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Hey, it was a joke. No need for handcuffs.

Last week it was reported in the media that two British tourists were detained at Los Angeles International Airport due to the threatening tone of messages on Twitter (“tweets”), as one of the two travelers had said that they were going to “destroy America” on their holiday. It turns out that either the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) noticed those tweets through their efforts to monitor social media, or, as has been suggested more recently, someone explicitly reported the tweets to DHS as a prank. The legal ramifications of this event are worthy of examination when we consider that this event contains elements of language (slang), location (whose laws apply based on where the alleged events took place), and intent — particularly if the prank allegation turns out to be true.

Had more sophisticated or comprehensive resources been applied to this incident, it’s fairly evident that the person who initiated the tweets did so with no criminal intent. The “destruction” he referred to was almost certainly slang for becoming intoxicated, i.e. they planned on some serious partying while in America. Hey, it took me a few iterations to catch on to the current meaning of the word “sick” in casual conversation. A second tweet stated that the two were going to “dig up Marilyn Monroe,” which reputedly is a reference to the American sitcom “Family Guy” — this is particularly amusing given that the famous actress is interred behind a marble wall, even if you had no knowledge of the quote in question. That did not dissuade the DHS in looking through their luggage for spades and shovels, however. Once convinced that the two did not pose a threat to national security or have plans to deface the resting place of Norma Jeane Baker, they were denied access to the U.S. and returned to Britain. Not exactly a fun holiday, was it?

Language and cultural references aside, let’s focus on the legal aspects of this incident:

  • It’s known that the U.S. government is monitoring social media for emerging threats to the homeland. What if such warrantless monitoring is not legal in the country of origin for the suspects? If the suspect makes threats (in jest or otherwise) to act with criminal intent on U.S. soil, are the authorities constrained to take action only while the suspects are in the United States?
  • Given the controversies around no fly lists, why wasn’t the pair stopped prior to boarding the aircraft in Britain? The absence of this action lends credence to the prank angle of this particular story.
  • The limits of free speech in the U.S. are some of the most liberal in the world. Where is the line between free speech and actual statements of criminal intent? Being a fan of word play, I’ve been known to tweet that I am off to “wok my dog.” If someone reads this and honestly believes that I am about to make Kung Pao Labrador Retriever, is the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) going to come looking for me? If so, I usually make it easy for them with location data in my tweets.
  • If the credentials of a person’s social media account are compromised, think of the possibilities for setting them up for further unpleasantries with the DHS or similar agencies. Having to prove that you were saying something in jest or clearing up the nuances of slang and cultural references would pale with being surprised with allegations that you were planning an act of terrorism.

It would seem that application of common sense, corroboration of facts and awareness of cultural nuance would have resulted in little to no story for the media had cooler heads prevailed in this particular instance. While the possibilities of social media and its ability to generate interest from governmental agencies has played out in some rather compelling global scenarios in the last couple of years, the unlucky story of two folks starting out their holiday came to an abrupt end out of simple misunderstanding. When such misunderstandings cross the line into legal actions, warranted or otherwise, the power of language coupled with the scalability of social media becomes a complex issue in a global society.

So how could we learn from this such that freedom of expression and due protection of the homeland can co-exist? One thing that comes to mind is context filtering. English is my mother tongue; I’ve been fortunate to have traveled throughout the U.S. and in many countries where English is the official language. I’ve been humorously misunderstood several times despite the best of intentions. How about tools which can be programmed to parse phrases and apply any number of contexts to help glean the true intent behind the words, particularly if we can facilitate cooperation between global governmental agencies? A tweet from the U.K. should be interpreted differently from a tweet from Utah.

For all I know, the phrase ‘wok the dog’ could take on a life of its own in social media. Perhaps I’ll be the unlucky person in detention the next time I visit Britain — a sad “tail” indeed.

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