Lessons from the Elliot Rodger Attack: Taking Online Threats Seriously

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
May 27, 2014

Cross-posted from Forbes.

To New York Times reporter Jennifer Medina, Professor Adam Winkler wisely remarked that although there isn’t an easy solution to mass shootings, there is an overlooked lesson: that people should “take threats made on social media more seriously.” Elliot Rodger was “advertising to people that he was a threat; if more people had acted on it and reported it, it’s possible law enforcement would have acted differently,” he surmised.

If only that were true.

We ought to take online threats of violence seriously but we don’t. Consider law enforcement’s response to the threats faced by Slate journalist Amanda Hess. Someone writing under the name “headlessfemalepig” sent Hess seven tweets. One said, “I am 36 years old, I did 12 years for ‘manslaughter’, I killed a woman, like you, who decided to make fun of guys cocks.” The next warned, “Happy to say we live in the same state. Im looking you up, and when I find you, I’m going to rape you and remove your head.” The final tweet: “You are going to die and I am the one who is going to kill you. I promise you this.” Hess called the Palm Springs, California police. The response? “What is Twitter?,” the officer asked. Nothing else was done about it. Hess contacted the FBI. An agent told her that someone would get in touch if the bureau was interested in pursuing the case. No one got in touch with her.

In another case, college student Patrick Macchione stalked his classmate Kristen Pratt via Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter Twitter. His Facebook messages were sexual and threatening. Macchione posted dozens of YouTube videos featuring him pointing his finger in a shooting motion and vowing to kill Pratt. He appeared in one of the videos standing outside her workplace as she drove by. He sent her threatening tweets like “It’s up to you to save your life.” Pratt contacted the Florida Department of Law Enforcement after Macchione called her over thirty times at her workplace. Police told Pratt that nothing could be done since Macchione did not seem to know her home address. Officers did not have to wait until Macchione made clear he knew where she lived: Florida’s cyber stalking law covered Macchione’s repeated threats of violence. Officers finally arrested Macchione after he confronted Pratt at her workplace.

Maybe Elliot Rodger’s murder spree will produce change. Maybe it will influence law enforcement’s response to online threats. It should. Law enforcement needs to investigate threats of violence made on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter because they can be precursors to violence as in the Rodger case and because they produce fear of violence that changes people’s lives. For Hess and Pratt, the threats instilled a sense of terror, and they interfered with their liberty to go about their business as they pleased without the specter of violence hanging over their heads.