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RT to Kill: It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Tweets a Death Threat

On the night of March 11, a Twitter user stood at a window in downtown LA and took a photo of his rifle, the barrel aimed at what appeared to be a couple of pedestrians standing on a street corner in the distance.
September 4, 2014, 5:00am

The ruse was supposed to unfold over a series of three tweeted photos. The first presented a blurry gun. The second showed a bloody victim. In the third, a young man lay on the ground next to a police car.

On the night of March 11, a Twitter user with the handle @StillDMC stood at a window in downtown Los Angeles and took a photo of his rifle, the barrel aimed at what appeared to be a couple of pedestrians standing on a street corner in the distance. At 12:09 AM, he tweeted.

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“100 RT’s and I’ll shoot someone walking,” he wrote alongside the picture, which quickly racked up well over 100 retweets. An hour later, he followed up: “Man down. Mission Completed.”

This time the image showed a young man lying on the ground, clutching his torso—along with what looked, in the pixelated dark, like a chest wound.

The next day, LAPD detectives arrested 20-year-old Dakkari McAnuff. The police report states that investigating officers had “discovered multiple pictures displaying an unknown type of rifle pointing in the direction of various Los Angles city streets [sic],” determined McAnuff was @StillDMC, and confirmed his location. At midday, police officers arrived at 22-year-old Zain Abbasi’s high-rise condo building, where McAnuff was a guest.

According to Abbasi’s account of the arrest, the building’s property manager summoned him to his office, where detectives placed him and another friend in handcuffs. Helicopters circled the building, snipers took aim from a complex across the street, and multiple police cars blocked the parking lot.

The detectives told Abbasi to call McAnuff and to instruct him to come down to join them. As soon as he left the condo, McAnuff was apprehended by ten LAPD officers who were lying in wait, their guns drawn. The officers searched Abbasi’s apartment and found the weapon pictured in the tweet: an unloaded air rifle.

The entire group was handcuffed and taken into custody. McAnuff was “jailed on suspicion of making criminal threats,” and his bail was set at $50,000.

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It was all supposed to be a joke, of course.

McAnuff and Abbasi, along with their friends Moe and RJ, are members of a group called the MAD Pranksters. They’re transplants from Houston, Texas—all between 19 and 22 years old—who moved to LA to try to make it in the entertainment business. This was their inaugural stunt: an attempt at what Abbasi calls “a social prank.”

The ruse was supposed to unfold over a series of three tweets. The first presented the blurry gun and a violent entreaty, the second the bloody victim, and the third and last—posted nearly 11 hours after the second—showed McAnuff, his hands behind his back, on the ground next to a police car. An LAPD officer stood in the frame. The text read: “Last Night Before I Got Arrested. SMH. Fuck Whoever Snitched. And Fuck LAPD!”

The Pranksters hoped, naturally, that the fabricated saga would go viral. On that stage, “100 RT’s and I’ll shoot” killed. The prank was retweeted a thousand times (Twitter soon suspended McAnuff’s account), and news of the alleged threat made headlines around the world.

The media painted McAnuff as either a lurking, latent murderer or a reckless jerk, and most outlets downplayed the fact that his gun was a toy. It’s not hard to see why. The tweet seemed to offer a flickered forecast of a disturbing future, one in which would-be killers are enabled by distant strangers on social media, morbid voyeurism collapses into mass complicity, and modern gladiators conjure their coliseum out of the ether. The gamification of murder, or something like that.

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But the MAD Pranksters contend that their stunt was an obvious hoax—and that the LAPD knew as much, even before McAnuff was arrested. And if the department didn’t, the Pranksters say, it should have: There were clues in the tweets, which the LAPD claims to have monitored closely, that revealed the stunt for what it was.

“The LAPD completely overreacted, put me and my friend’s lives in danger so they can bully us into not tweeting ‘Fuck LAPD!’” Abbasi wrote in an email. The department “spent countless hours, resources, and taxpayer dollars to carry out this whole operation so they could bully MAD Pranksters to not use their irrevocable right.”

I attempted to get LAPD detectives to confirm or deny the details of the Pranksters’ account, but only the PR team was willing to discuss the case.

“The tweeted picture was considered a credible threat. That’s why officers were sent to investigate,” an LAPD spokeswoman told me. “We have officers that monitor social media. While they were conducting their routine monitoring, they came across the tweet.”

Abbasi and McAnuff’s story raises questions about how police departments should handle investigations into threats made on the internet. What, given the noisy, unreliable, and rapidly evolving social media landscape, do authorities have an obligation to know before drawing their weapons?

“We’re not breaking the law,” McAnuff told me. “We’re just pranking.”

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That, of course, is a matter of intense legal debate. The question of how and when threats made online should be considered criminal—and when they can be considered free speech under the First Amendment—is currently en route to the US Supreme Court in the case of Pennsylvania resident Anthony Elonis. On Facebook, Elonis wrote a series of ultraviolent rap lyrics in which he described, in gruesome detail, murdering his estranged wife and former colleagues. For those posts, Elonis spent almost four years in prison.

Meanwhile, social media stunts like the Pranksters’ are becoming increasingly popular, and dubious online threats are still a relatively new frontier for law enforcement. So far, authorities have struggled to strike a balance between allowing for the inevitability of stupid, harmless behavior and prosecuting verifiable danger.

Last year, in Georgia, 20-year-old college student Caleb Clemmons was arrested for publishing what he says was experimental fiction on Tumblr. He wrote: “hello. my name is irenigg and i plan on shooting up georgia southern. pass this around to see the affect it has. to see if i get arrested.” Within hours, Clemmons was indeed arrested, and spent six months in prison before pleading guilty to a count of making terroristic threats. Police searched his home and found no weapons or any further evidence of intent to do harm.

