FBI will monitor violent online threats in light of 'Joker' premiere

The FBI says threats have circled social media since May 2019.

October 3, 2019, 1:12 PM

The FBI has received tips of threatening posts on social media calling for "unspecific mass shootings" linked to the release of the new psychological thriller, "Joker," starring Oscar-nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix that will hit theaters this Friday, according to a joint intelligence bulletin obtained by ABC News.

These threats have been circling online platforms since at least May 2019, but give no information indicating specific or credible threats to particular locations or venues, the bulletin said.

Some of the threats did contain references to a primarily online group called the involuntary celibate community, or Incels, and a subset that refers to itself as “Clowncels." However, the intelligence community doesn't necessarily regard the group as a whole as a violent one.

Joaquin Phoenix in a teaser trailer of "The Joker" in theaters, Oct. 4, 2019.
Warner Bros. Pictures

"While many Incels do not engage in violence, some within the community encourage or commit violent acts as retribution for perceived societal wrongdoing against them," the bulletin said. "Some Incel attackers have claimed inspiration from previous mass shooters."

Dr. Vasilis Pozios, who is board-certified in forensic and general psychiatry, a lifelong Batman fan and specializes in media depictions of mental health, says some in the incel community could identify with this character.

"Yes this film may kind of play into that cultural script that incels have kind of latched onto," Pozios argued. "I think there is some valid concern about the way in which this character is presented and the potential that at-risk individuals could identify with the character and the story."

Christopher Ferguson, who has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and has studied the effects of media in society for over 15 years, says sometimes it's "too easy" to blame popular culture.

"It’s nice sometimes when media can set up some discussion points for us, but really the impetus is on us as individuals or as a society to then take that further, and we can’t put either the credit or the blame for progress or lack of progress on popular culture, Ferguson said.

The FBI did say in the bulletin the group has been linked to at least 27 deaths since 2014. Other threats referenced the July 20, 2012, mass shooting that killed 12 and wounded 58 people in an Aurora, Colorado, theater showing "The Dark Knight Rises."

"While a connection between the Aurora mass shooter and the “Joker” character has not been corroborated by investigation, a review of associated online postings reveals that individuals frequently equate the two," the bulletin said.

A poster for the upcoming film "The Joker" is seen outside Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank, Calif., Sept. 27, 2019.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Those familiar with both the Joker and the "incel" community, however, fail to see any connection between the two.

"I wouldn’t say that he’s a perfect representation of incel communities because I mean it’s such a relatively recent concept that that will never be a perfect fit," said Glen Weldon, who reviews books, movies and comics for the NPR Arts Desk and written his own book on Batman. "I think people striving to see a version of themselves will see a version of themselves on screen, whether that will incite violence whether that will do anything but just give them some kind of comfort is hard to say."

Despite the lack of specificity in the threats, the FBI made clear in the bulletin they would monitor platforms and plan accordingly as the "volume of threatening language" rises, as it could lead to lone offender violence.

Phoenix, in an interview on "Popcorn with Peter Travers" on Thursday, did not want to discuss the issue in detail, does not believe "movies influence people in that way."

Joaquin Phoenix appears on "Popcorn with Peter Travers" at ABC News Studios in New York City, April 3, 2018.
Hayley Bartels/ABC News

"I don't think movies influence people in that way, I don't think they cause homicidal ideation, the creation of homicidal thoughts. I don't think that's the case," Phoenix said. "But the conversation around them, I think, can be dangerous."

ABC News' Matthew Ley contributed to this report.