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Social networks are transforming how relationships begin and end. One in five relationships now starts on social networks. But social networks also contribute to breakups and divorce. Instead of catching a whiff of another woman’s perfume on your husband’s shirt, you might instead find an X-rated photo that your husband accidentally tweeted to a woman in public mode rather than private mode. Or—as happened in a Connecticut case—your husband and his girlfriend might be sending each other Facebook gifts such as “Love Birds” and posting about the need for discretion. (Husband: “[n]o more Facebook. . . to public for me.” Girlfriend: “LOL o.k. under the radar . . . flying low. . . ”)
Social network information can be a smoking gun when people divorce. In an American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers poll, 81 percent of divorce attorneys mentioned an increase in the use of social networking evidence over the past five years. Most of that evidence was found on Facebook (66 percent) or Myspace (15 percent).
Posts or photos indicating that one spouse cheated or has dangerous habits can help the other spouse receive more money in the split or gain sole custody of the kids. Divorce lawyer Linda Lea M. Viken recounted a custody battle where a father posted on his Facebook page that he was “single with no children looking for a fun time.” Divorce lawyer Kenneth Altshuler said, “Facebook has made it very easy to show lack of credibility and that is what can win a case. Once you catch them in one lie, nothing else they say is credible to the judge.”
The only way to guarantee that your posts won’t come back to haunt you in a custody case would be never to have had a social network page or to act like a Stepford parent and post only positive and glowing things about your every moment with your child. (Perhaps even doing that would backfire since it could be used to show that you are too enmeshed in your child’s life and won’t give your child enough space to grow.) Erasing a page you’ve previously created or deleting your social network presence entirely won’t help. Projects such as the Wayback Machine have probably captured screenshots of that page in its earlier incarnation.
Since parenthood is rewarding, demanding, and frustrating all at the same time, people may unthinkingly blurt out their frustrations in social media. What if you once tweeted that you didn’t want children? Should that statement be used to terminate your parental rights? In In re T.T., a Texas case, the court allowed such a statement from a dad’s Myspace profile to be used against him. What if you failed to mention kids on your Match.com profile? Would that show you were a bad mom? How about if you said, “I love my motorcycle” or “I love my iMac” but didn’t mention your children? Would that indicate that your kids played second fiddle to your possessions?
My personal view is that any social network statements about the child should be kept out of the case unless they indicate that the parent is likely to harm the child emotionally or physically. And a lack of statements about the child (or even a statement that one doesn’t have children) shouldn’t be used as a way to show parental unfitness.
Murder. Mayhem. Betrayal. Sounds like your typical thriller, right? But it’s just an average day on a social network. As both cops and criminals turn to social networks to do their jobs, the real life incidents provide potential plotlines for thriller writers. Already, writers Harlan Coben (Caught), Jeffrey Deaver (The Broken Window), and Scott Turow (Innocent) have woven internet issues into their thrillers. In my latest non-fiction book, I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy, I talk about scores of real criminal cases involving social networks that could provide inspiration for thriller writers.
Facebook posts can provide the motivation for a murder—such as the 34-year-old British man who hacked his estranged wife to death after she changed her Facebook status to “single.” Posts can also provide ways to uncover crimes. The IRS searches social network sites for evidence of taxable transactions and the whereabouts of tax evaders, while Homeland Security searches certain people’s emails for 350 red flag terms, including the phrase “social media” itself. Posts can be used to intimidate witnesses—such as when a killer’s girlfriend posted, JUST REMEMBER SNITCHES GET STITCHES!! Virtually every aspect of crime and punishment can include a social network twist.
Lori is a law professor and the author of I KNOW WHO YOU ARE AND I SAW WHAT YOU DID: SOCIAL NETWORKS AND THE DEATH OF PRIVACY.
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