Its no secret that Twitter users are often fluent in sarcasm, with many using the 140 character messages as their personal stand up comedy platform. It’s also well known that it’s much easier to read the true intentions of speech when you are speaking with a person face to face. Whether it’s their body language, facial expressions, or gestures, they all factor in to allow better understanding into the message that someone is trying to deliver to you. While we do have the technological breakthrough of emoticons when reading on the computer, the bottom line is it’s much more difficult to pick up on sarcasm when you’re reading off a computer screen.
When it comes to our national security, sarcasm just isn’t tolerated. As we saw last month, a 14 year old Dutch girl was arrested after sending a terrorist threat to American Airlines. After American Airlines responded to her tweet that she would be reported to the FBI, she pleaded her case that she was just a young girl and it was a joke, but the girl eventually turned herself into police.
Threats like this should be taken seriously, regardless if it was supposed to be a not so smart teenage prank. That said, the Internet is filled with endless snark, including plenty of people who have infinitely more courage to say something sitting behind a keyboard than they would saying it directly to someone else. It’s also important to note that every American has the right to free speech. It’s clearly listed in our constitution: if you don’t agree with our government, you can say whatever you would like without facing prosecution.
That brings us to the dilemma that is currently facing the Secret Service. On Monday, the Secret Service posted a work order looking for software that analyzes social media, and specifically has the “ability to detect sarcasm and false positives.”
It’s a whole new world for the Secret Service these days. Just as everyone else’s life has been forever changed with the technological boom we have experienced in the last 20 years, the job of the Secret Service has changed in the same way. Forty years ago, the analysis of someone’s actions, usually who they associated with and what came out of their mouth could determine if a there was a viable threat against our President. Now, with the Internet and an endless supply of user generated content, there are so many more places for the Secret Service to investigate. Without question, there are thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of people in this country who don’t understand that what they post on the web could be considered a threat — and put themselves in trouble with the law. As an example, something like this fake tweet:
I just got my paycheck and had $223 taken out for taxes…Obama should be killed, lolz!!!
Is that really a direct and credible threat on the President’s life? No, but it puts the Secret Service in a difficult situation. Where is the line drawn as to what should be considered a true threat?
Since the work order was released, there have been more than a few articles almost poking fun at the Secret Services for requesting such software. But how can you blame the Secret Service for wanting to do their job in a more efficient manner? Their goal with this work order request is not to limit free speech, but rather embrace free speech and utilize a program to determine if what is said on Twitter is an actual threat or just an ill timed joke. Our government is looking to ignore the people who are trying to use sarcasm or humor, instead of trying to charge them with a crime. To me, this is a direct step to protect our liberties, and should be applauded (no sarcasm implied).
Of course, it’s clear that at the present moment, there’s no room for sarcasm in the Secret Service — or the TSA, local police, and other authorities, for that matter. Jokes and sarcasm may well received by online friends, but threats (real or not) can land you in serious trouble. Avoid damaging your reputation forever by playing it safe: think twice before you post, tweet, or share anything that could be considered dangerous or threatening.