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Twitter users beware: Homeland Security isn’t laughing

Planning to make a joke on Twitter about bombing something? You might want to reconsider: according to a report from Britain, two British tourists were detained and then denied entry into the U.S. recently after they joked about destroying America and digging up Marilyn Monroe. The fact that the Department of Homeland Security and other authorities — including the FBI — are monitoring social media like Twitter and Facebook isn’t that surprising. But the fact that Homeland Security is willing to detain people based on what is clearly a harmless joke raises questions about what the impact of all that monitoring will be.

Leigh Van Bryan, a 26-year-old bar manager from Coventry, told The Sun that he and friend Emily Bunting were stopped by border guards when they arrived at Los Angeles International Airport and questioned for five hours about messages that Van Bryan had posted on Twitter saying he planned to “destroy America.” After the questioning, during which the Irish traveller said that Homeland Security threatened the two, they were put in a van and taken to a holding cell overnight, along with some illegal immigrants. After being held overnight, they said they were forced to take a plane back to England.

According to a report in The Daily Mail, the Homeland Security officers gave Van Bryan a document that detailed why he was refused admission to the United States, and it reads like a bad joke itself, saying:

He had posted on his Tweeter website account that he was coming to the United States to dig up the grave of Marilyn Monroe… Also on his tweeter account Mr Bryan posted that he was coming to destroy America.

Van Bryan told the newspaper that he tried to explain to Homeland Security officials that the term “destroy” was British slang referring to a party, and that his comments about “digging up Marilyn Monroe” were an attempt at humor, but that the officers didn’t listen. The authorities even searched their luggage looking for shovels and other tools, he said.

Monitoring social media makes sense — within reason

This isn’t the first time that someone has gotten in trouble for making a joke on Twitter: a British businessman named Paul Chambers was arrested under the Terrorism Act and questioned for more than seven hours in 2010 after making a joke on Twitter about blowing up an airport, a joke he said he made because he was frustrated about the airport being closed due to bad weather. He was tried and found guilty and fined a thousand pounds, and eventually lost his job as a result of the publicity.

The fact that Homeland Security is monitoring social networks like Twitter and Facebook for certain keywords isn’t that surprising: the department said during a security review earlier this year that it has been monitoring those networks and a list of blogs and other sources (including WikiLeaks) for information about potential security hazards and what it called “situational awareness.” The Federal Bureau of Investigation also recently revealed that it is trying to develop a service that can monitor social-media sources and automatically create alerts based on the information it finds there.

To me, it makes perfect sense for security officials to be monitoring social networks and even blogs. This is all public information that could contain useful signals about real terrorism or threats to national security of some kind, and it should obviously be part of the normal intelligence process. But doing this properly also requires some sense of proportion about what constitutes a real threat and what is clearly a joke. Did Homeland Security really think that a 26-year-old bar manager was a serious threat?

We all know that we are likely being monitored in even more ways now than we have ever been, whether it’s by security cameras or algorithms that comb through tweets and Facebook posts. But that’s not the scary part — the scary part is what can happen when that information gets misinterpreted and it escalates into a major crisis for no reason.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Stefan and Rosaura Ochoa

31 Responses to “Twitter users beware: Homeland Security isn’t laughing”

  1. I think the government has every right to detain and deport these senseless individuals. If you’re as inconsiderate to make these so called jokes reconsider your motives of traveling to America. We cannot take risks that will create another. 9/11.

  2. Caroline Macmillan

    Totally justified, you can’t joke about these things. We shouldn’t be so outraged, we are monitored – it is fact. It was a public statement, people forget, not two friends bantering, rather someone making statements to the public.

  3. the is the biggest piece of s**t ive ever heard!! Homeland security live in a bubble and must be aware of cultural differences and mannerisms. why grant the person a vis ain the first place? the point of “social sites” is to be that “social”. if there is no place for self expression(without condemnation)then you might as well do away with all these sites now.. i wonder which of their ammendments they are breaking here??#freedomofspeech

  4. Don’t they understand that he’s a white person, and therefore harmless? Only suspicious-looking brown people should be subject to this kind of security scutiny.

  5. How many times have we read stories that claim “authorities could have prevented this. They had a brief run-in with the suspects months earlier and did nothing.” In a world where media wants to tear apart every action of every public figure, it makes sense that this would be a black and white decision. You published the words, you suffer the consequences. Don’t say/publish dumb and destructive things, and you won’t be on the wrong side of that argument.

  6. I’m with Homeland Security and I am actually surprised (and appalled) that they got off so easy. There are certain things you never joke about in a public forum, and they broke those laws. Hopefully they press charges against them or at the very least ban them from entering this great country ever again. Hope their “jokes” were worth it!

