Hot new social-media trend: copycat terrorism “jokes”

posted at 10:41 am on April 15, 2014 by Ed Morrissey

It started with a Dutch teen tweeting her idea of a joke to American Airlines, in the guise of an al-Qaeda terrorist. According to the Washington Post, it’s kicked off a fad that has overwhelmed airlines with fake threats from young Twitter users:

One dumb teenager is easily excused — but the host of Twitter users currently tweeting bomb threats at major airlines is another story entirely.

In case you’ve somehow missed this latest round of Internet idiocy, here’s what went down: Sunday night, a Dutch teenager identified only as “Sarah” infamously tweeted a threat at American Airlines. (“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,” she wrote. Hilarious!) She then promptly made the account private and insisted it was all a joke — “I’m so stupid, I’m scared,” she wrote at one point — but not before American reported her name and IP address to authorities, leading to her arrest in Rotterdam on Monday.

You’d think that would warn off other pranksters, but the opposite has actually been true. In fact, at least a dozen other people have threatened American or, oddly, Southwest, an unrelated airline, under the guise of a “prank” or “joke.”

The teenager in the Netherlands turned herself in to police, who placed her in custody for her threat. Authorities there didn’t seem amused by the “joke”:

Police spokeswoman Tinet De Jong said the girl was being questioned in the company of a relative at a police station in Rotterdam after Twitter had disclosed to them the Internet address from which she had written the message.

“We are asking her right now why she sent out these messages,” she said, adding that police had asked the airline if it wanted to press charges.

“Much will depend on whether or not she’s done anything like this before,” De Jong said, saying it would be for prosecutors to decide what if any charges she should face.

One would think that this outcome would have been instructive to others on social media, but apparently not. Business Insider highlighted another case of a teen with too much time on his hands, and this time the target was Southwest Airlines. The trend has caught the attention of others, though. The Post noted in an e-mail that this is “our most popular story this morning, by a long shot.”

The Week’s Ryan Cooper scolded American Airlines for taking a joke far too seriously:

This ridiculous overreaction is a classic demonstration of two major problems with the mindset that governs our approach to security: its hair-trigger response to even the least feasible threats, and its total inability to manage risk in a realistic way.

Yes, violent extremists are on social media. But they use it pretty much like anyone else: for organizing, talking amongst themselves, and self-promotion — not for threatening potential targets. That would be, shall we say, tactically unwise. Or maybe I missed the part in the Al Qaeda training manual where it stipulates one should publicly threaten institutional social media accounts before an attack?

American’s reaction — mobilizing the arm of the state against some silly kid — was obviously not driven by a belief that the airline was about to suffer a terrorist attack. Just 30 seconds of investigation would have shown that the very idea is ludicrous. Instead, I’d wager that whoever was running the account was mad that the kid wasn’t giving the super-serious issue of terrorism the respect he or she thought it deserved, and issued a retaliatory threat on the company’s behalf.

… [D]uly authorized security officials are, if anything, more prone to this kind of hypersensitivity to perceived disrespect. It’s a problem because, on the one hand, it enables petty tyrannies and abuses under the cover of “keeping us safe.” On the other hand, every minute spent investigating obviously frivolous threats — like spending money and time arresting a naive teen — means law enforcement resources that aren’t being spent on actually protecting the public.

I don’t entirely disagree, but I’m not sure what choice American Airlines had. Yes, they could have shrugged this off as an obvious joke from an idiotic teen, but that assumes that the user actually is an idiotic teen. It might not have been al-Qaeda, but it could have been someone disturbed enough to do something down the road. One can certainly argue that anyone who’d joke about this on social media isn’t exactly firing on all cylinders anyway. If American ignored these kinds of threats and one of them turned out to be significant, would we all just let them off the hook for failing to respond adequately? It’s doubtful to say the least; welcome to the liability trap.

Besides, that tends to shift blame from the perpetrator to the victim. American Airlines uses Twitter to engage its customers, and some say that’s about the only forum that actually produces results. Getting angry at them for reacting to threats on Twitter would tend to push them off of the platform altogether. What happens when those threats come by phone? Should they shrug those off, too, if the caller seems young and giggly?

Of course, not every airline does Twitter perfectly …

The bottom line here is that parents need to watch their children’s access to social media very carefully. They are being handed a medium with global reach and significant power, and it’s clear that many are not experienced enough to understand the implications and consequences of poor decision-making. That’s true of many adults too, but at least they have had some opportunity to learn a few life lessons before screwing up on a global stage. Fourteen-year-olds have not, and parents should know how badly a “joke” might turn out in the lives of their teens.


