Stephen DeBerardinis of Boston typed out a private message on Facebook to an interracial couple he didn’t know on Jan. 6, 2021, the same day that former President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol.

Prompted by photos he saw of the Black and white couple, prosecutors say, DeBerardinis cobbled together a collage of hateful language — including the “N word” used to denigrate Black people — and hit send.

When the startled Massachusetts couple responded they would report the harassment to police, court records show, DeBerardinis continued to threaten them, using racist and misogynistic language.

“The COPS hahahaha,” he wrote to them on Facebook Messenger and threatened them with a graphic that read, “SNITCHES GET STITCHES.” He continued with insults, including referring to the woman as a “white whore” and declaring, “you will see how me and my crew burn n*****s alive.”

An excerpt from court filings show an image DeBerardinis sent to the couple: A graphic of brass knuckles with the text "Snitches get stitches" in all caps
Stephen DeBerardinis sent a graphic reading "SNITCHES GET STITCHES" on Jan. 6, 2021.

Investigators say DeBerardinis appeared surprised when Boston police showed up at his family home in September and placed him in handcuffs. Three years later, in March of this year, DeBerardinis pleaded guilty to a series of crimes, including “threats to injure a person” and harassment and is awaiting sentencing. Several calls to his attorney, Jessica Thrall, went unanswered.

Cracking down on online haters

Now Joshua Levy, acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, wants the public to know that people or groups that threaten others online — like DeBerardinis — can’t hide behind their keyboard. Across the country, prosecutors are stepping up prosecutions against people who engage in online hate threats against people who are LGBTQ+, Muslim, Jewish, Asian/Pacific Islander, Black and Latino, as well as, among others, election workers and doctors.

“It’s a lot easier to type out a vile message than it is to walk up to someone on the street and say it,” Levy told GBH News recently. “We want the message to be: ‘You’re not protected just because you’re typing on your computer.’”

The U.S. Department of Justice could not provide exact data on the number of prosecutions linked to online hate but say prevention is a priority.

Among recent cases, a former student at Cornell University pleaded guilty this month to online threats against Jewish people on campus; in March, a man from Maine pleaded guilty to sending racially charged death threats on Facebook Messenger to a Black family in his apartment building; and in February, a Kansas man was sentenced to 14 months for threatening on Facebook to attack a Nashville Pride event.

In Florida’s Middle District alone, more than 27 people have been charged over the past two years with making hate threats, including some via online communication, according to the U.S. Attorney Office in the Middle District of Florida.

“If you threaten somebody with violence, law enforcement will take you at your word,” Roger B. Handberg, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida, said in a February press release. “Law enforcement officers and federal prosecutors will act quickly to disrupt true threats and hate-based crimes by charging you in federal court.”

Escalating online threats

Online harassment has escalated since 2020, researchers on extremism say, largely attributed to campaigns by anti-vaccine militants targeting medical researchers, anti-Asian hate threats linked to misinformation about COVID-19, extremist reactions to the Israel-Hamas war, and right-wing responses to former President Donald Trump’s lies about winning the last election.

In 2020, according to FBI crime statistics, hate crimes across the United States rose by 6% and reached the highest level in two decades, with nearly 8,000 hate crimes reported to America’s top law enforcement agency.

More than four in 10 Americans have experienced online harassment, according to a 2021 survey from the Pew Research Center. Severe forms — like sexual harassment and physical threats — have specifically escalated in recent years.

Megan Squire, deputy director for data analytics and open source intelligence for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, says many victims of online threats are Black and brown.

“A lot of folks, especially in marginalized communities or people of color have received threats,” she said.

Proponents of racial equity in medicine and in education in Greater Boston also reported receiving death threats online by organized and individual bigots.

Joan Donovan, a professor and noted misinformation and disinformation expert at Boston University, said social media is a perfect vehicle for posting violent threats.

“You hear a lot of people say: ‘Well, we had problems with racism and sexism and homophobia, transphobia, classism before the internet. What’s new about it now?’” she asked. “The speed and the scale and the ability to commandeer volunteer armies that will either harass you out of your position or dig into your personal life and try to come up with a reason for you to resign from your job.”

“What the internet has done, and social media has done, has allowed people to bring out their worst characteristics and threaten people, intimidate people. And that has to stop.”
Gregory Fried, a professor of philosophy at Boston College

Gregory Fried, a professor of philosophy at Boston College who specializes in the politics of hate and ethno-nationalism, said arresting and prosecuting people making online threats is key to a functioning democracy.

“What the internet has done, and social media has done, has allowed people to bring out their worst characteristics and threaten people, intimidate people. And that has to stop,” he said.

