The Team That Chases Down Online Threats to the President
It’s easy to find angry words on Twitter and Facebook, but who should be punished and how much time should the U.S. spend doing so?
When President Obama launched his Twitter account in May, people noticed his rapid accumulation of followers, a silly back-and-forth with President Clinton, but also something more serious: the number of hostile and threatening messages directed at the president.
Sifting through those messages to determine which, if any, need to be taken seriously is the responsibility of the Secret Service Internet Threat Desk, a group of agents tasked with identifying and assessing online threats to the president and his family. The first part of this mission—finding threats—is in many ways made easier by the Internet: all you have to do is search! Pulling up every tweet which uses the words “Obama” and “assassinate” takes mere seconds, and the Secret Service has tried to make it easier for people to draw threats to its attention by setting up its own Twitter handle, @secretservice, for users to report threatening messages to.
But if the Internet makes it easier to find threats directed at the president, it can also make it harder to figure out which ones should be taken seriously. The sheer volume of threatening messages online, the lack of context, and the ease with which users can shield their identities all contribute to the challenges of assessing online threats. One series of tweets addressed to @POTUS that caught the Secret Service’s attention—at least enough to warrant an in-person visit from an agent—came from a user with the handle @jeffgully49 and included a picture showing a doctored version of the president’s campaign posters with his head in a noose and the word “HOPE” changed to “ROPE.” The messages were apparently posted by Jeff Gullickson of Plymouth, Minnesota, who was later visited at his home by a Secret Service agent. “The agent from the secret service was cordial,” Gullickson wrote in an email to MPR News, adding that the agent just wanted to be sure his tweets were not serious threats.
Making sure that Gullickson was not a threat required more than just an analysis of his online comments—it called for offline contact, an in-person visit, an assessment of who he was and what he was like face-to-face, not just on the Internet. Context is crucial for evaluating the seriousness of threats—both digital and analog—but online threats offer a slightly different set of contextual clues than their offline counterparts. And while much of the hate-filled commentary on the Internet is routinely written off as hyperbole and ranting, threats directed at the president are not so easily dismissed. So, every day, the Secret Service Internet Threat Desk is faced with the unenviable task of taking seriously some of the most extreme online rhetoric and trying to identify potential assassins or terrorists in the deluge of venomous messages directed at the president and his family.