Yesterday, the Globe and Mail had a very good editorial about online death threats. In short, the piece argues that death threats made online matter and shouldn’t be treated as somehow “inferior” to those that happen in “real life.”
Death threats made on the Internet can be as serious as death threats made in person or by other forms of communication; some other threats less so. Police, prosecutors and judges need to assess the gravity of the threats and apply their common sense, from the decision to prosecute through to sentencing. There is no need to amend the Criminal Code in order to treat Internet threats as if they were less serious, as some lawyers have suggested.
Of course, my hope is that this treatment of online behaviour isn’t selective. I mean, if online threats should be considered seriously, shouldn’t other forms of online behaviour – like political behaviour – also be treated seriously?
I remember just two years ago, during the initially online prorogation protests many journalists and pundits deemed them as silly and unimportant. Back then the online editor of the Globe was kind enough to publish two pieces of mine (here and here) that attempted to counter this narrative. But this ran against the grain. Even at the Globe there were pundits who thought that treating online protests and petitions seriously was, well, silly. It was fascinating to see how stories about a 200,000+ plus facebook group focused less on how disgruntled many Canadians were than on how online politics didn’t matter.
Of course that was before the Arab spring when all of a sudden it became vogue to write about how online politicsdidmatter. It would be fascinating to see how the prorogation protests might have played out in the media if they’d occurred after Egypt.
For many of us, we’ve known for a long time that what happens online matters. Its why we care so much about the virtual space and demand it be taken seriously.
It is great to see the Globe’s editorial board feel the same way. Frankly we’d love to see more of it since the online world is very much part of our world, and the threats to it as a space where citizens and consumers can be in free are very real as well.
Threats online matter, and so does commerce, politics, free speech, and the infinite other activities that humans engage in, and will engage in online. Let’s treat it that way.
As you suggest, online is just another form of communication. If people are communicating those opinions online, it behooves politicians to believe that they hold those opinions – just as if they communicated them on paper, by phone or in person.
However, politicians are not only interested in what people’s opinions are, but how strongly they hold them. One way to assess that is the amount of trouble, inconvenience or expense they are willing to suffer to express their opinions. If I happen to bump into a politician and express my opinion it may be strongly held or weakly held. If I am ready to spend the time, money and effort to travel 1,600 kilometers just to express my opinion, then he (or she) knows a feel *really strongly* on the issue.
Online activism is believed to have a very low opportunity cost. It’s not a lot of time, trouble or expense to join a Facebook group. Especially when compared to writing a letter, taking the time to print it, address the envelope, put a stamp (that costs money) on the envelope, and walk it to a post box. People associate the ease of action with low commitment. That may be the case, but is not necessarily so.
It seems to me that the most successful use of social media for political activity occurs when people use social media, not just to express their political views, but to organize offline action. We saw this four years ago in Obama’s first campaign, where the online organizing led to offline phone calls and door to door canvassing. We saw this again in your example of Egypt, where people did not just congregate and communicate online. The online communication mobilized offline action in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in the country.
An team I was working with once received blanket death threats online. The police handled it well, I think, but I was surprised when one asked if we couldn’t simply block the person so we wouldn’t see their posts or messages. That shows the difference in perception– I doubt someone being shouted death threats in a parking lot would be asked to cover their ears so they don’t hear them.