This paper discusses the important role social media platforms play in not only helping law enforcement solve crimes but, how it has changed the flow of information from law enforcement to the public. There are many social media platforms that aid in criminal investigations but, Reddit and Facebook are the two examples that are highlighted within this text. Reddit is shown to be helpful as the users on the platform gather evidence on certain crimes and discourage vigilantism. On the other hand, there is Facebook which has been proven to help law enforcement solve crimes and has also helped in improving community relations. Lastly, this text touches on how criminals have found a new medium on which to post/display their crimes. If it were not have been for social media platforms giving them this affordance, these criminals may have never been caught.
Social media has now been integrated in most people’s lives as an everyday reoccurrence. It has connected friends, families, and even strangers to each other across the globe and it has even brought some fame and fortune. For the average person, social media might be a place where they share photos of their summer vacation or the meal they are eating. However, for some people, social media platforms are places they go to talk to fellow citizen sleuths to try and unravel and solve cold true crime cases or to solve an ongoing investigation. It is important to note that these online communities are not part of law enforcement, they are normal everyday citizens that have an interest in true crime and a thirst for justice. These amateur investigations have even proven helpful to law enforcement in certain cases. Platforms such as Facebook and Reddit act as hosts to these communities which have helped investigators in the cases that were active at that time. Social media has changed the way law enforcement is solving crimes in the 21st century in that police have a lot more access to different groups of people to help solve an investigation. This back-and-forth communication between law enforcement and the public is useful. The reason for this is that citizens are able to voice their opinion to the police in a very direct fashion, and law enforcement is now also able to give out information to a large amount of people almost instantaneously. The flow of information between law enforcement and the public has drastically changed because of social media. Before social media platforms the public was not really able to voice their concerns the way they are able to now. Social media has incited social change as it is not only a tool that helps law enforcement fight crime, but it has also changed the way they get messages out to the public.
It has already been proven that social media is a powerful tool and driving force for social change within communities. In their text Smith et al. (2010) mentions a study done in the state of Montana in the United States to see if social media adverts depicting the adverse side effects of using meth would actually decrease the amount of meth users in the state. The results of the study were promising.
Although the campaign was aimed at teenagers, it also reduced adult meth use by 72 percent and meth-related crime by 62 percent and moved the state of Montana from the fifth-highest rate of meth abuse in the nation to the thirty-ninth. (Smith et al., 2010, p. 26)
A specific example of a social media platform being used to solve crimes is Reddit. Reddit is a discussion-based website that utilises forums through which users communicate. Myles et al. (2016) focused specifically on one forum on the website called the “Reddit Bureau of Investigation” or the “RBI”. The authors explain that:
The official aim of RBI has developed over the years, from using “the power of Reddit to solve crimes/mysteries and stop criminals” to the setting up of “an organized group of Redditors interested in solving crimes/mysteries and helping people in the process.” (Myles et al., 2016, p. 11)
The forum consists of people asking the internet sleuths of Reddit to help them identify others who have committed a crime against them. May it be a robbery or something more sinister. This forum is accessible to anyone, including law enforcement, and the conversations and clues gathered on the forum could be used as evidence to convict someone. The internet is a goldmine of information, and because of this, people are more easily found than they were before the internet existed. This can prove to be a blessing and a curse. This is because either, the wronged party can take the evidence gathered by the Reddit sleuths to the authorities or, they can enact their own revenge on the accused as a form of vigilantism. Myles et al. (2016) touches on this in their text stating that:
Our observation of RBI activities has rapidly shown that they have little in common with the characteristics associated with vigilantism, like the use of force, a logic of vengeance and/or shaming, and the will to take the law into one’s own hands. (Myles et al., 2016, p. 17)
According to the text the forum does not condone, nor does it encourage vigilantism. It exists purely as a place where crimes and mysteries are discussed and where people go to seek help.
