Introduction to Social Media Investigation: A Hands-on Approach, 1st Edition (2015)
Chapter 1. Introduction
Social media can connect people and help them maintain and support relationships from all parts of their lives. It lets us share and interact with one another in countless ways. People can use social media to build up and portray their online identity—sharing everything from major life events to what they ate for breakfast this morning. All that sharing and interaction leave behind a long, complicated, and informative trail about a person's personality, motivations, friends, activities, patterns of behavior, and actions. That makes social media a powerful tool for investigators. This introduction to Social Media Investigation lays out the foundations of what we need to learn to effectively investigate people online.
In the fall of 2014, a social worker made two posts on her Facebook account. Before heading into court, she wrote “I'm in court tomorrow for a case where there is a high level of domestic violence amongst many things….” The next day, when she came out of the trial, she said “It's powerful to know that … children's lives have just massively changed for the better and now they are safe and protected from harm and have every hope for the future….”
The mother of the child in the case found these posts after looking up the social worker online. Although the social worker thought her posts were private, they were not. They also included a map showing the location of the courthouse from which the last message had been posted. The mother filed a complaint, claiming the posts were a violation of confidentiality rules, and the social worker was sanctioned.1
This is an example of a social media investigation by a private citizen that led to real consequences. Although the outcome itself might be debated further, it nevertheless shows the power of social media as an investigative tool.
This book will show you how to find people on social media, what types of data are available on different sites, how to access the information on the most popular social media sites, and introduce some advanced techniques for understanding people that you may choose to learn more about.
Social media can connect people and help them maintain and support relationships from all parts of their lives. It lets us share and interact with one another in countless ways. People can use social media to build up and portray their online identity—sharing everything from major life events to what they ate for breakfast this morning. All that sharing and interaction leaves behind a long, complicated, and informative trail about a person's personality, motivations, friends, activities, patterns of behavior, and actions. That makes social media a powerful tool for investigators.
Just what do people share? Almost everything about themselves. Social media sites are full of:
• demographic information;
• lists of friends, family, and associates;
• logs of activities, preferences, and favorites;
• maps showing places a person goes and how frequently;
• time-stamped posts that indicate where a person was and when; and
• the content of the posts themselves, where people detail their thoughts, feelings, and ideas.
Why might you do an “investigation” online? Law enforcement and lawyers in civil suits certainly want to gather information on suspects or the opposing side of a dispute. Journalists may want to learn more about sources or subjects of their reporting. Businesses want to learn about the people they might hire or how well their current employees are representing the company. Parents may want to check up on their children to be sure they are interacting safely, though, just as frequently, adult children may want to check up on older parents to be sure they are not getting scammed.
This book is intended for all these groups. Professional investigators will find guidance for extending their skills into the social media arena. People who are new to investigating will find tips and examples that will help them get started with basic investigations while also mastering new online skills.
Individuals have countless reasons for wanting to find out more about others. They may worry about stalking. They may desperately want to get in touch with someone for whom they have very little information. Or, they may want to run their own background checks on people they let into their lives.
During the process of writing this book, I spoke to dozens of lawyers, investigators, law enforcement officials, journalists, and others who have used social media in their investigations. They provided a wealth of stories and examples of how it could be used. But without any prompting, all of them talked about how useful social media was as a source of information.
Lisa Helfend Meyer, of Los Angeles-based family law firm Meyer, Olson, Lowy & Meyers, uses all kinds of social media on a regular basis. “Social media can be a very valuable tool in your arsenal of weapons in family law.” I heard the same from every family law attorney I spoke to. The information that people reveal online is valuable both as evidence and as preemptive information that can guide the direction of a case.
The open, public nature of social media makes all this possible.
Dusty Lefdal, an investigator at Employers Investigative Services, issues an important warning. He says:
Social media has helped us during all kinds of investigations. Always be wary of using the information, especially if you are not sure it belongs to the individual you are looking for. You would be surprised at similarities between people. A trained professional should always be consulted and social media should never, ever be used solely and upon itself. It's simply a tool in a box full of investigative tools.
He's right. It quite easy to mistake one person for another online, and information needs to be analyzed carefully. A photo of someone at a party that was posted today might have been taken years ago; one cannot assume that all the information is current or evidence of present behavior. Furthermore, there are no guarantees that what someone posts online is true. Altered photographs, exaggerations, and straight-up lies can be expected.
This book will explain many of the pitfalls you might face while conducting an online investigation. It will help you be wary of what you see and show you how to verify information that is important to your investigation. In short, this book's purpose is to teach you how to use social media to successfully find individuals and information about them.
A few notes about the scope of this book….
The social media sites and services discussed here are the most popular in the world. However, the book does have a focus on sites more common in North America and Western Europe. Russia and the former Soviet republics, Asia, and South America all have sites that are particularly popular in those places, but are not widely used elsewhere. We do not address those sites in depth in this book, but readers are encouraged to visit this text's accompanying website, where more details will be available.
Social media is a huge part of the internet, and on each site, there is a tremendous amount to learn about how to use it. This book focuses on features of each site that are relevant to finding and learning about individuals. This book will not provide a full tutorial for each social media site; features that aren't useful investigative goals are omitted.
Except for one chapter at the end of this book, we also won't focus on investigating groups (although many of the same techniques apply). Similarly, we won't discuss techniques for investigating people based around some shared characteristics (like race, religion, gender, being a fan of a particular sports team, and reading a specific book). Again, many techniques discussed here could be used for that end, but we don't discuss them specifically.
The techniques described here are all ways to access information without deception or violation of sites' terms of service. While it would be possible to access more information by creating fake accounts, making deceptive social connections, or writing programs to collect data, this book focuses on what can be obtained by anyone with a legitimate account on the social media website or by publicly accessible information. Each chapter will detail a specific website's privacy restrictions and the issues an investigator might face when collecting information about a target.
Examples in this book focus on more serious situations—firings, law suits, and arrests. Anecdotes in these kinds of cases are more memorable and easier to find. But as an investigative tool, social media is also useful for general background information that would be hard to get otherwise. There are also a few examples from my own online investigative work that are more “typical.” They center around finding background information or contact information for a particular target.
When you finish this book, you will have the skills you need to search, navigate, and collect information from many sources. Along the way, I hope that you will learn lessons for your use of social media: being mindful of what you put online, what to expect (or not) in terms of privacy, and how to manage your own online identity.
1 Stevenson, Luke. 2014. “Social Worker given Conditions of Practice Order after ‘disrespectful’ Facebook Posts.” CommunityCare. http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2014/09/10/social-worker-given-conditions-practice-order-disrespectful-facebook-posts/.