From Tweets to Leads: How Police Use Social Media to Solve Crimes

Nowadays, it’s a shock to find someone who isn’t on any form of social media. 

Social media now seems woven into our lives and our society. As a result, social media is now also woven into our justice system.

Social media has become an invaluable tool for law enforcement agencies in solving criminal cases. A 2016 survey from the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Urban Institute of 539 departments found that 70% used social media to gather intelligence, and 59% contacted a social media company to obtain information to use as evidence.

Social media can help police detect potential crimes, gather evidence, capture details of suspect behavior, and even predict future offenses. But as this practice further entrenches itself in crime-fighting protocols, it raises a plethora of questions surrounding legalities and privacy.


The Role of Social Media in Modern Crime Investigations

From Tweets to Leads: How Police Use Social Media to Solve CrimesImage Source

Harnessing these digital breadcrumbs has been hugely beneficial in law enforcement efforts, enabling officers to shed light in previously obscure areas of investigations.

Encompassing a broad spectrum of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, social media has proven to be a treasure trove of information aiding crime investigations. Law enforcement agencies regularly resort to these platforms to source evidence, spotlight suspects, and oversee their activities. Everything, from posts and photos to videos, can potentially serve as pivotal leads aiding in the construction of event timelines and investigative trails.


Leveraging Social Media in Crime Investigations: A Specific Breakdown

Social media has transformed into a crucial tool for authorities in criminal investigations. Here are specific ways law enforcement agencies leverage these platforms:

1. Identification and Verification of Information:

    • Authorities use social media to identify potential suspects or victims through posts, pictures, and connections.
    • Law enforcement can verify information provided to them by cross-checking it with a suspect’s or a victim’s social media activity.

2. Data Analysis:

    • Investigators analyze large data sets for patterns that match criminal behavior.
    • Predictive analytics tools assist in identifying potential future incidents by examining trends and patterns on these platforms.

3. Communication with the Public:

    • Agencies use social media channels to communicate important alerts or updates related to ongoing investigations.
    • These platforms also allow the public to provide tips or report suspicious activity.

4. Gathering Indirect Evidence:

    • A timeline of a suspect’s or victim’s activities can be constructed based on their social media posts, which can be used as indirect evidence.
    • Any incriminating posts can be collected as potential evidence.

5. Mapping Criminal Networks:

    • By examining connections on platforms like Facebook or Twitter, authorities can map out criminal networks, helping expose large-scale criminal activities.
    • Social-media can reveal links amongst individuals that are not visible in the offline world, shedding light on the entire breadth of criminal operations.

6. Online Surveillance:

    • With a warrant, law enforcement can monitor a suspect’s online activity in real-time, potentially preventing future crimes.
    • Trends or buzzwords can be monitored to track potential unlawful activities in the digital sphere.


Case Spotlight: Crimes Solved with Use of Social Media in Investigations

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Social media has proved a powerful tool.  It has led to a 30% increase in the identification and arrest of suspects and has been instrumental in solving over 50% of missing person cases.

Let’s look at 4 different true crimes where social media played an integral role in the investigation:

  1. The Gabby Petito Case – The tragic case of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old travel blogger, captivated global attention due to its significant digital footprint. Gabby and her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, had been documenting their cross-country trip on Instagram and YouTube. After Gabby’s sudden disappearance, social media became a critical evidence pool, with public involvement instrumental in deciphering timelines and locating clues. A fellow travel blogger’s YouTube video showed Gabby’s van in the area where her remains were later found, demonstrating how social media turned every user into a potential detective in this high-profile case.
  2. Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting – One of the darkest incidents of anti-Semitism in American history, the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue shooting was a clear case where social media played a significant role. Before the perpetrator opened fire, killing 11 people and wounding six others in 2018, he shared virulent anti-Semitic sentiments on Gab, a ‘free speech’ social media network known for its far-right user base. The information shared on this platform became crucial evidence in piecing together the murderer’s motive and establishing his guilt.
  3. The Case of Skylar Neese – In 2012, 16-year-old Skylar Neese disappeared from her home in Star City, West Virginia. While the police initially treated this as a case of a runaway teenager, posts on social media platforms by her so-called ‘friends’ raised alarm. Both girls were sharing disturbing and guilty-tinged tweets, which caught the attention of investigators. After rigorous questioning leveraged by these posts, the girls confessed to the premeditated killing. The social media posts had been a silent cry of their guilt and held the key to solving Neese’s horrifying murder.
  4. The Arrest of ‘Ross from Friends’ Look-Alike – Social media isn’t just useful for serious and violent crimes; it also aids in identifying less sinister criminals. In 2018, a British thief bearing an uncanny resemblance to David Schwimmer, the actor who portrayed Ross Geller in the popular sitcom ‘Friends’, was caught on CCTV, stealing from a restaurant. After the local police shared the CCTV image on Facebook, the post went viral due to the suspect’s celebrity doppelgänger. As humor boosted the post’s reach, the power of social media shone through when an anonymous tip-off ultimately led to the thief’s arrest.

