If you live in the National Capital Region, you may have seen the front page of the Washington Post yesterday morning – and a well-written article by Robert Barnes.  It’s about the threat of violence on social media and the upcoming Supreme Court case that will test the limits of free speech on Facebook and other social media platforms.  This case highlights some critical issues very similar to some of the threat assessment work that we do at Hillard Heintze, investigating threats against corporations and employees to prevent an actual attack.  (In fact, one of our case studies – “Exposing, Within Hours, the Twitter Author of a Threat to Kill Executives” – provides some vivid detail on what this work encompasses.)

Threats of Violence on Social Media: “Intent to Harm” or Just “Blowing Off Steam”?

The details of this particular case, Elonis vs. U.S., are troubling – especially for threat assessors and workplace violence prevention experts.  Shortly after a judge provided a woman named Tara Elonis with a protection-from-abuse (PFA) order, her soon-to-be ex-husband Anthony posted on his Facebook page “Fold up your PFA and put it in your pocket.  Is it thick enough to stop a bullet?”  The article later highlights additional information on Anthony Douglas Elonis that would have raised red flags with us, had we undertaken a formal threat assessment on this particular subject.

  • After his wife left with their two children in 2010, Elonis’s dejection and anger increased.  When another employee at Dorney Park, where he worked at the time, viewed one of his Facebook posts as a threat, the company terminated him.  His response: “Someone once told me that I was a firecracker.  Nah, I’m a nuclear bomb and Dorney Park just f—– with the timer.” 
  • In other postings, he ruminates about bringing a gun to a nearby school and notes that – “hell hath no fury like a crazy man in a kindergarten class.”

Making a Threat vs. Posing a Threat

Research has shown  it is important to realize that most people who commit acts of targeted violence do not make a direct threat prior to the attack, including threats of violence on social media.  Actual attackers often exhibit behaviors that have concerned others and what they communicate is critical to determining what we refer to in the threat assessment community as “dangerousness.”  Postings on social media provide great insight as to what communications were directed to the target, law enforcement, family, friends, colleagues, and associates concerning his or her intentions.

Social Media is Just One Window into a Dangerous Mind

Even a single isolated threat of violence posted or stated on social media – or any platform – is rarely enough to make a determination on dangerousness.  At Hillard Heintze, we use a highly technical, methodology-driven pre-attack pathway analysis to identify behaviors and characteristics likely to foreshadow an act of targeted violence that includes social media monitoring.  Besides a direct threat, we look at many factors ranging from the subject’s mental history, current life situation, behavioral history, motivation, and attack-related behavior, to ownership of or the ability to acquire weapons.

Different Perspectives: Should First Amendment Rights Take Precedence Here?

In this case, one of the seminal issues is First Amendment rights.  That’s not my area of expertise but, as an American I can say that, as distasteful as vulgar and offensive language can be – in Tweets and posts, just as in rap songs and other media – freedom of speech is a right that we need to protect and preserve with great care.  But that’s only one side of the argument. On the other side, I believe that threatening statements on social media should not be tolerated.  Because of a prompt response to communications of concern, we have likely prevented or deterred attacks for many of our cases.  And as the National Network to End Domestic Violence expressed so articulately in the brief it filed in connection with this case: victims of domestic abuse, “have experienced real-life terror caused by increasingly graphic and public posts to Facebook and other social media sites – terror that is exacerbated precisely because abusers now harness the power of technology, ‘enabling them to reach their victims’ everyday lives at the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen.’” Let’s see how the Supreme Court views the matter.  Is how we live our lives more important than how we protect them?  What do you think?

9 critical questions to guide your approach to online harassment