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Column: Why 14 year old Twitter ‘terrorists’ have nothing to worry about

There is such a thing as being too sensitive and overreacting when people do stupid things on social media, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

A TEENAGER DID a stupid thing during the week and landed herself in unexpected trouble. Usually that’s not something very newsworthy, but when a 14 year old Dutch girl sent a rather unconvincing terrorist threat to American Airlines via Twitter it became an internet story.

The girl, called Sarah on her account, sent a tweet saying “Hello my name’s Ibrahim and I’m from Afghanistan. I’m part of Al Qaida and on June 1st I’m gonna do something really big bye.”

American Airlines responded saying that they took these things, naturally enough, very seriously; and passed details along to law enforcement. The girl then got a knock on the door from her local police in Rotterdam and was arrested, questioned and released without further charge; though she remains a suspect in an investigation into threats to an airline.

There is such a thing as being too sensitive

In response to this kerfuffle, more people took to Twitter to send fake bomb threats to the airline. Silly people, for sure, but to an extent making a fair point: there is such a thing as being too sensitive and overreacting when people do stupid things on social media.

Most people say or do stupid things at times. Go down your local with a few mates and three pints in most folks will say things that, if they were tweeting, would earn scorn. The trouble with social media is that it is a mass broadcasting platform that people often treat the same as a conversation down the pub.

Perhaps that is wrong, but it is what it is. Perhaps it will change with time, but for now we have social media outlets where 14 year olds and anyone else besides can say really, really stupid things and have them become a worldwide news story within hours.

This is not the first case of someone spouting off on social media and getting a call from the police. In 2012 two British tourists landed in Los Angeles and were kept in a cell for 12 hours for saying they were going to ‘destroy’ LA and ‘dig up Marilyn Monroe’ during their holiday. Destroy was slang for partying, but there you go.

Another Brit, Paul Chambers, ended up in court after angrily threatening to blow up Robin Hood Airport after it closed during a snowstorm. His conviction in May 2010 for sending ‘menacing electronic communication’ was later quashed by the High Court in London.

Mr Chambers had tweeted “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!”

The High Court Judge pointed out in quashing the conviction that if those who received or might receive the message can brush it aside as a joke, even one in bad taste, or simple bombast, “it would be a contradiction in terms to describe it as a message of a menacing character.”

Police and legal time misspent

How much police and legal time that could have been spent chasing real criminals or terrorists went into trying to secure a conviction against Paul Chambers for sending an obviously stupid, but not actually threatening tweet?

Similarly, how much time and effort has been wasted by some cop going down to arrest a 14 year old Dutch girl who freaked out the minute American Airlines said they’d be passing her details along to police? Even had the police just knocked to her door and had a friendly ten minute chat and a cup of tea, sufficient warning would have been given.

Instead, the girl was arrested presumably after several agencies in the US and Netherlands coordinated, she was interviewed, and then a backlash kicked off on social media. Will a few hundred people now need to be arrested in follow up? Meanwhile, actual terrorists are probably keeping their plans to themselves and not to be found openly among social media channels.

Should we send in the police to arrest someone at US Airways?

The very same week as this was going on, American Airlines new sister company US Airways accidentally sent a picture of a naked woman with a model aircraft between her legs in response to a customer query. Sending lewd pictures to people might be a crime, right? Should we send in the police to arrest someone over there? Or just chalk it up to the fact that things can go really wrong really fast when you can take your pub conversations or your everyday mistakes and broadcast them to thousands of people at once.

Many people get a cathartic joy from being outraged. Something must be done about something, and good on the police for putting it to that damned irresponsible teenager. I mean, irresponsible teenagers… Can you imagine?

Let’s sweat the big stuff and stop making mountains out of this kind of molehill.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

Follow Opinion & Insight on Twitter: @TJ_Opinions

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