When it comes to the Internet, context is everything — but that’s not always the most obvious thing in the world. Last February, 18-year-old Justin Carter of Austin, Texas, was arrested in connection to a post he made while arguing on Facebook about the online multiplayer game League of Legends. His parents and attorney claim that the comment — “I’m fucked in the head alright. I’ma shoot up a kindergarten / And watch the blood of the innocent rain down / And eat the beating heart of one of them.” — was made in sarcastic jest, as it was followed by “JK” and preceded by a comment implying that Carter was crazy. The police saw it quite differently, however, and as a result Carter is facing up to 10 years in prison on charges of making a “terroristic threat” despite police finding nothing in his house that would have enabled him to carry it out.

There are several things wrong with this situation, one of which is what Carter said. Teenager or adult, friend of Carter or complete stranger, it takes a particularly depraved sense of humor to see a joke about shooting up a kindergarten and not be at least slightly perturbed. What is far more concerning, though, is that law enforcement seems to have arrested him on the basis of a single e-mail containing an isolated screenshot sent by someone in Canada. Even so, this anonymous vigilante could have saved lives if they had alerted authorities to someone who was actually planning a Sandy Hook-style massacre. But thanks to multiple failures to understand one Facebook post’s worth of twisted sarcasm, the cost of this zealous person’s effort to protect the public has become a family’s suffering and months of a young man’s life.

Carter’s case is just the latest evidence showing that both law enforcement and the general public have trouble distinguishing between online sarcasm and online threats. In 2010, police in California issued a stern warning to the public about the Internet meme character “Pedobear” being a mascot for pedophiles. This was probably lost amid hysterical laughter from anyone aware of its common use as a way to mock people online who come off as inappropriately interested in young girls. Even more recently, 18-year-old aspiring rapper Cameron D’Ambrosio was arrested after posting lyrics referencing the Boston bombings to his wall on Facebook and threatened with up to 20 years in prison.

This lack of understanding has even shown itself at the University, when campus police reacted with praiseworthy speed this past Valentine’s Day to reports of a man — Engineering student Albert DeFluri — in Angell Hall wearing a gas mask. Apparently, it wasn’t until well after police had been dispatched that anyone made a connection between DeFluri’s gear and the Grumpy Cat sign hanging around his neck, which read “Love is in the air? Get out the gas mask.”

Admittedly, it’s slightly ridiculous to suggest that every questionable statement and public behavior should be checked for Internet-specific references before alerting police. One man’s jest can all too easily become another’s threat. But if police are trying to prioritize public safety and have any respect whatsoever for freedom of speech, they have to look at the whole picture once they have confirmed there’s no immediate threat. That’s not happening enough right now. While DeFluri wasn’t arrested or otherwise detained for his stunt, D’Ambrosio was held until a grand jury dismissed his case. Moreover, Carter’s comment was made in an argument with another gamer regarding a game whose players are notoriously enthusiastic — something I can attest to, having heard my housemates screaming various obscenities about the very same game almost daily over the past school year.

Context doesn’t inherently render what Carter or D’Ambrosio posted on Facebook harmless in the eyes of the public or of law enforcement. It doesn’t lessen the anxiety bystanders must have felt when seeing a man in a gas mask walking around campus. What it does do in an online setting is change the meaning behind a person’s words in a way that’s not obvious unless you know something about the communities that person identifies with. From rappers to gamers to Memebase fanatics, the sheer variety of on and offline communities — each with their own in-jokes and rhetorical norms that range from the absurd to the downright disturbing — is overwhelming. Law enforcement must be able to identify when one of these communities is relevant to a case. Otherwise, they risk arresting and threatening to prosecute even more people for making threats they never actually made.

Eric Ferguson can be reached at ericff@umich.edu.

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