Crossing the ‘free speech’ line

But not everyone is convinced individuals inspired by hate are paying a steep enough price for threatening people.

Kris Goldsmith is the chief executive of Task Force Butler Institute, a New York state–based organization that trains military veterans to track domestic extremists. He believes the response by prosecutors is, at best, mixed.

Goldsmith told GBH News that he was menaced online shortly after his nonprofit published a report about the alleged assault against a Black musician, Charles Murrell, by far-right Patriot Front members in Boston in the summer of 2022. He said the situation escalated to the point that a neo-Nazi showed up at his mother's house in another state to hand-deliver a death threat.

A group of masked men in matching clothes and face coverings use metal shields to push a Black man up against a post on the sidewalk.  The men are members of the Patriot Front, a neo-Nazi group formed after the Unite The Right violent rally in 2017.
Charles Murrell fends off a marcher from a group bearing insignias of the white supremacist group Patriot Front on Saturday, July 2, 2022, in Boston.
Michael Dwyer AP

Goldsmith said the man was identified and contacted by the FBI. But instead of being deterred, he said, the man mailed the FBI agent’s business card to him in New York with an antisemitic death threat and then bragged about it online.

“This guy is a free man. He continues to stalk and harass me and my family. But because no one's been physically hurt, I've had trouble getting my own local district attorney's attention to protect me,” Goldsmith said.

A spokesperson for the Westchester County district attorney’s office confirmed they had received a complaint from Goldsmith, but disputed accusations of inaction. The spokesperson said the office had referred the complaint to the FBI in May of last year.

The Westchester County district attorney’s office said their investigators recently reached out to Goldsmith following GBH News’ questions to assure him that they referred the matter to the FBI.

But Goldsmith said that follow-up was anything but reassuring. He said the district attorney’s office again deferred to the FBI. And according to Goldsmith, in an email to GBH News, “the FBI has indicated to me that they’ve already spoken to federal districts attorneys, and they’re not interested in filing charges,” which Goldsmith described as “preposterous.”

“We can’t prosecute everyone who makes threats over the internet because there’s so much content.”
Joshua Levy, U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts

Meanwhile, in Boston, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has assigned three full-time assistant prosecutors to handle hate crimes, including online threats.

Levy said his office is also coordinating with other U.S. attorneys around the country to track down individuals typing out threats from the comfort of their homes. But Levy concedes that prosecutors can address relatively few such cases given the increase in online hatred in recent years.

“We can’t prosecute everyone who makes threats over the internet because there’s so much content,” he said. “When we do become aware of threats and we can track down the actor behind it, we are prepared, and we dedicate resources to prosecuting these types of crimes.”

A man in a suit walks past TV cameras
Worcester, MA - May 19: First Assistant US Attorney Joshua Levy arrives at Federal Court in Worcester for a detention hearing in the Jack Teixeira case.
John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images Boston Globe

Compared to some European countries, principally Germany, where online hate speech has led to late-night police knocks on doors, hate speech is not prohibited in the United States. Levy said the right to hate is protected. The right to threaten is not.

“Someone can stand in Boston Common and hold up a sign that said the Nazis were right in the 1940s. That may be vile, but it’s not a crime,” said Levy. “It’s an expression of an idea. What we are dedicating more resources towards is prosecuting people who engage in criminal conduct.”

Prosecutions are labor intensive and time consuming. Levy said investigations often require serving subpoenas to internet service providers and social media companies to compel them to provide account information on suspects. “We may get only an IP address — an Internet Protocol address — and then we have to go to a different source to track.”

DeBerardinis was relatively easy to find because he used his own name on Facebook. When police arrived at his home, court records show, they seized dozens of knives, bullets, stun guns, 21 brass knuckles and a muzzle-loaded rifle with a scope. He also had an “extensive and serious criminal record,” prosecutors say, including convictions for impersonating a police officer, threats and arson.

Since his arrest in 2021, DeBerardinis has written urgent pleas to the federal judge in his case to show leniency so that he can be reunited with his young son. In a hand-written letter, DeBerardinis lamented being locked in solitary confinement. His fiancée, in a separate personal appeal, wrote: “No one understands why our Stephen is where he is, and why he is being treated like he is a bad Criminal.”

Neither letter to the court offered an apology to the interracial couple who felt “terrorized” by DeBerardinis’ threat to “burn n*****s alive,” among other menacing comments.

DeBerardinis will be sentenced in June to as many as 20 years in prison.

Corrected: April 25, 2024
This story has been corrected to note that the Westchester County district attorney’s office referred the case to the FBI.