The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
December 1, 2014

Online threats: Free speech or harassment and abuse?

December 1, 2014

These days, it seems like we’re inundated with tweets, status updates, and shares. Some might be worth a like or a retweet; others deserve no more than an eyeroll. But some social media posts go beyond the typical, mundane update and hint at offline violence or threats. At what point do these posts cross the line from harmless chatter to harassment and abuse?

Elonis v. United States

Today, the Supreme Court of the United States will hear arguments as to whether a man’s Facebook posts constituted a “true threat” to his estranged wife or if they were just free-speech expressions of emotions with no intent to harm.

At the heart of this case is whether Anthony Elonis’s posts—such as “Fold up your PFA [protection-from-abuse order] and put it in your pocket. Is it thick enough to stop a bullet?”—would be interpreted by those targeted as menacing threats of bodily injury.

During Elonis’s original trial, the judge told jurors that the prosecution had to show that a “reasonable person” would view his posts as threatening. The jury ultimately found enough evidence to convict, and Elonis was sentenced to more than three years in prison.

The Supreme Court will decide if intent must be proved in such cases. Elonis claims that the posts were not unlike rap lyrics (such as those by Eminem), and therefore were just an expression of free speech.

What we know about social media and intimate partner violence

While questions of free speech and social media are clearly very important, cases involving intimate partner violence are unique. In intimate partner violence, social media (and other technology, such as texting) is another tool for perpetrating abuse. These technologies have allowed abusers to harass their victims anywhere, at any time, and have given them new ways to control, degrade, and frighten their current or former partners.

We know from our research that this behavior can start at a young age. My colleague Meredith Dank and I conducted a study of how teens use technology abusively in their romantic relationships. We found that one in four dating teens reported being the victims of digital harassment or abuse, and these experiences were red flags for other types of teen dating violence. About half of those who report such abuse also experience physical violence from their partners and about one-third report sexual victimization.

Further, abuse through technology is related to a variety of issues for teens. Victims commit more delinquent acts than non-victims and have higher levels of anger, hostility, and depression. In fact, online abuse was more strongly related to depressive symptoms and delinquency than other forms of teen dating violence, showing that it is uniquely contributing to problems for victims.

While we may not know for certain what someone’s intent is when posting threats or menacing comments online, we can be sure that such harassment constitutes abuse in some intimate partnerships. We also know that this type of abuse is often coupled with very real acts of physical and sexual violence, and that victims of it are more inclined to show symptoms of mental health issues.

So, while some may think this case is just about a person having the right to say whatever they would like, it’s important to remember that using social media in this way may leave some people terrorized in its wake.

Image from Shutterstock

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.

Comments

It's sad that it takes the Supreme Court to tell us what constitutes a threat. I can tell you if a member of my family or someone else I cared about was being 'threatened' online, I would find the @sshat responsible or their parent and make them CLEARLY understand what an actual THREAT was and the potential legal and 'other' repercussions of their ongoing behavior would be!