    • With people like you in the DHS, Joe, I guess it’s a great service to them that they didn’t get to visit your “great” country. The other English-speaking people of the world understand the creative, ironic and metaphorical use of language. Apparently you don’t. On a serious note, how exactly was this Irish man going to destroy America all by himself? By shaking MM’s corpse around propped up with a spade? Seriously, America needs to get a grip. Total paranoia.

  7. J S Nemitz

    Sorry but, I don’t blame Homeland Security for detaining them. How do YOU know it wasn’t a harmless joke? Who jokes about “destroying America” and “bombing America”? How idiotic of them – and of your article. They deserve to be sent back home. What do you want them to do – let all the “Going to kill, bomb, destroy” people come and finally blow us up? What an idiotic article. They were just kidding. Maybe this time – but what about the next time?

  8. It seems clear that this is about being made to do something stupid. I mean, really, searching their luggage for tools? As though shovels would be hard to find in the USA?,-118.441591&sspn=0.018488,0.032015&near=Los+Angeles,+California+(Westwood+Memorial+Park)&geocode=CR149zNUF5ypFZ2wBwIdRbvw-CG4pwsAYmARvA&dq=Westwood+Memorial+Park+los+angeles&hq=hardware&t=h&z=14

    And Ms. Monroe is buried in a crypt, in any event.

  9. Derek Kerton

    I’m not sure this case is so clear cut.

    Sure, the DHS goons were dumb not to assess the situation correctly after interrogating and inspecting the travelers. I suppose they should have been let in at that point.

    However, Tweeter [sic] users need to understand that they are PUBLISHING their tweets. This is not a friend-to-friend private conversation. This is not a case of Orwellian snooping into their thoughts or private affairs — the Bartender PUBLISHED his inside joke. He shouldn’t be surprised that the DHS is not skilled in nuance.

    Our social norms haven’t really caught up to the fact that everyone can be a publisher, so both the DHS and the bartender don’t seem to understand the new medium that they both used.

  10. How did we so quickly move into the Orwellian nightmare that Twitter, Google and Facebook seem to be bringing into reality….

    Twiiter FB and Google EXRACT vast amount in content/value from “Communities” and leverage this content/value into billions of dollars in profit….

    Why are the “Community” owners/creators of the value/content not remunerated financially in return for the value they create ?

    Why is it right for a few hundred or a few thousand to reap huge financial rewards from selling “Community” created content without the explicit permission of the “Community” and without returning any monetary valeu to the “Community” ?……

    If a “Community” creates the majority of value that can be repeatedly leveraged to generate wealth …it would seem that at a minium the process of leveraging this value to generate the billions in revenue should be transparent…. interesting that investors/share holders have this ability to demand transparency while the majority value creators that are the “Community” do not…..By I mean that if Twitter or Google or FB have decided that they can sell the content/data of the “Community” that gives it value….They should at minium make visibile to the “Community” who they have sold access to the data/content as well as what amount was paid for the “Community” created content…..Why is this not the case….?

    Why are the “Communities” that add value/data/content that is leveraged into billions in revenue and IPO floats treated as products instead of the most important added value to these companies….. ?

    • Mr. Wayne – The “Community” _is_ compensated by the owners of these social services. The service itself is the compensation – these are fun, ego-gratifying social forums that hundreds of millions of people eagerly use. The fact that the company that owns the service is going to mine the data for value should be obvious to everyone. From their point of view the data is the asset.

      Please keep in mind that the users are voluntarily posting details of their personal lives onto Facebook’s servers. If you don’t like the deal, you can walk away, or, better yet, organize a user group to demand greater clarity.

      Facebook is a company – they’re not going to give you anything unless they have to.

  11. Gregory Alan Elliott

    I believe Homeland Security has a tough job keeping Americans safe. You never know, sometime in the future, terrorists may attack America with a “combined and orchestrated sense of humor”. Letting funny foreigners into the USA could reek havock to the American entertainment industry. Believe you me, it has already happened… Look at the damage Ricky Gervais did to The Golden Globes! Shambles! And that was just ONE homosexual British comedian! Think of the destruction to the overall American psyche if a planeload of Muslim clerics, fresh from a secret joke-telling training camp, were to sneak past Homeland Security’s watchful eyes! Oh, the humanity. But, that will never happen. The jokes on you, you terrorists. You aren’t getting past the airport doors. In closing, if Homeland Security won’t let me into America, I will just go to Cuba. Cuba seems to appreciate a joke. Still love you America!
    Gregory Alan Elliott