Social media: both a crime accelerator and a law enforcement tool

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While social media is increasingly used – especially by young people – to brag about crimes, it also continues to prove useful in solving crimes.

The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety.


Many in the security and risk assessment industry believe that there is now an undeniable link between social media and crime. Specifically, some social media users increasingly – and in many cases proudly – show their inappropriate and illegal behavior on various platforms.

Case in point: At midnight, a drunk underage girl – whom we’ll call the victim – left a party with four underage men, the perpetrators, to go to another party. During the 15-minute car ride, the girl’s shirt was taken off and one of the men sexually assaulted her while another man filmed her.

When the group arrived at the second party, two of the attackers took the victim to the basement of the house and continued to sexually assault him. At this point, the victim was unconscious. Several people were now filming the activities as they unfolded.

The male abusers left, collected their photos and started sharing them on social media platforms. “By then, the story of her night was already unfolding on the internet, on Twitter and through text messages,” said Alessandra Brainard, an Elon University student who investigated the crime.

In fact, at 1:30 a.m. on the evening of the incident, the victim’s parents found out what was happening to their daughter because they happened to be checking Twitter. They collected the Twitter messages, put them on a USB drive and showed them to local police.

Police quickly located and arrested both perpetrators on rape and related charges. The victim was taken to hospital.

When the case came before a judge, Brainard reported:

The evidence presented in court consisted of hundreds of text messages and cellphone photos taken by more than a dozen people at the parties. [They were traded] then with other students and posted on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

The perpetrators used social media to communicate with their viewers…promoting that they were proud of their actions and did not feel guilty when they committed the crime.

Social media, Brainard continued, provided authors with “recognition, [and] posting the crime on social media earned them recognition for their achievement.

What we are seeing now, and what is so problematic, is that a large number of young people in this country are striving for recognition and using social media to do so. It’s part of an attitude that says, “Get noticed, or you don’t exist.

The incident recounted above was real, dramatic and shows just how terrible things can get. However, the flood of vandalism and property The crime sprees we have recently seen in this country are also examples of people proudly showing off their crimes online and in the process 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 bully and the other being the victim.

Historically, before social media, bullying was considered inappropriate or inappropriate behavior involving verbal and sometimes physical abuse. Although it can come to a head leading to an altercation, very often it 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 bullying to be taken to a whole new level. Cyberbullying often involves not just one or two people, but potentially a large number of people. While young people are often involved in online bullying, it can also involve older age groups. No matter who does it, it can do far more harm than the old forms of bullying and, too often, lead to criminal activity.

A study conducted more than 20 years ago seems to document the beginnings of cyberbullying, especially among young people. The study, conducted by Pew Research, found that while cellphones were available in the 1990s, few young people had them until the mid-2000s.

At that time, half of the nation’s teenagers had phones. Parents believed that buying a cell phone was for the protection of their child.

However, this study also found that one in three teenagers used their phone to send up to 3,000 text messages per month. Additionally, many admitted to using their phones as an instrument of cyberbullying or attacking, for example, their classmates, teachers and educators.**

From there, much of the cyberbullying moved to one of the earliest social media sites, MySpace. Now young people could interact with each other, friends and enemies. Over time, some became the bullies and others the victims.

At that time, MySpace users could hide their identities, so many people said things online to and about others and groups that they wouldn’t say face-to-face. Observers soon realized that this could have suicidal repercussions for young people, which came to a head in Missouri in 2006.

A mother/daughter team has created a fake identity on MySpace using the pseudonym “Josh”. They befriended a 13-year-old girl, Megan, with whom the girl went to school and did not like.

Once befriended, they began sending hateful comments to Megan. She took these comments to heart and killed herself.

But that was not the end of the story. The Missouri District Attorney’s Office said it could not hold the mother or daughter responsible for Megan’s death because the evidence was too circumstantial and lacked legal authority.

A public outcry ensued and federal prosecutors took matters into their own hands by enforcing a relatively new law, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Although the law was designed to prosecute electronic theft, prosecutors successfully used it to have a jury find the mother/daughter team guilty of one count and three misdemeanors.

Police use social media to solve crimes

The world of social media is changing so rapidly that it is difficult for any of us, including government entities or law enforcement authorities, to stay up to date. 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 on incidents as they unfold.

In fact, in the security and risk assessment industry, we have a new field of social media intelligence gathering 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.

Although there are legal and privacy considerations when collecting this data, today 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 become a real friend to law enforcement.


Johnathan Tal is Managing Director of TAL Global Corporation, an international investigative, risk assessment and security consulting firm. He is a Chartered Investigator, Past President of the World Detective Association (2000-2001) and holds a Bachelor of Science. He can be reached through his company’s website at www.talglobal.com.


* “A content analysis of crimes published on social media platforms”, by Alessandra Brainard, Strategic Communications, Elon University; Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications, Flight. 9, No. 1 • Spring 2018

** “Teenagers, cell phones and texting.” Pew Internet & American Life Project, Lenhart, A. (2010)

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