In the most recent incident of Internet idiocy, a 14-year-old Dutch girl was arrested for sending a terrorist threat to a major U.S. airline’s Twitter account as a ‘joke’. The girl, identified only as Sarah, told @AmericanAir that she was a member of Al Qa'ida in Afghanistan who was ‘going to do something really big’. The airline swiftly responded that her IP address had been passed on to the FBI. She handed herself in to the Rotterdam police and was subsequently released.
It’s not entirely clear what the teenager was trying to achieve with her tweet (was it really just the worst joke ever?) but she sparked a classic twitterstorm. Some users reacted angrily to her actions, while others decided to tweet copycat bomb threats to American (and, bizarrely, Southwest Airlines, who had nothing to do with the incident), presumably to tweak the nose of the hyper-cautious airline and emphasise the organisation’s heavy-handed approach.
Except that, if Sarah’s story ends here, it wasn’t a heavy-handed approach. Airlines should not ignore messages like these.
In retrospect, the reaction seems hypersensitive, a reflection of a ridiculous national security mindset. It was just a 14-year-old girl. But it would have been irresponsible for American to ignore the tweet completely, regardless of how improbable it is that a member of Al-Qaeda would directly threaten an airline via Twitter. Where can you draw the line? If there had been some truth in it, the consequences could have been much worse. Heavy-handed would have been if the FBI had swooped down upon her. Heavy-handed would have been if she’d been taken to court (remember Paul Chambers, who found himself in court after angrily tweeting that he'd blow up a South Yorkshire airport? That was heavy-handed.)
The same goes for ‘airport security hysteria’ - yes, I dislike having to take my boots every time I go through a scanner, and I wish I could carry my own bottle of water through, but I’d rather deal with a slight inconvenience than be caught up in a major security incident. This ‘over-the-top’ security approach could serve to offer peace of mind to nervous passengers (despite 2012 having the lowest accident rate for passenger flights on record, at least one in ten of the population is afraid of flying) and even deter possible attacks. To a lesser extent, America’s reaction to nuisance Twitter messages may actually deter trolling – trolls can have their fun elsewhere without inviting the attentions of the FBI.
Some argue that airport security measures are useless anyway. Maybe, in most cases, they are. The outcome of this weekend’s incident was pretty useless too. Sarah’s arrest won’t help uncover a plot to blow up a plane, but at least passenger safety is being taken seriously.
The American Airlines Twitter account was set up to help customers communicate with the organisation. Who doesn’t want to vent their anger when their flight is delayed by several hours? It’s just a shame that manpower, money and other resources are being wasted on Twitter trolls when staff could be focusing on something a bit more productive, like actually responding to customer queries (just don’t do what US Airlines did and accidentally send an x-rated image of model airplane porn to an unhappy customer).
It’s not up to American Airlines to ignore communications with customers, or potential customers. It’s up to other individuals to stop being irresponsible on Twitter.