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May 29, 2024

Local officials increasingly targeted for threats and harassment, new data shows

Local officials increasingly targeted for threats and harassment, new data shows

Threats and harassment against local public officials rose in 2023, according to research tracking political violence and hostility provided to NBC News.

The researchers found that threats and harassment against officials including city council members, school board members, poll workers, mayors and local prosecutors increased significantly in the second half of the year. Elected or appointed government officials and judicial officials are most likely to face such hostility, they found, with death threats and invasions of privacy being the most common methods.

In an effort to monitor hostility facing local officials, Princeton University’s Bridging Divides Initiative combed public reports and social media, drawing more than 750 examples of harassment into a database they plan to update monthly as a way of tracking the evolving threat landscape. The initiative is a research group that tracks political violence in the U.S.

“It’s easy for people to understand, like a brick being thrown through someone’s window. It’s sometimes harder to understand the impact of a lot of online social media, anonymous threats,” said Shannon Hiller, the executive director of Princeton University’s Bridging Divides Initiative. “That can be just as insidious of an impact on civic space, people’s willingness to serve in public office, too.”

The documented threats included an emailed bomb threat, private information and photos being made public, and a social media post that threatened gun violence.

The hostility is increasingly being conveyed from afar, the officials found, making prosecution and accountability more difficult.

According to the researchers, 73% of the tracked threats and harassment in 2023 and 2024 were delivered by perpetrators who weren’t physically present at the time. Those included threats sent by mail or postal service, social media posts, or phone calls and voicemails.

The research is the latest indication of growing hostility in the public sphere. Threats to federal judges have doubled since 2021, Reuters reported recently, and election worker turnover is on the rise, particularly in the larger cities that have faced a significant breadth of attacks.

Jane C. Timm

Jane C. Timm is a senior reporter for NBC News.

Joe Murphy

Joe Murphy is a data editor at NBC News.

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