For good and for ill, social media web sites have fundamentally transformed how people interact in our society. Now those transformations are beginning to influence how police conduct their investigations. A 2012 survey conducted by LexisNexis Risk Solutions found that four out of five law enforcement officers had turned to social media while attempting to solve a crime. Here are five ways in which social media posts can impact police investigations.
Getting the Information Out There
Police departments are solving crimes just by posting about them. Surveillance photos of bank robbers and burglars generate often useful tips.
Sharing a Little Too Much
In the age of many people wanting to share the entirety of their everyday lives with the whole world, or at least with whoever might be reading their Facebook and Twitter feeds, wanted criminals are often swept along with this sharing mindset as well. The allure of online attention can convince criminals to trade their fear of getting caught for the upvotes and shares of their social media friends and followers.
Criminals have been known to post evidence of their crimes, sometimes even posting pictures while at a crime scene. Less obvious, but still helpful to law enforcement are more subtle clues such as offenders posting about their present whereabouts, such as “at the mall.”
A new phenomenon perhaps unique to social media is that police are now finding out about the existence of some crimes through social media posts exclusively. Without Facebook and Twitter, they might not know for a very long time, if ever, that such a crime even took place. This can affect police investigations in a big way. If you hold onto the evidence and fail to cooperate, you could be charged with a crime. Attorneys may contact you to get your statement as a way to defend their client. It could become a sticky mess for you if you are holding onto something that is necessary for the investigators to get the whole story.
Evidence gained through social media posts can also be a treasure trove about a known incident where not much evidence otherwise exists. Suspects who clam up to investigators may sing online in social media posts.
Social Media Friends Can Be the Criminal’s Weakness
While criminals themselves don’t often turn themselves in, what they share on social media sometimes prompts someone in their network of friends to do just that.
Friends to the End
Some police departments actually send friend requests to criminals — and have those requests accepted, giving their officers inside access to the lives of their investigative targets.
Here to Stay
Social media has permanently changed our society, and police work too. When posting on social media, consider the legal responsibilities.