Social Media: Both a Criminal Accelerant and a Law Enforcement Tool
While social media is increasingly being used — especially by young people — for bragging about crimes, it also continues to prove useful in solving crimes.
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Many in the security and risk assessment industry believe there is now an undeniable connection between social media and crime. Specifically, some social media users are increasingly showing — and in many cases proudly showing — their inappropriate and illegal behavior on different platforms.
Case in point: At midnight, an intoxicated, underage girl — whom we will refer to as the victim — left a party with four underage males, the perpetrators, to go to another party. During the 15-minute car ride, the girl’s shirt was removed, and one of the males sexually assaulted her while another male filmed it.
When the group arrived at the second party, two of the perpetrators took the victim to the basement of the house and continued to sexually assault her. At this point, the victim was unconscious. Several people were now filming the activities as they unfolded.
The male perpetrators left, collected their photos, and began sharing them on social media platforms. “By then, the story of her night was already unfolding on the internet, on Twitter, and via text messages,” said Alessandra Brainard, a student from Elon University who investigated the crime.
In fact, at 1:30 in the morning on the night of the incident, the victim’s parents discovered what was happening to their daughter because they happened to be checking Twitter. They collected the Twitter posts, put them on a flash drive, and showed them to the local police.
The police soon located and arrested the two perpetrators for rape and related charges. The victim was taken to a hospital.
When the case went before a judge, Brainard reported:
The evidence presented in court consisted of hundreds of text messages and cellphone pictures taken by more than a dozen people at the parties. [They were traded] afterward with other students and posted to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
The perpetrators utilized social media outlets to communicate with their viewers … promoting the fact that they were proud of their actions and possessed no guilt when conducting the crime.
Social media, Brainard went on to say, provided the perpetrators “recognition, [and] posting the crime to social media brought them an acknowledgment of their achievement.”
What we are seeing now, and what is so problematic, are large numbers of younger people in this country striving to be recognized and using social media to do it. It’s part of an attitude that says, “Be noticed, or you don’t exist.”
The incident related above was actual, dramatic, and shows how terrible things can get. However, the flood of vandalism and property crime sprees we have recently seen around this country are also examples of people proudly showing their crimes online and, by doing so, encouraging others to do the same, if not worse.
Social Media and Cyberbullying
Cyberbullying is also evolving as another form of social media crime. The word “bully” was first coined in the 1530s. It refers to two people, one being the bully or intimidator and the other the victim.
Historically, before social media, bullying was viewed as inappropriate or uncalled for behavior involving verbal and sometimes physical abuse. While it could come to a head resulting in an altercation, very often it either just dissipates on its own or parents and teachers step in to rectify the situation before it comes to a head.
However, social media has allowed for bullying to be taken to an entirely new level. Cyberbullying often involves not just one or two people but potentially large numbers of people. While young people are often involved in bullying online, it can also involve older age groups. No matter who is doing it, it can cause much greater harm than the old forms of bullying, and, all too often, lead to criminal activity.
A study conducted more than 20 years ago appears to document the beginnings of cyberbullying, especially among young people. The study, conducted by Pew Research, found that while cell phones were available in the 1990s, few young people had them until the mid-2000s.
By then, half the teens in the country had phones. Parents believed purchasing a cell phone was for their child’s protection.
However, this study also found that one in three teens was using their phone to send as many as 3,000 text messages per month. Further, many admitted to using their phones as an instrument for cyberbullying, or attacking, for instance, their fellow students, teachers, and educators.**
From here, much of the cyberbullying moved to one of the first social media sites, MySpace. Now, young people could interact with each other — friend and foe alike. In time, some became the bullies and others the victims.
At that time, MySpace users could mask their identity, so many people said things online to and about others and groups that they would not say face-to-face. Observers soon realized this could have suicidal repercussions for young people, which came to a head in Missouri in 2006.
A mother/daughter team created a false identity on MySpace using the alias “Josh.” They befriended a 13-year-old girl, Megan, whom the daughter went to school with and did not like.
Once befriended, they began sending Megan hateful comments. She took these comments to heart and took her own life.
But that was not the end of the story. The Missouri district attorney’s office said they could not hold the mother or daughter responsible for Megan’s death because the evidence was too circumstantial, and they lacked legal authority.
A public outcry followed, and federal prosecutors took charge by applying a relatively new law, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. While the act was designed to prosecute electronic theft, the prosecutors used it successfully to have a jury find the mother/daughter team guilty of one felony count and three misdemeanors.
Police Using Social Media to Solve Crimes
The world of social media is evolving so quickly that it is tough for any of us, including government entities or police authorities, to stay on top of it. What may be surprising to hear is that one of the best things we can do when it comes to social media is to use it to fight crime.
Social media has helped in the recent past and continues to help police solve crimes. Facebook is now a common source of information for law enforcement. Twitter has been beneficial as a barometer of public interest and concern and provides real-time information about incidents as they unfold.
In fact, in the security and risk assessment industry, we have a new social media intelligence gathering field called Social Media Intelligence, or SOCMINT. It uses public information that can often help police identify criminals and find their locations, friends, and home and work addresses.
While there are legal and privacy considerations when collecting such data, at this time, SOCMINT is proving to be one of the most valuable tools we have for identifying, preventing, and stopping crimes and inappropriate behavior on social media platforms. It and similar social media tools are becoming a true friend of law enforcement.
Johnathan Tal is Chief Executive Officer of TAL Global Corporation, an international investigative, risk assessment, and security consulting firm. He is a licensed investigator, former President of the World Association of Detectives (2000-2001), and holds a bachelor of science degree. He can be reached through his company website at www.talglobal.com.
* “A Content Analysis of Crimes Posted on Social Media Platforms,” by Alessandra Brainard, Strategic Communications, Elon University; Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications, Vol. 9, No. 1 • Spring 2018
** “Teens, cell phones, and texting.” Pew Internet & American Life Project, Lenhart, A. (2010)