The Role of Social Media in Law Enforcement

The widespread participation and constant availability of social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and MySpace is practically yesterday’s news.

Social media has had such a great presence for several years now, constantly evolving to find a place in society’s daily activities. Most social media apps and sites allow users to communicate with others, upload photos and check into locations at any moment both privately, for friends’ eyes only, and publicly for the entire internet to see.Social media and law enforcement

What is notable about social media’s growing establishment in everyday behavior is the impact these sites are having on law enforcement, acting as both a help and a hindrance.

Locational information as well as public photos and comments have provided police, prosecutors and investigators with new forms of evidence that can act as catalysts to punish criminal behavior.

Many suspected offenders have been caught with the help of social media that was intentionally used as a platform to document their crimes, like a Vietnamese man who surrendered to Ho Chi Minh police shortly after confessing on Facebook that he killed his girlfriend, or a Delaware woman whose vehicular manslaughter sentence was increased due to incriminating photos and messages that portrayed her glamorizing alcohol abuse, The New York Times reports.

Many other cases exist where social media has proved helpful to law enforcement, and with 80 percent of an estimated 500 agencies using social media in criminal investigations, according to a 2013 survey by the International Association of Police, it would seem as though the vast amount of available information social media provides is a crime fighting miracle – but there’s a catch.

Social media is just as challenging for law enforcement as it is helpful.

The expansive amount of online information is overwhelming. Anyone with internet access can have an online identity, and with credibility on the web still a developing phenomenon, investigators must learn to work with false tips and anonymous online confessions that could turn a case upside down and cost agencies time and money for information that may or may not be of value.

There’s also the issue of the Fifth Amendment, which gives citizens the right to not incriminate themselves. Judges and jurors are supposed to base their conclusions on evidence that is, “authentic, reliable and relevant,” said law professor and social media expert for Chicago-Kent Institute of Technology, Lori B. Andrews in The New York Times.

Sometimes posts and comments on social media are taken out of context and misunderstood, resulting in unfortunate outcomes for those involved. For example, Andrews said that photos of people jokingly flashing gang signs have been used by courts to prove actual gang affiliation, and sexualized photos of women have been used against them in divorce and child custody cases.

What’s even more difficult to manage is the use of social media by jurors and those involved in investigations and cases.

In the past, lawyers have been known to hire private investigators to research jurors in order to create a more persuasive and well tailored argument. Today, social media is an online biography displaying personal information making it easy for lawyers to evaluate a jury.

Jurors themselves are increasingly causing issues in court due to their social media use while serving jury duty. Restrictions banning or controlling technology use while in court vary from state to state, so instances of live tweeting during testimonies and Facebook updates revealing highly sensitive information have resulted in mistrials, appeals and overturned verdicts.

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