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.
THE EVOLVING CONSTITUTION: HOW FACEBOOK, GOOGLE AND TWITTER CAUSE PROBLEMS FOR THE RIGHT TO A FAIR TRIAL
The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides for the right to a fair trial. Jurors are supposed to decide a case based on what they hear in the courtroom, not what they read in the news media. They’re not allowed to talk about the case with others so they don’t base their decision on the influence of a friend or relative, rather than their own judgment. They can’t visit the scene of the crime on their own or conduct their own investigations.
Before Facebook, Twitter and Google, it was pretty easy to keep jurors in line. If a case garnered attention in the local press, a judge could order a change of venue so that the case was heard in another town. If the court was worried about outside influences, the jurors could be sequestered. But now with a quick search on a smartphone—or a peek at a defendant’s Facebook page—jurors are routinely breaching the right to a fair trial, and courts, lawyers, and legislatures are trying to figure out what to do about it.