A Joke Tweet Leads To 'Child Trafficking' Investigation, Providing More Evidence Of Why SESTA Would Be Abused

from the we-wish-we-were-kidding dept

Think we’re unduly worried about how “trafficking” charges will get used to punish legitimate online speech? We’re not.

A few weeks ago a Mississippi mom posted an obviously joking tweet offering to sell her three-year old for $12.

I tweeted a funny conversation I had with him about using the potty, followed by an equally-as-funny offer to my followers: 3-year-old for sale. $12 or best offer.

The next thing she knew, Mississippi authorities decided to investigate her for child trafficking.

The saga began when a caseworker and supervisor from Child Protection Services dropped by my office with a Lafayette County sheriff?s deputy. You know, a typical Monday afternoon.

They told me an anonymous male tipster called Mississippi?s child abuse hotline days earlier to report me for attempting to sell my 3-year-old son, citing a history of mental illness that probably drove me to do it.

Beyond notifying me of the charges, they said I?d have to take my son out of school so they could see him and talk to him that day, presumably protocol to ensure children aren?t in immediate danger. So I went to his preschool, pulled my son out of a deep sleep during naptime, and did everything in my power not to cry in front of him on the drive back to my office.

All of this for a joke tweet.

This story is bad enough on its own. As it stands now, actions by the Mississippi authorities will chill other Mississippi parents from blowing off steam with facetious remarks on social media. But at least the chilling harm is contained within Mississippi’s borders. If SESTA passes, that chill will spread throughout the country.

If SESTA were on the books, the Mississippi authorities would not have had to stop with the mom. Its next stop could be Twitter itself. No matter how unreasonable its suspicions, it could threaten criminal investigation on Twitter for having facilitated this allegedly trafficking-related speech.

The unlimited legal exposure these potential prosecutions pose will force platforms to pre-emptively remove not just the speech of parents from Mississippi but any speech from any parent anywhere that might inflame the humorless judgment of overzealous Mississippi authorities ? or authorities from anywhere else where humor and judicious sense is also impaired. In fact, it won’t even be limited to parents. Authorities anywhere could come after anyone who posted anything that they decided to misinterpret as a credible threat.

These warnings might sound like hyperbole, but that’s what hangs in the balance: hyperbole. The ability to say ridiculous things because sometimes we need to say ridiculous things. If anything that gets said can be so willfully misconstrued as evidence of a crime it will chill a lot of speech, and to an exponentially unlimited extent far beyond any authority’s jurisdictional boundaries if it can force platforms to fear enabling any such speech that might happen to set any of them off.

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Comments on “A Joke Tweet Leads To 'Child Trafficking' Investigation, Providing More Evidence Of Why SESTA Would Be Abused”

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btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Dax Shepherd joked on the ELLEN Show yesterday with regard to his kids that “we have a 2013 model and a 2015 model with low mileage, for anyone looking for a deal”.

How much you wanna bet no case worker shows up to interview him and Kristen Bell?

Not only is this crap ridiculous, it’s also unevenly applied only to people who can’t fight back.

Anonymous Coward says:

Try joking "Any Traffic Ticket Fixed $500" and see what "the bar" does to YOU!

This silly non-story is already over, apparently properly handled. It’s just your hook to attack SESTA. Your implied alternative of the state informed — by a presumably concerned citizen — and doing nothing isn’t good, either.

What happens in practice is that filthy Rich Weinsteins brag for decade while nobodies get investigated. To do good, you should focus on reducing money and POWER — instead of the opposite you’re doing right here: arguing that internet mega-corps shouldn’t be at all regulated.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Try joking "Any Traffic Ticket Fixed $500" and see what "the bar" does to YOU!

You fail in many ways.

First, he’s not saying law enforcement shouldn’t act on legitimate tips, he’s asking HOW COULD ANYONE INTERPRET WHAT SHE SAID TO BE ANYTHING OTHER THAN A JOKE. In other words, not only should the “concerned citizen” have realized the mother was joking and not reported it (because, come on, that’s blatantly obvious it’s a joke), but law enforcement should have taken one look at the tweet and realized it wasn’t a legitimate tip.

