It’s no secret that what you post on social media is not private. Back in the days before Facebook and Twitter, poor attempts at humour could be made to your friends, without any likely criminal repercussions, and hopefully quickly forgotten.
But the threat of terrorism is now very real, and if you foolishly post a terrorism ‘joke’ on social media, it could be a completely different story.
One Dutch teen found police eager to question her after posting a fake terrorism threat on her Twitter account. The 14-year-old missed the mark when she attempted to be funny by tweeting a terror threat to American Airlines.
When the airline made it clear that the threat was being taken seriously, the teen panicked and admitted that she was just kidding – but police still got involved. The hapless is by no means the only one facing consequences from what is considered a silly tweet.
Two British tourists, Leigh Van Bryan and Emily Bunting, found themselves in hot water when they disembarked from their plane in the USA. The pair were shocked that tweets by Van Bryan had come to the attention of the US Department of Homeland Security
Van Bryan, aged 26, was swiftly apprehended at the airport and kept under armed guard on suspicion of planning to commit crimes while on US soil.
One of Van Bryan’s incriminating tweets read: “free this week, for a quick gossip/prep before I go and destroy America?” He tried to explain that “destroy” was just UK slang for partying. But officials weren’t in the party mood, as they conveyed both him and his travel companion to prison.
Another one of Van Bryan’s masterful tweets made reference to the US comedy “Family Guy”. The tweet read “3 weeks today, we’re totally in LA p****d people off on Hollywood Boulevard and diggin’ Marilyn Monroe up!”. Their suitcases were searched for shovels and spades that might be used to exhume Marilyn Monroe’s body.
Van Bryan described the ordeal as “almost funny” but ‘really scary’. The pair spent several hours in prison before being returned to the airport and sent back home to the UK.
They were told that if they wished to enter the US again, they would need to apply for visas from the US embassy in London.
But terrorist threats are not the only way you could end up incriminating yourself online.
Many have foolishly posted photos of themselves online engaging in what appears to be illegal activity.
Some have published images of themselves injecting what appears to be drugs, posing with bags of marijuana and huge wads of cash, and bragging about stealing computers.
During the riots in the UK, a number of youngsters were quickly apprehended after unwisely posting pictures of themselves holding goods that they had just pillaged from retail stores.
Sydney teens fighting
Here in Sydney, two teenage girls were arrested and charged with assault after a YouTube video was posted of them fighting.
Police are watching
You might be wondering, how did police even get hold of the incriminating tweets, posts or photos in the first place?
Despite common beliefs to the contrary, the Internet does not offer users a blanket of anonymity. Even if you use a different screen name, police can still often determine that you are the culprit.
And being careful with your privacy settings doesn’t mean that police won’t be able to access your information, even in the absence of a warrant.
A method that is commonly used by police is setting up a fake profile, posing as a young person and adding you as a friend.
Police incursions into social media are not uncommon, and police have been known to use this technique to catch and prosecute offenders.
If police do have a warrant, they can access your social media accounts without you even knowing – sites like Facebook allow police with warrants to search your profile, regardless of your profile settings.
And of course, the situation will become a whole lot easier for police and law enforcement once the new data retention laws come into effect.
In some cases, social media posts may help a person to avoid being convicted of a crime.
For one American man, an impulsive Facebook message provided him with a much-needed alibi when police charged him with robbery.
Rodney Bradford updated his status to “On the phone with this fat chick… where my IHOP”. The phrase “fat chick” was a somewhat unflattering reference to Bradford’s girlfriend and “IHOP” was the abbreviation for a restaurant called the International House of Pancakes.
Unbeknownst to Bradford, an armed robbery took place twelve miles from his home just one minute after he posted the message.
Bradford was identified as the suspect and turned himself in. One of the victims of the robbery picked Bradford out from a line-up, which led to him being charged and kept behind bars facing the prospect of a conviction and years in prison.
Fortunately for Bradford, his father understood the significance of his Facebook post and alerted his criminal lawyer.
When Facebook officials confirmed that the post was written from his father’s house twelve miles from the crime scene, Bradford’s lawyer convinced the District Attorney to drop the case.
While a casual Facebook post worked in Bradford’s favour, it is much more common for posts to have the opposite effect. And with the new meta-data laws requiring information to be stored for 2 years, even more of what you say and do online will be captured and potentially used against you down the track.
So when it comes to sharing online, it is best to exercise caution. A ‘funny’ joke or picture posted on the spur of the moment may not always be a good idea.
You don’t necessarily know who will be watching, nor do you want to end up explaining the funny side to police or a court.