Social media is an indispensible part of our lives. It helps us connect with people and share the details of our lives with family, friends – and the wider internet community.
However, while social media can feel small and intimate, much of it is freely and easily accessible by the public eye. Ever-changing privacy settings combined with long-term post archiving and a cavalier approach to sharing information online means that social media can be a private investigator’s gold mine.
Bad behavior on social media can result in, being denied entry to Harvard, missing out on a job, or even being fired from one. And with new oversight proposed by the Department of Homeland Security, someone’s social media activity may even affect whether they can be granted a visa.
Let’s take a look at what kind of information people are sharing on social media – and how that can benefit an investigation.
What information can be gathered from social media?
In short, the answer is anything that people are willing to share – and quite a bit that they don’t think they’re sharing.
Facebook, for example, requires users to provide their real name, and provides areas for them to fill in details including their age, birthplace, education, workplace and more. It also provides insight into their family, friend and work networks, along with visual and text-based documentation of their activities. Users who geo-tag or user-tag their posts are engaging in voluntary time- and date-stamping, showing exactly where they are at a given time – and often with whom.
While users can dial up the privacy on their account, they can’t control what other users are posting about them, and any public posts they make on other pages remain public. Facebook also makes it difficult to truly delete an account. Most “deleted” accounts are actually only deactivated, meaning that any information shared to them still exists online.
While Instagram and Twitter don’t quite have the behemoth status of Facebook, they can still be an excellent source of user data. Instagram, for example, is a visual feed of someone’s life, and its photographic nature combined with geo-tagging and user-tagging means that it can be used effectively to develop a visual dossier of an individual or their friends and family. Additionally, while Instagram captions can be edited after posting, photos cannot. Short of deletion, this ensures an accurate visual trail.
Twitter doesn’t allow post editing, which means that unless a post is deleted, it remains for posterity. Even deleted posts can be dug up from archives – and it’s common practice on Twitter that contentious tweets are screen-shotted and shared by other users prior to deletion.
While some users strive to minimize their digital trail, once something is online it typically remains online. Archival and web scraping tools create carbon copies of posts. Software can be used to analyze how an individual writes and determine whether a post belongs to them. And even anonymized accounts can be traced back to another that reveals their true identity.
So when are social media investigations used?
Given the wealth of information that social media can provide, it’s a key source of information gathering. It tells you who someone is, what they’re like, who they associate with, and even their potential actions. Social media investigations can therefore be invaluable in the legal system, in the workplace, or even in personal relationships.
Court cases are a common reason for beginning a social media investigation. Social media can help provide proof of a person’s character, indicate their whereabouts at a particular time, or provide other evidence such as recent associations, purchases or travel. It can also be used as a visual identifier.
The metadata accompanying social media evidence is crucial to the validity of the data, especially if it’s being used in court.
Employer background checks provide another use case for social media investigations. Cross-referencing sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter can help verify an applicant’s educational and employment background, and can also indicate whether someone is a good fit for the company culture. Inappropriate posts, including those about a current employer, or about illegal activity, can quickly show whether someone might pose a risk to the company’s standing.
Employer background checks are subject to the Fair Credit Reporting Act, and anything beyond the broad public domain must be consented to. They cannot be used to justify discriminatory hiring practices.
Social media is used in custody cases to help build a character profile of one or both parents as a way to indicate what custody arrangements are best for a child. Similar to the court case and background check scenarios outlined above, social media investigations for custody cases will use posting histories and social networks to determine someone’s character, associations, parental conduct and personal conduct.
Online dating is on the rise, but that doesn’t mean that it’s risk free. Social media investigations can be used to verify the background of a potential partner to confirm that they are who they say – or even where they say. Catfishing, infidelity and plain old aggrandized claims are just a few of the scenarios that social media investigations can help identify.
While geo-tagging can be a privacy issue for some users, it can be a boon for investigators. Sites such as Facebook, Instagram and FourSquare allow users to “check in” to a place or tag their posts with their current location. This, combined with date-stamping, can indicate where an individual is, has been, or is likely to be. Combining these with known facts, such as appearance, background or the names of friends and family, can be highly effective. This approach can be used for people who have gone missing, as well as for those you’ve lost touch with but would like to reconnect with.
Social media can be an effective tool for assessing a spouse or partner’s infidelity. This can be key in determining the outcome of a divorce case, or simply when seeking piece of mind about a partner’s behavior. Social media can be used to verify an individual’s whereabouts at a given time, but also their connections to particular individuals – whose whereabouts can also be traced and confirmed.
If social media evidence is to be used in court, it must be collected in a way that makes it admissible as evidence.
Getting started with a social media investigation
If you’re planning on opening a social media investigation, it’s best to come armed with as much information as possible, as well as a goal that you’re trying to achieve.
While it’s possible to begin with just a name and an email address, things move more quickly and efficiently when you have multiple data points that can be correlated. Once begun, the case then proceeds with a painstaking analysis of posts, networks, linked accounts and even metadata – all of which can help verify an identity, provide proof of character, or confirm an alibi.