Words on trial

Daria Dayter
Oct 30 · 5 min read
This is a quote from the Gamergate death threat email. To see the whole letter, scroll to the end of this blog post. Source: FBI Vault

In 2014, the Gamergate harassment campaign hit headlines around the world. Two female game developers, Zoë Quinn and Brianna Wu, and media critic Anita Sarkeesian became victims of a storm of angry blogposts and social media messages for their feminist influence on video game culture. That year, Sarkeesian was also scheduled to deliver a talk about the portrayal of women in video games at Utah State University. But the event was canceled, when the university received several emails threatening “the deadliest school shooting in American history.”

In this case, the police had decided to take the threat seriously. But what if it had been only a cruel prank and the writer actually had no intention of shooting anyone? This is a dilemma that authorities struggle with on a daily basis: in case of terrorist threats, but also in much more common situations, such as email extortion scams. In fact, extortion by email has been growing significantly in recent years. According to the FBI`s Internet Crime Report more than 350,000 complaints were received in 2018 — an average of more than 900 every day.

Around 3% of all sextortion scams involving bitcoin payment demands come from Switzerland. Source: Bitcoin Who’s Who Blog,

Blackmail refers to a threat to reveal information about a person that is potentially embarrassing or socially damaging, unless a demand for money or services is met. Typically, this information is true. In the email sextortion scam, on the other hand, the threat to reveal damaging information is usually fake. Often the email alleges to have accessed the victim’s webcam and recorded them looking at pornography. In Switzerland, sextortion scams with bitcoin demands spiked in early 2019, leading to the launch of an official website stop-sextortion.ch. The advice of the Reporting and Analysis Centre of the Swiss Federal Council in this situation is not to pay the ransom.

The role of forensic linguistics

From a linguistic point of view, blackmail notes are a type of threatening language. In an investigation, police might want to know whether the threat in the letter is genuine and if the writer truly intends to carry out whatever terrible things they menace. A systematic analysis of the language of malicious communication is the task of forensic linguistics.

My interest in solving real-world problems through linguistic approaches — Applied Linguistics — has begun during my postdoc at the English Seminar of the University of Basel. I’ve been researching translation and interpreting, which led me to ask questions about how interpreting is done in the context of law. In order to study forensic linguistics, I went on a six-months research stay at the Centre for Forensic Linguistics at Aston University, UK, one of the few specialized research institutes of this kind in the world. FAG Basel generously funded my research stay.

These days, most extortion letters arrive in digital form. It makes an enormous difference to the process of linguistic analysis, which involves more computer technology and less struggling to decipher handwriting!

A wealth of research exists on deception detection. Some of it is even in the form of practical methods that can be taught to police officers. For instance, psychologists have shown that a certain kind of Criteria Based Content Analysis can help to distinguish between elicited truthful and fabricated statements (Bogaard 2017). That said, extortion letters are especially hard to analyze. The problem is that letters of this kind do not report an event, which can be true or false. Instead, a threat is an intent, a special kind of speech act called commissive, which is not truth-conditional.

Extortion letters are especially hard to analyze.

So, the main question is not, “Is the writer telling the truth?” but “Does the writer mean what s/he is saying?” Secondly, even if one can be reasonably certain that the writer was serious at the time of writing, they might have changed their mind in the meantime. As linguists, we are looking for clues that indicate the strength of commitment in threatening discourse. And it can be a bit of a gamble.

What makes an extortion letter?

Together with my MA student assistants I study blackmail and extortion letters in the FBI Vault, a collection of FBI documents made available online under the Freedom of Information Act. I use qualitative analysis to come up with an inventory of linguistic tools that the authors of extortion letters commonly use. This means that I look for language patterns that fulfill the same function and occur in similar places. For instance, it can be graphic descriptions of the threat that almost always come at the very end of the letters. I then mark such patterns using special software, and repeat the process until I have a stable list of categories.

One example is a validity claim, like this statement at the very start of a blackmail letter that was sent to John Lennon in 1977:

Extortion letter to John Lennon. Source: FBI Vault.

“This letter is not a joking, it may be one of most important and ungrateful letter that perhaps you never receive before. […] This letter is a positive (THREAT) to your life”

An analysis of 77 such letters shows that a validity claim is a shared element of extortion genre — in other words, writers feel that they must include such a statement in their text, same as a teller of a fairy-tale begins with “once upon a time…” Other probable genre features include, for instance, causation verbs (help, allow, affect) and certainty adverbials (actually, indeed), suggested in earlier work on realized threats (Gales 2015).

Forensic linguistics is a gripping subject that brings dry linguistic theory to bear on trademark disputes, email extortion, and even terrorist threats. To hear about the work of a practicing forensic linguist first-hand, I cordially invite you to attend the guest lecture by Prof. Tim Grant at the English Seminar on December 4, 16:15.

Gamergate death threat email. Source: FBI Vault. To see the related file, go to page 15 of this link.

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The University of Basel has an international reputation of outstanding achievements in research and teaching. Founded in 1460, the University of Basel is the oldest university in Switzerland and has a history of success going back over 550 years. Learn more

Daria Dayter

Written by

My name is Dasha, I’m 33, and I like verbs. The work portion of my work-life balance has to do with being a postdoc at the English Linguistics department.

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