The primary function of social media is, of course, to socialize. For years, people have been sharing pictures of their kids and vacations, discussing dinner plans, and voicing their opinions. Social media has far exceeded its original design, serving a multitude of other roles since its inception. From contests and advertisements to breaking news and raising awareness, these platforms are the most efficient and effective means of communication in the digital age.
Social networks are now being used to assist criminal investigators and defenders of the law. That's right; Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, SnapChat, and a variety of other networks are working for the police. As law enforcement joins the world of social networking and increasingly takes advantage of data that platforms like Facebook and Twitter provide their users, police are exploring new methods of fighting crime.
In 2011, the Institute for Criminal Justice Education conducted a survey - the results of which indicated that more than 78 percent of criminal defendants had social media profiles. Often, criminals are not particularly mindful of the content they post.
For instance, New York gang member Melvin Colon wasn't shy about the photos he posted to his Facebook profile early in 2012. Colon's profile picture featured him brandishing gang signs, and his private posts disclosed information about crimes he committed.
His profile may have been private, but police were able to legally access it because one of Colon's "friends" was happy to share. The court ruled that once Colon shared incriminating information with social media friends, he had no control over what they did with it. When police caught a glimpse of this information, they easily obtained a search warrant to gather the remainder of the evidence from the gang member's profile.
Criminals often make investigations even simpler for law enforcement. Many either do not utilize privacy settings, which allow officers to peruse posts and photos, or they gladly accept friend requests from officers using false identities.
One such example of a criminal who facilitated his own capture involves Facebook posts by Adam Thomas Besso, a resident of Burton, Michigan. Mr. Besso was on probation with the order that he refrain from using his alias, Bee Sting, as well as a particular costume and mask. Bee Sting was soon incarcerated and a profile belonging to the same name was removed from the networking platform.
And last year, Agent Facebook busted 18-year old Seattle native Jacob Cox-Brown after he described his drunk-driving escapades online. He apologized to the owner of the vehicle he hit will driving home in an intoxicated stupor. Fortunately, at least two of his "friends" reported the post. While there wasn't enough evidence to charge him with DUI, he was held accountable for failing to perform his duties as a driver.
A few months later, the digital rookie caught Oklahoma native Misty Van Horn trying to sell her two children for $4,000. She apparently needed the cash to bail her boyfriend out of jail.
Police don't always need the profiles of the accused - or even their accomplices - to catch the bad guys. Facebook and Twitter are handy for posting information about suspects, such as physical descriptions, vehicle descriptions, and details about the alleged crimes. Community members who "like" the department pages receive these updates, effectively deputizing them as the eyes and ears of local law enforcement. Individuals then provide tips to the police when able.
Believe it or not, Facebook is not the social media platform that police most favor. When it comes to criminal investigations, YouTube wins as the platform wherein suspects willingly post videos of themselves committing crimes. These include assaults, rapes, robberies, vandalism, and more.
Law enforcement's social media presence is not only useful for fighting crime; it can help prevent crime, as well. When particulars about suspects are posted online, the general public can immediately take measures to stay safe.
An outbreak of robberies in an area, for example, may lead to extra vigilance in terms of home security. Child safety tips posted as updates or Tweets help parents and other caregivers educate youngsters about warning signs of sexual abuse or the dangers of drug use.
Social media platforms aren't always used by the police for crime-related issues. The networks also take on more mundane roles, such as warning the public about road conditions or distributing details about community events and fundraisers.
Some law enforcement departments use their pages to congratulate local citizens for accomplishments and milestones, such as winning athletic scholarships and reaching 100th birthdays. Other departments highlight their officers and staff members, dedicating a post each week or month to someone different. These actions humanize police departments, facilitating trust and comradery in the wider community.
The relationship between law enforcement and social media isn't completely wrinkle-free. There have been some significant issues, such as officers who have foolishly disclosed too much information about their careers on their personal pages. Criminals can do their own investigating, much like officials do to solve crimes. Negligence over privacy settings and distribution of work-related details can - and has - endangered the lives of officers and their families.
Other situations, although not overtly dangerous, can also be problematic. Officers who post to their personal profiles while on duty generate questions about their diligence and dedication to their jobs. Those who post photos of themselves with seized evidence can compromise the integrity of cases.
As a result of these issues, and to better employ social media in their work, many departments are taking action. Officers are attending trainings to sharpen their social media techniques, and detailed policies and procedures are being developed nationwide. These changes will standardize the ways in which law enforcement officials utilize their own accounts, as well as how they employ the platforms for investigative purposes. Some of the latest best practices include:
- regular monitoring of pages to insure that inappropriate comments are deleted and that commenters in question are blocked;
- approval by the department's public affairs officials prior to the posting of videos, pictures, and commentary;
- prohibition of department insignia on employee's personal pages;
- regulation of employment openings posts, officer shift information, and job assignments;
- guidelines regarding the sharing of emergency calls, police reports, and arrests;
- refusal to post graphic images; and
- written purpose of online accounts and objectives for use.
Law enforcement's use of social media is far more beneficial than problematic. Further, as social networks grow, new regulations and solutions will address the unavoidable mishaps and mistakes created when a new communication technology is adopted by large numbers of users - including law enforcement. It is safe to assume that police use of social networks is here to stay.
Criminals, beware. These latest additions to crime-fighting teams all over the country are perhaps more cunning, stealthy, and powerful than any law enforcement official to come before them.
Over social networks, law enforcement can manipulate wrongdoers into a false sense of security by inviting them to innocently socialize with friends, lulling them into offering updates about what's new in their lives, and encouraging them to share great new photos and video footage that will likely be used as evidence. Eventually, the digital detectives get the evidence they need to make their arrests. They preserve this evidence impeccably, and never forget a detail. These cops are also happy to show up in court to support the prosecution.
In an era of cyberbullying and other internet crimes, it is refreshing to be reminded that social media can be used to solidify and safeguard communities. Further, this function of cyberspace is likely to become more efficient and effective as time goes on.