< The Long Arm of the Law


Friday, March 27, 2009

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tuesday before last, the virtual world made yet another foray into the real one. What happened was this. JP Neufeld, a 21-year-old student at Concordia University in Montreal, was eating breakfast in his dorm and logged onto a chat forum he moderates on a website called Newgrounds, which is full of video games – and guys like Neufeld. He saw a message from a kid who calls himself Sirtom93, who said he was set to burn down his high school in Norfolk with about 950 students inside. Soon, Neufeld was on the phone to the Norfolk police, and Sirtom93 was apprehended, gas can and matches in hand. The thing is, Norfolk is just north of London, England, some 3,000 miles away. Neufeld says that sites like Newgrounds are kind of like Vegas. What happens there stays there – but not this time.

JP NEUFELD: I was up early and I was on the forums of Newgrounds, and I saw a weirdly-titled thread started by a user who I had noticed before, Sirtom93. It was titled “This is It.” So I clicked that, and I saw the message saying, “Today at 11:30 GMT I will attack my school with arson and other forms of violence. Those bastards will pay.”

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And it was accompanied by a photo.

JP NEUFELD: Yes, a photo of an apparently full gas can, he said. He had then linked to a BBC website for his local area, saying to watch that for news.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You called the police. What did you say?

JP NEUFELD: I said, hi, I'm a guy from Canada [LAUGHS], and I saw a person online saying that they're trying to burn down their school in a few hours. I got right through to the emergency dispatcher and gave them my information. I imagine it was probably his weirdest call that day [LAUGHS], but he took it very well. Didn't ask if it was a hoax or not, just took down all the information I could give him.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You had in mind the time change when you saw Sirtom’s message, and you realized that actually you didn't have much more than an hour to get this information to the police, right?

JP NEUFELD: Yeah. I realized there was a four-hour time difference, so what was 6:40 my time was 10:40 his time, meaning I only had about 50 minutes before he was going to burn down the school. But shortly after the threat was made, I'd say about 15 minutes afterwards, one of his friends went online and linked us to another profile he had on a different site, where Sirtom had listed things like his real name, the school he went to.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So a high-schooler in England makes a threat on a message board. Less than an hour later he’s in handcuffs because a university student in Montreal called the police. What does this say about community in the Internet age?

JP NEUFELD: Well, I'd say it isn't too different from a community in the so-called real world. There’s more distance involved physically, but when you’re on the Internet it’s like you’re just right next to them.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And yet have you heard of the “bystander effect”? That’s a theory of how crowds react to an emergency. The idea is that the more witnesses there are to a given emergency, the less likely any individual is to step forward and help. Now, it seems that the Internet is designed for precisely this kind of problem, because there is a vast number of invisible bystanders to any act on the Net, so the pressure on any particular user to intervene seems quite small.

JP NEUFELD: Yeah, that’s actually what surprised me about this whole situation. I mean, out of all the commotion that happened, only two people called the police, me and Joe from the U.K. A lot of people are, you know, calling me anonymously through the website, saying, why did you do this? Oh, man, now everyone’s turning into a white knight. You know, it’s a culture of people that ridicules anyone who tries to help people who get in trouble online.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: JP, thank you very much.

JP NEUFELD: All right.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: JP Neufeld is a student at Concordia University in Montreal.