Trusting women, trusting bloggers
In every discussion of the Kathy Sierra death threats, someone will confidently opine that Kathy shouldn't take graphic threats and ghoulish pictures seriously because they were published on the internet.
The fact is, most threats are idle. The whole point of a threat is scare the victim into compliance. On the other hand, there's no reason to assume that a threat is benign just because it was issued online.
The appropriate response to a threat depends on the specifics of the exchange: Is it just one person writing one angry email, or is it a prolonged campaign? Are we talking vague insinuations of ill-will, or detailed threats of violence? Are the hostile communications escalating in frequency or severity? Is there any evidence that those who are doing the threatening know where the target lives, or live nearby?
As Markos notes, the internet makes it easy for cranks to dash off idle threats to public figures. On the other hand, the same technology lets the same cranks pinpoint a stranger's home address in minutes. For example, Kathy Sierra's home address was published online.
Markos notes that a lot of bloggers get abusive email. I know I do. Several times a year, I emails from people who say they hope I die, or express other similarly vague pro-attitudes towards my demise.
Legally, those are threats. I forward those to the FBI and the ISP of the sender. I'm not the least bit scared, but man, do those threats make me angry. These shmucks are trying to intimidate me! Of course, it doesn't work and I take great satisfaction in creating a paper trail.
It's just as illegal to threaten someone by email or online as it is to call them or send them hateful snail mail. If we chide victims for taking email and website threats seriously, we're coddling their abusers. Threats should have consequences, regardless of the medium.
I've only gotten one specific threat of deadly violence in the years I've been blogging. Just before the 2006 mid-term election someone anonymous creep emailed me to say that they were going to be watching me through the sight of a high-powered rifle, blah, blah...
I wasn't scared. I was furious. So, I did a little digging and found out that the sender lived in San Antonio. After forwarding copies of the email to the FBI and the sender's internet service provider, I wrote back to the sender informing them that it was a crime to utter a death threat, and that if I ever got another threat from them, I'd call the San Antonio Police Department. I never had a problem with them again.
I'm so tired of hearing the "every blogger gets threats" canard. Empirically, it's all too true. But that logic cuts both ways. Kathy Sierra is a veteran blogger. As a high-profile female tech blogger, it's safe to assume that she's gotten her share of low-grade abusive email over the years.
If Sierra says that she finds this latest round of threats especially credible, chances are that she perceives a qualitative difference between run-of-the-mill angry letters and the sexual humiliation campaign being waged against her by a handful of highly committed sickos.
In general the person who is best-situated to appraise the threat is the target, in consultation with police and other authorities. That's what Kathy Sierra did, and she got vilified for her trouble.