EDITORIAL: Online threats just as serious, dangerous as any other threat

Social media has long given people the electronic courage to say anything behind the safety of a computer screen.

Now, the U.S. Supreme Court is allowing people to downplay even their most hateful posts.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ruled that people cannot be prosecuted for threats made over social media without proving intent, even if a reasonable person perceives them as threats, as reported by the New York Times. In blurring the lines between what actually constitutes a threat and what doesn’t, the ruling potentially allows people to make threats over the Internet without consequence.

Elonis v. United States came about after Pennsylvania man Anthony Elonis took on a rap persona, Tone Dougie, and posted morbid rants, which he claimed were rap lyrics, on Facebook, according to the Times. Some included mention of a Halloween costume with his wife’s “head on a stick,” having a school shooting and killing a female FBI agent. 

Previously facing federal charges, Elonis’ conviction was lifted. The fact that the Supreme Court agreed that prosecutors in Elonis’ case didn’t sufficiently prove his intent to act on his threats is frightening and dangerous.

For instance, as pointed out by Justice Samuel Alito and mentioned in Time Magazine, it’s easy for a violent post toward another person to be written off as something else, just as Elonis considered his posts lyrics and a form of therapy. Someone can recreate the meaning of a vile social media post just to avoid blame. 

But when it comes to issues of domestic violence and even cyberbullying, there shouldn’t be enough room for real threats to wiggle their way out of trouble. Yet, this ruling nearly guarantees this possibility.

As mentioned in the Times, Elonis’ estranged wife feared for her and her family’s lives and felt stalked from his posts. With the reasonable person stipulation aside, no one should have to tolerate death threats and fear for her life just so someone can vent in a status update. 

Proving if a threat is intentional puts online hate speech and threats of violence in murky waters. For example, with cyberbullying being so
widespread — as the non-profit i-SAFE Foundation reports more than one in three teens and adolescents have undergone cyberbullying — it doesn’t help to make it more difficult to prosecute someone for threats delivered via social media.

The ruling also calls into question whether or not any threat made on social media should be taken seriously. As addressed by the Centre for Suicide Prevention, the public’s will to intervene on someone’s online threat to commit suicide could be diverted by a lack of responsibility. Yet, schools throughout the country have ramped up security and have undergone lock down after social media posts threatened shootings and bombings.  

In these cases, the threat should be as meaningful as it would be in person. The prevention of danger to oneself or others is more important than whether the person who made the threat meant it. 

With sincerity always being ambiguous online, it only makes sense to assume an online threat is something to worry about. However, this focus on intent is just an invitation to take advantage of this ambiguity.