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American Airlines deserves all the blow back it recieves because of this.

Dragoro on April 15, 2014 at 10:47 AM

Wow, that’s one funny “joke”.

///

Bitter Clinger on April 15, 2014 at 10:49 AM

As silly as most of the security theatre is. I agree that the liability trap means they have to follow-up on everything. It will now be interesting to see whether they can “bulk ignore” the copycats. You can easily see where something this stupid catches on and tens of thousands of morons tweet in threats.

SoRight on April 15, 2014 at 10:49 AM

Idiotic kid gets mad at the government which took him in, housed him and fed him. Then he goes back to Chechnya and returns, Russians drop a dime on him, FBI does a half-@ssed check on him, next thing you know there are 4 dead, including an 8 year old boy.

Don’t do these things, people.

rbj on April 15, 2014 at 10:50 AM

In case you’ve somehow missed this latest round of Internet idiocy

Yeah somehow I managed to miss that.

Akzed on April 15, 2014 at 10:51 AM

So is it wrong to tweet “Fire!” in a crowded movie house?

Galtian on April 15, 2014 at 10:51 AM

I hardly call this a movement.

However I will say that this is evidence that as our societies have become more and more oppressive, the people are reaching a point of saying “enough”.

KMC1 on April 15, 2014 at 10:53 AM

One would think that this outcome would have been instructive to others on social media, but apparently not.

Of course not, they’re kids! I’m just happy cellphones didn’t exist when I was a kid. But if making terror jokes on social media becomes a fad, maybe it will have the good effect of making the idiots in charge back off a bit.

Fenris on April 15, 2014 at 10:53 AM

Is American Airlines in charge of their own security now?

I thought we were entirely dependent on the TSA for security.

airupthere on April 15, 2014 at 10:53 AM

This ridiculous overreaction is a classic demonstration of two major problems with the mindset that governs our approach to security: its hair-trigger response to even the least feasible threats, and its total inability to manage risk in a realistic way.

+1

I don’t entirely disagree, but I’m not sure what choice American Airlines had.

Not go public? That’s why they’re getting more stupid tweets.

The bottom line here is that parents need to watch their children’s access to social media very carefully.

Yeah, Ed, I’m going to follow all of my four teen kids around pre-screening every tweet, instagram and FB post. Watch “access”? As long as they have any access, they are capable of being stupid.

Sorry, but your sentence is ridiculous and I’m guessing you don’t have teenaged children. We teach them to be responsible, but I don’t screen every thought, word and deed… nor is such a thing possible.

mankai on April 15, 2014 at 10:57 AM

Who knew free and instant global communication could ever turn out to be a hassle?

I’m Shocked!

Mord on April 15, 2014 at 10:57 AM

One would think that this outcome would have been instructive to others on social media, but apparently not. Business Insider highlighted another case of a teen with too much time on his hands, and this time the target was Southwest Airlines. The trend has caught the attention of others, though. The Post noted in an e-mail that this is “our most popular story this morning, by a long shot.”

Ed Morrissey on April 15, 2014 at 10:41 AM

.
It was “instructive.” The next pranksters learned to NOT turn themselves in.

listens2glenn on April 15, 2014 at 10:58 AM

Nail them to the wall. Maybe erase it from their record at 21. Depending on if stay out of trouble.

jake49 on April 15, 2014 at 10:58 AM

Obama should hire a Secretary of offensive tweeting to solve the problem!

a budget of several billion should be ample for a start up

And he can select the leader from his list of donors

Obamatrix on April 15, 2014 at 11:03 AM

Teens doing something stupid. Who could have imagined?

faraway on April 15, 2014 at 11:05 AM

Power corrupts. Airport security has always had oppressive power, only made worse by 9/11 (and how well did that work to stop that?).

I was picking up somebody at the airport in the 90s and, well away from the metal detector area, I kidded to my mom that I had an F16 fighter on me. A cop was passing by and then security comes running over to me and reads me the riot act, threatening me with federal prosecution.

I apologized (’cause that’s what you do) and honestly asked, do you really believe I could have an F16 fighter jet on me? I was told it didn’t matter because a threat is a threat.

