The Internet has brought stars closer than ever to their fans and opened up an unprecedented two-way path of communication between once-untouchable celebrities and their biggest followers. But it has also opened up a forum that deranged or attention-seeking devotees have begun exploiting as the latest and most serious form of cyber-stalking: anonymous death threats.
The latest victim of such attacks is "Friday" sensation Rebecca Black, who ABC News reported has been receiving threats by e-mail and phone ever since her song became a viral sensation. Police in Anaheim, California, have begun an investigation into the actions against 13-year-old Black, and cyber-security expert Parry Aftab told MTV News that it's important to not take such anonymous threats lightly.
"The thing is: They think they can get away with it and that's because they often do get away with it," said Aftab, one of the leading experts on cyber-security and cyber-abuse issues. "A death threat is actionable in every state, and when someone like Justin Bieber (his girlfriend Selena Gomez) or Rebecca Black gets them, they tend to brush them off as someone who is on the Internet and doesn't matter, but you don't know the difference between someone wearing Pokemon pajamas and living in their mom's basement who is harmless and people who are really nutty enough to kill you."
Aftab warned that all the big social networks are now taking enforcement of cyber-stalking very seriously and working with law enforcement to root out the attackers.
"These are people looking for attention, with nothing else to do in their lives," she said. "They're not mature enough to deal with society and don't know how to get attention in good ways." And while they may be empowered by the anonymity of the Internet and they may get the attention they seek by taking on someone with a high profile and millions of fans as a quick way to gain cyber-fame, Aftab warned that these actions are absolutely against both state and federal laws.
"If you make a threat of serious bodily harm or a death threat, a true threat, the Supreme Court has ruled that that is not protected by the First Amendment," she said.
And while these actions are often the work of lonely "trolls" who are seeking attention, Aftab said even if some are posted by fellow teens who are jealous, looking for a thrill or just joking around, authorities will take them seriously.
"If you're in an airport and you're goofing around with your friends in the security line and talk about, 'He's got a bomb,' you are going to go to jail. It might be funny, but there are very clear-cut laws and this is one of them," she said. "There are many cases where it's a 15-year-old on the other side and they're not crazies, but they're playing crazies online as a way of acting out."
Friends joking around is one thing, but according to federal cyber-stalking laws, if you communicate with someone anonymously and they can't evaluate how real the threat is and your intent is to annoy or harass, the FBI can investigate it and you can go to jail for two years.
In a case like Black's, where the singer has elicited a lot of negative response from people who are annoyed by her simplistic, insanely catchy song, Aftab chalks the death threats up to a loss of civility and people not knowing how to object to something without resorting to the most extreme words and using the secrecy of the Internet as a screen for their hate or jealously.
"They think it doesn't matter because they're only words and they're doing it anonymously on Facebook, but they don't realize that it's just as legally actionable as if you went up to [a celebrity] face to face and said, 'I want to kill you.' "
As for how victims of such actions can protect themselves, Aftab suggested the victim not keep the communication going with the person making the threats, and not respond to them or say they're going to report them to the authorities. In the meantime, they should contact the local authorities and, she suggested, visit a site like SpectorSoft, which offers what she called the most powerful monitoring software available, which is able to log all incoming and outgoing communications on your computers and some smartphones and trace them so authorities can find out who is behind the harassment and bring charges.
"Run silent and run deep, but do not respond," she counseled. "It only feeds this."
MTV's ongoing A Thin Line project provides stories and resources for anyone who believes they are being cyber-bullied or who is looking for ways to stop harassment by digital means.