The Internet was, for a long time, a safe haven of anonymity. But we all know that’s changing, considering Facebook’s insistence on real names, the unmasking of big Reddit trolls and the fact that the NSA is possibly looking over your shoulder right now. But the Internet is also rife with misunderstandings, as it’s difficult to distinguish sarcasm in blocks of text. These aspects combined to seriously backfire on the foolish (but probably not criminal) people below…
10. Paul Chambers Takes Offense to Snow
In early January 2010, heavy snow threatened to ruin flight plans from Doncaster airport and local Paul Chambers wasn’t happy. He wrote on Twitter, “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!”
One week after the tweet, South Yorkshire police arrived at the hapless tweeter’s workplace with a printout of the offending tweet. In the first case of its kind in the United Kingdom, Chambers was arrested under the Terrorism Act, interrogated, and banned from the airport for life. According to Chambers, the policeman who interviewed him had no idea what Twitter was. Detectives took his laptop, iPhone and computer and put him on bail. He was finally cleared after two and a half years when Crown Court judges said the tweet was clearly meant as a joke. It was definitely an ill-advised joke, but it certainly didn’t deserve that reaction.
9. Justin Carter Makes a Ridiculous Threat
Justin Carter was arguing with friends on Facebook about the video game League of Legends when someone jokingly called him sick in the head. He humored them, saying, “I’m f—ed in the head alright. I think I’ma SHOOT UP A KINDERGARTEN AND WATCH THE BLOOD OF THE INNOCENT RAIN DOWN and eat the beating heart of one of them,” an obviously melodramatic if not particularly tasteful claim that was followed by Justin saying he was just kidding.
However, a Canadian woman didn’t take the joke well and called the police. Justin was arrested on Valentine’s Day 2013 and sent to jail. His father made a Change.org petition to free him in November 2013 and the case continues to this day, with the now 19 year old still facing a felony terrorism charge after being bailed out for $500,000 by an anonymous donor. Justin’s attorney Don Flanary said that in his 10 years of practicing law he had never seen bail set that high, even for murderers and rapists.
Worse still, defense lawyers say the police deliberately misquoted Justin’s comments and lied in their warrant. They were alleged to have changed the wording of his Facebook comment and said they matched Carter’s driver license photo to his profile picture on Facebook, when Carter doesn’t even have a driver’s license. But hey, at least Kindergartens around the country are safe from sarcastic threats.
8. Zhai Xiaobing Parodies Final Destination
Zhai Xiaobing, a Chinese blogger and resident of Beijing, joked about a parody of the Final Destination movies under Twitter handle @Stariver after circumventing the country’s strict controls on social media. He said, “#Spoilertweet; #Proceed with Caution; Final Destination 6 is being released. The Great Hall of the People suddenly collapses, only 7 of the 2,000 plus people attending the meeting survive, yet each dies one-by-one in a bizarre fashion afterward. Is it God’s game or Death’s wrath? How did the mysterious number 18 open the gates of Hell? Shocking debut on November 8 in theaters worldwide!”
Zhai was confirmed to be in a detention center for “a microblog post containing false information on the internet.” He then went radio silent. Concerned friend Liu Yanping investigated and found that he and his laptop had disappeared. Family members told her that they had been seized by police, who accused Zhai of terrorism. A petition in support of him was signed by prominent Chinese activists. It’s well known that the Chinese government monitors Twitter even though it’s blocked, so this is not the first case of its kind. In 2010, human rights activist Cheng Jianping was sentenced to a year in a labor camp after retweeting a tweet that supposedly disrupted social order.
7. Dutch Teenager Threatens American Airlines
In a case that took the media by storm, a 14 year old Dutch girl called Sarah and known as @QueenDemetriax_ on Twitter was arrested by Rotterdam police after a tweet that threatened an Al-Qaeda attack on American Airlines. The Tweet said: “@AmericanAir hello my name’s Ibrahim and I’m from Afghanistan. I’m part of Al Qaida and on June 1st I’m gonna do something really big bye.”
The American Airlines account responded quickly, saying they “take these threats very seriously” and that her IP address would be forwarded to the FBI. She subsequently pleaded with the airline over Twitter, saying “it was my friend not me” and “I’m so scared I’m just a 14-year-old white girl I’m not a terrorist,” before turning herself in to a local police station. Rotterdam police later confirmed on their Twitter account that she’d been arrested.
Her Twitter account quickly gained 30,000 followers, leading Sarah to consider auctioning her Twitter handle, with bids starting at $500 before the account was deleted. She was the subject of Internet-wide ridicule, but other Twitter users didn’t learn from her mistakes and sent dozens of similar threats.
6. British Tourists to “Destroy America”
Tourists Leigh van Bryan and Emily Bunting were arrested in Los Angeles for two tweets from Bryan’s account that read: “Free this week, for quick gossip/prep before I go and destroy America” and “3 weeks today, we’re totally in LA p****** people off on Hollywood Blvd and diggin’ Marilyn Monroe up!”