I imagine it’s 1000x worse now.

mankai on April 15, 2014 at 11:06 AM

BTW, I hear that someone Tweeted a pic to US Airways where they think flight 370 ended up :)

faraway on April 15, 2014 at 11:12 AM

…I imagine it’s 1000x worse now.

mankai on April 15, 2014 at 11:06 AM

Back in the 60s and 70s you could literally run into the airport last second and board the plane right before it took off. The younger generation has no idea how much things have changed.

Fenris on April 15, 2014 at 11:16 AM

I’m upset at AA using profiling!

Just because the tweet listed the name as “Ibrahim” and just because it stated that he is from “Afghanistan” and just because he’s in the school-building, day-care-running Islamic group AQ… they assumed it was a threat!

/

mankai on April 15, 2014 at 11:16 AM

The Post noted in an e-mail that this is “our most popular story this morning, by a long shot.

It’s Twitter news.

What someone said on Twitter that is shocking, and oh so important reactions to it, are a daily Big Story now.

See Twitchy for numerous examples. It should be called Pithy. Boom.

Moesart on April 15, 2014 at 11:21 AM

I see this as the take-down of sanctimonious institutions. People are injecting dark comedy to show there is no fear anymore of these artificial constructs which seek to manipulate life.

Bill O would blame this on the Vietnam movement, when people stopped blindly following authority. (As if that were a bad thing).

antisense on April 15, 2014 at 11:26 AM

Obama should hire a Secretary of offensive tweeting to solve the problem!

a budget of several billion should be ample for a start up

And he can select the leader from his list of donors

Obamatrix on April 15, 2014 at 11:03 AM

…….and Lois Lerner can run the department.

Rovin on April 15, 2014 at 11:26 AM

…I imagine it’s 1000x worse now.

mankai on April 15, 2014 at 11:06 AM

Back in the 60s and 70s you could literally run into the airport last second and board the plane right before it took off. The younger generation has no idea how much things have changed.

Fenris on April 15, 2014 at 11:16 AM

I did that in the 90s. It IS a different world.

As for the tweeting thing. The airline… has… no… choice… Skip one of these and it’s “They were warned and ignored it” all down the line. Then the lawsuits start.

WitchDoctor on April 15, 2014 at 11:29 AM

BTW, I hear that someone Tweeted a pic to US Airways where they think flight 370 ended up :)

faraway on April 15, 2014 at 11:12 AM

Apparently someone shaved the Bermuda Triangle.

M240H on April 15, 2014 at 11:30 AM

How about responding in kind by giving out copycat jail sentences?

platypus on April 15, 2014 at 11:33 AM

Sorry, but frankly the little darling should have known better….hopefully, a record will set her straight…but ya can’t always fix stupid.

I don’t seem to know why some are so blase about the incident…People are getting their underskirts in a twist over “Cyber-Bullying” but this is okay???

Sure, not every threat is going to be real, but why should any corporation, especially for an industry as critical as a airline NOT take it seriously?

If your loved ones uses it, or works for them, or God forbid, is underneath the flight path of one when it came down, and it turned out that it WAS announced beforehand, and MAYBE prevented, you don’t think those same people would be calling for scalps?

BlaxPac on April 15, 2014 at 11:37 AM

The WaPo hypes their arithmetic disability with the Headline “Dozens of teenagers” in the story that reports “at least a dozen”.

At Ed’s other job, Ryan Cooper gets hysterical, mostly by accusing American Airlines of being hysterical in doing it’s job of protecting its customers.

And Ed calls 12 people doing something a fad and laughingly suggests it’s overwhelmed the airline industry.

Talk about hysteria. I don’t know which is worse, the jokers in the media overselling this occurrence or the jokers who sent the messages.

Dusty on April 15, 2014 at 11:38 AM

I just had a long conversation with a friend regarding her eleven year old son and his abuse of his computer privileges. I’ll try to condense it here for you:

Computer privileges…because my friend and her husband just decided that the use of the computer by their son is, in fact, a privilege, not a right.

My friend’s husband caught her son watching hard core pornography on his computer in his room. The boy just turned eleven years old and he is an only child.

The couple is fairly well to do. They provide a well ordered home in an upscale, safe neighborhood. They send their son to a pricey private school. The boy has had his own computer since he was in the first grade. Both parents work full time and then some, averaging 50-60 hours per week each. The boys college education is already fully funded via a special account set up when he was born and paid into consistently since that time.

