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Nina In New York: Twitter And The Slippery Slope

A woman logs on to Twitter - File / Photo: SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

Twitter (file/credit: SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)

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By Nina Pajak

Yesterday, the NYPD successfully subpoenaed Twitter and compelled them to give up information about a user who had tweeted direct threats to shoot up a Times Square theater “like aurora”. And thank goodness.

Twitter had initially refused to cooperate with the NYPD’s emergency request, claiming the threatening tweet did not meet their criteria for seeming really and truly credible. From Intel, thus Twitter spake:

“While we do invoke emergency-disclosure procedures when it appears that a threat is present, specific and immediate, this does not appear to fall under those strict parameters as per our policies.”

Well thanks, Twitter. You’re probably right, being experts and all. The NYPD may know security threats, but Twitter knows tweets. And since this @obamasmistress nutcase had already sent a litany of death threats under 140 characters to a variety of celebrities, he/she is probably all bark and no semi-automatic handgun. Sounds like we’re all better off assuming this psychopath is simply the blustery kind and not the shootingy, making good on big talkety kind.

Somehow, this doesn’t seem to sit right.

Naturally, instances like this always give rise to debates on freedom of speech and the slippery slope at the bottom of which we all live in a police state where instead of the Pledge of Allegiance, school children recite the Patriot Act. And naturally, there does need to be a line drawn. The ease with which our communications can now be monitored is somewhat disturbing, and opportunities for misinterpretation and undue panic are plentiful. I certainly don’t want to send my friend a joking and hyperbolic email about wanting to kill my boss (I don’t!) or some hateful politician and wind up with a SWAT team busting down my door.

But on the other hand, posting something on a public social media site or, say, in the comments section of a website, seems to fall into a category all on its own. A new category which perhaps has not been properly or thoroughly addressed in this regard. To my (legally uninformed) mind, posting that you’re going to shoot up a specific theater on social media is akin to yelling the same thing while standing in the middle of a crowded plaza. If I were to do that, I’d likely be detained and questioned to determine if I was real threat. As well I ought to be, as what kind of dangerous psychopath would do such a thing? A harmless lunatic, perhaps. Or perhaps not. It bears further investigation, and I think that companies like Twitter and Facebook and even this website have an obligation to public safety which no privacy policy should override.

What if the police hadn’t been able to compel the information about this person out of Twitter, and he/she did go shoot up a theater somewhere? Very few people would be arguing that Twitter did the right thing. Most people would be lamenting the loss of life which could have so easily been prevented. I certainly would be.

We may have a basic civil right to express ourselves, but we shouldn’t have the right to anonymously broadcast planned acts of violence and domestic terrorism on social media without being subject to further scrutiny. It’s too easy, and it’s too dangerous to ignore.

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Dear Readers: While I am rarely at a loss for words, I’m always grateful for column ideas. Please feel free to e-mail me your suggestions.

Nina Pajak is a writer and publishing professional living with her husband on the Upper West Side.

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