Each case speaks volumes about the undeniable power of social media in modern crime investigations, whether to probe a terrorist’s dark intentions or unmask a thief hiding in plain sight.


Predictive Policing: The Shift Towards Proactive Law Enforcement with Social Media

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Social media’s role in crime-solving does not simply end with post-crime investigations. While approximately 75% of criminals use social media to plan and execute their crimes, police are using social media to prevent crime from occurring in the first place. It’s called predictive policing, where data analysis aids in predicting potential crimes before they happen.

Data Mining and Crime Prediction

Today’s social media platforms are vast reservoirs of user-generated data, which, when carefully analysed, can reveal patterns and behaviors that predict potential unlawful activities. Law enforcement agencies can collect and analyze large amounts of data from platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram using advanced algorithms to identify potential threats early. This process, known as data mining, enables officers to act proactively rather than just reactively.

Identifying Hotspots and Potential Threats

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning technologies are capable of sifting through vast amounts of data in real-time, identifying trends, and highlighting potential threats. This can also include identifying geographical hotspots where crime rates are likely to increase, allowing law enforcement to focus their resources more effectively.

The use of these advanced technologies transforms social media into a powerful surveillance tool, contributing to a proactive approach in law enforcement and crime prevention.  Of course, that brings up a critical ethical concern: citizen’s right to privacy.


The Ethical Dilemma: Balancing Privacy and Crime Solving in the Age of Social Media

However, it is important to note that the use of social media in criminal investigations raises concerns regarding privacy and legalities. The collection and use of social media evidence must comply with applicable laws and regulations, including obtaining proper search warrants and respecting individuals’ privacy rights. Additionally, the authenticity and admissibility of social media evidence in court can be subject to scrutiny, requiring law enforcement agencies to follow strict protocols to ensure its validity.


Advancements In The Use of Social Media to Solve Crimes

As technology evolves, so too does the methodology behind crime-solving. Recent years have witnessed unprecedented advancements in employing social media as a significant tool in criminal investigations:

  • Geolocation Data: Many social media platforms enable users to tag posts with their location. Analyzing this data allows investigators to track suspects’ movements, link them to crime scenes, or establish alibis, especially in cases where traditional surveillance methods may be limited.
  • Social Media Monitoring Tools: Law enforcement agencies now use tools that can scan social media platforms automatically for keywords, hashtags, or information related to ongoing investigations. While such tools can help identify potential witnesses or prevent crimes, it’s crucial to balance their use with privacy and legal considerations.
  • Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning: These technologies revolutionize crime-solving via social media. AI can detect patterns and connections in large volumes of data, assisting in threat identification, crime prediction, and complex case resolution. Ethical training and deployment of AI systems, free from bias or discrimination, is vital.
  • Dark Web Investigations: The dark web, hidden within the regular internet and often used for illegal activities, is now under scrutiny through social media. Investigators can use social media to gather intelligence about those operating unlawfully in these hidden corners of the internet.
  • Facial RecognitionA report to Detroit’s Board of Police Commissioners showed social media photos were used in 35% of facial recognition investigations this year. This technology can scan social media platforms for matching faces, aiding in identifying criminals or finding missing persons. However, like other tech tools, their use should adhere strictly to privacy laws and regulations due to the potential for misuse and threats to user privacy.


Final Thoughts

In this digital era, social media has remarkably transformed the landscape of criminal investigations. These platforms have become repositories of invaluable data previously inaccessible. However, using these digital resources requires careful judgment due to the fragile balance between privacy rights and law enforcement agility.

It is intriguing to observe how social media platforms, initially designed for communication and cementing relationships, have evolved into crucial information centers for authorities. But is this just the beginning? The question about social media’s role in future crime investigations lingers.

Lou Nightingale
Author: Lou Nightingale

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