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Tweet Level Orange

What's your Twitter threat level? Tweeting a word that's on the federal government's terror word watch list could jump you up from green to red in 140 characters or less. And that could get you some unanticipated scrutiny from the Department of Homeland Security.

At least that's what happened to Leigh Van Bryan and Emily Bunting. When they arrived in Los Angeles on Jan. 23, 2012, on a flight from London via Paris, the two British tourists were denied entry to the United States for inappropiate tweeting. Bryan and Bunting were interrogated by Customs and Border Protection agents for five hours at LAX, handcuffed, locked up overnight with scary tattooed drug dealers, and sent back to England in the morning. All this because, before their visit, Bryan tweeted to a friend using words that attracted the attention of Federal terror watchers.

The offending tweets read, "3 weeks today, we're totally in LA p****** people off on Hollywood Blvd and diggin' Marilyn Monroe up!" and "free this week for a quick gossip/prep before I go and destroy America?" Bryan acknowledged that he had sent them, explaining to interrogators that they were meant to be jokes. He told the agents that destroy is British slang for partying and getting drunk (compare U.S. trashed, wasted), and digging up Marilyn Monroe was a line from the American TV show, Family Guy. The humorless border agents actually searched the suspects' luggage looking for the shovels the suspects planned to use to exhume Monroe. A further casualty of the affair: Bryan no longer has a Twitter account.

Above: Bryan deleted his Twitter account, but that proved no obstacle to Rupert Murdoch's crack
investigative journalists at The Sun, who quickly found the tweets.  Below, excerpt from the DHS "denial
of entry" form, as printed in the Daily Mail, showing Bryan's stipulation that he had posted the offending tweets.

Bryan and Bunting were stopped, questioned, and stamped "return to sender" because the federal government diligently scans social media like Facebook and Twitter, as well as blogs and online news reports, in an effort to stop terrorist activity before it starts. To that end, the Department of Homeland Security maintains a terror-word watch list of about 500 items (see pages 20-23 of this link). Destroy isn't on the watch list of the MMC — the media monitoring capability group tasked with alerting their superiors to IOI's (Items of interest) that they find when reading social media. The list has nothing about Marilyn Monroe, either, though she is buried in a cemetery in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Westwood. But some Twitter-reading algorithm, or possibly a snitch, tipped off the feds to Bryan's plans, and agents were able to intercept the Irish national before he and his English companion — agents suspected she would act as the lookout for the Marilyn Monroe exhumation — could do any serious damage. Needless to say, Bryan didn't get to do any serious partying either.

The DHS may not have "destroy America" on its Analyst's Desktop watch list, but the list does contain other words clearly associated with terrorism, like white powder, Ricin, Al Qaeda, Hamas, and jihad. However, much of the list consists of words likely to be harmless: interstate, ice, dock, smart, subway, electric, vaccine, wave, and cloud. Cuba, China, and Iran are on the list, but so is San Diego. There are cyber words on the watch list: hacker, worm, and conficker, for example. But Mark Zuckerberg might be surprised that the phrase social media itself is on the social media watch list. Using it in a post could definitely trigger an IOI.

It goes without saying that the Department of Homeland Security must do its best to keep America safe, and DHS invades no one's privacy when it scans the web, because anyone posting to a public site has no reasonable expectation of privacy. No one doubts that online posters who make demonstrable threats, stalk or otherwise harrass victims online, or conspire on the 'net to commit crimes, should be stopped and punished. But now ordinary web users, who aren't terrorists or cybercriminals, must not only worry how many words they can fit into Twitter's 140-character space, they must also consider whether their words will bring a knock on the door in the middle of the night.

Here's an innocuous enough tweet:

Agent says screening not a disaster; take initiative, ride wave, rewrite plot. Not sure it'll help film's closure. So sick of social media.

It contains 140 characters forming 23 words, ten of which, some 43%, are on the DHS terror word watch list. I've marked them in red to indicate their threat level. Nevertheless, even if someone tweeted this, there's not much chance that a computer would flag them at the border. That's because, unless we're dealing with spies writing in a secret code, a human reader would probably find no contexts in which that watch-list-heavy tweet would raise an alarm.

The real problem with terror word lists comes when joking that is shared between friends and followers on line is taken seriously by literal-minded threat watchers. Leigh Bryan wasn't in an airport or anywhere near L.A. when he tweeted his vacation plans in terms that alarmed American border guards. There was plenty of time for security analysts to figure out whether he posed a credible threat to the Hollywood hills. And even if there wasn't time — these overworked civil servants have to read huge numbers of tweets and Facebook posts — then the absence of shovels in the travelers' luggage might have furnished a clue.

So now we have to watch our language, not just when we're in an airport or on a plane, but also at home, on line, weeks before our trip. In exchange for restraining our speech, and submitting to x-rays and pat downs, not to mention the leaky bottles of lotion and makeup and mouthwash in our checked bags, we get some expectation of security as we travel. But it's no wonder our children look at us blankly after yet another airport screening hassle when we trot out the old saw that getting there is half the fun. 

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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.