Another example of a social media platform that internet sleuths use to communicate is Facebook. The platform has 2797 million users as of 4th quarter 2020 (Statista, 2020). Because of the sheer numbers of people on the platform there is massive potential for law enforcement to get in contact with large amounts of people almost straight away. In their text, Mirmajlessi (2013) saw this opportunity and did a study on an anonymous police department in the state of Ohio in the USA. According to the Mirmajlessi:
In this study, Facebook was rarely used as an interactive tool between police and civilians to fight crime. In fact, Facebook was used by the department as an informative based tool to keep the community aware of ongoing investigations and crimes that effected their neighborhoods. (Mirmajlessi, 2013, p. 76)
Mirmajlessi (2013) found that Facebook in this case is not necessarily helpful in fighting crime or solving investigations. However, it is important to note that the platform was helpful to the police in keeping citizens updated on important information regarding ongoing investigations. Be that as it may, there was another study done in the state of Arkansas, USA that states the contrary. Beshears (2017) concluded that; “Recommendations were made for Arkansas sheriffs to increase the frequency of social media communications. Since frequency, based upon findings has been determined to be a benefit to law enforcement community relations and crime solving” (p. 499).
Beshears (2017) had a sample of 52 sheriff offices volunteering for the study, and the overall consensus stated that because of the use of social media applications and platforms the investigations of crimes in the area were actually helped by the communications the investigators were having through social media. Having said that, it is worth mentioning that Beshears’ study was done four years after Mirmajlessi’s. Social media platforms go through many changes very quickly, so it could have been possible that within the four-year gap between studies that some changes were made within the applications/platforms that made it easier for citizens to communicate with law enforcement. It should also be noted that Beshear’s sample size was larger, which could have affected the results. Nonetheless, it would not be presumptuous to say that social media indeed is an especially helpful tool in solving crimes.
There is a very well documented case of when internet sleuths were an especially important part of an investigation. Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer is a docuseries released by Netflix that interviews members of an internet sleuth Facebook group who were instrumental in catching an infamous killer (Lewis et al., 2019). The story follows the killing spree of Luka Magnotta in which he initially released footage of him torturing and killing cats which sparked the internet sleuths’ investigation and ending with him releasing footage of him killing 33-year-old, Lin Jun (Lewis et al., 2019). The Facebook sleuths knew Magnotta’s identity before he committed the murder, however it proved to be a challenge to apprehend Magnotta as he kept changing his location (Lewis et al., 2019). Even so, when Magnotta finally did commit his first (and last) murder, the evidence gathered by the group of Facebook sleuths was integral in his conviction (Lewis et al., 2019). It is interesting to see how with the advances in technology and the affordances of the internet, criminals are now filming/livestreaming themselves committing their crimes and making it almost easier for law enforcement to find them. A good example of a criminal livestreaming his heinous acts is the 2019 Christchurch shootings that left 51 people dead (Macklin, 2019).
Extreme-right activists have regularly utilized livestream, albeit in other contexts. Militias on the U.S.-Mexico border have integrated it into their activities, transforming their confrontations with migrants and refugees into a form of “reality TV.” Tarrant’s atrocity was the first time, however, that an actual terrorist attack has been filmed via livestream. (Macklin, 2019, p. 20)
Although snuff films are hardly a new concept, with livestreaming now being a readily accessible feature on many social media platforms, criminals now have a new medium to showcase their crimes which could actually assist in their downfall. In the case of the Christchurch shootings, there was a high possibility that Tarrant would have been caught regardless of whether or not he livestreamed the event. However, because he chose to livestream his crimes, it was much easier to convict him in a court of law as there was actual footage of him committing the crimes, leaving absolutely no questions as to who did it. With saying that, there is an understanding that not every criminal is going to film or livestream their crimes on social media. However, for those criminals who do, do that there is a higher possibility that they would be caught because of the way social media platforms/sites are programmed. It could be argued that social media can hinder investigations because of the sheer amount of information available and some individuals may use the platforms to make false claims or lead law enforcement away from the actual criminal. Be that as it may, the information that social media platforms possess is tremendous, and to some investigations it acts more as a benefit than a hinderance.
