Threats on Facebook: LOL, I Didn’t Really Mean It

The Issue

Before the U.S. Supreme Court is a case to decide how courts should determine someone’s online communications: whether it is threatening or is protected First Amendment speech. The specific case is Anthony Douglas Elonis vs. United States. Elonis was convicted of making threats against a variety of people, including his estranged wife on Facebook.

Elonis’ threats of harm against his wife included a rap lyric that said, “Fold up your PFA [protection from abuse order]…is it thick enough to stop a bullet,” as well as a detailed post about how it technically wasn’t illegal for him to say: “the best place to fire a mortar launcher at her house would be from the cornfield behind it because of easy access to a getaway road and you’d have a clear line of sight through the sun room,” accompanied by a diagram. His other threats included wanting to blow up the state police and sheriff departments; threats against an FBI agent; and claims to make a name for himself by “[initiating] the most heinous school shooting ever imagined.”

The issue at hand: should Elonis’ intention of carrying out those threats have to be proven for those threats to be credible? Elonis and his supporters argue that “subjective intent” is the standard to prove threats are real. NNEDV and others argue that “objective intent,” taking into account the content and the context of the statements, is the correct standard to determine the credibility of threats.

Are Online Threats Real?

The perceived anonymity of the internet has allowed many to harass, intimidate, and threaten others, particularly women, in more ways than ever before. In recent years, we have seen a rise in young people committing suicide after online bullying, female bloggers and gamers viciously attacked online, and women being threatened by “anonymous” mobs for daring to speak out on women’s issues.

The reality is that after any kind of threat, victims fear for their safety. They will leave their homes, change their names, change their phone numbers, abandon careers, leave school, and withdraw from online spaces, including major platforms such as Twitter or Facebook. Survivors have gone to great lengths to feel safer. So are online threats real? The consequences to the victims are very real.

Furthermore, in most cases of domestic violence and stalking, online threats aren’t made in isolation. They are often made as part of other abusive behavior, including physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; intimation; harassment; and attempts to control the other person. Nor are victims' fears unfounded. Each day, an average of three women are killed by a former or current intimate partner in the United States. Context is important. If a victim is so terrified of her abuser, and a judge agrees and gives her a protection order that forbids the abuser from even going near the victim—that context matters. So when he goes home and writes a “lyric” about how a protection order will not stop a bullet and posts it online so everyone can see—that is terrifying. This isn’t a Taylor Swift breakup song. This is a threat.

Freedom of Speech

Those in defense of Elonis argue that the intent matters for a variety of reason. The central argument is that if threats are assessed by the victim’s perception of the threat rather than the person’s intent when making the threat, it could chill freedom of speech. In ACLU’s brief, not taking into account the speaker’s intent could result in “self-censorship [so as] to avoid the potentially serious consequences of misjudging how his words will be received.” Moreover, the arguments claim that it is difficult to assess how speech is perceived when made over the internet because the audience’s reaction to online threats could be interpreted in so many different ways.

The Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project claims that requiring proof of intent is necessary because Elonis’ statements were artistic rap lyrics. The inflammatory and violent statements, while distasteful, were artistic self expression. Those who are unfamiliar with the rap genre, the argument in the brief asserts, could hold negative stereotypes and “falsely and incorrectly interpret them as a threat of violence of unlawful conduct.”

Online Threats and Domestic Violence, Stalking, and Violence Against Women

Their arguments only work if you lived in a world where outlandish speech is only made in the name of art or political speech. In the real world, online threats, particularly against women or intimate partners, are not artistic or political speech. It is violent speech that terrorizes victims. Regardless of whether the abuser or stalker intends to blow up the victim’s home with a mortar or cut her up until she’s soaked in blood and dying (another of Elonis’ online posts), he is accomplishing one of his goals, which is to terrify the victim.

Threats against women cannot be minimized because they happen online. Or because the abuser hasn’t yet carried out the crime. Or because we’re worried that enforcing consequences for these threats will cause people to feel less free to speak their minds and hinder freedom of speech. In the context of domestic violence and stalking, threatening language is threatening. Needing to show subjective intent would make it more difficult to hold abusers and stalkers accountable for terrifying victims and would imply that it’s okay to make such threats, as long as, you know, you didn’t really mean it.

Read our brief for the Elonis v. United States case here

Read our official press release statement here.

Resource Update! New content and language translations for Safety & Privacy on Facebook: A Guide for Survivors of Abuse

Last year, NNEDV teamed up with Facebook to create Safety & Privacy on Facebook: A Guide for Survivors of Abuse. This guide lays out both basic and more advanced privacy and safety features of Facebook, which can help survivors when they are trying to maximize privacy when using Facebook or are attempting to document an abusers’ online harassment. 

