Social Media & Crime

Smart phones are ubiquitous. Social media is an inherent element in almost everything we do – eat, shop, meet, date – and now, even commit crimes. This truth has never been more palpably felt than the bizarre and tragic murder in Cleveland, recorded on Facebook Live. Steve Stephens approached an elderly man at random, with him narrating. He then, for no apparent reason, shoots the man dead. After a massive manhunt, the police close in on him in Pennsylvania, where he commits suicide in his own vehicle.

Facebook distanced itself from the crime, calling it a ‘horrific crime’ and acknowledging their need to ‘do better.’ This is not, unfortunately, the first crime using social media. Earlier, in Chicago, there was a Facebook Live broadcast of a fifteen-year old girl’s rape. In the same city, a group of teenagers publicized their acts of torture on another, disabled teen. Other sexual assaults have been recorded through apps like Snapchat and Periscope. The use of live broadcasts and the media is nothing new, particularly to criminals who crave notoriety. The Black Dahlia in the 1970s teased the newspapers and media with his notes. The Taliban and ISIS frequently upload YouTube videos of their heinous acts of terrorism and barbarism. However, the accessibility of social media, and its relatively unfiltered content, have created a new beast for both law enforcement and prosecutors to both be wary of, and use to their advantage.

When criminals decide to use these applications during the commission of the crime, it can make law enforcement’s job easier. Technology can lead police to someone’s location, with the use of Internet Service Provider (ISP) addresses, and cell-phone chip technology. And obviously, when it is recorded, then there is direct evidence of the crime occurring, with the suspect as the clear perpetrator. Social media has also increased communication between the public and police who are investigating crimes, or who need to issue safety alerts to the public for ongoing situations. The Boston Bomber’s face was plastered all over social media, and traditional media, leading ultimately to his apprehension. Boston residents, holed up in their homes, were able to broadcast police activity to national media, acting as freelance journalists. Of course, this can have negative implications. Police actively looking for a suspect, who might want to keep their actions more discrete, could be ‘outed’ by social media. Prosecutors can use defendants’ social media accounts to paint a picture of their character – a trial for a drug dealer could be cinched with photos he or she has posted of piles of cash, weapons, and even smoking marijuana – all of which has been used in jury trials in the last decade.

But social media is also responsible for darker issues. New crimes have arisen, outpacing the current legislation, such as revenge porn or cyberbullying and cyberstalking. As it stands, the state of the law in most states is insufficient to prosecute these crimes with any significant punishment. Social media has also enabled criminals to track their potential victims – certainly the Paris robbery of Kim Kardashian highlights the ability of criminals to monitor targets. And, such widespread information (and opinions) can make it difficult to find a jury pool that is unaffected and unaware by the events of a crime.

Perhaps the silver lining to the Stephens crime is that it was so public – there was no question about who committed the crime (although certainly the ‘why’ is less clear). His face was plastered on all media, and it was only because a McDonald’s employee recognized him and his car that the police were able to ascertain his whereabouts. Social media is a double-edged sword, requiring agility in both defense attorneys and prosecutors as they grapple with its implications in our justice system.

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