The internet’s collective outrage was directed yesterday at a 14 year old Dutch girl named “Sarah.” Her offense was to send a tweet to American Airlines reading “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 “Sarah, we take these threats very seriously. Your IP address and details will be forwarded to security and the FBI.” Both tweets have since been removed, but you can see screen grabs of the originals here, thanks to Mediaite.
As it turns out, American Airlines did not need to wait for the FBI or their own internal security force to take action. Police arrested the girl at home in her native Amsterdam after conducting their own investigation. An official spokesman told Business Insider “We’re not in a state that we can communicate any state of charges at this point. We just thought it was necessary to bring this out mostly because of the fact that it caused a great deal of interest on the Internet.” It goes without saying that it was foolish of the girl to send the tweet. Perhaps she even should have been arrested. But it is troubling that the Dutch police felt the need to respond because the court of public opinion demanded it.
The “great deal of interest” that the spokesman referred to was a self-righteous Twitter outrage mob, something that is becoming increasingly common these days. Recall the case of Justine Sacco, a public relations executive who, before departing for a flight to South Africa last December, made a racist joke on twitter. The tweet spread like wildfire, and Ms. Sacco lost her job, but not before thousands of tweets were sent out condemning, and even threatening her. People went so far as to track Sacco’s flight as it was in the air, and a man showed up at the airport to take photos of her arrival and spread them to the internet.
In the case of “Sarah,” there was a similar response. Witness the output of @ReignofApril, a representative twitter user. She tweeted a picture of the 9/11 Memorial in New York City accompanied with the words “This is where I was exactly one week ago. This is why you don’t make terrorist threats & think I will ignore them.” When reading her indignant tweet, my first thought was “Good for you! And you are?” Why should we be interested as to whether she would “ignore” offending tweets? Just who appointed her policewoman of the internet, and what are the bounds of her authority? It is a strange and troubling commentary on society that people by the thousands feel the need to angrily respond to such matters. Clearly, the 14 year old girl at the center of the controversy was not a criminal mastermind beyond the grasp of the relevant authorities. She made a very stupid mistake, but it was not for the twitter mob to decide how she should pay for it. In the case of @ReignofApril, her picture of Ground Zero was followed up–apparently without irony–by several tweets particularly angry that the girl would have the temerity to claim that a Middle Easterner might perpetrate acts of terror. She then delved through “Sarah’s” entire twitter output to unearth instances of racism. Get. A. Life.
There are several takeaways. The first, apparently not obvious enough to at least a limited slice of the population, is that you should never, ever make terrorist threats or jokes that could be construed as such. The authorities will take them seriously. I was flying home from Los Angeles yesterday and was shocked as I boarded the plane to hear a man joke to the flight attendant “Can you please identify the Air Marshal for me?” Luckily, the stewardess was good natured and there were no indignant twitter twits nearby. However, his “joke” was certainly no better than “Sarah’s.” The second unavoidable conclusion is that the World Wide Web, for all of the access to valuable information it affords us, is shaping us into a very petty and stupid society. That multitudes of people had nothing better to do on a beautiful Sunday than hound a stupid teenager is testament to that fact.