To be honest, I didn’t take death threats by trolls very seriously. They’ve alarmed and shaken me. I’ve marveled at the ferocity of someone who doesn’t know anything about me but what I write, sending me a death threat. But I hadn’t taken them as serious threats.
That is, not until I read a recent story by Toni Crowe. I’m now less naive, having been schooled about the real dangers. Angry trolls, upset with her writing and public speaking, sent the police to her home at 6:00 a.m. saying they heard shots. Her fifteen year old son, who is Black, was there alone, asleep in his bed. This could easily have ended in tragedy.
It shouldn’t have taken that to persuade me. After all, trolls don’t even bother to call what they do hyperbole. Only government officials, apparently, do that.
Hyperbole is “extravagant exaggeration,” according to Merriam-Webster. Dictionary.com defines it as “obvious and intentional exaggeration.” Urban Dictionary defines it as “an exaggeration so big, it creates a black hole.” Or, “Bullshit.”
Recently, Christopher Krebs filed a defamation lawsuit against 45’s lawyer Joseph diGenova and Newsmax. In the Newsmax interview, diGenova stated that Krebs should be “drawn and quartered,” or “shot at dawn.” Why?
Christopher Krebs had stated that the 2020 election was the “most secure in American History,”
Krebs defamation lawsuit contends that those death penalties are for convicted traitors, which he most decidedly is not. Hence the charge of defamation. Krebs and his lawyer are counting on the defamation of calling him a traitor being easier to prove than harm from the actual death threat.
Why would diGenova consider Krevs a traitor? Because Krebs had the audacity to proclaim, as head of the Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, CISA, that the 2020 election was the most secure in American History. His agency found no evidence of any voting system deleting or losing votes, changing votes, or in any way compromising the election.
By the way, Krebs is a life-long Republican. And yet, apparently, diGenova considers him a traitor. A traitor to what? Not to the United States. Not to the current president, as he did not threaten him with death, which can be considered treason. Rather he is being called a traitor to 45’s narrative that he won, in spite of Biden’s decisive victories in the popular and Electoral College vote.
Worse, diGenova’s defense against the defamation charge is that what he said was hyperbole. Hmmm. I’m liking the Urban Dictionary definition of “Bullshit.”
You either want someone dead, or you don’t. And even if you don’t personally want to kill them yourself, there are others, trolls and malcontents, who might take you at your word. Krebs has received death threats from just these types, following diGenova’s statements.
As a psychotherapist, I can tell you that it’s difficult to know exactly who will carry out such threats and who will not. It’s never a good idea to gamble on a death threat.
Death threats are a dangerous game. Politicians and their lawyers are some of the last people who should be making them, hyperbole or not. Not only because they should show more decorum and plain old common sense, but because their unstable followers don’t understand hyperbole.
CNN’s John Avlon recently stated, “No less than six election officials around the country, many of them Republicans, have received serious death threats to date. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger requires security, his wife is getting messages on her cellphone that read, ‘Your husband deserves to face a firing squad.’ His deputy, Gabriel Sterling, is getting threats while an election technician was accused of treason and sent a noose.”
Maybe diGenova should have considered labeling his comments hyperbole, with the included definition, before signaling to the election “fraud” fanatics. Calling it hyperbole afterward is closing the barn door after the trolls have escaped.
State criminal codes don’t consider death threats hyperbole. “Under state criminal codes, which vary by state, it is an offense to knowingly utter or convey a threat to cause death or bodily harm to any person.”
The Supreme Court, overall, has protected political hyperbolic speeches that appeared to be threats. In most rulings, they found that only “true threats” are outside the protection of the first amendment. But what’s a “true threat?”
The Ninth Circuit stated in one case that, “It is not necessary that the defendant intend to, or be able to carry out his threat; the only intent requirement for a true threat is that the defendant intentionally or knowingly communicate the threat.”
And therein lies the issue. In today’s world of instantaneous sound bites, retweeting, and sharply divided media coverage, threats are immediately and widely communicated. And some of that communication goes out to people who are not stable. To those who use the psychological defense mechanism of all-or-nothing thinking, who see things as all good or all bad. To people who take the words of those they follow as gospel, not as the exaggerated speech of hyperbole.
Whether it’s political death threats, the efforts by “leaders” to convince followers an election was stolen, or death threats to women, BIPOC, LGBTQ people, and anyone who disagrees with the world view of the one hurling death threats, the danger is real. There is always someone willing to act on those type of threats. When that happens, as when police were sent to Toni Crowe’s house where her unaware and unarmed son was sleeping, with false reports of gunfire being heard, the danger becomes real.
What can we do if we receive death threats? Most advice is to ignore trolls online. They’re usually anonymous, and all you can do is block and report them. It’s good advice to ignore and block the individual anonymous ones, because psychologically, they thrive on your outrage and reactions.
If there is a threat from someone identifiable, and you can afford a lawyer, suing for defamation, as Krebs is doing, is a useful work-around. For threats coming from someone you know, contact the police. They can’t do much with one harassing threat, but if the threats continue, they can arrest the person and issue a restraining order. Keep the texts, emails, and/or phone messages as proof.
Finally, if the pattern of harassment and threats is from several people, as is the case for writers and speakers who’ve touched a racist, misogynist, homophobic, or other nerve, notify your local police. They will have a record of your situation, so that if “prank” calls are made about gunfire or other disturbance at your address, they can contact you, or at the very least, proceed with caution in responding.