Social media has now become wholly ingrained in our lives. People blog, tweet and post about things both large and small, about their biggest hopes and dreams, and even about things as mundane as what they had for lunch. And while these online musings are ostensibly put out there for the delight of friends and family, it can sometimes be forgotten that the web is a public forum, and what is posted cannot ever be un-posted. One interesting side effect of our deep relationship with social media is its increasing importance in court cases. There have been several recent incidences where people have committed crimes and then followed up that dumb act with the even dumber one of posting photos, videos or information about the crime on their social media networks. Apparently, though people feel a level of safety and detachment when they post on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter, that separation isn’t saving people from the law. These posts have become acceptable evidence in court cases, and those posting about their crimes are coming to regret getting on their digital soap boxes.
A recent survey makes it clear that posts on social media sites have now become a significant element in prosecutions. In just the past two years, evidence taken off of social media networks has been involved in almost 700 court cases, and not in insignificant ways. The vast majority of these cases pulled information from Facebook and MySpace. Just under those two sites in court case popularity were Twitter and LinkedIn. There was only a single court case that made mention of FourSquare, and no cases that pulled evidence from Google+. What sort of social media information is becoming evidence? Well, just this past week a gentleman who clearly did not think things through posted a photo on his Facebook profile of his efforts to steal gas out of a police car. Perhaps he thought no one would pay attention, but Facebook has technology in place that keeps track of malicious or criminal content, and swiftly alerts the authorities. The gas-stealer may have gotten away with it at the time, but putting a picture up not only alerted people of the situation, but also linked his contact information and profile, basically acting as a photographic admission of guilt.
The study on social media and the law was published by X1 Discovery, and was put together using information pulled from legal databases. X1 Discovery has made it their business to cull information from social media sites for use by law enforcement and lawyers in their open cases.
One question that this information brings up is why instances of MySpace use in court cases are so high. MySpace has fallen fast and hard with users over the past years, as many people have left the service for the more common platforms of Twitter and Facebook. Though it cannot be clearly proven, one theory has to do with economics. MySpace remains popular with users coming from a lower socio-economic level than those of Facebook and Twitter. The vast majority of the cases described in the survey are criminal cases, and the vast majority of crimes continue to involve people of lesser means.
But this information is not only used in criminal cases. It has also been used in cases of divorce in Austin courts have recently seen, as well as reasons to challenge a juror who posts classified information about a case.