Swatting: How the terrifying abuse tactic is being used to threaten, intimidate and even kill
A toxic symptom of streaming culture and a potentially fatal prank – what exactly is ‘swatting’ and why is it so dangerous?
Swatting has made headlines after being used against trans Twitch streamer Keffals, leaving her fearing for her life and ultimately fleeing the US, as well as against Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Swatting is an incredibly dangerous form of harassment in which a person, having obtained the home address and information of a social media user, files a false police report suggesting their victim appears to be holding their family hostage, or some other life-or-death situation.
As a result, armed emergency officers are sent into the building expecting a firefight. Instead, they find the victim minding their own business. The results can be incredibly stressful, traumatising, or even fatal.
Hoax calls like these originating as far back as the 1970s. But this new wave of incredibly dangerous tactics arose around the popularity of streaming sites like Twitch, and online gaming.
Swatters will often make the spoof calls on people for reasons as trivial as winning an online video game match over them or saying something about a movie they didn’t like during an online stream.
Twitch streamer and trans activist Clara Sorentti, better known as Keffals, was recently the victim of a police raid after an anonymous user sent an email to police falsely saying she had murdered her mother. Similar emails have been used on previous swatting attempts, including others on Sorrenti in the past.
“When I went into the hallway and then saw that assault rifle, I screamed and I thought I was going to die,” Sorrenti said.
One of the first high-profile cases of a swatting occurred in 2005 when 19-year-old hacker Matthew Wegman staged a hostage hoax after a woman refused his solicitation for phone sex. Wegman was subsequently found guilty of computer intrusion and witness intimidation in June 2009 and sentenced to 11 years imprisonment.
After this, swatting incidents became a huge and uncontainable tactic used to intimidate rivals. Over the course of 2013, Tom Cruise, Ashton Kutcher, Justin Bieber, and various Kardashians were targeted by swatters. Efforts to curb the growing issue were started by the California governor at the time, Jerry Brown, who signed a bill that aimed to crack down on the tactic.
“Swatting drains vital resource from law enforcement and puts officers and citizens in dangerous situations,” then senator Ted Lieu said in an August 2013 interview with LA Times. “To those whose engage in this dangerous practice, be aware this is not a game and you will be held responsible for all associated costs.”
In 2014, one of the most memorably disturbing swatting incidents occurred when internet streamer Jordan Matthewson, who was formerly part of online group The Creatures, was swatted in his office in Colorado.
“They’re clearing rooms, what in the world, I think we’re getting swatted,” Matthewson said, before armed officers entered the room and screamed at him to get on the ground, where they cuffed him.
Speaking to ABC News, Matthewson said: “I’ve heard people say that I appear to be amused, but I really didn’t have any control over myself at the time.
“I was just terrified and I really didn’t know what was going through my head.”
Swatting can be fatal
As politicians attempted to fight back against the growing epidemic in extremely dangerous police raids, the first known death from swatting occurred in 2017.
After a heated game of Call of Duty: WWII between then teenagers Casey Viner and Shane Gaskill, Viner consulted serial swatter Tyler Barriss to make a fraudulent call to Gaskill’s local precinct and prompt a swatting.
However, Barriss had been given the wrong address and mistakenly directed the officers to the home of Andrew Finch.
After seeing police lights, Finch walked outside to see what was going on and was shot in the chest. He was pronounced dead in hospital, 17 minutes after the shooting. Barriss was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2019.
The tactic has notably been used to silence LGBTQ+ performers and stars in the past. Most notably, a disturbing trend in 2021 saw drag queen streamers swatted over the course of several months.
On 12 November, 2021, Mexican drag queen and Twitch streamer Elix tweeted that she had been swatted, sharing a clip of her front door camera as police had entered the premises.
“I am the fifth drag queen to be swatted within the month,” she said. “What do we all have in common? We all fall under the LGBT umbrella.
“There are no protections for streamers that go through this, or help. We only have each other, stay safe.”
One of the most infamous groups known for swatting attempts is the forum KiwiFarms, which is vehemently anti-LGBTQ+ and believed to be connected to the 2019 Christchurch mosque shooting.
Since Sorrenti was swatted, she has advocated for the removal of the site, saying in several tweets that it should be dropped by its host Cloudflare.
“I want to say to all the people who have been terrorised by Kiwifarms, to the people who lost a friend or a loved one, to the people who have had their lives ruined for the entertainment of sociopaths: I have your back,” Sorrenti said in a tweet. “I am not and will never back down until we take them offline.”
Other LGBTQ+ users took the chance to vent their own frustrations with the site, with one saying: “They have harassed me since 2019. They doxxed me. Posted pictures of the outside of my house. Posted my convention appearance schedule to encourage people to physically confront me.”
Others referenced the trans game developer Chloe Sagal who, after constant harassment from KiwiFarms, died by suicide in a Portland park in 2018.
Sagal’s friend, AJ Luxton, told Oregon Live: “One factor that made it much harder for her to get help was that whenever she talked about suicide, [Kiwifarms] would report her Facebook page and get it locked down.”
Her other friend, Jasmine Barlow, said: “She was one of the most brilliant, and tortured artists I have ever known.”
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