From these facts one may conclude that social media has changed the way our society communicates and helps law enforcement. There is a plethora of groups online who specifically exist to help solve crimes, and these group discussions are easily available to law enforcement to gather evidence. There are many instances that have proven that social media is an extremely helpful tool, whether it be the suspect themselves uploading their crimes to the site, or the site itself knowing the criminals’ whereabouts with location tracking software within the application. Before social media existed, the flow of information from law enforcement to the public was more of a top-down pattern. Whereas with social media, the playing field is a bit more level as the public can directly communicate with law enforcement. This is a massive social change, and it is affecting how law enforcement is solving crime and interacting with citizens. It is for this specific reason that this essay is submitted to the Online Networks & Social Change stream of this conference.
Beshears, M. L. (2017). Effectiveness of Police Social Media Use. American Journal of Criminal Justice: AJCJ, 42(3), 489-501. http://dx.doi.org.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/10.1007/s12103-016-9380-4
Lewis, M. (Director), Doganis, D., & Hawkins, A. (Executive Producers) (2019-2019). Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer [TV series]. Netflix.
Macklin, G. (2019). The Christchurch Attacks: Livestream Terror in the Viral Video Age. CTC SENTINEL, 12(6), 18–29.
Mirmajlessi, S. R. (2013). Building bridges and solving crimes? A critical examination of how police use the new aged technology of social media-Specifically Facebook (pp. 1-95). Eastern Michigan University.
Myles, D., Millerand, F., & Benoit-Barné, C. (2016). Solving Crimes Online: The Contribution of Citizens on the Reddit Bureau of Investigation. Réseaux, 197-198(3), 173.
Smith, A., Aaker, J., Ariely, D., Heath, C., & Adler, C. (2010). The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social Change (pp. 1-243). John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. Statista. (2020). Number of monthly active Facebook users worldwide as of 4th quarter 2020 (in millions) [Data set]. Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/264810/number-of-monthly-active-facebook-users-worldwide/
15 thoughts on “Social Media and its Effects on Solving Crime.”
Hi Leoné, what a fabulous paper! This was a pleasure to read as you have written with such a great flow of arguments and evidence, and also a really interesting and increasingly relevant topic! I really do think that Gen Z’s and millennials have recently been jumping on the crime documentary bandwagon like never before, with streaming services such as Netflix providing an endless amounts of series and documentaries which are based on true crime. The ratings have proven that these series have been skyrocketing due to the word-of-mouth surrounding them on social media – and I definitely agree with this. I’ll see a post on Facebook or Twitter regarding a new crime documentary being released and I just feel compelled to watch it to feel as if I can contribute into conversations and have my own opinion on the matter. In saying this, one documentary which has recently captured the world’s attention was the ‘Crime scene: The vanishing at the Cecil Hotel’, which I know you had mentioned in class. This case relied so heavily on the use of social media sleuths to help generate theories and provide information towards the case, however, plentiful amounts of misinformation was generated and had damaging impacts on not only the case, but also those who were being falsely accused (White, 2021). In saying this, I was wondering what your stance was on misinformation from social media within such cases, and whether you thought there was a realistic way to monitor such comments which could have the potential to purposefully throw authorities off particular leads?
Once again, great paper – you should be really happy with your work! Caitlin
White, B. 2021, February 11. Don’t Overlook ‘Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel’s’ Harrowing Case Against Conspiracy Theories. Decider. https://decider.com/2021/02/11/crime-scene-vanishing-at-cecil-hotel-web-sleuth-radicalization/
Well done on a great paper! It is a very interesting subject and online community.
Your paper reminded me of the very active online communities that are connected to true crime podcasts. For example the true crime podcast Case File has over 24k members in their Facebook group, with countess other fan groups discussing theories and opinions of crimes discussed on the podcast.
Have you heard of the Teacher’s Pet podcast? The online community was very active – constantly coming up with theories and in some cases came up with new leads and people that came forward with information directly linked to the case.The podcast was responsible for reopening the cold case and the resulting arrest of the accused. But the podcast became so popular the ensuing publicity in mainstream and social media resulted in the pause of of the murder trial citing “unrestrained and uncensored public commentary” (Fullerton, as cited by Quah, 2020) as a reason for an unfair trial at the time.
So as you have outlined in your paper, this was another example of how an online community can both help and hinder the solving of a crime.