Second, he’s not arguing for less regulation of internet mega-corps, he’s arguing for less regulation and restriction on private citizen speech. The mom put her speech (again, it was a joke) on twitter, under Mississippi law, she was then investigated for child trafficking. If SESTA becomes law, then Twitter could be charged with facilitating child trafficking. If Twitter then suddenly has to worry about being criminally charged for every joke tweet their users put up, then they will start aggressively taking down every joke tweet that could possibly be misconstrued as a crime.

If that happens then private citizens have lost a public forum where they can express their First Amendment rights to free speech. Expand that to any other internet company being worried about being criminally charged and now you have effectively censored freedom of speech on the internet because no company is going to be willing to face multiple criminal charges for the joke tweets of their users.

Third, contact me to get out of jail for free. waits for the ‘bar’ to do something to me, nothing happens There are very few restrictions on what people legally can’t say. What I said could be taken literally, it could be a joke, or I could be offering you a get out of jail free card for Monopoly. That’s why we have Freedom of Speech.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Oh hell I broke a cardinal rule…. never read the comments section.

You deserved this because of your views that bug me.
This happens to other conservative parents all the time NBD.
Just don’t say these things!

I have no problem with CPS being able to offer anonymity to tipsters, but the person who called this in refused to give any information. Shouldn’t this be a red flag?

As we saw with the failure of Trumps turn in your neighbors tipline, if the target doesn’t know who called it in they will use it to try and settle all sorts of scores.

We waste so much time looking for more haystacks, we’ve forgotten we’re trying to find needles.

A single tweet was all of the “evidence” required.
As we all know, people remember the allegations, not the outcomes.
With SESTA opening up Twitters wallet, we expect they won’t go after those dollars?
From states that set up speed traps to make people forfeit cash and cool cars?
Who use $2 testing kits that are notoriously bad?

We really need to stop believing the hype.
We need to require facts that meet standards, not just emotional needs.
Yes there are some children being trafficked, but trying to expand liability to somehow force private companies to act as an extension of the police or pay the price is wrong.

Trafficking is SOOOO horrible… how much was the last bill funding it for & where did the money end up?

Machin Shin says:

Re: Re:

In 10-20 years it wont matter much because that teenager who is now posting everything on social media is solidly part of the majority. So when they run for office what are the odds their opponent didn’t also post everything on social media?

Then there is the fact that our current politics are a joke. I mean seriously, TRUMP IS PRESIDENT. You really think some stupid comments on social media will hurt a future candidate? Our current president can’t go 5 minutes without saying something stupid on twitter.

Anonymous Coward says:

When you realize...

That you only thought you were free…

They can come talk too and/or take your kids without even a warrant. Usually they are “supposed” to have one… but it’s not like we require the government to follow the law now do we?


You better dance to the governments tune or else!

Anonymous Coward says:

DCFS Must Investigate ALL Reports

My sister is currently divorcing a sociopath. That’s not hyperbole, the child custody evaluator (that her husband chose and paid $50K to do the eval) diagnosed him as a sociopath.

He’s reported her to DCFS twice on transparently bogus charges in order to hassle her (because sociopathy). Both times the DCFS said that they were legally required to investigate, no matter how many times her husband might file a complaint. Each investigation involved interviewing all named adults and the children. One time a uniformed officer pulled her son out of 1st grade class to ask him all kinds of ugly questions (because the husband had alleged sexual abuse). All DCFS can do is make a note in her file that all previous investigations were proven bogus, but they still have to follow up on any new accusations.

In a just world, a false reporter would receive some sort of penalty for acting in bad faith. In reality, neither the police nor DCFS have the resources to clapback at him for it.

So, the point of my post is that DCFS had no choice, they did not make a bad judgment call, their hands are tied by the law. I don’t know enough about the details of SESTA to say how it would interact with DCFS. I just wanted to give more background on how DCFS works.

Anonymous Coward says:

the problem is you just can’t kid around anymore. there is no such thing as satire, for example, the moment life has gotten so crazy that you can’t pen something that seems patently unlikely.

i read an article the other day regarding the updating of the old red baseball cap for army parachute riggers. therein it described the replacement: a bright red stetson with excellent aerodynamic properties. as silly as that was, my blood pressure was pegging the needle.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Oh, and the story isn’t SESTA related at all, except in your mind.

