The Whos and Whys of Death Threats

Published on Saturday, August 30, 2014 By Brad Wardell In Game Developers

Ah to be young again.  I’m watching Twitter afire with different groups blaming each other for the death threats of different people.  They’re all wrong. They’re not sending death threats. It’s the crazy lurkers who do and they are typically not particularly into the cause.

Death threats: A starter’s guide

Now, first, let’s define a death threat because I see a lot of people confusing “I hope you get cancer” with a death threat.  I’ve had people write poems to me in which I die of cancer “bleeding out of every orifice.” That’s not a death threat. “I hope you die.” is not a death threat. It’s just rude.

So what exactly is a death threat?

So what is a death threat? I would think it obvious but apparently it isn’t. A death threat is when someone states or implies that they are going to kill you.

Not all death threats are created equal. If you’re a public person, you learn to distinguish between a credible threat and garden variety Internet jerks.

I’ve only called the police once in response to a death threat because the person was unusually specific.  There was one other death threat that was borderline (because they called me on the phone and it was clear they had driven by my house based on their description).

If you’ve been in the public long enough, you start to have a different perspective on death threats.  I’m not unique btw. It’s just that most people don’t publicize their death threats for the same reason people don’t publicize when they’re being DDOS’d or hacked or whatever.  You don’t want to imply in any way that they’ve had any affect on you.  I’m only bringing this up because the media seems to think it’s A. new that socially active game developers get death threats and B. it only happens to women (all  other things being equal, it does happen more often to women than men so don’t think it’s a sex neutral issue).  Of course, not all things are equal. Normally it’s men who get demonized and that has been the case for years.  This is relatively easy to prove because when the opposite happens, it’s newsworthy.

Why death threats happen

There are crazy people out there.

You can’t empathize with them because they don’t think like you or me.

If you’ve ever met someone truly psychologically unstable (and I mean someone who probably should be locked up) you know what I mean.  They’re a tiny tiny percent of the population.  But they are out there. They have a lot of time on their hands. They are lurking on your forum right now. They’re on Twitter. They’re on Tumblr. And they get angry. Angry in a way that most people never experience. They see someone who has done a bad thing and they want that person to pay. They believe that person deserves to die.

Who are the death threat makers?

Back when I was younger, I offensively described the profile for one of these people: Lives alone, 42 to 55 years old, white, male, on some sort of disability, usually not directly involved with whatever “issue” that has set them off.  They don’t post. They don’t tweet. They lurk. I called it the “Danger profile”. It was offensive mainly because it makes me guilty of demonizing a group that are nearly always perfectly reasonable (not to mention I was ignorant of the 19 to 25 group back then).

The crazies are NOT “SJW” or “MRA” or “Feminist” or “Tea Partier” or whatever.  They live on the fringes of these groups.  That’s why when one of these crazies are caught and rational people try to understand them that it turns out they didn’t really have an ideology. Again: You can’t empathize with them.

What saves the day 99.9% of the time is that they have a short attention span. I don’t mean that in the derogatory sense of the word, I mean literally, they have no attention span (it would be really awesome if someone who’s worked in mental health could comment to explain this better than I am).  

Hence, when I get a death threat, if it’s some stupid kid, I don’t take it nearly as seriously as I do when I find out it’s someone who I realize fits danger profile. The writing is very distinctive and eerily consistent when it’s in the danger profile. You get good at spotting the credible, the incredible and the fake death threats.

The reason I suspect it happens more to women is simply because the crazies tend, statistically, to be men. However, when it comes to demonizing individuals I definitely have my opinions of who does the majority of that.

How to reduce it

The biggest thing you and everyone else can do is to not demonize an individual.  If you feel you must bash some group, bash that group. But never, ever try to stir up hatred towards an individual online. NEVER DEHUMANIZE an individual.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t criticize someone. Any intellectually honest person knows the difference between criticism and trying to paint someone as being subhuman.

To sum up, it’s not someone from “that group” that’s sending the death threats. It’s a lurker.  You demonize someone enough on a forum thread, in the media, or on a social network and some lurker with the danger profile will pick it up and feel compelled to do something about it.