When Amos Guiora wrote a book about the Holocaust several years ago, he became the target of horrifyingly detailed death threats.

“The death threats that were posted online about me left nothing to the imagination. How to kill me. Where to kill me. And because social media is unregulated, it can be anonymous,” said Guiora, a professor at the S.J. Quinney School of Law at the University of Utah.

While the threats were plentiful, he found remedies were not. Because social media has been what he describes as a “vastly unregulated and clearly potentially harmful tool,” he talked to law enforcement, who were concerned. But there were limits to what they could do for him, he told the Deseret News.

Online rants — including threats of violence and bodily harm — are an especially timely topic after a Utah man, Craig D. Robertson, who had posted threats against the president and other top Democratic officials, was shot and killed Wednesday by FBI agents attempting to execute arrest and search warrants at his home in Provo.

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The Deseret News discussed why people post threats of violence online and the risks that raises with Guiora and Tucson-area psychologist Joel A. Dvoskin, co-founder of Heroes Active Bystandership Training and a clinical assistant professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. Both men said they didn’t know enough about the specifics of Wednesday’s shooting to address it directly.

But the issues raised are very familiar. Most people know someone who “goes off” on social media about politics, religion, current events and other hot-button issues.

A world of hate?

The U.S. broadly lets social media companies manage their content and enforce rules against violent posts. Germany is among the nations that take a different approach, enforcing bans on what it views as dangerous online communication.

As The Associated Press reported, the European Union’s Digital Services Act requires “tech companies to better police their platforms for material that, for instance, promotes terrorism, child sexual abuse, hate speech and commercial scams.”

X, formerly Twitter, is among social media platforms that claim a zero-tolerance policy. But AP reported that a smaller staff after layoffs raises questions about enforcement. 

A 2021 review of 67 studies published in the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior calls vitriolic social media posts “cyberhate,” defined as “the use of violent, aggressive or offensive language, focused on a specific group of people who share a common property, which can be religion, race, gender or sex or political affiliation through the use of Internet and Social Networks ... often motivated by ideologies.”  

Online has become a haven and launching pad for cyberhate and it is a global problem, according to the United Nations, which in July issued a policy paper, Countering and Addressing Online Hate Speech: A Guide for Policy Makers and Practitioners. It expands on the U.N. Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech, “which seeks to enhance the U.N.’s response to the global spread and impact of hate speech.” The organization warns not only of “digital divides created by online hate,” but also incitement of violence.

The Council on Foreign Relations in 2019 found nothing benign about online hate speech or violence, noting links to “a global increase in violence toward minorities, mass shootings, lynchings and ethnic cleansings.”

The council also said that “policies used to curb hate speech risk limiting free speech and are inconsistently enforced.” 

But what’s the harm of venting — even violently — online? And where does freedom of speech bump up against something that’s dangerous? Clear answers are elusive and opinions vary, though experts agree that’s one place where self-control could be a good idea.

A lack of control?

In the 1969 Brandenburg v. Ohio case, the Supreme Court said speech — including speech that advocates illegal conduct — has First Amendment protection unless the speech is apt to spark “imminent lawless action.” Before Brandenburg, the standard had been called a ban on speech akin to shouting “fire” in a crowded theater and causing panic.

But the Supreme Court a half-century ago had no way to predict what social media could unleash, says Guiora. When asked why they don’t rein in cyberhate, social media platforms like Facebook say “free speech, free speech, free speech,” he adds.

“There is certainly no doubt that social media poses very significant challenges to the First Amendment discussion,” particularly because online anonymity is possible, says Guiora.

He notes a discussion a couple of years ago that went nowhere which would have forbidden anonymity online. People would have to use their names. But there was no guarantee they’d use their real names, either, which made the idea “not really enforceable. In the time it would take me to write my name, I could make up a name,” he says.

Guiora doesn’t believe there’s “consistent, coherent discussion about how to limit what has really become the nefarious power of social media,” though he says there’s “no doubt it has serious undertones and overtones.” And it’s likely, he adds, that the needed technology doesn’t even exist.

Still, the legal expert doesn’t buy the notion that people who post specific threats about killing someone or causing grave harm are just letting off steam. He believes that given the chance, those threats could become action.

Those who are threatened have to decide if they will let it stop them from speaking or writing or presiding, depending on their life work — or if they will continue in spite of the cyberhate and threats.

“I would like to think that if someone is threatened — whether it’s Biden or Obama or whoever — that when the threats escalate,” authorities would apply for a warrant and take action, Guiora says.

The key is “imminent threat” and enough to get a warrant if there’s time, says Guiora. “I don’t want the thought police.”

Ranting: Benefit or risk?

“How’s it working out for you?” mental health expert Dvoskin counters when asked if online venting is healthy.

He said if venting calms you down and lowers your blood pressure, helping you deal with a moment of anger and then move on, maybe it’s not bad. When it causes more venting and you find yourself angry all the time, “it’s physically and psychologically unhealthy.”

Often, he notes, online rants lead to more online rants. “What good does that do?” he asks, concluding that people who are always cyber-shrieking about something are probably making themselves and others miserable, though having a place to express yourself is generally considered a positive thing.

“Having a place to express something so you don’t keep it inside can be very helpful. That’s why therapy is healthy for some people,” said Dvoskin. “But if all you do is talk about it over and over in the same way and nothing changes, it’s maybe not the best therapy.”

He notes that people have different motives for what they do. While some suggest posting mean, provocative messages is about making oneself feel important, Dvoskin sees it differently, believing people want to feel heard. “In my opinion, a fair amount of the violence we see in our society that seems unexplained is a way for a person to say, ‘consider me.’”

He explains, “In this world we live in where we don’t listen to each other and anybody who disagrees with us is evil, almost everybody feels like they’re not being heard.” In the political divide where much of the divisive rants occur, he emphasizes, both left and right are guilty.

“One tribe claims to be about individual rights — as long as nobody I don’t like tries to use one,” he says. “The other tribe is about diversity — but heaven help you if you disagree with me. There’s an utter lack of empathy on both sides.”

Americans live in a “false dichotomy,” according to Dvoskin, where people think they have to pick a side, there are only two sides and anyone who is not on your side is the enemy. In that world, he asks, how is anybody going to feel engaged?

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Dvoskin believes online rants probably don’t accomplish a person’s goals. “And it also probably would have been good if there were a more productive way to feel heard.”

Ask Dvoskin what cyberhate costs us, though, and he says it’s likely we don’t know the answer yet. He notes some believe the divisions and hatred have cost us our democracy. Others say we’ve survived serious divisions before — he mentions the so-called McCarthy era — and come out OK.

The advice he gives when he speaks to individuals and larger audiences about tribalism’s toll is pretty basic. People have things in common and points where they differ. “Take a moment and think about the thing you dislike most about yourself. Imagine a world where that’s all you were.”

He says that the sign on his forehead might read, “‘Joel talks too much. He is sometimes very selfish.’ Imagine if that’s all you can be. That’s what tribalism has almost put us in the position of being,” he says.

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