Opinion

Jack Shafer

Thanks, Internet, for facilitating the golden age of death threats

Jack Shafer
Jun 10, 2014 15:32 UTC

A man surfs the internet using a wireless connection in the lobby of a hotel in Havana

It’s never been easier to send an anonymous death threat.

In the old days, issuing one required a stamp, an envelope and a trip to a post box. You had to wear gloves to prevent embossing the page with incriminating fingerprints. Spell it out longhand? Good God no! Given a few leads, the boys in police forensics could compare it to other samples of your handwriting. Use a typewriter? Typewriters leave tell-tale signatures on the page by which the machine and potentially the owner can be identified. Cut and paste from newspaper headlines, ransom-note style? A very time- consuming  project just to put the fear of death into somebody. Use a telephone? C’mon, phone records can be traced.

As with so many of life’s labors, advanced technology has removed most of the work and hazard from sending cowardly messages to people to frighten them. The cautious and methodical know to anonymize their browsers with Tor and to use other cloaking techniques to reduce the odds of being apprehended.

If ease is the measure, we are living in a golden age of death threats. Bob Bergdahl, father of the Army sergeant who was recently sprung from Taliban captivity, has received at least four frictionless threats to his life via email in recent days. The threats have led to the cancelation of a celebratory rally in the Bergdahl hometown of Hailey, Idaho. Just two months ago, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey found himself on the receiving end of death threats for having sold his virtual reality company to Facebook. According to gaming website Kotaku, video game designers frequently face anonymous death threats after updating or changing games (Minecraft, Call of Duty, Mass Effect) in a way that displeases customers.

Other recent, high-profile recipients of Internet death threats include the Detroit police chief; a writer; an entrepreneur; an actress; a gun dealer; a pro baseball player, a pro football player, another pro football player, and a pro soccer player. (See also, this 2012 round-up of Twitter death threats.)

Death threats — Internet or otherwise — aren’t funny, even to journalists who have been getting them inside packages filled with toenail clippings and scraps of animal fur since they filed their first stories. But it’s impossible to discuss the threats without cracking jokes. The idea that a news story, poor performance on the athletic field, or the redesign of a software product would inspire even the unbalanced to commit murder can’t be taken seriously. Reconciling the illogical with reality is something only humor seems to be effective at doing.

“Jack Shafer’s latest column is his absolute BEST! Ever!”

Jack Shafer
Sep 24, 2013 21:55 UTC

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman made Page One news yesterday, Sept. 23, in the New York Times with his announcement that he had shaken down $350,000 from 19 companies he had accused of violating “laws against false advertising” and which “engaged in illegal and deceptive business practices.”

Schneiderman didn’t call the $350,000 collected a “shakedown” in his press release. Rather, he called it an “agreement” with 19 New York firms in exchange for their promise to stop flooding such websites as Yelp, Google Local, and Citysearch with fake online consumer reviews. The fake reviews, written for pay by freelancers both here and abroad, were purchased for as little as $1 a pop, and sang the praises of a charter bus company, a teeth-whitening emporium, a strip club, and a hair-removal service, among other companies. Both “reputation management” companies procuring the fake reviews and companies that purchased the fake reviews entered into the agreement with the attorney general.

That the reader reviews appearing in Yelp and Citysearch pages might be as loaded as a pair of dice at a floating craps game will not astonish anybody who has ever read those pages. On more than one occasion, I have struggled to find a single trustworthy review beneath a restaurant or services listing. The positive reviews always read too positive, as if composed by somebody with a neurotransmitter imbalance, and too many of the negative reviews seem animated by some vile but unnamed transgression committed by the proprietor. Had the attorney general’s investigators desired to perform a useful public service, they would have found the honest reviews on consumer referral sites and marked those pages with a yellow highlighter.

