Let’s just say it: online death threats are rarely credible

Allum Bokhari

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Topics Free Speech

The recent savaging of Peter Tatchell and Mary Beard by trans activists on Twitter, after Tatchell and Beard signed an open letter criticising the censorship of allegedly transphobic feminists on UK campuses, has become a flashpoint free-speech issue for the media class. Unfortunately, the media narrative that has emerged from this latest incident of Twitter zealotry leaves much to be desired.

There were plenty of level-headed angles from which the media could have approached the story. They could have highlighted the mind-boggling irrationality of attacking Tatchell, a man who was fighting for trans rights before many of his young critics were even born. Or they could have asked why so many young activists in Britain seem to lack the emotional fortitude to deal with free expression.

But it wasn’t trans activists’ rejection of free speech, or their inability to cope with criticism, that was focused on in much of the coverage. Instead, the media took issue with the style and tone of their speech. From the Daily Mail to the Independent, the fact that thousands of activists are opposed to free speech wasn’t seen as particularly interesting. More interesting, apparently, was the fact that some of them sent death threats.

It’s time for a bit of common sense: the vast majority of ‘threats’ that appear on social media shouldn’t be taken seriously. Of course, if you ever receive a threat and are unsure whether or not it’s genuine, you should report it to the authorities. But such incidents are rare. Most people are able to tell when a threat is genuine, and when it is simply an expression of momentary anger. On the internet, where outrage and anger leads to retweets and shares, it is typically the latter.

But that hasn’t stopped people from turning online threats into a PR tool. Everyone from feminist campaigners to Oldham FC has taken the death threats they receive and waved them in front of an eager, headline-hungry press. They have become a means for controversial figures to divert attention from their critics, avoid meaningful debate, and win public sympathy.

Tatchell, to his credit, did not adopt this tactic. His piece in the IB Times in response to his critics is (mostly) a considered discussion of their concerns, not an exercise in victimhood. Tatchell is, of course, well aware of what it is like to be in genuine danger.

But the media’s obsession with digital death threats remains an issue that ought to be addressed. The police know how to distinguish between credible death threats and non-credible ones. Is it that hard for the media to do the same? At the very least, it should be obvious that genuine killers do not typically announce their intentions to the world on social media. The tweets sent to Beard and Tatchell were undoubtedly vitriolic and hysterical, but I doubt there was much to them other than anger.

That said, why shouldn’t trans activists or sex-worker activists be angry? They have much to be angry about. Both groups suffer a range of unique problems in society, and the political class are still wary of being seen standing in either camp.

Anger is a natural, human response to the perception of injustice. Whether these perceptions are accurate or not should, of course, be up for debate, but pointing at your opponents and saying ‘they’re more angry and threatening than us!’ is no substitute for a reasoned argument.

The media should stop reducing complex political and social debates to tales of poor victims and grimy trolls. Such exchanges are inevitable in any heated online discussion. Focusing on the blood-spitting and the threats transforms serious debates about serious issues into tedious competitions for victim status, and sidelines productive discussion. More than that, it pathologises politics itself. Because after all, when has politics not been angry?

Allum Bokhari is a writer and researcher. Follow him on Twitter: @LibertarianBlue

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Topics Free Speech

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