Get in the sea: when is a death threat not a death threat?

Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire has been criticised for overreacting to a popular internet joke. But are memes and menace really mutally exclusive? 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

“Get in the sea” is not a death threat. This is an irrefutable fact decided by the court of social media, who have scorned Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire for perceiving those words – tweeted at her by University of Bristol student Verity Phillips – as such.

“This person has just told me to drown – I believe that is a threat to kill,” wrote the MP for Bristol West on Twitter after receiving the message on 15 July. Although the University of Bristol agreed with her, disciplining the student and asking her to write a formal letter of apology, few others did. Why? Because “get in the sea” is a popular online joke: a saying used frequently on twitter to signal disdain.

If only one person wanted Debbonaire to get in the sea two months ago, nearly two thousand people do now. For the crime of not being privy to an inside internet joke, the MP has been branded “a fucking imbecile”, a “stupid bint”, and a “pathetic example of a 50 year old”. While Hilary Clinton is mocked ruthlessly online for being a try-hard meme queen, Debbonaire is insulted for not knowing the one-year-old epigram of an online clique.

The backlash only came last weekend after Bristol Post broke the news that Phillips had been investigated over the tweet. Although vitriolic online commenters claim to hate Debbonaire for wasting police time, the investigation was actually carried out internally by University of Bristol, of their own volition, after the MP brought the tweet to their attention. Debbonaire did nothing but tweet “I expect @BristolUni to deal with this.”

“Even if 'Get in the sea' wasn't a popular saying, there is still nothing in that sentence that suggests she should drown,” wrote one Facebook commenter, echoing the other popular criticism of the MP. Sure, it could be a simple four word invitation to go for a pleasant paddle, but Debbonaire used contextual clues – such as the fact Phillips previously tweeted at her that she was a “traitor” and “#fuckyou” – to discern that this wasn’t the case.

And it is contextual clues that social media users and the police themselves must use to determine whether someone is making a genuine threat or “just joking” every single day. Short of a handy “lol jk”, there was no way for Debbonaire to determine that the tweet, sent on the day of murdered MP Jo Cox’s funeral, was just a joke. Particularly because Debbonaire frequently receives abusive messages online.  

“In the digital world, as in the physical world, all communications must be judged on their own facts and merits," says National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on Digital Intelligence and Investigations, Chief Constable Stephen Kavanagh. 

“We don’t want to criminalise anyone unnecessarily and will always aim to take a proportionate and common sense approach. Developments in technology mean we have to stay agile as a service.”

This isn’t the first time the worlds of memes and death threats have been confusingly intertwined. In October 2015, a mass shooting took place at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. Prior to the attack, the 26-year-old shooter Chris Harper-Mercer is believed to have submitted a thread to the anonymous imageboard website 4chan warning users: “Some of you guys are alright. Don’t go to school tomorrow if you are in the northwest.” Because the internet is the internet, this quickly became a meme following the formula, “Some of you guys are alright. Don’t go to X tomorrow”.

One month later, University of Missouri student Hunter M Park was arrested for making threats on YikYak, an anonymous messaging app, one of which read, “Some of you are alright. Don’t go to campus tomorrow.” Park also messaged: “I’m going to stand my ground tomorrow and shoot every black person I see,” but Mediate has theorised that this could have been a South Park-esque joke about Missouri’s stand-your-ground laws. This is backed up by the fact that officers found no weapons in Park’s home.

Still, no one could logically argue that Park didn’t warrant investigating just because a select group of people could chuckle heartily at his inside joke. "Threats of violence can amount to a criminal offence which the police take very seriously. If a report is made then officers will investigate and, using the evidence, decide whether a threat is credible," says Kavanagh. When it comes to death threats, the police take everything seriously, and those being threatened have the right to do so too.

On the whole, however, the law is iffy about what constitutes a criminal online threat. After the High Court overturned the conviction of Twitter user Paul Chambers (who tweeted: “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!”) in 2012, the judge concluded “a message which does not create fear or apprehension in those to whom it is communicated, or who may reasonably be expected to see it, falls outside [the Communications Act 2003] for the simple reason that the message lacks menace”. In practice, this offers little guidance. Phillips’ tweet could be said to lack menace, but Debbonaire was simultaneously able to feel apprehension.

At its root, the Thangam Debbonaire case taps into one of internet users’ greatest fears: that their freedom of speech will be quashed. When it comes to something the online world treasures as their own, such as the "get in the sea" meme, the “us vs. them” mentality is only amplified. Ironically, Twitter users themslves ended up feeling threatened by Debbonaire and her case. Of course, no one wants to live in a world where we can’t tell our MPs to get in the sea, but do we really want to simultaneously disregard their right to feel threatened or afraid? Harambe didn't die for that. 

Amelia Tait is features editor at Shortlist.com, she was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer, and tweets at @ameliargh.