If one official treats it as serious, then a DA with a hard on for company will treat similar jokes as serious.

When politics and decisions as to who to prosecute get mixed together, the politicians will grandstand at the expense of innocent third parties.

Pete the parrot says:

Save Evaporating Slushfunds and Troughs Act

When will the media start taking on the all-too-cozy relationship between the FBI and the domestic spy rings of the Anti Defamation League, aka “Israelification”?

When Techdirt covered the case of Jeffrey Kantor’s lawsuit, it was the perfect opportunity to examine the ADL behind the scenes spy rings, because they are the ones doing that stuff.

And, the Intercept has started to cover the “informant recruitment schemes” and the BIZARRE methods the FBI DHS uses to target people it wants to turn into rats.

Drew (profile) says:

It's already this bad.

While this law would expand their attention to it, it would not introduce any danger that isn’t already there.
A few years ago, my wife said “I’m so tired of people telling me my daughter is small.” on facebook. A week later, our 9-month-old daughter was put into state custody, under allegations we were starving her. It took us 9 months of legal battle is prove we were innocent, and were actually good parents of a healthy daughter. According to our lawyer, that’s standard procedure (at least, in this state); in fact, he said he was surprised we regained custody as quickly as we did. And just so it’s clear: The judge dismissed the charges and sealed the record. We were completely cleared. In spite of that, we were put through the torture of losing our 9-month-old baby, and receiving a toddler 9 months later. We missed her first steps. We missed her first sentence. We were completely innocent. And yet, we’re one of those statistics they cite on the billboards that say “1 in 5 kids struggles with hunger.”
The family law enforcement offices in this country are completely out of control. I don’t honestly think new laws could make it any worse.

MyNameHere (profile) says:

Re: It's already this bad.

I feel for you, but I have little doubt that you have left a bunch of the story out. I doubt on the basis of a single post and not a single other piece of evidence of doctor’s recommendations that your child was taken away.

Perhaps your standing as a “fundamentalist Christian” who has had problems with the state in regards to your church and your daughter might be part of the story? Perhaps choices made in the name of your religion (like not feeding her all food groups, or what have you) may have played a part in it?

Just a thought.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: It's already this bad.

Holy flip, that is A-Grade bigotry. It’s not okay to target anyone for discrimination, MyNameHere, even when it’s fashionable in certain circles to do so.

Christian here, and I can confirm that none of the above is true; we don’t ban any food groups in the name of religion. What is wrong with you?!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: It's already this bad.

Christian here, and I can confirm that none of the above is true; we don’t ban any food groups in the name of religion.

That is demonstrably false. 7th Day Adventists ban meat.

Here’s the thing about christianity (like all major religions) there are thousands of different variations. There is no guarantee that your version of christianity is even remotely like another sect’s version of christianity. Hell, to this day most evangelicals deny that catholics are christians at all.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 It's already this bad.

Eh, you’re nearly right:

Seventh-day Adventists do not eat pork or other unclean meat as identified in the book of Leviticus and many avoid all meat for health reasons.


Per various SDA websites it’s a choice. My Quaker in-laws are vegetarian.

The point is, it’s not fair to either make stuff up or try to tar us all with the same brush. I’ll come down like a ton o’ bricks on discriminatory crap like that, whoever it’s aimed at.

As for the sects, that is true, belief and practice does vary per congregation and per individual. I’m a lot more liberal than the Evangelicals, that’s for sure.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re:

Because I was looking for an outside perspective without having to dig through carefully-crafted layers of justification for an opinion. I did check with their own sites but wanted to spare readers a wall o’ text.

In any case, MyNameHere was insulting Dale for being a Fundamentalist (if he even is one) so it’s a moot point. I’m not a Fundamentalist myself but having been on the end of a libel campaign I won’t stand for it when I see someone else being targeted whether I agree with him or not. The issue here is, “Don’t tell lies about people,” not “Are religious people in need of locking up and having their kids taken off them?”

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