This week a 14 year-old girl in Rotterdam was arrested after making a Twitter post claiming to be an al Qaeda member from Afghanistan called Ibrahim who was planning to “do something big” on an American Airlines flight June 1.
American Airlines said it traced her IP address and reported her to an undisclosed government agency that quickly led to local police arriving at her home and taking her into custody. According to CNN, the girl was accused of violating Dutch law, which prohibits making a “false or alarming announcement.” After the girl’s story had spread, a number of other Twitter users around the world began to post their own bomb threats to American Airlines on Twitter in seeming solidarity, as described by the Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey.
The prohibition on bomb jokes connected to air travel is a long-standing superstition that became a horrible taboo in the years following 9/11. But for the young what’s already been done never actually happened. Arresting a 14 year-old for a handful of words posted over Twitter is not an act of a stable, secure culture but a helpless one so overburdened with imaginable breaches that it can no longer see a future without them emerging through some new digital crevice in suburbia.
So people are punished not for misdeeds but for agitating the fragility of the system itself, reminding the companies like Twitter that this new and expansive reach comes with a corollary loss of understanding—of who it is they are speaking to and what they mean when they speak.
The presumption that a person can be arrested based on Twitter posts say less about what digital networks are than it does about what companies and governments want them to be.
The presumption that a person can be arrested based on Twitter posts say less about what digital networks are than it does about what companies and governments want them to be. In a report for Forbes, Kashmir Hill describes the phenomenon on cognitive hacking as an exploitation of social media meant to monitor constituents and create a false sense of importance around certain subjects.
The most recent example comes from USAID fronting a Twitter-like service in Cuba called ZunZuneo, meant to extract data about political opinions and life circumstances of Cubans while also building a database of telephone numbers attached to accounts. Elsewhere, as Hill points out, both bots and real people paid to operate fake social media accounts can create the impression that everyone is talking about a certain scandal or product. This is often seen in everything from the use of Twitter to propagate fake scandals about political candidates in Mexico to video game developers building fake Tinder profiles to simulate word-of-mouth excitement about their games.
Lies depend on trusting audiences who believe in the importance of the mode of transmission itself. It’s not a lie if your audience doesn’t expect you to be telling the truth in the first place, and so the precondition of making social media an expedient to surveillance and political manipulation is the business of making people take it seriously in the first place.
In a way, there’s no sadder evidence of the moral dissolution of the government than the fact that it’s willing to participate in an international police action to traumatize a teenager because of a joke made in one of the most basic modes of humor, violating a taboo that most know by instinct is a fake.
Some might suggest that neither the government nor a company that sends hundreds of people into the air in rocket tubes can’t afford to have a sense of humor because of how much responsibility they bear, but it could also be said that they don’t deserve the responsibility they have precisely because they cannot distinguish teenage humor from a death plot, an ironic consequence of the overgrowth of digital media in which they have invested themselves.
All the fake bomb threats in the wake of the arrest highlight how unserious linguistic horseplay and experimental online personas are. That Dewey’s larger criticism was that it would make it harder for people to use Twitter for customer service complaints shows how amateur the structure of a company must be if its only efficient means of communication with its customers is Twitter.
If teens having fun pretending to be terrorists makes it harder to avoid the monstrous dysfunction of the human bureaucracies for behemoths like American Airlines, the CIA, or Interpol, then it may be time to stop blaming the 14 year-olds and start looking at the adults who built these frail totems to incompetence in the first place.
Michael Thomsen is Complex's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, NewYorker.com, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.