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When a social media post becomes a threat

December 17, 2018 - 3:30 am

By Amy E. Feldman, Judge Technology Solutions

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — It seems like a lot of people spill their bad intentions on social media before engaging in violence. But how do you know if a post is a threat? 

This month alone, police in Oklahoma City and Palm Beach, Florida investigated social media posts that people feared were threats of violence. Some schools have begun to pay for social media scanning services to monitor the web and notify the school of what one such company, Social Sentinel, calls "language of harm."

Like all investigations of language that could potentially be threatening, there are false positives, like one in Philadelphia last year that is the subject of a current lawsuit. The suit says a journalist posted that a day of reckoning was coming, and he said his civil rights were violated by a police interrogation that ensued. 

So how can you tell if a post is just hyperbole or a true threat, and what should you do?  

Mental health experts and law enforcement officials say to look for language that is unequivocal, immediate and specific that demonstrate a seriousness of purpose and the prospect of being carried out in the near future. If you're not sure, err on the side of safety and report it.