Well, Christmas has come early this year. We have an actual, fake, death threat.
I’m going to throw a TL;DR in the front of this. Usually, I’ll just type something snarky in these, like, “go back and actually read it,” but in this case: TL;DR: don’t make death threats on Tumblr. Or any social media, for that matter. Don’t make them in general, because it is illegal. But, the anonymity on social media is illusory. Just because I can’t see who wrote it, does not mean you’re magically invisible to the world. I say this as someone who has administered forums before; staff can see a lot of data you, as a user, don’t have access to. Using these venues for this kind of content is phenomenally stupid.
If you’re wondering why I’m not taking this seriously, there’s a few reasons. One: I know who wrote it, and yes, all five of those posts are from the same person. Two: No one cares about superheroes. Three: It’s less intimidating than the very bouncy dog that lives above us, because unlike the author, that dog both knows where we live, and could (theoretically) cause us harm. Finally: If someone were to decide to do horrific and unspeakable things to us, the original messages would give the police an immediate place to start searching.
So, let’s unpack how to actually make a death threat, if you ever need to create one for your writing. Because, if you’re going to do something, let’s do it properly.
Hilariously, the first cue that this is all from the same person is that their writing is terrible. I mean their actual writing, but also this. The thing about writing is, it’s actually substantially harder to identify the author when it’s in the median. Proper punctuation, grammar, and capitalization go a long way towards masking who you are. Word choice will betray you, and even within the US there are substantial dialect changes, depending on where you are in the country, which can give away who (and where) you are.
For example: if the sentence, “The Hamburger’s all,” makes sense to you without further context, you’re probably in Pennsylvania, or somewhere thereabouts. Or, if you refer to an ATM as a Cash Station, there’s a pretty good chance you’re somewhere in the Chicago sprawl. Though, if they weren’t trying to write like someone who was just paroled from 4chan, it might be more apparent. Seriously, there’s thousands of these little tells in regional dialects, and they’re worth learning about, if only for your writing.
As it stands, it does tell me the second post (reading from the bottom up, because Tumblr’s like that), was typed in on their mobile phone. Autocorrect will “fickle sick” you every time. So they were bouncing around between multiple devices, while typing. At that point, I do have to give her a little credit, because that’s a lot of effort to go through while still hiding behind an anonymous label.
If I was an asshole, I’d probably say something about how the anon icon is a weak attempt to look cooler than they actually are, with those dated Ray Bans, so I will. I mean, this is a death threat, so a little fun is in order.
At this point, I should probably also rabbit track and remind her that “your” is the possessive. “You’re,” is the contraction of, “you are.” As a writer, it’s one of those little annoyances you need to keep in mind at all times, especially if you want to be a professional some day. To be fair, this could be autocorrect striking again. Though, I can’t remember “talking about kill yourself,” so maybe more punctuation was in order. Also, turns out, due to the amount of coffee I consume, I’m immortal. So, there’s that.
The second thing is, no one cares about superheroes, especially not the author of the death threat. Now, before you try to correct me, I don’t mean individual characters. We all have our affectionate loyalty to various characters. But, no one cares about them as an aggregate. It’s easy to find someone who will get pissed off because you badmouthed Batman, or Spiderman. It’s a lot harder to find someone who’s really pissed because you made a crack at Nightman, or Raver.
Everyone’s got a few superheroes they despise. Sometimes it’s going to be big controversial picks, like Wolverine, or Superman. Sometimes it’ll be safer picks like third tier X-Men. Sometimes it will be the truly bizarre, like Dogwelder. Sometimes it’ll be characters you’re really not supposed to like, such as Elite, The Holy, and Mr. Payback. Everyone’s got a few superheroes where you step back and go, “nope, not that one.”
So when I say, “no one cares about superheroes,” what I mean is, the death threat lacks specificity. This is actually a problem for a lot of writers. Always be specific when you’re writing. If you’re talking about a dog, talk about the dog, not the idea of a dog, out there somewhere, but this one. If you’re talking about a death threat, make it an actual goddamn threat. It helps ground the reader into the world you’re creating. Even when that world is just an idle threat to, “do stuff,” to someone you’ve never met.
A real death threat is going to be specific. It’s not, “how dare you impugn the concept of the superhero,” it’s, “you said untoward things about this character I am emotionally invested in to a profoundly unsound degree, prepare to die.” If it was the former, then you’d need to line Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, Frank Herbert (necromancy may be necessary for this), and (possibly) Grant Morrison up against the wall ahead of us.
We occasionally get questions about how to threaten and intimidate characters, so let’s bring that topic up again. For a threat to work, it needs to be credible. You need to articulate actions your intended victim believes you’re capable of. I’d say, “actions you can actually do,” but there’s a little bit of wiggle room here. The threat also needs to create an image in the victim’s mind. This is, really, like any writing; if you’re not conveying an idea coherently, you need to start over and redraft it. To be fair, this is a problem the author struggles with, so I’m inclined to cut her some slack.
