More and more, law enforcement is relying on social media as a major investigative tool, and the courts are going with it because most social media use is not actually private in a legal sense. While it might be possible to post whatever you like online without worrying that unintended people will see it if you are a privacy and security guru, for most people social media is an area where private thoughts are discussed semi-publicly. That's where legal trouble can start. If you are involved in criminal proceedings, your current and past social media are likely to be included in the investigation.
How police use social media
A 2014 New York Times article on the use of social media in investigations reveals that law enforcement has stepped up its investigation of online activity proportionally as social media has blossomed. For police, the new technology is a "treasure trove" of free information, and it isn't always direct evidence of a crime that winds up being used against defendants. In that same article, one example of social media investigations by law enforcement included using posts where a defendant "glamorized" alcohol abuse as evidence in a vehicular manslaughter case.
Social media use during a trial
The posts you have made in the past are not the only thing that can get you in trouble. Just in late 2016, a suspected gang member in New Jersey was re-arrested based on his social media posts, and among the behaviors listed were:
- Liking certain posts
- Sharing media
- Comments made by others in response to media sharing
With this kind of aggressive monitoring and broad interpretation of the motivations of defendants, it is easy to see how social media can be fraught for those involved in criminal proceedings of any kind.
What to do about your social media
First and foremost, always learn the privacy and security settings for any online platforms you trust with your personal information. This not only helps to keep your social media secure from casual surveillance but can minimize your exposure to other risks online. Since privacy protections are not perfect, though, it is also important to understand how the things you post can be used against you in a criminal investigation, and to avoid posting anything at all about topics that are entangled with your legal proceedings. It's also important to work with a defense lawyer who understands how this kind of investigation works, so that you can be prepared to counter any out-of- context information that does come up.