Using Social Media for Legal Investigations

by Evelyn M. Campbell

When I was setting up my itinerary for AALL in Seattle I knew I had to attend this program – Finding the Veronica Mars Within: Using Social Media for Investigative Purposes in Legal Research. Not too many years ago I had written a series of articles and presented programs on how to find people which I had jokingly (but aptly) titled, You Can Run But You Can’t Hide.

During one of my programs at the Homestead someone had asked whether I had considered using Facebook to track people, and I had said, “No, not yet.” The time wasn’t right then when Facebook was just coming into being, and some of the other social media did not even exist. With more than 500 million people now on Facebook, and another estimated 500 million more on Twitter, the time is now to include social media when you need to search for people, or if you conduct lessons on how to find people, now is the time to add social media as part of that process.

Social media is more than Facebook but one can always start there. Just like any other people search, before you start, gather as much information about the person you are researching – name (including nicknames and maiden names), hometown, age, employer, alma mater, interests, names of family members, and of course, friends. Facebook is designed in such a way that knowing someone’s friends may get you the information you need. Don’t forget that the person you are researching may not have a Facebook page but you may still find a picture of them with a friend or friends who have Facebook accounts, and that may give you clues as to where this person is or what this person does for fun. Never forget that people trying to hide something are not going to use their real names on Facebook.

Don’t discount Twitter as well. For some reason people seem to have the need to share with the world every thought that goes through their heads and every thing they do. As one of the presenters at the AALL program said, “Every gang member in New York City has a Twitter account.” And you would think that people would think twice about posting incriminating evidence or actions, but apparently not so. Use Twitter to find out what people are saying about what they are doing and where they are doing it.

Community websites like Topix.com can provide valuable information. People posts all kinds of information about all kinds of things which can give insight into who they are, where they eat and what they do for fun … when you are looking for someone, this can be a gold mine. Some people even advertise their part in the oldest profession in the world, and where they are to be found performing said profession. That is how one of the presenters of the program who was acting as guardian ad litem for a child found out what the mother of that child was doing. There are all kinds of stupid in the world … use that to your advantage. When you think, “no one can be that stupid” … check anyway.

Craigslist has become a site for more than the selling of things. And it is particularly helpful that you can search it by locality. Yes, people sell more than things on Craigslist, so if you are looking for criminal activities, check out the different sections, including the casual encounters section.

Trying to track down stolen items for a client? Check eBay -- also known to many as the new pawn shop of the world. The news is filled with people who have found items stolen from them for sale on eBay.

This is just scratching the surface of how to use social media for legal investigation. And I also haven’t even started on searching images on the web. The presenters made their point, and left us with this – if you are not already teaching this as part of your legal research … you really ought to give it some thought, because if you don’t you might be doing your students a disservice.

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