The popularity of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat has not only transformed human interaction, but it has also changed the way we deal with news and information. Where before we relied on the morning newspaper or the evening news to know what’s going on, today we can receive news almost instantly, including blow-by-blow accounts from people on the ground.
But even as social media continues to change the way we communicate, it’s also having quite a positive impact on something quite unexpected: solving crime.
A Trail of Evidence
Everyone is practically glued to their smartphones these days, scrolling through their news feeds and posting status updates. And by everyone, we mean everyone – including lawbreakers who sometimes forget that they’ve actually done something wrong and post incriminating photos and videos online.
But more than just petty theft or B&Es, social media posts can even help in cases of kidnapping, missing persons, sexual harassment, and even murder. Social media investigators can unearth photos, videos, even comments on relevant threads and groups to string together hard evidence of criminal activity. They can also monitor the social media activity of persons of interest in case these people do something suspicious.
But it’s not just the posts of wrongdoers that are valuable to the authorities. Friends, relatives, and even celebrities can offer something to aid investigations. Something as simple and innocuous as a Craigslist ad or a podcast episode can help point police investigators in the right direction and solve cold cases.
Even then, there are times when the authorities don’t even need to do much investigating, as regular citizens may end up solving a case all on their own. Someone might innocently post a photo with a colleague, who turns out to be a murderer on the run. Or perhaps some amateur Internet sleuths might not want to give up on a certain mystery and end up identifying a John Doe themselves.
The Police on Facebook
While it isn’t the initial purpose of social media – Facebook’s membership was originally limited to Harvard students only – police departments and other relevant organizations now have official social media pages. Through these pages, police can reach more people who may potentially be able to help them solve a case. Authorities can also drum up attention for ongoing and even past cases.
Social media pages are also a way to gather private data and evidence, such as those in private Facebook groups or messaging apps, which may be able to support an ongoing investigation. Some people may also be reluctant to come forward. Social media can serve as a platform to humanize police departments and make it easier for the authorities to establish initial contact, and eventually rapport, with potential witnesses.
On the other side of the coin, social media can also be used to perpetrate crimes like fraud, sexual harassment, and cyberbullying. Even well-meaning citizens might cause harm when they provide information that can lead to wrongful accusations and arrests. Trial by publicity is also an increasing concern, which can potentially sway juries and affect popular opinion.
However, even through the many facets social media has already shown, it is undeniable that it has positively changed the landscape of criminal investigation. Through the years, it has opened new avenues for gathering evidence and even changed public perception of what crime and victimization can truly mean. Social media is here to stay and, as it continuously evolves, it’s up to its users to think up of new ways to use it for good.