The explosion in popularity of social media over the last decade has had many unintended and far-reaching effects. In all areas of life, social media is a give and take proposition, with both positive and negative consequences.
In criminal justice, the story is no different. In some ways, social media has been a major boon, giving law enforcement a powerful, previously inconceivable tool for tracking down criminals. The flip side is also true, though, as social media has in many ways made it easier for sophisticated criminals to organize and communicate without detection.
Below are some of the pros and cons of social media as it relates to criminal justice.
The Positives of Social Media in Criminal Justice
As anyone who is engaged in social media can attest, people love to use social media to boast about their latest exploits in life. Criminals are not exempt from this behavior.
As shocking as it may seem, there are many criminals who will readily admit to some type of crime on a social media site, presumably thinking that they are somehow insulated from being investigated based on social media. Many students who are looking to enter this career are most likely taking an online associate degree in Criminal justice and are probably close to experts at using most social media outlets. Since they are social media mavens it is only natural to turn to these networks when seeking out information on a perpetrator later when they enter the workforce.
This can be as simple as a status update or tweet relating to a big “score,” but some criminals will take it a step further. Sites like YouTube occasionally house videos posted by criminals of some stripe, usually detailing some act of vandalism or subversion. These videos can be invaluable for the prosecution of criminals.
Even if a criminal does not admit their crime outright via social media, they may unwittingly give away important details. This is especially true for criminals who law enforcement is already after. Even if the criminal doesn’t know it, posting seemingly innocuous details about where they are and what they are up to can lead to an arrest.
Law enforcement agencies are becoming more sophisticated in their use of social media as a tracking device, and there is no “spying” necessary, either. Most of the necessary information will be freely given in a public forum by the criminal. Then, all the law enforcement official has to do is find it. Even when law enforcement has not already honed in on someone as a suspect, they can use social media as a valuable tool to put together the when, where and how of a particular crime.
The Negatives of Social Media in Criminal Justice
One of the key uses of social media, especially in countries with political unrest, is the organization of large numbers of people. While this tool is often used in a positive and productive manner to stage peaceful protests, this power of organization still makes law enforcement weary.
A peaceful protest can turn violent in a flash, but that would be a problem with or without social media. The main drawback here is that people can also recruit others for much more nefarious reasons, from riots to criminal acts to cults. Striking a balance between allowing peaceful organization and cracking down on nefarious organization is one of the major challenges law enforcement faces with social media.
Just as law enforcement can use social media as a tool to track down criminals, criminals can use it as a tool to track potential targets. Social media is largely about sharing the details of one’s life with a group of friends and relatives.
The problem is that people often share far too much detail about their lives, unaware of who might be reading outside of their intended audience. Criminals can use this to gain a wealth of information about a potential target, from addresses and work habits to the daily schedule of an individual. This information can all be useful in planning break-ins or other crimes.
One general challenge facing law enforcement with this issue is the constant evolution of social media. In five years, the most popular current social media sites may be no more than afterthoughts to the general public.
Just as law enforcement officials have to constantly adapt to dangerous, new synthetic drugs, they will also have to adapt to changes in social media. Criminals will always try to be a step ahead, and law enforcement will always try to keep up.