This year, as part of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, NNEDV and Facebook worked together to update the guide and translate it into several languages, including Spanish, French, Chinese, and Vietnamese. The updates include guidance on new features and any privacy and security settings that have changed. A new feature that is explained further in the guide is the Download Your Information (DYI) Tool. This tool allows users to download most of their Facebook activity and content, including posts made by other people on the users’ account. For survivors of harassment and stalking, this can be used to document abuse. 

The guide addresses privacy within Facebook, as well as safety tips and options for when someone is misusing the site to harass, monitor, threaten, or stalk.  It refers back to Facebook’s Help Center in several places for more detailed information on settings and features – a site that all Facebook users should check out. 

We believe strongly that everyone has a right to privacy and safety, both offline and online. We also know how important is it for survivors to remain connected to both family and friends and to maintain control over their personal information. Although we often hear suggestions that survivors shouldn’t use social media, we don’t agree that this is a solution. Getting off social media doesn’t guarantee any level of safety or privacy. Additionally, online spaces can decrease isolation and offer much support for survivors, especially when they offer privacy and security controls to the user. Survivors shouldn’t have to worry about their safety when they want to connect with friends and family online. It is critical that survivors have the information that they need to navigate their lives safely, which in today’s digital age, includes online spaces.  

Since joining Facebook’s Safety Advisory Board in 2010, NNEDV has embraced its partnership with Facebook to consistently support the needs of victims of domestic violence, dating abuse, cyber-stalking, and teen dating violence. As we continue our efforts together to enhance the safety and privacy for survivors who are online, NNEDV thanks all those at Facebook for their dedicated efforts to make Facebook a safe environment for all users. 

Please check out the Safety & Privacy on Facebook: A Guide for Survivors of Abuse and share with others! 

English - Safety & Privacy on Facebook: A Guide for Survivors of Abuse

Spanish - Safety & Privacy on Facebook: A Guide for Survivors of Abuse

French - Safety & Privacy on Facebook: A Guide for Survivors of Abuse

Vietnamese - Safety & Privacy on Facebook: A Guide for Survivors of Abuse

Chinese - Safety & Privacy on Facebook: A Guide for Survivors of Abuse


New Resources on Technology Safety For Agencies & Survivors

We receive a lot of questions from victim service providers about technology safety. How do we use use technology within our organizations? How are abusers misusing technology to stalk victims? How do we educate survivors on increasing their privacy when using technology. In response to those questions and concerns, we have developed additional resources to assist programs and survivors. We are very excited to officially release two brand new toolkits for that exact purpose: Agency’s Use of Technology Best Practices & Policies and Technology Safety & Privacy: A Toolkit for Survivors. These two toolkits comprise of a variety of resources on technology safety issues that will be helpful for victim service providers and the survivors they serve.

The misuse of technology by abusers is a serious concern for victim service agencies working with survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and trafficking. Because we use technology every day of our lives, it has become an easy tool for perpetrators to misuse to stalk and harass victims. Survivors need to know how to strategize for their own safety when using technology.

The Technology Safety & Privacy: A Toolkit for Survivors contains information on a variety of topics to help survivors maintain their safety. Resources include safety plans around technology use, including a specific safety plan for cell phones; videos on how to limit location access on a smart phone and how to take a screenshot on a computer or cell phone to document abuse; and lots of information on online safety, including a Facebook privacy & safety guide and tips on how to create more secure passwords.

The need to know how to use technology safely isn’t limited to survivors. Victim service agencies need to make sure that their own use of technology is secure and private. How they set up and use technology can have serious safety implications for the survivors they work with. The Agency’s Use of Technology Best Practices & Policies toolkit includes a wide range of information, including guidance when using different types of technology to communicate with survivors; resources on data management, including how to select a database; and best practices and policies around the use of technologies such as faxes and computers.

These toolkits and resources were created with support from US DOJ-OVC Grant #2011-VF-GX-K016. 

Creator of StealthGenie Arrested

A couple weeks ago, Hammad Akbar, the creator of StealthGenie, a mobile application that allows someone to spy on another person’s cellphone, was arrested by the FBI. He was arrested on charges of conspiracy, sales of surreptitious interception devices, and advertising a surreptitious interception device. Advertised as a way to keep an eye on cheating spouses, monitor teenage children, and employers, anyone can download and install StealthGenie to monitor all activities on a cell phone.

Other than the computer, the cellphone is one of the most used forms of technology. In fact, according Pew Internet, 44% of Americans sleep with their phones so they don’t miss out on texts or messages. We use our cell phone to organize our lives, search for information (let me google that for you), entertain us, and communicate with others – via text, social media, email, and, sometimes, even a phone call. For many of us, survivors included, our cell phone is our lifeline to help, information, and to other people. Cellphone spyware makes it incredibly easy for abusers and stalkers to monitor the activities and location of survivors through their cell phones.

