The Twitter Frontier
Posted by Alex Knecht
In the past year or so, Twitter has been an medium for some rather interesting legal fodder. There are two instances in particular that come to mind; the tweeted threats to Scott Walker’s life around the time of the Wisconsin recall election and Spike Lee tweeting the alleged address of George Zimmerman.
In the case of the Scott Walker tweets (which is what I’m going to concentrate on today), an already charged political atmosphere was sent into overdrive when the losers of said election turned into armchair wannabe assassins tweeting such statements as “Scott walker will die within the next week ive already payed for the hit” (original spelling and grammar left intact for your viewing displeasure). There were tons more of these threats (language, racism, and awful grammar warning!) and they came on the heels of more detailed and credible threats to Gov. Walker.
Now, according to Mr. Chow over at blogs.findlaw.com, the law, in general, forbids threatening to injure another person. I think these tweets qualify. They clearly state the various authors’ intent to shoot Gov. Walker in the head, track down his son at school, and even rape his wife. Imagine for a moment that these kinds of threats were written in letters to Gov. Walker’s home or office. They would be poured over for fingerprints and other forensics in order to track these people down. But Twitter has opened up a whole new medium of expression that allows for very little time to self-censor before the words are published for all to see. Twitter also allows for people to create online identities that are not connected to a real world identity (unlike Facebook generally). This recipe allows for big talk and little to no consequences and results in people shooting off at the “mouth” and threatening sports stars, political figures, and even schools. Keeping in mind we live in a world that recently experienced the shooting of Gabby Giffords, threats are taken seriously, especially those made towards politicians.
This all begs the question of how to address such threats. Well Twitter has policies set up on abusive behavior as well as Guidelines for Law Enforcement. When you weed through all of this, however, you see that Twitter will keep all private information about its users…well….private unless compelled by a subpoena or court order (and even then Twitter puts up a fight). This makes the job of tracking down threatening tweeters extremely difficult if not impossible for law enforcement. And even if the Madison police had gotten the locations of all those tweeters, do you think they had the time or manpower to track them down? I imagine some of them were in Wisconsin but I bet quite a few of them weren’t and that raises a whole host of other issues.
So what we have on our hands is essentially the wild west but this time you’re lobbing pot shots into the O.K. Corral from the comfort of your mom’s basement. It seems that only in the most extreme of cases are people arrested for harrassing behavior and even then it is unclear if speech on Twitter is like picking up a phone and calling someone or more akin to standing on a street corner speaking your mind to whoever will listen. (not my analogy)
To my knowledge, no one was ever caught or even contacted regarding the Walker threats via Twitter so it would appear the law is lagging behind the world of technology (again) but I’m very interested to see how these kinds of threats are treated five or ten years down the road. My guess is that Twitter will be forced to be a little bit more accommodating to law enforcement but I hope it doesn’t take a case of violence that was previewed on Twitter first to change things.