When President Obama launched his Twitter account in May, people noticed his rapid accumulation of followers, a silly back-and-forth with President Clinton, but also something more serious: the number of hostile and threatening messages directed at the president.
Sifting through those messages to determine which, if any, need to be taken seriously is the responsibility of the Secret Service Internet Threat Desk, a group of agents tasked with identifying and assessing online threats to the president and his family. The first part of this mission—finding threats—is in many ways made easier by the Internet: all you have to do is search! Pulling up every tweet which uses the words “Obama” and “assassinate” takes mere seconds, and the Secret Service has tried to make it easier for people to draw threats to its attention by setting up its own Twitter handle, @secretservice, for users to report threatening messages to.
But if the Internet makes it easier to find threats directed at the president, it can also make it harder to figure out which ones should be taken seriously. The sheer volume of threatening messages online, the lack of context, and the ease with which users can shield their identities all contribute to the challenges of assessing online threats. One series of tweets addressed to @POTUS that caught the Secret Service’s attention—at least enough to warrant an in-person visit from an agent—came from a user with the handle @jeffgully49 and included a picture showing a doctored version of the president’s campaign posters with his head in a noose and the word “HOPE” changed to “ROPE.” The messages were apparently posted by Jeff Gullickson of Plymouth, Minnesota, who was later visited at his home by a Secret Service agent. “The agent from the secret service was cordial,” Gullickson wrote in an email to MPR News, adding that the agent just wanted to be sure his tweets were not serious threats.