One Twitter user is about to lose his pseudonymity, at least as far as the government is concerned:
A man who proclaimed his desire on Twitter to sodomize Michele Bachmann with a machete will have his identity revealed to federal investigators, a U.S. District Court judge in Washington, D.C., has ruled.
The man — who for now remains anonymous in public court filings, and is referred to in Chief Judge Royce Lamberth’s ruling as “Mr. X” — wrote a tweet in August 2011 stating, “I want to fuck Michelle [sic] Bachmann in the ass with a Vietnam era machete.”
Arguing that the tweet was clearly meant in jest, Mr. X filed a motion to quash a subpoena filed by a federal grand jury against Twitter for records pertaining to his identity. Lamberth, however, denied the motion, reasoning that Mr. X’s identity could help prosecutors determine whether the tweet really constituted a threat against Bachmann or not.
Mr. X doesn’t even need someone to make the standard “joke defense” for him in this case (and I will be annoyed at anyone trying to do so in the comments, since this is the point of this post; read for understanding). He’s done it himself. Even Judge Lamberth considers Mr. X’s tweet stream to be a pathetically transparent “attempt to elicit the attention on the Internet that he surely lacks in real life.”
That still doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Mr. X has made a threat. Is it a credible threat? Well, here’s the thing: We don’t know. Even if we accept that it was an attempt to be funny, we don’t know. Is the humor supposed to be in violating the social norm that we never say something like that, or is doing something like that supposed to be funny, maybe even for the same reason? We don’t know.
Really, we don’t. There are people who consider violence hilarious. I don’t. You probably don’t, and if you don’t, you probably find it very difficult to wrap your brain around the idea that someone else can. That, also, doesn’t matter. Nor does it matter that these people are rare. They still exist.
That makes the “joke defense” not just pointless, but also insulting to the person who has been threatened. Of course the victims of such threats know the threats are unlikely to be substantial–even when the victim is Michele Bachmann. Of course they know people were supposed to laugh over the threat. If they didn’t, the first person they revealed the threat to already told them, to promote “peace of mind” if for no other reason.
What they still don’t know is whether that threat, no matter how unlikely, actually is credible. They don’t know whether it’s supposed to be funny that they’re frightened–or funny that they’re injured or dead. They can’t, not without more information.
And neither can you or anyone else without access to the knowledge and training required to assess these threats. So the next time you find yourself ready to defend a joke like this knock it off, because really, you just don’t know.