Watch What You Say: Inadvertent Terrorist Threats and the Era of Social Media

by VincentImhoff on May 30, 2013

Vincent Imhoff is a writer and Los Angeles criminal attorney who acts as a managing partner at Imhoff & Associates, P.C. He earned his law degree at Chicago-Kent College and his undergraduate degree at Lewis University. When he isn’t writing for publications such as the LA Daily Journal, Vincent finds time to ski on his favorite slopes and get some jogging in.

With the pervasiveness of social networks, individual online presences, and continuously archived communication, it’s quickly becoming the era of “watch what you say.” You never know who is watching and when you say the wrong thing at the right time (or wrong time, depending on your point of view), you might find someone knocking at your door. Various federal government agencies constantly monitor and survey social media networks looking for suspicious activity in the form of comments, keywords, links, associations, and posted images just to name a few. They’re looking for potential terrorists.

Are you a potential terrorist or a threat to national security? Probably not, but do you know what to do if you say the wrong thing, or look at the wrong site, on the internet? Not many people do. People regularly spout off on social media sites seemingly unfiltered. They seem to have blinders to the rest of the world, assuming only a select group of people, friends, family, colleagues, can see what they post. In some cases, when all the precautions have been taken, that assumption might, and that’s a big might, be correct. However, more often than not, someone’s eyes who you’d rather not be prowling your personal thoughts or rants, might be doing just that.

And it might not necessarily be a government agency watching, such as the Dept. of Homeland Security and its various internal branches. It could be a neighbor or acquaintance who merely has suspicions about your activity. Maybe’s it a rather left-leaning neighbor who’d rather you didn’t own all those guns. Or maybe it’s someone you went to school with years ago who doesn’t have anything better to do.

In any case, there may be an instance where you write something regrettable, something that may be perceived by the powers that be as a threat to national security. Say you delete what you wrote, it probably won’t matter, since, as a general rule you should always assume once it’s on the internet, some record of whatever you put there is there “forever,” regardless of what actions you take to remove it. It could be something you say out of frustration or anger on a current hot-button issue, or it could be the result of frustrations built up over time, or you’re just lashing out for attention, or it could be a genuine threat.

Legitimate terrorist threats constitute any “threat to commit an act of violence intended to threaten or intimidate another individual(s) with reckless disregard of the risks. In many cases, a terrorist threat results in the evacuation of a place of assembly, a building, stadium, airplane or other area where lives could be endangered.” (Source: Criminal Attorney).

Keep in mind, what you mean and how others perceive your comments are very different things. If a government agency has to take action for comments you make online, there will be consequences. Their action may be in the form of a simple remote investigation such as a phone call, or it may escalate to a visit to your residence. If you genuinely didn’t mean what you said online, then the consequences may be relatively minor, but if there is any evidence that supports your threat or your threat causes some sort of activity as described above, then the consequences will undoubtedly be more severe.

That’s to be expected. Some might advise to “watch what you say,” but you really shouldn’t have to beyond using common sense. Spouting off threats that result in the evacuation of a school deserve to be punished. Threats that are the result of frustration with leadership, not so much, but it does depend on the context. Some might say we’re full locked into the era of Big Brother, while others want the government to take even more action against potential threats. We’re not talking actual terrorist activity here, merely words on a screen. Words that too many people are looking at, but that’s the era we live in.

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