It all started with a harmless Wells Fargo joke. Well, I thought it was harmless.
Twitter is a bad thing. The eternally profit-free microblogging service, lauded for spurring calls for freedom during the Arab Spring, has mostly devolved into a howling wilderness of fake news, bad takes and inventive insults. It’s a tremendous waste of time that no decent person should use.
Naturally, I love it.
I grew up in the wild and wooly early days of the Internet, before rules for behavior were set in place, and in those days verbal invective was the coin of the realm. You earned respect in some circles by how well you “flamed”?—?invented outrageous, cutting insults and levied them at your cyber foes. Twitter lets you take that art into the whole world, forcing celebrities, politicians and brands to be roasted in public.
When you break a rule on Twitter, there are a number of things that can happen. They can put your account into a hidden state, where people who don’t follow you can’t see your tweets for a period of time. They can lock it down completely and not reactivate it until you delete the offending tweets. They can delete your account entirely, forcing you to flounce off to more racist alternatives like Gab. Or, in a worst-case scenario, they can call the cops.
That’s what happened to me in 2013. I have a general rule that I try to respond to “promoted” tweets?—?where brands pay money to put their microblogging content in front of me?—?with derision and aggression.
My perspective on this is simple: my Twitter timeline is something I’ve curated to be relevant to my personal interests. By paying your way in there, you’re sort of like an uninvited guest at a very weird party, and I reserve the right to throw you out by your underwear.
Wells Fargo, the bank notorious for ripping off their own customers by creating millions of unauthorized accounts, found that out when they tweeted this and promoted it:
I met a GIRL, crazy for me…I met a BOY, cute as can be…" @ reply with #GetBankingDone if you can name this summer sing-along classic!
It’s “Summer Nights,” from the “Grease” soundtrack, in case you were wondering. My response was a little different.
@WellsFargo Going To Burn Down Your Branch Offices And Slaughter Your Upper Management #GetBankingDone #EndBankingNow #FirstAgainstTheWall
I’m not a big fan of banks, especially malevolent corporate monoliths like Wells Fargo. I keep my liquid assets in a small community-owned bank and encourage everybody else to do the same. The tweet did OK?—?18 retweets and 52 likes?—?and I forgot all about it promptly afterwards.
Wells Fargo didn’t, as I’d learn.
In December of that year, I got a call from the local police station. The officer on the line was apologetic and seemed a little out of his depth?—?I live in a pretty rural part of the country, and the police spend most of their time giving out speeding tickets and calming down unruly teenagers.
“Hey, is this?—?are you Kristopher Jensen, who is on Twitter as Kay Thor Jensen?”
“That’s me. What can I do for you, officer?”
“Uh, well, a month or so ago?—?this has been sitting on my desk for a while?—?but, uh, did you say you were going to burn down a Wells Fargo?”
A spectacularly awkward conversation followed where I admitted that yes, I probably shouldn’t have used the language I did in that particular tweet but that it couldn’t be read as a credible threat of violence in the context it was presented. Our Wells Fargo was safe.
Luckily for me, the officer agreed. He told me that the bank’s corporate office had called the FBI, and after a quick investigation the FBI had passed the matter on to local law enforcement.
“Just be more careful next time, huh?” was his final advice. A quick look at my timeline will let you know how successful I’ve been with that.
After that, everything went back to normal. Twitter didn’t even delete the tweet (although Wells Fargo blocked me). I went on to make like 25,000 more tweets and even got a blue verified checkmark.
A guy I’m mutuals with on Twitter wasn’t so lucky. His name’s Fred, and he tweets @crumbskull. While he was in England visiting his grandfather, he let out a little frustration at the President-Elect with tweets like:
“I am going to contract an annoying STD and then transmit it to the President Elect.”
“I am going to pipe bees into Donald Trump’s hotel room like that prank from the movies.”
Mostly harmless, but then Fred decided to tweet “I am going to shoot the president elect with a gun.”
After returning to the States, a pair of Secret Service agents visited Fred at his Washington home. They read the tweets, asked if he was responsible, and ended up questioning him and his girlfriend for an hour. Probably the weirdest part of the experience was having to explain the concept of “riffing” in comedy to the agents. They eventually concluded he was just letting off steam and, although threatening an elected official is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison, they closed the case. These investigations aren’t public and don’t come up on background checks, so in the end Fred comes out clean, too.
A little while back, my wife’s father sent her an interesting package. He’d been very active with the Revolutionary Communist Party in America during the late 70s, and as such the government had kept tabs on his activities. Using the Freedom of Information Act, he was able to request a copy of his file with all of the sensitive information redacted.
It was huge?—?a manila folder stuffed to bursting with Xeroxes. Although a significant portion had been censored?—?most notably the names and other identifying information of agents who were in the field?—?the level of detail on his comings and goings was intense.
I had to know what they had on me. It’s become easier and easier for the government to store information on citizens, and the surveillance state has expanded massively since my father-in-law’s Commie heyday. I gambled a stamp and sent off my FOIA request.
The process for requesting your records is pretty simple. The FBI has a sample letter that you can fill out, and you have to include another form to prove that you are yourself (the agency won’t release info on living people without their permission). The whole process took about 15 minutes.
I provided them with my full name, social security number, list of aliases (I included my Twitter handle there) and requested any documents from 1994 (the year I graduated high school) forward.
Unfortunately, the gears of justice grind painfully slow, so it was months before I got a response back from the Bureau.
“We were unable to identify file records responsive to the FOIA,” it said.
This was puzzling for me?—?surely it’s easy enough to keep records that there would have to be something there, particularly for someone who’d said he was going to burn down a corporate bank. The letter says that they exclude certain categories of records from being obtainable by FOIA request, but aside from an “active criminal investigation”?—?which I am pretty sure I’m not the subject of?—?I can’t see how this would apply.
My only conclusion is that the FBI looked at my not-really-a-threat and did the absolute minimum required, passing it along to local law enforcement and then throwing Wells Fargo’s complaint in the trash. A little disappointing, but probably for the best in the long run.
Do you think the Feds have something on you? It’s never been easier to find out?—?even if you might not like what you discover.