Is ‘swatting’ the latest trend in political violence? Not so fast

By: Jared Holt (ISD) and Meghan Conroy (DFRLab)

11 January 2024

Prank calls have plagued law enforcement since well before the existence of the internet, let alone today’s political tensions, and insufficient evidence exists to draw any solid conclusions about the motivations of the current string of “swatting” attacks that are victimizing political figures in the US.

While concerns about these instances rest against a backdrop of heightened political tensions and an onslaught of violent threats against public officials and figures, a better understanding of swatting demands the issue be approached with due consideration.

The act of goading a major police response at a target’s physical location by falsely reporting an event to an emergency hotline–often dubbed “swatting” for instances in which the hoax calls prompt deployments of SWAT teams–can have serious consequences, including wasting government resources, stirring panic, and inflicting accidental injuries or deaths. Regardless of outcomes, swatting calls effectively strike fear into their targets and disrupt their lives.

While there have been ebbs and flows in the popularity of swatting incidents since its inception circa 2002, they have become more common overall. And increases in access to technology have further lowered the barrier for entry for the already simple act of swatting as well as made it more challenging to thwart. An estimated 20,000 incidents of swatting have occurred in the United States since the early 2000s, and those targeted include corporate executives, medical institutions, journalists, schools, public officials, celebrities, houses of worship, drag queens, and even random people

Over the last several weeks, perpetrators of swatting hoaxes have blitzed individuals and institutions at local, state, and federal levels, including officials responsible for administering elections. The overall selection of targets has been incoherent, tormenting both high- and low-profile individuals without consistent consideration of partisan lines or other political developments.

Some media figures and news outlets have raised concerns that the recent string of hoax calls indicates the latest escalation in the US’s political violence trend. But without more information about the perpetrators of these recent calls, deducing the nature of the trend is largely speculative rather than analytical and can contribute to the very sense of confused panic that hoax callers seek to encourage.

People arrested for swatting incidents have spanned the gamut of violent neo-Nazi group members, online harassment-for-hire groups, random teenagers, and otherwise unremarkable individuals with penchants for online harassment. In instances where perpetrators are caught, law enforcement often finds that single individuals or groups are responsible for multiple hoax calls – sometimes even hundreds of them. 

So, as likely as it may be that the swatting calls are, in fact, a trend in political violence tactics used by bad actors, it’s also possible–based on past swatting attacks–that the current influx is the work of a few people, or even just one very committed person.

It is also just as plausible that the hoax callers are motivated by largely apolitical forces such as boredom, sadism, petty rivalry, or profit, and are selecting their targets without clear ideologically-driven outcomes in mind. The Washington Post has reported encountering groups and pages on social media that advertise online harassment (including swatting) as a service that buyers can hire to torture others. 

While public officials and political commentators have represented a significant portion of recent swatting targets, other individuals have also fallen victim to false reports during the same time period. A professional gamer’s family home was reportedly swatted last week, and cybercriminals have recently been using swatting to extort hospitals into paying ransoms.

It is hard to argue that those placing hoax calls have not received the kinds of responses that signal success to them: widespread coverage from media, reactions from their targets, and fear among the public. It is possible that other bad actors seeking to disrupt politics in the US may perceive this string of swattings as instructive, and an option in their toolbox.

News of the hoax attacks has already been incorporated into chatter on social media, especially in spaces that harbor strong anti-government attitudes and extreme conspiracy theories. This effectively raised the temperature of political discourse, which can foment hostilities that drive other bad behaviors.

Swatting regularly accompanies doxxing and harassment, and can signal that other threats to an individual or institution’s physical and digital security may be present. For individuals targeted, the best defense against hoax callers is optimal digital security practices to protect private information that can be used in an attack, like a home address. For institutions, proactive outreach to law enforcement can help minimize the risks of hoax calls provoking violent responses by responding police departments. 

Concerns over the latest wave of swatting calls targeting public officials are certainly not without merit, and the dangers of swatting attacks are the same regardless of the motivations driving them. But how we react is critical, and those reactions should be informed by facts, not fear. 

After all, that’s what these callers are seeking: our reactions.