For most of us, social media is a convenient way to stay connected to family and friends and share many important moments in our lives.
However, if law enforcement investigates you or charges you with a crime, those accounts can become valuable resources for police and prosecutors to gather evidence against you.
Four ways social media can impact your case
Millions and millions of people share much of their lives on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. A lot of it seems harmless, but if authorities suspect you’ve committed a crime, your accounts can potentially impact your case in several ways:
- Location tracking: Most platforms track your location unless you turn off location services on your smartphone. Law enforcement can typically access this information and use it against you to place you at the scene of a crime.
- Photos and video: Police can also use incriminating photos or videos you or others share. For example, if you are pulled over for DUI after you or a friend posted digital media from a bar, that content can be used as evidence.
- Posts: You should assume everything you post online is public, even direct messages. Facebook and other social media providers routinely cooperate with law enforcement, often supplying this data without a court order.
- Permanent record: Deleting posts or even shutting down your account does not guarantee that this data will not end up in the hands of law enforcement. People can repost or take screenshots, and social media companies copy this information.
The most glaring examples of social media posts influencing criminal cases are dozens of people who took part in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. In many cases, judges used defendants’ Facebook and Twitter posts to justify harsher sentences.
Social media as evidence remains questionable
Investigators’ and prosecutors’ use of social media content as evidence has steadily grown over the past decade. However, criminal defense lawyers and other legal experts say the practice may violate a person’s Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination.
Also, certain flaws exist over confirming or legitimizing social media posts that often are nothing more than hearsay, leading to rights violations or false accusations. If police suspect you of a crime, it’s advisable to stay off social media and talk to a lawyer who understands privacy rights.