Most people know that it’s easy to get in trouble on social media. Maybe you forgot to set your Facebook post to private, or perhaps you bad-mouthed your employer and were suspended. While these kind of indiscretions can be painful, there is an entirely worse way to get yourself in trouble on the internet; self-incrimination for criminal activity. There are any number of extreme examples – like the drug ring in New York that Police couldn’t crack until the group set up a Facebook page under the gang’s name and posted all of their nicknames, real names, and businesses addresses online for everyone to see — but of more concern to most of you are the simple things you can do to get yourself into legal trouble; often without even realizing you’ve given the police anything of value.
The most direct route to legal trouble through social media is the obviously incriminating admission. It should go without saying, but posting something on your social media account stating that you committed, were involved in, knew about, supported, requested, saw, had friends involved with, or were in any way connected to illegal activity can absolutely get you in trouble; and, in case you were wondering, it’s not just text posts that can earn you a police visit. Pictures, videos, particularly videos’, and even likes or faves can all implicate you in a crime.
Associations and Affiliations
Even if you don’t directly admit your role in illegal activity, your friends might. If you are social-media connected with someone, that association can draw you into a criminal investigation; either under some form of criminal association charge (gang charge) or as a potential witness. It is even possible to be convicted for perjury if you tell police or a court that you don’t know someone and it later comes out that you are friends with them on a social account.
The same warnings hold true for possessions and property. Pictures showing you in, near, or in possession of suspect property or items can be just as damning as a direct admission. That picture of you with the stolen car, or of you standing outside the restaurant that was just busted for it’s grow operation can implicate you as a suspect. In fact, sometimes all police need in order to obtain a search warrant for your building is a picture of you hanging out at a suspect location.
Perhaps the most subtle way of incriminating yourself on social media is through the location awareness features of most networks. You might have a great alibi who swears up and down that you were nowhere near the warehouse on the 2nd that night, but if you “checked into” the Starbucks down the street at 9:00 pm, good luck. What’s worse, you might not even know that you’re phone is tracking your location. Some apps have auto check-in features. Google Maps, for example, can be set to share your location with friends automatically. These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. The rapidly evolving nature of social media technology means that you may not even know exactly what your phone or other device is revealing about your location.
But only my friends see my posts, right?
Think your social media activity is private; too obscure for police to notice, protected by your constitutional rights. It might be, but I wouldn’t count on it. There are many ways for investigators to get the information you post. Police might be able to obtain a search warrant to collect the records directly from your social media provider, internet provider, cell service provider, etc. Even without a warrant, they can often simply friend you, under an alias of course, or perhaps just friend one of your friends; and thereby get what they want to know. Maybe your friend caves under interrogation and turns over their account to police who then have access to all of your posts. The list goes on almost forever. The point is, there is absolutely no guarantee that what you post online will remain safe or confidential; in fact, you’re virtually guaranteed that it won’t.
That isn’t a crime…
Even if you don’t think you’ve done anything wrong, be careful about what you say online. In one situation, a girl posted a comment on Twitter about how smashed she was — not illegal in and of itself — and later had to face that post in court when she was arrested for a drunk driving accident that occurred less than two hours after she made her drunken post. In other cases, people post things that, while not directly incriminating, may give police enough for a warrant to search the rest of your computer, home, or other property; during which search more substantive incriminating evidence may turn up.
It is always important to watch what you say; especially when your words, photos, videos, and locations may be forever recorded in the digital world.