It also brings up questions whether it is ethical to make true crime podcasts given the level of public interest they can attract. But you could write a whole other paper on that!
Quah, N. October 6, 2020, How a podcast paused a murder trial, Vulture,
Hi Elissa! Thank you so much for commenting!
That is so interesting! Thank you so much for suggesting that to me!
You’re right, I could write a whole book about how the media can effect trials and how people get caught through social media. I don’t think it is unethical to do podcasts about true crime because I feel like it raises awareness for those cases and it allows the victim’s story to be told. Of course in the case you cited, that was an extreme case of how the online public opinion effected the outcome of a trial however, this isn’t really something that has happened in a lot of cases before.
I found this paper really interesting. Especially in learning about the effectiveness of these online groups. Further the discussion about people who have been wronged seeking out help from others in order to solve crimes. In my mind, these groups becoming more prevalent seems to call for more coordination with police forces, through official channels. I was wondering your thoughts on the validity and safety of these online measures especially for the safety and anonymity of these investigations to ensure that no false allegations or social convictions occur.
I talk about online hate crimes and how they transfer into real-life hate crimes if you were interested in giving it a read! https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2021/2021/04/27/how-online-islamophobia-goes-unmonitored-and-the-toll-it-takes-in-reality/?unapproved=2310&moderation-hash=3b67984305003544ee7fee656ad4b515#comment-2310
Hi Anika! Thank you so much for giving it a read! I’ll definitely check your paper out too!!
I feel like it is the responsibility of law enforcement to follow the right leads and keep the right people safe in sensitive situations. If they believe a certain tip from an online source to be true, it is their responsibility to follow up on it and make sure it is credible. I hope that answers your question!
I really enjoyed reading your paper! I never really realised that social media plays such a prominent role in solving crimes. From reading your paper I was able to understand that there is a sort of ‘community’ that have the same interests in wanting to come together and solve crimes.
Your paper reminded me of the project back in 2013, when the Australian Federal Police worked with YouTube and launched the project Missing Persons Pre-Roll, which was a pre-roll clip played before the selected video showcasing the missing-persons campaign. This campaign was said to transform the ‘Skip’ button into “Yes I have (seen)” and “No I haven’t (seen),” so people were forced to think a little before they clicked. The advertisements used geo-location targeting to show missing people in the area of the viewer.
The power of social media can be scary at times, especially when criminals choose to upload their crimes, but the power of social media gives citizens the opportunity to participate in solving these crimes or assisting law enforcement. All in all, I not only enjoyed your paper, but I learnt a lot from reading it!
I am so happy that you enjoyed it!
I totally agree with you that the internet can be a scary place. It is big and full of people that may not have the best intentions, however we must just try our best to be as safe as we can!
Well done on your paper; I think it was really exciting topic to have included in this conference.
When you mentioned that social media applies a level playing field is helping interaction between the public and law enforcement is accurate. Facebook allows all members to interact with no sense of hierarchy, which illustrates that point.
I am a member of a neighbourhood Facebook group, where members communicate about all aspects of life within the postcode, including crime. Often members will post pictures and videos of incidents or offenders to help protect, inform and solve a crime. Posting these to social media allows these posts to be persistent and scalable within the group and then broader on social media. This digital affordance has a far greater reach than any physical method of communication at this hyper-local level.
Another Netflix docuseries called “The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” showcases a community of web sleuths. In this case, the community are very passionate. However, during the investigation, they wrongly accuse an online user, which causes significant damage to the accused, given he is proven innocent in the end. The voracity of the online community left the innocent person with severe mental and professional issues. I wonder if the anonymity of these user accounts (especially on Reddit) helped create the mob mentally adapted by the web sleuths was full of vitriol.
Thanks for sharing your paper.
Hi Joseph! Thanks so much for your feedback!
I’ve seen that documentary! I’ve always been fascinated by the Elisa Lam case and I loved how in depth they got into all of the theories and the series of events.
Online anonymity is a bit of a double-edged sword. The fact that we can talk to each other without even meeting face to face is both comforting and concerning at the same time because we never know where the other person is mentally or emotionally. This is unfortunately a very common thing in online circles, what better way to spread a rumour than on the internet, am I right?
