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Swatting generates fear and intimidation. It can also destabilize democracy

Swatting is a false 911 call that elicits an armed police response. (Matt Rourke/AP)
Swatting is a false 911 call that elicits an armed police response. (Matt Rourke/AP)

With political violence in the U.S. is on the rise, one type of political threat called swatting is growing increasingly common.

Swatting involves a false 911 call that generates an armed police response. It creates chaos and puts lives at risk.

Public officials, judges, elected officials from both major parties and celebrities have all increasingly been targeted by swatting plots. Authoritarian expert and author of “Strongment: Mussolini to the PresentRuth Ben-Ghiat says that swatting not only puts the target of the attack at risk but also law enforcement.

“People who make these threats are kind of chaos agents,” Ben-Ghiat says. “They’re wasting the resources of law enforcement. They’re stressing institutions and giving a sense of a chaotic society.”

5 questions with authoritarian expert Ruth Ben-Ghiat

What is the intention behind swatting?

“They’re sending a message. They’re sending a warning. They’re trying to intimidate [swatting victims] using a threat of political violence.

“If you take these things collectively, they’re a symptom of our current moment where there’s misinformation and disinformation campaigns trying to convince Americans that there is no truth.

“It creates a huge amount of uncertainty. Did this happen? Did it not happen? And then it feeds conspiracy theories.”

What does this trend reveal about the pathology of American society and politics?

“If we look at the actual content of the threats, for example, domestic violence is hugely prevalent. There are many fantasies of killing women. A lot of the threats involve either the target’s wife being murdered or somebody’s wife, a woman, being murdered.

“The other thing that I saw in this is, because I track this, is anti-government extremism.

“It aims to disrupt the smooth functioning of law enforcement, of emergency services, to exhaust their resources, to distract them from pursuing other investigations. And so it is an act of hostility and an act of war, and you could say, toward our government in that sense.”

Why does this happen more in the U.S. than other countries?

“Swatting, like mass shootings, happens a lot more in America because of two reasons. One, we have tolerated anti-government extremists to a degree other countries simply do not, especially countries that have a past of political terrorism or dictatorships. They don’t tolerate such things.

“We have militias. We have armed extremists who are now fusing some of them like the Proud Boys into the Republican party. All of this creates an atmosphere that’s propitious for people who want to disrupt the government to feel empowered.”

Where is America heading if threats like this keep increasing?

“I think it would be a grave mistake not to impose some kind of criminal penalties on people who are threatening to have bombs or threatening or talking about violence toward elected officials. It’s one more step in degrading the prestige and integrity of the idea of government officials.

“Threats toward elected officials are up by hundreds of percentage points. They increased 187% during the first Trump presidency alone. So not doing anything to deter people who want to continue this anti-government tradition is, in my view, a mistake.”

Have you ever received threats because of the work you do in exposing extremism?

“I was one of the very first people in 2016 to talk about Donald Trump as an authoritarian. So I have received my share of email threats and stalkers and have had to adjust things. I had to move my office at New York University to a more secure building in 2017.

“It’s an attempt to make you be quiet. It’s an attempt to make you self-censor.

“Violent extremists and supporters of authoritarians have used this method for centuries since historic fascism. And so if you are going to speak out, you know that this comes with the territory.”


Shirley Jahad produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtGrace Griffin also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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