Justice Department Says Retweets Are Endorsements in Terrorism Case

Photograph by Bloomberg

You know the phrase: “RT does not equal an endorsement.” Once upon a time, it was a fancy way for media types to tell people on Twitter they didn’t necessarily agree with messages they retweeted. Today, though, most people view the “not an endorsement” disclaimer as self-important or the sign of a social media rookie.

But not so fast. A new court filing demonstrates how reckless retweets can help land you in serious trouble with the U.S. government.

The filing in question, flagged by a security expert on Twitter (where else?), involves a Missouri woman, Safya Yassin, who allegedly made a series of criminal threats against U.S. military members and the FBI.

As cited by law professor Eugene Volokh, federal prosectors explain that Yassin’s threats took the form of a tweets that urged “supporters of the Caliphate State” to slay Air Force personnel and listed their hometowns and phone numbers.

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Fair enough. But what about the retweets? Here’s the part of the filing where they come into play (my emphasis):

Her unrelenting support of ISIS/ISIL was patently obvious in her verbatim retweets on August 24, 2015, that alerted her followers of two FBI employees who were “wanted to kill” and listed these employees actual names, city, state, zip code, and phone numbers.

As Volokh notes, the Justice Department cited those retweets to support its case that Yassin shouldn’t be granted bail while awaiting her criminal trial. Given the situation, the government’s position is hardly unreasonable.

If there is lesson here, it’s not that retweets (even retweets of ISIS) are always endorsements. Instead, it is that context is what counts when deciding if a retweet is an endorsement or not. Here it clearly is.

Also (and this is just speculation), but it’s hard to image that posting the familiar “RT ≠ endorsement” in her Twitter (TWTR) bio would have helped Yassin in this case.

Media watchers can also take note this isn’t the first time retweets have landed someone in trouble with the law. In 2013, the comedian Allan Davis agreed to pay £15,000 in damages to settle a defamation suit for retweeting a message that falsely said a British Lord was a pedophile.

“From my own experience, I am able to warn others of the dangers of retweeting,” Davis said at the time.

There is also the question of Donald Trump’s retweets of white supremacists. A one-time retweet might have been inadvertent and not an endorsement. But as my colleague Dan Primack notes, there’s a pattern here.

For more about hot-button tweets, watch:

Most of us, though, can probably keep on tweeting and retweeting like we usually do. Even the New York Times editor who coined the “RT does not equal an endorsement” disclaimer dropped it long ago, saying the phrase now makes him cringe.

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