This post has been updated.
One dumb teenager is easily excused — but the host of Twitter users currently tweeting bomb threats at major airlines is another story entirely.
In case you’ve somehow missed this latest round of Internet idiocy, here’s what went down: Sunday night, a Dutch teenager identified only as “Sarah” infamously tweeted a threat at American Airlines. (“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,” she wrote. Hilarious!) She then promptly made the account private and insisted it was all a joke — “I’m so stupid, I’m scared,” she wrote at one point — but not before American reported her name and IP address to authorities, leading to her arrest in Rotterdam on Monday. (Notably, while American tweeted that the airline gave Sarah’s IP address to officials directly, Twitter has since questioned that account: Under Twitter policy, the social network does not share user information with anyone but law enforcement, and only under certain circumstances. Asked by the Post if there had been some error, however, American Airlines repeatedly refused to retract the tweet or explain it further.)
In either case, you’d think that would warn off other pranksters — but the opposite has actually been true. In fact, at least a dozen other people have threatened American or, oddly, Southwest, an unrelated airline, under the guise of a “prank” or “joke.”
We hardly need reiterate the problems with this kind of thing: airlines need to take threats seriously, no matter how silly they seem, which means a lot of airline employees (and presumably, police and security and FBI) are spending a lot of time tracking down nuisance threats, as well.
Leaving aside, for a minute, the vast waste of taxpayer money and manpower that represents, there’s another more ground-level problem here: This trolling completely destroys whatever incentives airlines have to engage with their customers on Twitter. Which is, as many a Twitter-using traveler knows, basically the only decent line of airline customer service left.
Just last week, the Post’s Andrea Sachs reported on the use of social media at major airlines — it’s “unrivaled in its efficiency,” one expert said. In other words, if you ever have a problem on a flight, social media is the surest way to get relief. Or it will be, until other Internet trolls spam airlines with distracting, and potentially dangerous, clutter. (Imagine the chaos, if 4chan or some such signed on.)
Then again, that kind of disruption is presumably just what trolls want. That term is often used as a catch-all for agents of Internet mischief and unpleasantness, but recent studies have actually suggested a link between dedicated trolling and psychopathy. To quote a February paper published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, “it might be said that online trolls prototypical everyday sadists” — a.k.a., people who enjoy deceiving and manipulating other people.
That isn’t to say that Sarah is a sadist, of course; maybe she’s just another teenager spewing bite-sized idiocies into the void, like so many teenagers before her. Her copycats, on the other hand, know exactly what they’re doing. Let’s hope they realize how unfunny this schtick is — sooner, rather than later.