The boy spends his time between school and private lessons, and socializing with his friends. Foreign languages lessons, soccer practice, swimming lessons, baseball practice, etc. and he is normally supervised at all times since the couple employ a housekeeper who is at the home until at least one parent is at home, and it is generally the housekeeper who provides the boy’s transportation to his various lessons and practices as necessary. His parents love him very much, spend weekends and holidays with him consistently, and most evenings, too, going out together in the evening generally for work related social gatherings, preferring to spend their evenings as a family. Inin the summer season they take six weeks vacation together to spend with their son as a family. The boy also spends four weeks at a very expensive summer camp with his friends every summer. The boys bedroom sports a flat screen television, an aquarium filled with tropical fish,a microwave, a mini refrigerator so he could entertain his friends, built in bookcases and desk, a computer, and he has a telephone.

At least it did…

Now the boy’s room has an aquarium filled with tropical fish and built in bookcases and desk.

The television has been removed. His cellphone privileges have been restricted to emergency use only, and his plan tailored to a minimum amount of minutes. The microwave and refrigerator have been removed… as has his computer.

He will now be allowed to use the computers at the library at school for homework.

His father explained that he’d abused his privileges, and his use of the computer… and since he clearly couldn’t be trusted with the technology… he’d be restricted in its use… and because he’s grounded… he won’t need the television, microwave, or the mini refrigerator in his room for the foreseeable future, either.

His mother, who is appalled and furious, says he’s grounded until he’s eighteen. I have a feeling his father will relent by the fall and the first of the new school year… maybe.

Perhaps more parents should consider that their child’s use of, and reliance upon, technology may be convenient, both for the child and the parent, but it’s not absolutely necessary… and in the child’s case… it’s a privilege… not a right.

Children, by definition lack the experience upon which to base sound judgement. There’s a reason we call them children.

thatsafactjack on April 15, 2014 at 11:43 AM

string them all up. in this day and age, who is stupid enough to think even a joke threat isn’t going to be loked at.

sure kids are stupid, but stupidity has never been a valid defense.

todler on April 15, 2014 at 11:48 AM

The bottom line here is that parents need to watch their children’s access to social media very carefully.

This is generativ-o-normist as well as a microagression to all ward-guardian relationships that didn’t begin in the womb. “Parent” from the Latin parere, “to bring forth” and “children” from the Proto-Germanic word for “womb”.

This is the type of repression of equality that makes me want to spit!!

Axeman on April 15, 2014 at 11:59 AM

I’m upset at AA using profiling!

Just because the tweet listed the name as “Ibrahim” and just because it stated that he is from “Afghanistan” and just because he’s in the school-building, day-care-running Islamic group AQ… they assumed it was a threat!

mankai on April 15, 2014 at 11:16 AM

Not to mention that they jumped to the conclusion that “planning something really big” might not be a really big surprise birthday party, and they just wanted to tell American Airlines about it. Strange choice, yes, but the heart wants what it wants….

Axeman on April 15, 2014 at 12:03 PM

read the laws, they are obligated to report it.

dmacleo on April 15, 2014 at 12:34 PM

read the laws, they are obligated to report it.

dmacleo on April 15, 2014 at 12:34 PM

AC90-103 was the initial rulings covering this iirc, lost a lot of my GPM reference material.

dmacleo on April 15, 2014 at 12:42 PM

As for the tweeting thing. The airline… has… no… choice… Skip one of these and it’s “They were warned and ignored it” all down the line. Then the lawsuits start.

WitchDoctor on April 15, 2014 at 11:29 AM

True. Gloria Allred would bring ‘victims’ out of the woodwork for crap like that.

Anyway, I don’t think she should have her life ruined for this. Give her the bill for the police response, airline fees, etc. Stupid mistakes cost stupid amount of $$ to fix. Just one man’s opinion.

LaughterJones on April 15, 2014 at 12:49 PM

Some dumb Eurokid just stumbled on a way to shut down most of the global passenger air traffic on any given day. Wow.

bbhack on April 15, 2014 at 1:05 PM

Power corrupts. Airport security has always had oppressive power, only made worse by 9/11 (and how well did that work to stop that?).

I was picking up somebody at the airport in the 90s and, well away from the metal detector area, I kidded to my mom that I had an F16 fighter on me. A cop was passing by and then security comes running over to me and reads me the riot act, threatening me with federal prosecution.

I apologized (’cause that’s what you do) and honestly asked, do you really believe I could have an F16 fighter jet on me? I was told it didn’t matter because a threat is a threat.

