What the Law Says about Threatening Twitter Messages
In 2014, a 14-year-old Dutch teenager thought it would be hilarious to tweet a terror threat.
"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, tagging American Airlines. Here Twitter account identified her as Sarah.
American Airlines didn’t think the tweet was so funny. Six minutes later, they responded with this message:
“Sarah, We take these threats very seriously. Your IP address and details will be forwarded to security and the FBI.”
Although this sparked a maelstrom of retractions from the teen, including “I’m so sorry I’m scared now,” and “I’m just a girl,” it was too late for Sarah. She was arrested and charged with "posting a false or alarming announcement" under Dutch law. She also garnered attention from international news and thus from the global public. Some castigated her; others defended her.
Another segment of the public, though, started doing something alarming. In the days after Sarah’s tweet, dozens of Twitter threats were volleyed at both American Airlines and, inexplicably, Southwest Airlines. Some mentioned the name Ibrahim, which Sarah used in her initial tweet.
While it’s not clear what happened to each of the copycat tweeters, Airlines and law enforcement treat all threats—even ones made as a joke over Twitter—as cause for alarm. Although in this case the tweeter with a minor living overseas, what could happen to an American resident who decides that tweeting a bomb threat is a good idea?
The Crime of Tweeting
In the United States, tweeting a threat is enough to get you jailed. Possible felony charges include disorderly conduct, making threats to cause bodily injury, making false information and hoaxes, and more. One unlucky tweeter, former United Airlines employee Patrick Cau, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for making eight bomb threats against the airline.
Cau was also order to pay $313,333 in restitution to the airline and the Los Angeles Police Department; fines in such cases are not uncommon, as the flight delays and searches often elicited by such threats are both costly and time consuming.
If the threats are against the President, charges can be similarly stringent. 21-year-old Donte Jamar Sims found this out the hard way after a string of tweets menacing President Obama in 2012 landed him in federal prison for six months on charges of threatening the life of a president.
In short, tweeting a threat for laughs is not worth it unless you are willing to be arrested on felony charges, pay heavy fines, and serve time in jail. For more evidence of this, check out this list of people who were arrested after making ill-advised threats on Twitter.