You probably know what happened next, even if you don't: After a pretty gross back-and-forth that doesn't make either side look great, Brown deactivated his account. But his followers started to pile on, threatening Johnson with—what else?—death. There is no irony here about the followers of a guy who beat his girlfriend offering up a stream of brutish death threats; it is only sad.
Enter the age of the online death threat. It's scary, yeah, because it's a death threat. Humans rarely like being threatened with an end to their basic essence, no matter the delivery method for that announcement. And yet, on Twitter, this becomes such a weird, surreal concept: It's deeply impersonal (these people don't even know each other and probably never will; NONE of them know each other, likely), fueled by a false kind of rage spawned by the way the Internet works (one side gets self-righteously mad, another side self-righteously madder, and repeat). Fortunately, in most cases, the threat is also incredibly unlikely to be fulfilled. That doesn't make it pleasant. One might be prone to try to laugh away the kind of death threats Johnson received, from people she doesn't know (people who don't know Chris Brown either), who might not recognize her on the street, who most likely live nowhere near where she does and probably also don't plan to actually kill her. Yet a death threat is pretty much the ultimate "I hate you," and it's worth wondering, when "I hate you" doesn't serve to deliver the message strongly enough and we start saying "I'm going to kill you"/"you deserve to die," how far has humanity gone down some sick drain?
As David Knowles writes for The Daily in a piece titled "Twitter Terror," Johnson is hardly the first person to be threatened on Twitter. President Obama, Mitt Romney, Ellen Page, Tom Daley, and Taylor Swift can claim this dubious badge of fame, too. The list goes on. But before the little bird was the death-threat method of the year, death threats would arrive to famous people, politicians, and those in the public eye, particularly controversial figures, as a matter of course—on paper, perhaps by telephone, and in the movies, via the weird scrawlings or puzzle-piece letter constructions of madmen. Of course, there's no handwriting to decipher on Twitter, there are only assumptions of power and education based on icons and followers, word choice and spelling, what the person says and has said, as well as their affiliations. But again, probably, the people threatening Jenny Johnson shouldn't scare her (if you're really going to try to kill someone and are dumb enough to publicize it on Twitter, that's a clear benefit to your intended victim). If there's anything to be afraid of, it's this idea that death threats are this kind of new online norm. I think part of that fear, the fear that this is just a regular thing nowadays, is what subconsciously creates the need in us to assume a such a horrified shock-and-outraged position about such death threats. Knowles quotes digital media expert Jeanette Castillio as calling "the Twitterverse ... a very uncivil place.” Is it any more uncivil than anywhere else, though? The Internet hardly created hate, or hate-speak, or bullying. Further, do we only increase the levels of that incivility by freaking out about what a bunch of random people are raging about behind the protection, and often anonymity, of Twitter?