News never made money, and is unlikely to

Jack Shafer
Aug 15, 2013 19:26 UTC

Sometime in the mid-1990s, the Web began to peel from the daily American newspaper bundle its most commercial elements, essentially the editorial sections against which advertisements could be reliably sold. Coverage of sports, business and market news, entertainment and culture, gossip, shopping, and travel still ran in daily newspapers, but the audience steadily shifted to Web sources for this sort of news. Broadcasters had dented newspaper hegemony decades ago, absconding with breaking news and weather coverage, and inventing new audience pleasers, such as traffic reports and talk. But it was the Web that completed the disintegration of the newspaper bundle that dominated the news media market for more than a century. In addition to pinching the most commercial coverage from newspapers, the Web has also made off with the institution’s lucrative classified ads market, simultaneously reducing its status as the premier venue for content and advertising.

This isn’t to say newspapers deserted the commercial news categories. Newspapers have maintained their presence in the sports-weather-business-entertainment-culture departments to attract readers who attract advertisers. Even so, circulation has eroded and ad revenues have fallen to below 1950 levels in real dollars. The units of the newspaper bundle not yet ransacked by the Web — international, national, state, local, and political coverage – have (to paraphrase Frank Zappa) little-to-no commercial potential. Traditionally, newspapers have struggled selling space to advertisers by invoking these news varieties unless the news is absolutely spectacular or sensationalized. As the bundle fragments, it becomes more difficult for publishers to support non-commercial news.

Outlets such as Politico (a child of the Web) and the Bureau of National Affairs (a pre-Web entity, now owned by Bloomberg), which were designed to commercialize news about politics, the federal government, regulatory affairs, political campaigns, law, and lobbying, have succeeded in targeting an elite Washington, D.C., audience with this kind of news. But those successes don’t subtract from the fact that Washington news is a loss leader for most mainstream newspapers. The same is largely true of international and national news. No mass audience is willing to directly pay for such news outside of the one already served by the New York Times (combined daily print and digital circulation, 1,865,318). Even At the Times, subscribers now contribute more revenues than advertisers, indicating that they value its mission more than Madison Avenue does.

Facebook and the outer limits of free speech

Jack Shafer
May 30, 2013 01:11 UTC

The great thing about the Web is that it has given the opportunity to billions of people, who would otherwise never have had a chance to publish, to express their most urgent thoughts with an Internet connection and a few finger-flicks. It’s also the Web’s downside, as you know if you’ve had the misfortune to encounter a triple-Lutz revolting page during a Google search.

But thanks to the First Amendment, there are few U.S. laws banning expression on the Web outside of posting child pornography, specific physical threats, libel or copyright infringement. So there are few ways to eliminate hostile, ugly, vile, racist, sexist or bigoted speech from its many, many pages.

That doesn’t mean that there’s no recourse should you find content on the Web you disapprove of, as we learned this month when Facebook surrendered to a protest and boycott led by two groups, Women, Action, and the Media and the Everyday Sexism Project, and activist Soraya Chemaly. They opposed depictions of rape and violence posted by Facebook users and demanded, among other things, the removal of such “gender-based hate speech” from its pages. They also sought better policing by Facebook moderators to block future user-posted content that “trivializes or glorifies violence against girls and women.”

Don’t fear the Web

Jack Shafer
Feb 29, 2012 23:49 UTC

Does the Internet make you anxious? Do you lie awake nights worrying that Russian hackers are turning your children into sex slaves? Have you had the feeling that your iPhone is spying on you?

You’re not alone, Adam Thierer of George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, would have you know. In a working paper he posted on the Web yesterday titled “Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle,” Thierer outlines the dread that many have for the Web. The fears are real, of course. People do get robbed on the Web. Individuals have lost their privacy on the Web. Companies and governments have been hacked by thieves and foreign agents.

But surveying the hacks and rip-offs, Thierer finds that for reasons both psychological and political, the severity of most intrusions has been exaggerated. Attributing the overreactions to “moral panics” linked to new technology (“technopanics”), he writes convincingly that “there is no evidence that the Internet is leading to greater problems for society than previous technologies did.” That’s not to say that you’ve got no right to be flipped out about apps pinching your address book or your photos without your express permission, or about Facebook accessing your phone’s text messages without explicitly saying so, or about Google using a browser flaw to bypass your privacy settings, or about Google and 104 other companies tracking you as you pad around the Web.

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