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Fighting Crime Through Social Media

Social Media Listening, Social Media Management, Social Media Marketing, Social Media Strategy


Law enforcement has adopted the use of social media, listening, and monitoring to help fight and prevent crime. The implementation of social media in criminal investigations has gained traction over the last five years, but not without controversy.

Civil subpoenas of social media sites to gather information on specific users is a highly controversial issue, as court rulings are mixed on the Stored Communications Act. While some argue privacy issues and abuse of power, others see social media user data as a necessary form of discovery in fighting crime.

A Florida teen was caught driving drunk when she posted a live video on Periscope that viewers reported to the police. After posting a video of a credit card thief online, police were able to make an arrest after an anonymous caller recognized him. A 2014 survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police revealed that among the 600 law enforcement agencies surveyed, about 95% said they implement social media; just over 82% replied that social media is primarily an investigatory tool, and about 80% said that social media helped solve crimes.

Social media monitoring and listening is a highly useful tool that helps law enforcement do their job faster. A dedicated social media management platform can help reveal patterns, identify user sentiment, interpret certain language that can tie to crime, and more. Social data analytics can expose illegal activity, and even prevent it from happening.

Law enforcement implements social media for:

  • Sting Operations
  • Geo tracking
  • Public outreach
  • Detection/Discovery
  • Crime prevention
  • Investigation
  • User sentiment
  • Improved community relationships
  • Management of volatile situations
  • Witness identification

There are some instances where social media data can be misused by law enforcement, as in the case of a young man from Harlem, NY. Although he was not a member of his neighborhood gang, his brother was, and due to that association, he was marked as a person of interest. The young man in question never participated in any criminal activity associated with the gang, but nonetheless was arrested and imprisoned for two years simply by his social media affiliation with the gang members. Because there was social pressure to “like” posts by gang members, he was assumed to have been involved – despite his innocence. This is an instance of the abuse of power that social media can have in the wrong hands, and can result in damaging consequences. According to The Atlantic, social media use by law enforcement “may also interfere with an individual’s First Amendment Freedom of Association. Since a person may be documented for affiliating with other known or suspected gang members, he [or she] may be targeted as a suspect before committing any criminal act. Using a ‘guilt by association’ standard can have the effect of sweeping entire neighborhoods into a gang database.”

On the flip side, social media users can be more forthcoming online than in person, which helps law enforcement to catch criminals and communicate with their respective communities. According to a Lexis Nexis study on social media use in law enforcement, 40% use it to monitor events, and 34% use social to notify the public of criminal activity, emergencies or disasters. The study revealed that, “The value of social media in investigations, both now and in the future, is abundant.”

Policies and procedures will continue to develop as the landscape evolves, and more law enforcement professionals will implement the use of social media into their criminal investigations.

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