Threats To Lawmakers Have Develop into The Norm On Social Media – Ought to The Platforms Take Duty?

Users across the country face direct threats from lawmakers, and this is especially true for … [+] the local level.


Arizona Republican MP Paul Gosar came under fire Tuesday after posting an altered animated video on social media showing him beating MP Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (DN.Y.) with a sword . The video, which has since been removed from Twitter, also reportedly showed Rep Gosar attacking President Joe Biden with a club.

The 90-second video, which was a modified version of a Japanese anime series, was released on Sunday. Although Twitter didn’t remove the video, it included a warning on the tweet stating that it “violated Twitter’s rules about hateful behavior. However, Twitter has determined that it may be in the public interest that the tweet remain accessible. “

In a statement to the Washington Post, Gosar’s Digital Director Jessica Lycos denied claims that the video was supposed to glorify violence, saying, “Everyone needs to relax.”

Open animosity between elected officials is now commonplace on social media, but one worrying trend is that more than just words are being exchanged. Users across the country face direct threats from lawmakers, and this is especially true at the local level.

The National League of Cities (NLC) released a new report on Tuesday entitled “On the Front Line of Cities Today: Trauma, Challenges and Solutions”. It found that harassment, threats, and violence against local elected officials have increased alarmingly, with these behaviors most common on social media platforms.

77 percent of the municipal officials surveyed observed an increase in attacks on public officials in recent years, while 81 percent said they had experienced harassment, threats and violence themselves.

“Personal attacks. Physical attacks. Cyberbullying targets themselves, their children and families while dealing with multiple crises in their communities – that is what it means to be a civil servant in 2021, ”said Clarence E. Anthony, NLC CEO and Executive Director. “It’s too easy to forget that our local leaders are human too. In addition to their titles ‘mayor’, ‘council member’ or ‘commissioner’, they are also parents, friends, neighbors and much more. “

Social media made it too easy

Perhaps it is the attacks routed through tweets that remain a real problem because the number of people engaging in the threats has increased so much. Where in the past there were a few “hot heads” writing threatening letters or perhaps talking on the phone, social media enables anyone to become a keyboard activist.

“The reality of social media as a driving force in our civic life is not new, but it is increasingly being used to intimidate people through the dissemination of misinformation, personal assaults and physical threats targeting you and your family,” said Mayor Jake Spano from St Louis Park, MN.

“Like any tool, social media has strong advantages,” added Spano. “But it also offers anonymity without accountability, which can leave you feeling frustrated or anxious for people’s safety.”

Many users may think that such threats are somehow “saving democracy”, but in fact, it has the opposite effect. Who wants to run for local office if there is a risk of being exposed to a constant barrage of threats on social media?

“This will have a suppressive effect, no one will want to sign up for the school board or the city council when faced with such a poison,” warned Susan Campbell, distinguished lecturer and advisor to the Charger Bulletin at the University of New Haven.

“It’s really unfortunate – people feel that if they make these comments, even direct threats, online, it might just be viewed as a draft,” added Chris Haynes, Associate Professor of Political Science and National Security at the University of New Haven, added.

“They use these posts and tweets to convey the negative energy and emotions,” explained Haynes. “But in this case, they don’t see the effects because the internet can protect them from what these attacks do. You don’t have to face the consequences of harming someone.”

Also, some users may mistakenly think that this is just a case of “free speech”, which it is not. Threats are certainly not a form of safe speech.

“People don’t think about what they post,” said Haynes. “Social media actually legitimize these negative comments and tropes.”

A lack of accountability

How Twitter handled Rep. Gosar’s tweet is also a good example of the fact that the platforms may not be assuming the required responsibility. In the case of Gosar’s tweet, Twitter claimed it was in the public interest?

But was it really in the public interest or in the interest of Twitter?

“There is a clear lack of accountability right now,” said Haynes. “The platforms don’t intervene when they should.”

In fact, this likely goes against the platform’s interest in doing so. As recently shown on Facebook, the discourse is actually good for business.

“It’s very much anchored in the business model,” said Campbell. “Outrage is a great sales tool.”

While some of the platforms have vowed to combat the proliferation of such hateful posts, much more can be done.

“Over the past year we’ve seen social media companies do more to curb disinformation on their platforms, and that’s an important step,” added Anthony of the National League of Cities. “But they can still play a bigger role in making sure harassment is not tolerated, and they should definitely do more. More regulation of these companies could be part of that solution. However, our new report is designed to do that Raise awareness. ” this topic and focuses on what cities can do to address some of the harmful effects of social media on the lives of their local leaders. “

A stronger response from law enforcement agencies who didn’t take online threats seriously enough could also be the answer.

“If someone makes threats, there should be a knock on the door,” said Campbell. “A threat against an elected official should be pursued as if the person had directed the threat in the official’s face.”

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