Question About Online Harassment Draws Silence From State Reps

This article contains graphic and potentially disturbing language highlighting the nature of online threats

This week I went to a public Q&A session hosted by the Saint Cloud times where local representatives from Senate Districts 13 and 14 were there to hear the concerns of their constituents. I was lucky enough to have my submitted question be read out loud first:

"Do you think that law enforcement agencies are doing enough to deal with the large number of death threats online?"

Beaver Island Q&A With Central MN State Reps

I was expecting some answer about how programs were in place, or at least a vague response saying more needs to be done, so I was genuinely shocked by the response I received. After a brief moment of silence, the reporter asked the question again, at which point there were several statements from representatives saying that this is the first they heard of this as being an issue. One representative even said that he had not received a death threat online, and so did not think it to be a serious issue. Finally, the answer to this question ended with one representative saying that while cyber bullying may be a problem that they believed it to be a federal issue.

At this point, I want to highlight that not only is this a very serious problem, but it is also a highly gendered one. These online threats often come along with graphic threats of rape, dismemberment, and mutilation. Just a few of the tamest quotes from a well publicized article in the Pacific Standard demonstrate the graphic nature of these threats:

“Happy to say we live in the same state. Im looking you up, and when I find you, im going to rape you and remove your head.“

”If I lived in Boston I’d put a bullet in your brain.”

Quotes from this article in the Pacific Standard titled “Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet”

Over the past few years, there have been countless stories of professional gamers, environmental activists, and political candidates facing death threats on a near daily basis. Just days ago, the heartbreaking testimony of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib dealing with terroristic threats as part of their daily routine was national headline news. The internet has opened the door for men around the country to direct their hate and violence towards any woman who dares to speak on an issue they care about or have a presence on social media.

This problem is made even worse by the fact that law enforcement has been doing very little with these online threats, and women face an uphill battle to take these threats seriously. The first hurdle is the legal notion of a "credible" death threat. This leaves much flexibility for law enforcement agencies to dismiss online threats, even death threats, outright as being “uncredible” simply because they are online. If a threat is taken seriously, there is little most local police departments can actually do, as they often lack the technological forensic capabilities to perform any sort of investigation in the digital world. The threat may be reported up to the FBI, but given the sheer volume of threats, they only respond to a tiny percentage of these cases.

While these threats may not be treated as particularly severe or credible by law enforcement agencies and lawmakers, they can be world changing for the women who live in fear for their lives as they face highly sexualized and graphically violent threats. Women already face a high degree of violence and harassment in their homes and workplaces, and the rise of threats online adds a global dimension to the gender violence they are dealing with and from which there is little reprieve.

So what can be done to deal with this problem? The good news is there are already plenty of laws on the books against death threats and other threats of violence, so ultimately the solutions lie in the investment into cyber forensic resources and the training of local and state police departments. Additionally, the solution needs to include communication between states and local police departments around the country to share information about these threats as often the person making the threat does not live anywhere near the victim. With enough enforcement, hopefully, the number of death threats across the nation would decline as perpetrators begin to realize that they will no longer be able to make violent threats with impunity.

In my view, it would make sense to have a statewide task force with the expertise required to carry out this type of investigation and prosecute those making the threats. Ideally, they should have a highly publicized call number for individuals to report the death threats they receive online. With a task force like this, which has a clear purpose and the skill sets required, there would be more clarity in the process, and law enforcement would have a highly trained, shared resource to help respond to reports of online threats. Having a more formal and centralized process would also make it easier for local police departments to take these cases seriously and would give victims clear recourse to ensure their lives are being protected.

Coming back to what happened at the Q&A forum, I approached Senator Jerry Relph (who sits on the judiciary committee) to highlight these facts and see if he had any further thoughts. This is where I want to bring some hope into the conversation. Senator Relph, after hearing some of the facts, acknowledged the problem and offered several thoughtful solutions, including expanding the role of an existing statewide task force to encompass this role as well. He handed me his card, asked for a follow-up email with more information, and seemed genuinely interested in fixing this problem. I will take him up on that, and hopefully, in the end, this will turn in to the story of a bi-partisan effort to solve a problem which is now being brought to the attention of our Minnesota state legislature.