When abusers are stalking their victims’ phones via spyware, it is 24-7 control and abuse. In addition to constant monitoring, abusers often engage in other types of abuse, such as physical abuse, threats, and emotional abuse. The result is that survivors feel completely isolated and cut off from any avenue of help. Everything they say and everything they do is monitored and controlled by the abuser. The trauma and the fear can be overwhelming.

StealthGenie isn’t the only monitoring product out there. There are many similar products available, including mSpy, MobiStealth, Spy Bubble. Some of these products are advertised under the guise of protecting your vulnerable children or protecting your liability by monitoring your employees. Some come right out and encourage users to buy their products to “catch your cheating spouse.” In reality, abusers and stalkers are buying these products to further terrorize and abuse their victims.

We’re glad that the government is cracking down on products that make it easier for abusers to harm victims. For years, when their phones were being monitored survivors would have to get a new phone – a very expensive step – simply to stay safe. Removing these types of products from the market means one less tool for abusers to use to stalk and harass survivors of domestic violence and stalking.

For more information about cell phone safety, visit our Technology Safety & Privacy toolkit. For more information about NNEDV Safety Net’s advocacy work on cell phone privacy and safety, watch Cindy Southworth, Vice President of NNEDV’s testimony at the Location Privacy Protection Act of 2014 hearing. 

Cybersecurity & Violence Against Women

In addition to being Domestic Violence Awareness Month, this month is also Cybersecurity Awareness Month. When we think about cybersecurity, we often think of security from identity theft, fraud, phishing, or hackers who steal passwords and information. But cyber – or online – security has a broader meaning for victims of domestic and sexual violence and stalking. Cybersecurity also means personal safety – safety from harm, harassment, and abuse while online.

For many survivors, being online can feel unsafe because the abuser or stalker is accessing their online accounts to monitor their activities; posting harmful and negative things about them, including sexually explicit images and personally identifying information; or using cyberspace to harass and make violent threats under the cover of “anonymity.” Abusers and stalkers often compromise the security of survivors’ technologies by installing monitoring software on cell phones or computers or forcing them to reveal passwords to online accounts.

In a study conducted by the National Network to End Domestic Violence, victim service providers report that of the survivors they work with 75% have abusers who access their online accounts, 65% have abusers who monitor their online activities, and 68% have had their pictures posted online by the abuser without their consent. In a survey by the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, when abusers and stalkers distribute sexually explicit images of victims, 59% includes the full name of the victim, 49% include social media information, and 20% include the phone numbers of the victim. Online harassment, in the context of abuse and stalking, can have serious and dangerous consequences.

So this month, as Domestic Violence Awareness Month and Cybersecurity Awareness Month coincides, let’s think about cybersecurity and safety beyond safely making an online purchase but how we can create an environment where all can be personally safe from violence while online. How do we create a safe online space that doesn’t tolerate abuse? How do we support those who are victimized online, whether their ex is making threats via social networks, or someone is distributing sexually explicit images of them online, or they’re being threatened by a group of strangers online simply because they have an opinion about gender and dare to be in a male-dominated space? And how do we hold accountable those who are threatening, abusing, and harassing victims online?

This month—and all months—help us figure out the answers to these important questions. Comment below if you have thoughts or ideas. 


New Resources Help Programs Choose the Right Database

Victim service providers across the country are grappling with the same challenge – what kind of database will allow them to properly track records without compromising the privacy of survivors?

There isn’t a simple answer for this question. Choosing and implementing a safe and secure database is a complex process. Fortunately, we have created a series of resources to help programs choose and maintain a database that upholds confidentiality to the extent required by law and best practice.

The Safety Net Team and Confidentiality Institute have gathered information from many database companies that is specifically pertinent to privacy for domestic and sexual violence programs.  Standard questionnaires have been completed by the companies to allow programs to compare the database products side-by-side, and each company participated in a recorded webinar presentation that dives deeper into their policies and processes for securing data.

In addition, some new resources have been developed to help programs narrow down what they are looking for. The handout, “5 Characteristics of a Secure & Victim-Centered Database” explores the key elements to selecting a database that takes into account survivors’ privacy needs and the confidentiality obligations of programs.

You can access these resources by visiting Safety Net’s Selecting a Database section of our Agency’s Use of Technology Best Practices & Policies Toolkit.

For more information on confidentiality obligations, including various templates to use within partnerships, also visit

Technology Summit 2014 Starts Today!

