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Teenagers, social media, and terrorism: a threat level hard to assess

Authorities are leaning more toward zero tolerance of teenagers who fling around online threats about acts of violence or terrorism. As a result, what might have once merited a slap on the wrist may today result in criminal charges.

By Staff writer / May 4, 2013

Cameron Dambrosio is arraigned in Lawrence District Court on charges of making a bomb threat on his Facebook page in Lawrence, Mass., Thursday. Dambrosio of Methuen pleaded not guilty at his arraignment on a charge of communicating a terrorist threat.

Paul Bilodeau/The Eagle-Tribune/AP

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The case of teenager Cameron Dambrosio might serve as an object lesson to young people everywhere about minding what you say online unless you are prepared to be arrested for terrorism. 

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The Methuen, Mass., high school student was arrested last week after posting online videos that show him rapping an original song that police say contained “disturbing verbiage” and reportedly mentioned the White House and the Boston Marathon bombing. He is charged with communicating terrorist threats, a state felony, and faces a potential 20 years in prison. Bail is set at $1 million.

Whether the arrest proves to be a victory in America's fight against domestic terrorism or whether Cameron made an unfortunate artistic choice in the aftermath of the Boston bombing will become clear as the wheels of justice advance. What is apparent now, however, is that law enforcement agencies are tightening their focus on the social media behavior of US teenagers – not just because young people often fit the profile of those who are vulnerable to radicalization, but also because the public appears to be more accepting of monitoring and surveillance aimed at preventing attacks, even at the risk of government overreach.

“When I was young, calling a bomb threat to your high school because you didn’t want to go to school that day was treated with a slap on the wrist. Try that nowadays and you’re going to prison, no question about it. They are taking it more seriously now,” says Rob D'Ovidio, a criminal justice professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia who specializes in high-tech crime.

Teenagers are generally blissfully unaware that law enforcement agencies are creating cyber units to track and investigate developing ways that criminals, or would-be criminals, research, socialize, and plot nefarious actions, from child molestation to domestic terrorism. The Boston Marathon bombing suspects, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, fit this profile: One maintained a YouTube page and the other a Twitter feed, where both promoted the teachings of a radical Muslim cleric, alongside innocuous postings about music and sports. For law enforcement officials, filtering what does and does not constitute a threat is a delicate balancing act that, since the April 15 bombing, may be tilting to the side of additional caution. 

“The danger of this in light of the tragedy in Boston is that law enforcement is being so risk-averse they are in danger of crossing that line and going after what courts would ultimately deem as free speech,” Mr. D'Ovidio says.

Three people were killed and at least 260 injured in the two bomb blasts near the Boston Marathon finish line on April 15. Since then, questions have been raised about how authorities missed signals, especially after alerts from Russian intelligence, that one of the bombing suspects had become radicalized. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, killed after a gunfight with police, had been under surveillance by Russia when he traveled there for six months in 2012, besides his activity on social media. 

“The bottom line is that the public wants to know, after the fact, why [an attack] was not stopped.… Most Americans are prepared to maintain a sophisticated watch on this without [government] overreach, but most Americans also feel if these things can be stopped before they begin, they want to see that happen,” says Michael Greenberger, a law professor at the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security.

Some authorities say that zooming in on unusual behavior online fits squarely with how police have conducted random searches on the street.

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