The Internet has always been an interesting place; it has cat pictures and pornography, business operation and cartoon arguments. Everything you can possibly think of exists on the Internet, and if it doesn’t yet it probably will soon. But along with all the silliness and seriousness, the Internet has earned its role as the most important communication tool we have and because it is so easy to start one, arguments are incredibly common.
Arguments can be about anything — whether Shailene Woodley is pretty enough to be Mary Jane Watson or whether Johnny Storm can be black. People will argue over politics, sports, business and whether that damn dress was black and blue or gold and white. And like Godwin’s Law predicts that an internet argument will eventually reference Hitler, any significantly contentious Internet argument will eventually produce a death threat.
The death threat is a unique move when it comes to online arguments: it is a trump card that doesn’t win the argument for you, it wins it for the person you’re arguing with. As soon as someone lobs a death threat over something as trivial as a movie casting or video game reviews, that side has lost all moral high ground. A death threat communicates your argument isn’t worth hearing.
But Internet death threats are only made by the unhinged and they don’t win the argument for you so they shouldn’t matter. As long as you’re rational and your position is correct, you shouldn’t have to worry about death threats. However, because of Internet anonymity the issue isn’t so black and white.
On June 2nd, popular image sharing platform Imgur began to enforce their content policy more aggressively. Their guidelines do not allow NSFW images to appear on the main image gallery and NSFW images cannot be linked to in the comment section. Until recently, Imgur users would occasionally link images in the comments with clearly marked NSFW tags and the recent crackdown (which has included images and gifs that would be a stretch to call NSFW) angered the user base. A large amount of popular posts on June 2nd were regarding the removal of NSFW content and requesting Imgur reassess the move. Many of these posts and comments were directed at the Imgur Community Manager, a woman named Sarah who frequently engages with users. Late in the day, Sarah posted that while she tries to be a voice for the community, the insults and death threats need to stop.
Right there the argument has lost all credibility to an observer. Do the users have a point? Who cares, they threatened a woman with death. We’ll never know who the people were who sent these threats – if they are actually Imgur users or just trolls that wanted to stir the pot. It doesn’t matter, because when a death threat appears on one side, that side is tainted.
The same thing happened with Joss Whedon. Many people online didn’t like how Avengers: Age of Ultron handled Scarlett Johansson’s character. People wrote articles and talked about the film from a feminist perspective. It was opinion, people agreed or disagreed and discussed the Widow/Hulk interactions and the “I’m a monster” conversation. Then a bunch of people on Twitter told Whedon they were going to kill him for what he did to Black Widow and the discussion was over. The headline is “Joss Whedon harassed off Twitter by Feminists.” It doesn’t matter what the majority of feminist movie fans say, there were death threats, so it was them.
No one is actually making a credible death threat in regards to these trivial issues. Some of what we’re seeing is the poor social skills of kids who learned their interaction from Modern Warfare 2 and they can be ignored outright. What’s more insidious to me however is the ability for someone to lob a death threat on behalf of a group they hate in order to tank their argument. The person who hates feminists that tweeted at Whedon from an egg account or the proud owner of a Guy Fawkes mask who sent Sarah a death threat and then giggled at the resulting maelstrom on Imgur.
While they are scary, no one’s life is in danger because they cancelled Firefly. The true power of the Internet death threat is that it is a nuke available to anyone who wants to use it.
Imgurians, feminist film fans and disgruntled Redditors don’t want to live with the anchor tied to them by Internet death threats. So the way I see it there are two solutions: either Internet anonymity is eroded (which will surely not cause any death threats) to make it harder for trolls to send a consequence free threat or we people of the Internet stop damning people with guilt by association.
My preference would be the latter. I know it won’t be easy but its the right thing to do, because unfortunately these stories aren’t becoming less common. Just a couple months ago I was told to blow my brains out because I made a comment about the Mass Effect 3 ending. And I’m nobody.
I’m nobody and someone tells me they’re going to kill me every time I write a mildly contentious article. We need to look at death threats made over something as moronic as a tumblr layout change for what they are; pure idiocy. We should see this the same way we see the 11 year old who’s voice hasn’t cracked yet telling us he slept with our mothers over Call of Duty – childish nonsense not worthy of attention outside mockery.
Death threats are scary, stupid, and I wish that they didn’t have a place in online discussion, but they only have power (stupid illogical harmful power) as long as we use them as the debate-ender we do right now.
Looking forward to the comment section here!