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.
When a woman advertised a diamond ring for sale on Craigslist, the people responding to the ad robbed and beat her and shot her husband. She’d posted her address in the ad, but sometimes people unwittingly reveal their location and information about their possessions. Photos taken with most smartphones, for example, have embedded in them a string of digital data known as a geotag. When a woman posts a photo of her new engagement ring or her new baby, the geotag reveals the physical location where the photo was taken. Free software programs can readily decode the information and provide a Google map of the location, leading security analysts to warn about a new problem, “cybercasing,” where anything from a theft to the kidnapping of a child can be planned based on data people unwittingly reveal.
Checking in on Facebook or Foursquare can also create risks. In New Hampshire, a burglary ring hit more than fifty homes when people posted status updates on Facebook indicating that they weren’t home.
Social networks have become a cop’s best friend. A survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police of 728 law enforcement agencies from 48 states and the District of Columbia found that 62 percent of the agencies used social networks in criminal investigations. Thieves have been identified when they’ve posted photos of themselves with stolen goods. Search requests, too, have helped to identify offenders. Nearly half of the law enforcement agencies said that social media had helped them solve crimes. Robert Petrick’s conviction for murdering his wife, for example, was secured through evidence from his Google searches, including “neck,” “snap,” “break,” and a search for the topography and depth of the lake where his wife’s body was found.
When police responded to a burglary call in Martinsburg, West Virginia, the robber had done more than steal two diamond rings and ransack some cabinets. In the middle of the heist, he’d checked his Facebook page on the victim’s computer and then forgotten to close the page. The cops knew exactly who to arrest. In another case, a female criminal had fled the jurisdiction to evade arrest. Cops monitored her high school reunion’s Facebook page and snagged her when she came back to town to party.
But offenders have also turned the table on cops. In New York, a defendant in a felony weapons case subpoenaed his arresting officer’s Myspace and Facebook posts. The day before the trial began, the officer had set his mood to “devious” on his Myspace page and the defendant used that post to persuade jurors that the cop had planted the gun on him.
Social networks tainting trials:
In Georgia, a 54-year-old judge “friended” an attractive 35-year-old defendant in his court and offered her advice on her case—a breach of judicial ethics. Jurors have also misused Facebook, Twitter, and Google, leading to dozens of mistrials and overturned verdicts. In 2009, in a single court, six hundred potential jurors were dismissed when prospective jurors mentioned they’d Googled information about the case and discussed it with others in the jury pool. When Reuters monitored tweets over a three-week period for the term “jury duty,” it found that tweets from jurors or prospective jurors pop up at the rate of one every three minutes. Ignoring their legal duty, some jurors make up their mind before all the evidence is presented. “Looking forward to a not guilty verdict regardless of evidence,” one person tweeted. Another said, “Jury duty is a blow. I’ve already made up my mind. He’s guilty. LOL.” Yet another man, in a jury pool, hadn’t even been selected for the trial. Yet he boldly tweeted, “Guilty! He’s guilty! I can tell!”
Some people are so dependent on social networks that they can’t make a decision about anything—whether to buy a certain car or break up with a boyfriend—without doing internet searches or running a poll of their friends. When faced with the evidence in a British sexual assault and abduction case, a juror posted the facts on her Facebook page and said, “I don’t know which way to go, so I’m holding a poll.”
With the click of a mouse or a simple search on their smartphones, criminals, cops, judges, and jurors can turn the justice system upside down. As a thriller writer, social networks can be your new BFF—not just to promote your current book, but to inspire your next one.
This blog post originally appeared on the The Writer's Forensics Blog.
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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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