Can Your Tweets Make You a Criminal?

By Allison Boccamazzo November 20, 2012

What happens when that short, 140-character phrase, message or quip you post about everyday activities takes a dark turn?

We’re all familiar with the average, nonsensical tweets of some (ie. “Just went to the bathroom!”), but now, some are taking the widely popular social media forum to an entirely new level by fabricating statements that could potentially put themselves and others in harm’s way.

Take, for example, the recent Twitter debacle that happened due to last month’s Hurricane Sandy, where some were sending preposterous and baseless tweets that raised public alarm. Other concerns are found in more legal than moral issues, but are as equally as important to address. Ed Silverstein recently reported that Twitter changed its policy on content that could potentially violate copyrighting violations by not necessarily posting them, but by withholding them.

Tweets being withheld from posting are those which copyright holders think raise concerns in regard to the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

So this begs the question: If you lie or fabricate while tweeting, is this a crime?

As mentioned in this recent Wall Street Journal blog, the state of New York – a location hit particularly hard by Sandy – makes it pretty clear what their stance is on this. According to New York law: “A person is guilty of falsely reporting an incident in the third degree when, knowing the information reported, conveyed or circulated to be false or baseless, he: 1. Initiates or circulates a false report or warning of an alleged occurrence or impending occurrence of a crime, catastrophe or emergency under circumstances in which it is not unlikely that public alarm or inconvenience will result…”

These types of situations seem to be an especially sticky situation, as Twitter accounts – just like any other social media outlet – undoubtedly have many anonymous users using false names. However, revolutionary new technology is being worked on to help the government better conduct surveillance with this type of communication and interaction. One company, VoIP-Pal, actually has one patent that can adequately identify suspects via such things as username, subscriber data and billing records associated with such information.

But is this enough? This technology is only currently being worked upon, and has not yet been fully rolled out.

I was able to speak with Barlow Keener, an attorney with Keener Law Group, who specializes in telecommunications, Internet and entertainment law, who explained where he believes the line should be drawn.

“It seems like a stretch for a ‘false’ Twitter announcement about a storm to be held to the same standard as the NY law,” Keener explains. “Twitter is all about rumor and innuendo.”

Keener also points out that the NY law says that a “person is guilty of falsely reporting an incident.” Needless to say, tweeting does not serve as an official form of reporting that’s, say, as legitimate as a government report.

So, for instance, if you were to tweet something along the lines of “This Earthquake is moving my TV off of its stand,” it would then become legitimate, as this is a factual statement. Another way tweets can become quickly legitimate is if they come from a government source such as NOAH or the White House, Keener adds.

So in conclusion, when someone tweets, they are simply “talking out loud,” as opposed to what the NY law could be strictly reading as “reporting,” meaning making an official report of something like a 911 call to a government agency.

One source that further covers this in more detail is Citizens Media, located here.

Edited by Rachel Ramsey

TechZone360 Web Editor

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