Last week, police in my town arrested a young man for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. According to court documents, officers learned of the alleged crime when the suspect posted a photo of himself on Facebook holding two ammunition magazines, as well as discussing the items on Twitter:
This type of story is becoming increasingly commonplace as the reach of social media grows longer. For example, New York police made 103 arrests this June in what has been called “the largest gang takedown in New York City history,” largely on the strength of thousands of social media posts by alleged members of rival gangs, documenting an ongoing turf war. And last year, Oregon police tracked down an alleged hit-and-run driver when the teen suspect took to Facebook to announce: “Drivin' drunk . . classic. But to whoever’s vehicle I hit I am sorry.”
A suspect’s location while using social media can be just as incriminating as the content he posts. Consider the alleged burglar who used a computer in the house he was robbing to check his Facebook, and was then arrested when he forgot to log out before leaving.
Sometimes social media posts can be considered crimes in themselves, rather than just evidence. Last month, police in Texas arrested a 13 year old for allegedly using a fake Facebook account to send messages to her peers that included threats to kill everyone in her town.
You may be tempted to laugh off stories like this as mere “stupid criminal” fare, good for a laugh, but not applicable to you. That is a mistake. While the examples above are admittedly extreme, anyone can potentially get into trouble over an ill-considered or badly timed social media post. As you post on social media, keep a few things in mind:
Social media is NOT private, regardless of your privacy settings
Most reasonably savvy social media users know that they can restrict viewing of their posts by using privacy settings, limiting potentially sensitive information to their list of connections, or even smaller subgroups within that list. Privacy settings are what allow you to tell off-color jokes without your grandmother seeing them.
But while privacy settings are useful for deciding who among your connections sees your content, they are relatively useless in preventing law enforcement from gaining access. Once you post content, the people you share it with can do whatever they want with it, including sending it to police. So unless you are 100% sure that none of your connections would ever do that—and if you are, think again—you are not safe.
Additionally, social media companies can and will share your content with law enforcement in certain situations. In the Texas example above, the suspect posted the threats using a fake account, but Facebook turned her real identity over to police. Social media companies build their success on progressively eroding the concept of privacy. Don’t expect them to stand up for yours.
You may not know you are breaking the law
The examples of criminal behavior listed above are fairly obvious. But the law criminalizes and prohibits a wide variety of activities that may not seem intuitively wrongful. At bottom, legislatures and regulatory agencies have two jobs: to prohibit and require conduct. And they will always do these two jobs, regardless of whether or not doing so benefits society. Having long ago exhausted the store of obviously wrongful actions to prohibit—such as killing, assault, theft, and cheating—state and federal officials have turned their focus to increasingly obscure and seemingly-innocuous behavior.
As Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in a 1998 Supreme Court case: “[T]he complexity of modern federal criminal law, codified in several thousand sections of the United States Code and the virtually infinite variety of factual circumstances that might trigger an investigation into a possible violation of the law, make it difficult for anyone to know, in advance, just when a particular set of statements might later appear (to a prosecutor) to be relevant to some [criminal] investigation.”
Unfortunately, there are so many laws and regulations that it is likely that everyone breaks the law every day without even knowing it.
Your posts may create trouble even if you aren’t doing anything illegal
You’ve had a really bad day. Your boss was unreasonable, you got stuck in traffic, and when you got home you discovered that your dog had destroyed your favorite chair. It would be understandable for you to log on to a social media site and post: “Some days are so bad I just want to end it all.” If you did, you might just get a visit from police and EMS personnel because a friend misinterpreted your offhand remark as a serious suicide threat.
Social media is terrible at conveying context, especially in written content. While you may intend something as hyperbole, sarcasm, or sheer silliness, it may not come across that way to readers. So think very carefully before posting anything involving violence or any type of extreme behavior. The momentary catharsis you get from the post may not be worth the time and effort required to sort out the resulting misunderstanding.
Even private messages aren’t necessarily private
If you are charged with a crime or involved in any type of court case, like a divorce or child custody proceeding, your entire social media profile may be usable as evidence. This doesn’t just apply to posts, but to private messages, chats, and even non-social media communications like emails and text messages. In short, any method of electronic communication that keeps a record of what you say can be collected and used against you.
What should you do?
Social media can entertain, inform, and build a sense of community. These are worthwhile benefits, despite the potential pitfalls that go along with them. When using social media, it may be a good idea to pause and think before posting. Ask yourself whether the post is legally questionable, could be misinterpreted, or could reflect badly on you if brought up in court later. If you have any doubts, don’t post. The same rule of thumb applies to any form of electronic communication that creates a record.
Artwork credit: nicolesafley.com. Photo credit: whsv.com.