook comments encourages people to engage with public figures in a way that we never did in the past. Savvy celebrities have catered to their fan base and enjoyed greater success than they might have had in the past.
The negative possibilities have been amply demonstrated with shitstorms like Gamergate, driven by the old familiar standbys of mob mentality, anonymity, and lack of accountability that stretch from antiquity to recent history.