She wishes she could find us, because… you know our real names aren’t hidden, right? I mean, we post under pseudonyms here, but our actual names have been published on the site, and on our Patreon page. And, our mailing address is available online, as a result. Again, the purpose is to instigate fear, but, because the author didn’t do any research, it really misses the mark.
Doesn’t matter if it’s a novel or a death threat, you need to do your research. Learn what you can on the subject. You need to keep your audience engaged with the material. When it becomes blindingly apparent that you haven’t done the research, and the facts don’t mesh with reality, the suspension of disbelief breaks. Your audience has disconnected from the piece, and the best you can hope for is that they sit back and riff the hell out of what follows.
The second part, actually fails research. I’ve talked about taking people’s eyes out with your thumbs, and been in a situation where I seriously considered doing that for about half a second. We talk about horrific, disfiguring, injuries on a weekly basis. You only need to dig up the Starke Is Not a Real Doctor and The Only Unfair Fight tags, if you want to see discussions on this kind of material. So backing out and saying, “the most painful way possible,” is making threats you can’t deliver on, and failing to do the research.
The fact that I’m sitting here, trying to remember if I’ve done a post on pouring molten metal into wounds, should speak volumes about where someone would need to go to actually deliver on the, “most painful,” phrase.
Now, if you’re coming to something like this, and setting concrete goals, like, “I’m going to take your eyes out with a rusty grapefruit spoon, hope you’ve had your tetanus shots,” that’s a much more realistic goal, and a more credible threat. (Also, tetanus shots are their own flavor of torture, so that’s a perk.) It’s something you can actually do. Threats can be vague, like, “no, Mr. Bond, I have other plans for you.” But, a threat needs to be coherent, articulatable, and plausible.
I mean, sticking someone in an industrial microwave is a pretty painful way to die, but it requires that, you know, you have access to an industrial microwave.
Finally, if you read the TL;DR at the beginning, this should be familiar information, but don’t make death threats, especially not on social media. It’s profoundly stupid. Criminals, it should be noted, aren’t usually known for their intellectual prowess, but this is dumb. Florida Man dumb.
Social media isn’t like the US Postal system, or calling from a payphone. It is, absolutely traceable. There’s a very simple reason for this, if you could get true anonymity from the platform, it would rapidly find itself under scrutiny by law enforcement agencies like the DEA. You may wonder why, but the answer should be self evident. There are many people out there who make their living breaking the law. Just like you or me, the internet is a major boon for them. A truly secure and untraceable communications network buried on an easily accessible, and overtly legitimate site? Yeah, that would be way too good to pass up.
Now, the anon tag will conceal who sent the message from the recipient. At least it would, if the author’s writing style wasn’t instantly recognizable. That’s the point. It will not, however, shield your identity from law enforcement agencies.
At this point, it’s probably worth it to bring up a very brief discussion on The First Amendment. If you’re in the US, you’re probably vaguely aware of this. This is usually abbreviated as “Freedom of Speech,” and that’s accurate so far as it goes. But, what it really means is freedom from government retaliation over speech. It does not protect you from private response. To borrow a phrase, invoking the First Amendment is simply stating that whatever you said was not so incredibly stupid as to actually be illegal. It’s not a shield from criticism.
So, why am I bringing this up? Because it is also not absolute. There are exempted types of speech which do not enjoy First Amendment protections. You can dig the full list up online, if you really want, but one of the excluded groups is credible threats. If, the author had said, “I will find you, torture, and kill you,” well… actually, first I’d complement them finally finding their comma, but that could be construed as an actual threat. As a result, they could actually face criminal charges over it.
Historically, law enforcement has been pretty lax on these kinds of threats. However, it’s entirely possible that could change at any moment. Especially with increased attention on cyberstalking, online harassment, and internet bullying making the evening news. So, when I say, “don’t do this, it is illegal,” part of the reason is, you don’t want to be the poster child for a crackdown on internet threats.
If you’ve been the subject to this kind of behavior in the past, here’s the good news. You’re actually safer from your anonymous harassers than if they simply acted without warning. The reasoning is above. They said what they would do, before following through, and (figuratively) signed their name to it ahead of time. Any investigation of a physical attack against you will lead back to your harassers.
You can also avail yourself of the cyberbullying help organizations that have been getting press in recent years. You should also probably read this list. (And, yes, I am breaking the first couple rules at the bottom.) Granted, that list assumes the bullying is happening in a school environment, but things like site terms of service do still apply, after you’ve escaped into the real world. If you’re someone who sees a post like those pop up in your inbox, report them. Click the ellipsis next to the pencil icon and select “Report.”
Yes, people can and do use sockpuppet accounts, so blocking won’t always work. But, always remember, anonymous strangers on the internet only have the power you give them. Someone posts hateful, hurtful shit, directed at you personally; don’t try to understand, don’t make sense of it, just feed it to a grue, and find people that are supportive. They’re out there. Alternately: “If you’re getting death threats, you must be doing something right.”
Finally, if you ever want to be a professional writer, don’t stoop to this shit, seriously. This is the kind of thing that can come back, without warning, when someone with an axe to grind and access to old information wanders in and turns it into a huge mess.