Over the past week, two human rights colleagues of mine received rape and death threats over social media. One, who works with refugees, was sent a Facebook message saying, “I am gonna rape you to death fuckin darkies lover fucking traitor!” The other, who works on extrajudicial killings in the Philippines’ “war on drugs,” found the message “bullet in ur head!” on her Facebook page.
Receiving death threats is nothing new for human rights activists. But the rise of ultra-nationalistic populist leaders coupled with armies of social media trolls who spew venom at any critics has increased the hostility and dangers human rights activists face in many parts of the world.
Such threats are often not spontaneous: President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has a well-organized campaign spanning millions of social media accounts that endlessly repeat his incendiary messages. Just yesterday, Duterte told his police to go kill anyone who accused them of unlawful killings, and promised to pardon them for such crimes.
Death threats and other violent messaging on social media are not just vile words: they often amount to incitement or other unlawful acts, and can sometimes lead to actual violence. This is particularly true if the threats are against local activists whose governments portray them as enemies and lackeys of foreign powers.
Everyone can play a part in standing up against social media threats against activists.
First, preserve a record of any threat before it disappears – take a screengrab on your mobile device or computer.
Second, inform the activist who is the target of the threat, since many of us are often bombarded by social media messages and may not be aware of it.
Third, report the threat to the social media platform and ask them to take action. Many platforms prohibit such behavior by their users.
Finally, consider reporting the threat to authorities, or help the activist do so. Death threats are criminal conduct in many jurisdictions, and the police should investigate.
Our social media platforms are important communities, and we all have a responsibility to help uphold standards of decency and stand up against abusive and threatening conduct.
And it works. Just minutes after the person working on the Philippines received the death threat, I let the person posting it know that his conduct was illegal in Italy, where he appeared to live, and that I would report him to the Italian authorities. He immediately took down his threat. Others posting threats also should realize the potential consequences of their actions.