I imagine it’s 1000x worse now.

mankai on April 15, 2014 at 11:06 AM

‘Airport Security’; probably didn’t know the difference between an F-16 and an M-16. These folks tend to be bottom-of-the-barrel.

slickwillie2001 on April 15, 2014 at 1:08 PM

American Airlines was right for having the prankster tracked down and arrested, even if she turned out to be a teenage girl. After all, the “underwear bomber” who tried to blow up a plane near Detroit on Christmas Eve came in on a flight from the Netherlands, from which this latest threat was “tweeted”.

I’m with LaughterJones on the penalty. Make her (or her parents) pay for the costs the police and the airline incurred due to her stupid “joke”, then let her go. If she has half a brain, she won’t do it again.

Steve Z on April 15, 2014 at 1:09 PM

I’m with those who think the response to these jokes is more along the lines of authorities acting out rather than “taking things very seriously”. Especially since they’ve often been quite intentionally slow to act on solid indications of intent such as with Major Hasan, the Tsarnaevs, etc.

In that vein I’d say the prospect of tens of thousands tweeting joke threats in retaliation isn’t moronic, it’s more like an “I AM SPARTACUS” tactic.

Of course, in the movie, that just got all the slaves crucified.

kd6rxl on April 15, 2014 at 1:25 PM

Of course we see it as a prank with 20/20 hindsight. The secondary author assumes it would be a warning like a ransom note and therefore not credible. But what if it had been a member of an actual terror group having second thoughts and warning them? At that point 20/20 hindsight would be something completely different.

Armchair quarterbacks the lot of them, and after the play is over for that matter.

MC88 on April 15, 2014 at 1:30 PM

Oh, and I doubt that “American Airlines” did much of anything. American corporations don’t have the means to track down and arrest teenagers in Europe. And I bet once they found out it wasn’t a legitimate threat and they could go on with their business they didn’t care any more.

MC88 on April 15, 2014 at 1:34 PM

On the other hand, every minute spent investigating obviously frivolous threats — like spending money and time arresting a naive teen — means law enforcement resources that aren’t being spent on actually protecting the public……

….or refusing boarding to a mute woman because she couldn’t speak.

Both are very important things that keep us safe.

BobMbx on April 15, 2014 at 1:40 PM

WitchDoctor on April 15, 2014 at 11:29 AM

They have a duty to report it to the feds… but not to the press.

Not sure how it hit the press so quickly, but it seems to me that there are many things they have to report that we never hear about.

mankai on April 15, 2014 at 1:41 PM

There’s a difference between calling up Hooters and asking how big are their breasts…chicken breasts! Then laughing and hanging up.
AND
Calling up a police station and in a threatening voice say you have a bomb and people better be prepared in 4 days.

This kid did the later which goes way above and beyond a prank/joke. Agree with others, don’t destroy her life but give her a nice fine, community service, etc. And do the same thing to everyone who copies her.

nextgen_repub on April 15, 2014 at 2:21 PM

The Week’s Ryan Cooper scolded American Airlines for taking a joke far too seriously:

I don’t entirely disagree, but I’m not sure what choice American Airlines had.

I certainly disagree. You can’t expect a bank to find jokes about bank robbery to be funny, and you can’t expect airlines to laugh at jokes about hijacking or terrorism.

The only defense for these teenagers is pure ignorance, and that will only take you so far. If they don’t learn better now, it will happen again.

There Goes the Neighborhood on April 15, 2014 at 2:28 PM

Yeah, Ed, I’m going to follow all of my four teen kids around pre-screening every tweet, instagram and FB post.

Watch “access”? As long as they have any access, they are capable of being stupid.Sorry, but your sentence is ridiculous and I’m guessing you don’t have teenaged children. We teach them to be responsible, but I don’t screen every thought, word and deed… nor is such a thing possible.
mankai on April 15, 2014 at 10:57 AM

This. I worry about stupid sh! T they might do and warn them. It’s not their fault that instead of a neighborhood stage, they’re thrust into the global stage. All we can do is hope for the best.

Since schools are pushing technology down to the kids, they should also be stressing the importance of containing irrational exuberancebecause stupidity will circle the world 8 times before the thot occurs to them that maybe they shouldn’t have hit send.

AH_C on April 15, 2014 at 2:44 PM

Somehow, I don’t feel it is wrong that any of these kids should be publicly caned. I think that would be a good all purpose punishment for the brats for pulling any kind of a stunt like this. they all think that cause they are kids that nothing can happen to them.

JohnnyL on April 15, 2014 at 10:34 PM