Hot new social-media trend: copycat terrorism "jokes"

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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David Strom 4:30 PM | May 21, 2024