Armed guards took him literally and searched his bag for shovels and spades, thinking he actually intended to dig up Marilyn Monroe’s grave with Bunting as his lookout. The tweet was a reference to Family Guy, while the tourists explained that, in context, their use of the word “destroy” just meant “party” in British slang. A full body search was done on Ms. Bunting, and then the two were put in a prison cell and subsequently denied admission to the United States and forced to return home. Presumably even if they were allowed to return to the US in the future, they wouldn’t be thrilled about doing so.
5. Timebomb at a P!nk Concert
An Australian teenager was on his way to a P!nk concert when he tweeted “@Pink I’m ready with my Bomb. Time to blow up #RodLaverArena. Bitch.” The Tweet was in reference to her song “Timebomb,” which authorities were presumably not familiar with when they decided to use the boy’s Twitter profile picture to find him in a crowd of 12,000 waiting fans and force him out of the arena. At first police intended to be lenient with him, but took more serious measures at the arena’s urging. According to a witness in the stadium, up to 20 security guards approached him. The boy was arrested and charged with being a public nuisance. His thoughts on the contextual misunderstanding? “It was meant to be about drop the effects, the music, everything – just drop it all.”
4. Ross Loraine Doesn’t Like Scots
Yet another 19 year old arrested for a social media post, this one a Twitter troll from Sunderland believed to be Ross Loraine who was arrested in Scotland for making a joke about a garbage truck crash in Glasgow that killed six people. He allegedly said, “So a bin lorry has crashed into 100 people in Glasgow eh, probably the most trash its ever picked up in one day that.”
That definitely seems like something a 19 year old would say to try to sound cool and edgy on the Internet, but he handed himself into police after complaints about the tweet. Loraine posted the offensive tweet only an hour after the accident, and furious Twitter users alerted police after the tweet went viral. Police confirmed that he was arrested on suspicion of making a malicious communication, but had been bailed pending what will presumably be a very silly investigation.
3. Josh Pillault Invokes Columbine
Mississippian Josh Pillault was arrested in October 2012 for making threats while playing Runescape. Another player had told him to kill himself, and he responded that not only would he kill himself, he’d take the whole school with him too, like Columbine. Once he mentioned Columbine, the other player said “Knock Knock,” as if he knew what was coming next.
Police raided his home a few days later and arrested him. He remained in jail for nine months and pleaded guilty in hopes of an easier sentence, as it was thought that he could face up to 10 years in jail and a fine of $250,000. That kind of worked, as Pillault was sentenced to six years in prison, including time in a mental health treatment facility. According to his mother, Pillault didn’t own any weapons, and his teachers and doctor said he was no threat. Teachers were even willing to testify on his behalf.
2. Cameron D’Ambrosio’s Rap Career Gets Put on Hold
18 year old aspiring rapper Cameron D’Ambrosio was arrested in May 2013 for posting some of his rap lyrics on Facebook, which included “fuck a boston bombinb [sic] wait til u see the shit I do, I’ma be famous for rapping, and beat every murder charge that comes across me.” He was held without bail until a grand jury hearing, and while we admit that his rhymes were pretty weak that hardly requires jail time.
Prosecutors wanted to charge the teenager with threats to make a bomb or carry out a vehicle hijacking, crimes that can mean up to 20 years in jail. The police engaged in some shady behavior — when talking to the media, they didn’t mention that D’Ambrosio was an aspiring rapper. Without that detail, his status just seemed like a threat. And when searching for evidence against his character, prosecutors brought up a fight he’d had with his sister when he was 11 years old. The police didn’t seem to understand Facebook, as the department’s blog said that the lyrics were posted in a “Facebook phone message.” It also said that the lyrics weren’t directed at anyone or anything in particular. On the weight of all this non-evidence, a grand jury declined to indict him.
1. James Buss Is Bad at Sarcasm
James Buss, a Wisconsin teacher, was arrested on November 29, 2007 for a blog comment sarcastically praising the perpetrators of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting. The arrest came after owners of the political blog Boots & Sabers gave the name of the commenter to police, as Buss had commented under the pseudonym “Observer.”
The comment said that teacher salaries were too high for the pitiful work they do, and “We’ve got to get in back of the kids who have had enough of lazy, no-good teachers and are fighting back. Kids like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. They knew how to deal with the overpaid teacher union thugs.” Since he was a teacher himself (and past president of a teachers union), it’s unlikely that Buss genuinely wanted teachers shot. He was put on paid leave during the incident, presumably as a compromise between recognizing how absurd his arrest was and and acknowledging how stupid his comment was.
He was to be charged with disorderly conduct and unlawful use of computerized communication systems. However, he was released on $350 bail after spending just one hour in Washington County Jail. Prosecutors declined to file charges against him, presumably because they had many, many better things to do.