Just months before that, a Texas teenager was put in jail for making what he says was a sarcastic remark on Facebook during a casual discussion about a video game. Justin Carter had issued a rather adolescent retort to a friend's insult: 'Oh yeah, I'm real messed up in the head. I'm going to go shoot up a school full of kids and eat their still-beating hearts," adding an "LOL" afterward. In jail, he became so depressed he was placed on suicide watch.

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But there have been legitimate threats made on social media, too: In the UK, two men were arrested for making repeated threats to a female journalist on Twitter.

“There is a category of free speech called true threats,” Clay Calvert, a professor at the University of Florida who focuses on media and communication issues, told me. “It’s speech that, typically, a reasonable person would perceive to be a threat of danger.” If that sounds a little ambiguous, it is.

“The definition of ‘true threat,’ unfortunately, is not very clear,” Calvert said.

The MAD Pranksters point out that they had direct contact with an LAPD officer—the one who allowed them to use his car as a prop in the final tweet—and say they told him exactly what they were doing. The gun was obviously fake, and so was the death scene, they argue. In other words, the LAPD ought to have known there was no true threat.

Abbasi also claims that before his friend McAnuff was arrested, one of the detectives walked into the office where they were being detained, saw Moe—who played the corpse in the prank—and said, “Oh, look, there’s the dead guy.”

After Dakkari was taken into custody, he says the detectives were more direct. “I was in one of the squad cars with four detectives,” he told me. “They said, ‘I don’t really think you were going to shoot anyone. We’re more concerned about the part where you said ‘Fuck LAPD.’”

The Pranksters’ account holds that more than twelve hours had elapsed between the first tweet and the arrest—enough time, arguably, to contact the officer in the third tweet and to have a firearms expert determine whether the gun pictured was real. According to the LAPD’s statement, the officers discovered the tweet at 9:30 AM—and it was time-stamped from the night before. Even so, the arrest wasn’t made for another three and a half hours, according to Abbasi. So it seems that the department wasn’t treating the case as an emergency.

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But the LAPD still felt compelled to send enough cops to the scene to take down a small cartel—including, according to Abbasi, helicopters and snipers. Indeed, the most harrowing detail of the entire affair was that the LAPD had the Pranksters in its crosshairs. At the precinct, Abbasi claims, a female police officer told him, “You were on my scope earlier… If you had walked on that balcony with that toy rifle I would’ve blown your head off.”

So a kid could well have been shot dead for tweeting out a picture of an air rifle. The LAPD spokeswoman said she was unable to give me any details about the operation that led to McAnuff’s arrest.

Still, prank or no, the stunt conjures an unsettling vision of how actual murderers may begin to interface with social media networks. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube already offer an omnipresent global audience and an incentive for users to broadcast bizarre, envelope-pushing deeds in a bid to win likes and followers. Given the sizable social media footprints of real-life killers like 22-year-old Elliot Rodger—who earlier this year went on a rampage at the University of California, Santa Barbara—that could feasibly extend to serious crime, too.

When the journalist and novelist Jennifer Egan discusses her research on young terrorists and mass killers, she explains that many "bumbled" into committing violence, whether through outside pressures, a psychological breakdown, or adverse circumstances. They fell into a vicious cycle of bias confirmation, and allowed the event to define their identities, eventually becoming the killers and terrorists they believed themselves to be.

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It's not too much of a stretch to imagine a deeply troubled kid, armed with his parents' gun, turning to anonymous enablers to solicit a final, fatal approval. Modern mass killers have turned to online gun forums, blogs, and message boards, perhaps in search of solidarity; Adam Lanza spent a lot of time on websites like TheHighRoad.org and GlockTalk.com. Norway's Anders Breivik found support for his extremist views in the ultra right-wing, nationalist blog community before he went on his killing spree. Eric Harris, one of the Columbine shooters, discussed weapons, vandalism, and pipe bombs with his Quake clan on AOL chatrooms.

But McAnuff isn't a killer, he's a prankster. It's a newish brand of stunt, sure, one that makes the crowd essential to its form and simultaneously exploits the audience to spread across the Internet. The thrill comes from a sense that the prank is at once a violent dare and its own megaphone.

It has also been well documented that youth are especially susceptible to online social pressure. That’s probably why there is a homemade video on the internet of a girl swallowing her own tampon, and of some kid eating his own feces with ice cream. Given our society’s hard drift toward real-time self-promotion, we shouldn’t be surprised at the rise of social media shock jocks who don’t sign corporate releases and can’t guarantee that no one will get hurt.

McAnuff and his crew were fortunate, given the circumstances. Days after he was released, he received word that the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office was declining to pursue the charges. Plus, nobody got shot by an LAPD sniper. But this is bound to happen again.

“There certainly will be more true-threat cases involving social media, whether it’s Facebook or Twitter or YouTube, where people are posting videos of themselves making threats,” Calvert said. “It’s another case where the law has to play catch-up with technology.”

As the audience to all this artifice, whether willing or otherwise, we have little choice but to figure out how to separate hoax from threat, and ploy for virality from plea for help. This filtering process is already shaping up to be one of the great, thankless projects of a cultural future that will play out in a bottomless social media sandbox.

It takes time to sort out fact from fiction, time that news consumers and family members and police departments don’t always have. @StillDMC’s prank might have been reckless, dumb—even dangerous. But we should expect to see more like it popping up in our feeds.