I found your paper really interesting! To see how social media has enabled communities of amateur sleuths to work alongside law enforcement is truly fascinating and the examples you used to illustrate your points were very insightful.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of the film ‘Zodiac’ where the main character goes to such trouble trying to gain access to physical pieces of information, contacting important people and maintaining all the evidence he had gathered, whilst desperately trying to get the police to cooperate. I think your piece really highlights how much social media has aided amateur sleuths and law enforcement together in terms of efficiency as well as convenience. It makes me wonder whether a case like Zodiac’s would still stump investigators in the present day.
Something else that struck me whilst reading your paper is how much the element of being within a legitimate, though intangible, ‘community’ seems to be such a driving force behind these users. Solving these crimes appears to be not just for personal pleasure or the pursuit of justice, but the shared experience, support and understanding that mutually encourages one another. People have always been interested in theorising and solving crimes within a group, like the Vidocq Society, but this was only for professionals and membership was exclusive. In modern day, as you mention, the power amateurs now hold and the accessibility to similar groups is unparallel to anything before. So, what are your thoughts on this idea that the reason that more crimes are being solved is not just due to the influx of information, but the fact that this immediacy and intimacy created by these social media platforms, encourages members to pursue cases because of their relationships?
My paper doesn’t look at crime per se, but it also focuses on an aspect of social media that is not often thought about by the average user, death. Do check it out! https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2021/2021/04/26/when-are-we-truly-dead-online-the-complexities-of-finalising-death-in-the-online-context/
Hi Gemma! Thanks for your feedback!
In my opinion, the driving forces for the relationships created in these groups are a sense of community, accountability and a sense of satisfaction. As I’m sure a lot of people have experienced, it is sometimes hard to find people in ‘real life’ that have the same interests as you however, there are endless amounts of online forums and groups that cover a wide range of topics on the internet. I think that a lot of these people feel a sense of comradery in these online forums and because these cases often involve real people being hurt or killed a sense of accountability is also formed as they are now a group of people trying to solve the case. A lot of the time these situations also stem from a victim’s friend or family member turning to the internet for help when their case goes cold, a lot of these internet sleuths find immense satisfaction from trying to solve cases and helping other people.
I will definitely check out your paper! It looks fascinating!
I really like the word you chose, ‘comradery’, as I think it captures the essence of these groups as being more than a forum, but a community with such purpose. The work that they do is more than just for entertainment, but they are dealing with genuinely serious issues that actually impact people. This is especially telling when, as you say, these people are relying on your ‘team’ to find answers as their last opportunity for closure, if the case had gone cold. To provide someone with that, and to be able to share this success amongst other members, would be just invaluable.
Again, such an interesting topic and I’d love to see these groups get more recognition for their efforts!
Hi Leone, I found your paper very interesting to read. I had never really ponded the massive impact social media has had on the ability to solve crimes. Indeed, having the ability to broadcast a “missing persons or lost and found” message to millions of people at the press of a button is indispensable. But the value of a criminal leaving a trail of audiovisual evidence behind is next to none and leaves little room to plead innocence.
To be honest, I had always considered social media (mainly Facebook) to be a hindrance in the line of crime. For instance, as you have mentioned yourself, people posting pictures of where they are at any given time. You so often see people posting pictures of them being away on holidays. Well to me, this just screams out to all the criminals in town that no one is home. Do you have any thoughts on that side of social media and crime?
Thank you for showing me a different perspective of how social media has contributed to law enforcement.
Hi Tina, thanks for your feedback and you’ve raised an interesting point. I think there should be more education surrounding digital safety not only for younger generations but for everyone. The example that you gave was very valid and many people do post where and when they are away which exposes them to being stalked, their home to be burgled or worse. However, if these people had known that these kinds of threats existed they could have either posted their holiday pictures after they had come home or they could only post pictures in a private group on Facebook that consists only of good friends and family that won’t disclose their location. To some this may seem a bit paranoid but it’s a scary age we are living in and it is important to think about your safety whether it be online or in real life.