Today is the first day of our 2014 Technology Summit in beautiful San Jose, CA. We are so excited to welcome advocates, law enforcement, and attorneys from all over the country, Guam, Canada, and Australia! The morning opened with remarks from NNEDV president and CEO Kim Gandy and Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, and the day will continue with presentations on what service providers need to know when abusers misuse technology to abuse, stalk, and harass.

In our 15 years of working on this issue, the most important thing that we’ve learned is how critical it is for everyone to work together and be a part of this conversation. The collective knowledge, skills, and expertise of everyone are needed to address the multifaceted needs of survivors and move forward towards an end to violence.

We are so thrilled to have so many people dedicated to supporting victims of domestic and sexual violence and stalking join us. To all our attendees, and all the advocates and service providers working to help victims, thank you for what you do every day. You never know how many lives you’ve changed in your work. The work you do not only changes the lives of women and men you serve, but their children’s lives and their children’s lives. Thank you for getting up every day and doing this important work.

We are looking forward to 3 more days of expert trainings and information from all 27 of our amazingly brilliant presenters. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram, #techsummit14, to follow the conversation.


Cell Phone Location, Privacy and Intimate Partner Violence

The Domestic Violence Report recently published an article Safety Net wrote on cell phone location privacy and safety. This comprehensive article discusses how cell phone location is misused by abusers to stalk and monitor victims and tips on what victims can do. It explores the different ways cell phone location information can be revealed and concludes with proposed federal legislation on location privacy and best practices for app developers who want to collect location information through their apps.  Read the full article.

photo: Ron Wiecki

photo: Ron Wiecki

Meanwhile, here are a few safety tips on what to do if someone is misusing your cell phone location information as a tool to monitor or stalk you.  

1.      Safety first. If removing the tracking app or turning the phone off may be more dangerous, develop a safety plan regarding how to continue using the phone so that the abuser does not become suspicious. Simultaneously create a plan on how to communicate with others until the program can be removed completely or you’re able to get a new phone.

2.      Keep a log. Knowing the pattern of the abusive person’s behavior and what information they seem to know can help the survivor narrow down how the abuser is getting his or her information. Abusers can be creative and can find many ways to monitor and stalk a victim, often using more than one technology or method.

3.      Secure your phone. Become familiar with the security settings and put a lock code on the phone.

4.      Don’t install unknown apps or programs. Be careful not to install programs that are unknown, especially if the suggested app is from the abuser or mutual friends. Also, be aware of what permissions or access to data on your phone that the app requires before you download.

5.      Limit apps that are using your location. Know which applications are using your location and either limit its ability to use your location or delete the app, unless you are confident in what the purpose is and the extent of the sharing and access to your personal information.

6.      Use privacy settings. If a location program is already on the phone, the user should learn about its settings and features. Knowing what controls are available may allow for continued use while also maintaining privacy and control.

7.      Turn off phone. For short periods of time, a survivor can cut off communication from the phone by putting the phone on airplane mode or turning the phone off and taking out the battery. However, be aware that when the phone is turned back on, all communications will continue and location information may be shared again.

8.      Start fresh. When getting a new cell phone, don’t import everything from the old phone to the new one. Porting over all the data may inadvertently install the tracking application as well.

Want a more thorough safety plan? Download our Cell Phone & Location Safety Strategies handout.

New Survey: Technology Abuse & Experiences of Survivors and Victim Service Agencies

In a survey conducted by the Safety Net Project at NNEDV, nearly 90% of programs report that survivors come to them for help after abusers intimidated and made threats via cell phone, text messages and email, and 75% of programs noted that abusers accessed victim’s accounts (email, social media, etc.) without the victim’s consent and oftentimes without their knowledge. Intimidation, threats, and access of information about victims aren’t new tactics within the context of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, or trafficking. However, the use of technology as a tool to facilitate these tactics means that the harassment and abuse can be much more invasive, intensive, and traumatizing. 

Technology gives abusers more methods of controlling and monitoring victims. Seventy-two percent of programs reported that a survivor’s location is being tracked by smart phones or other devices; more than half of the programs report that survivors are saying abusers are spoofing caller ID (manipulating caller ID so that it appears as though someone other than the abuser is calling); and nearly 70% of programs report that abusers are posting pictures or videos of victims online for the purpose of distressing or harming the victim. Programs also report that survivors are asking for help on how to manage their technology and stay safe while using them. Survivors frequently ask for help with cell phones (71%); followed by how to manage location privacy, whether through cell phones or other location devices (62%), and computer or laptop use (56%). 

These two newest infographics show how technology is being misused by abusers against survivors. NNEDV conducted a survey of more than 750 victim service agencies across the United States, including American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, through a grant from the Office for Victims of Crime. This is one of the most comprehensive reviews of what survivors are telling victim service providers about how abusers misuse technology to harass, stalk, and harm.