Social Media Websites in Investigations

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Social Media Investigations are the practice of searching social media networks for publicity available information about persons-of-interest.

The widespread adoption of twenty-first century social media concentrated vast quantities of user data, in many forms including status updates and photos, as well as user metadata on user location, media consumption habits, and social “association,” into central databases. This data and metadata can prove useful not only to the users who create it and the social media platforms which harvest it for profit, but also to third parties who can gather insights from other entities’ data. Many of the third parties who collect others’ data are government agencies like the NSA who has a myriad of methods for obtaining intelligence from the social media usage of persons-of-interest [1]. Non-government institutions also syndicate social media information for other purposes. For example, American collegiate institutions have begun to use social media in the admissions screening process [2]. Employers also make use of social media screening tools to screen candidates. [3].

Questions surrounding social media investigation have arisen regarding whose right it is to conduct such investigations, what are the privacy rights of citizens, and where constitutional rights come into play. Trustify is an example of a company that capitalizes off of social media investigations, which it says are used in court cases (such as custody or divorce), finding a missing person, background checks for employment and vetting for online dating [4].


Social media investigations are conducted through social media aggregators such as Governments and business can gain accesses to individuals' social media footprints on Skopenow by simply entering the person-of-interests' (POIs) name and home location into the platform. Users can add additional inputs, such as the POIs phone number, address, age, and educational history, to augment the accuracy of the search. Once this information is inputed, Skopenow instantaneously compiles a report including the person-of-interests social media profiles, addresses, phone numbers, family members, and beyond. Skopenow then uses advanced textual and image analysis to find content to 'flag' for review; this technology is capable of automatically recognizing posts and images including the use of alcohol, drugs, weapons, profanity, racism, violence, and other customizable keywords.

Some other large social media investigation platforms include:


The Department of Homeland security is using social media for investigative purposes

Advocates of social media investigations by governments suggest these investigations help keep the public safer, especially in the case of monitoring terrorism threats; All information being accessed by the government is publicly available on the Internet, meaning that the same information is already publicly available for anyone on the internet to discover.

Many American government agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), using social media more in order to monitor persons-of-interest. Government agencies are able to leverage social media platforms to conduct investigations by looking for evidence found throughout posts, images, comments, videos, and other content posted on these platforms.

In 2017, DHS announced that it would begin collecting social media information on all immigrants currently living within the United States - including naturalized citizens. [5]

Private Investigation

Social Media is also becoming increasingly prevalent in the realm of social media investigations. Private investigators are using social media content in order to gain more knowledge about their person-of-interest, such as harnessing its metadata to better track suspects, for skip tracing and bounty hunting.


Insurance fraud is an $80 Billion dollar industry per year [6]. Insurance Firms are increasingly using social media in order to conduct social media investigations. These investigations are becoming commonplace in a variety of insurance verticals such as life insurance, health insurance, and car insurance.

  • Health Insurance

Many insurance carriers are commonly conducting social media investigations on patients to spot any inconsistencies within their applications. For example, healthcare insurance providers can check to see whether their patients are lying about being smokers, drinkers, or drug-users.

  • Worker's Compensation Claims

Insurance carriers are conducting social media investigations on workers' compensation cases, by finding images of their person-of-interest conducting physical activities, after having applied for a workers' compensation claim.

  • Car Insurance

A small number of automative insurance providers are now conducting social media investigations to spot any wrongdoing behind the wheel, such as taking photos or screenshots on the cellphone while driving. An unidentified man made headlines in 2015 when his insurance scam was busted on social media. After a video surfaced on social media of the man (seemingly purposefully) driving his one-million dollar Bugatti into a lake in order to benefit from an insurance payout, he was convicted for what is considered the "largest single attempted car scam in history [7]."

Major insurance providers are already conducting social media investigations on their current and prospective customers


An increasingly large number of law firms are now using social media as part of the evidence discovery process, in a process that has now been coined as "e-Discovery" [8]. Bosco Legal Services is an example of a law firm that publicizes their use of social media investigations. The firms uses software to scan pertinent social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and even claims they can access private information [9]. This is legal, as determined by the Lorraine v. Markel American Insurance Co. court case. The case qualifies social media evidence if "it has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence and the fact is of consequence in determining the action” [10].

Higher Education

An increasing number of universities are conducting social media investigations on their prospective applicants in order to identify instances of underage drinking, drug use, hate speech, and other unwanted behavior. In one notable instance in 2017, Harvard University rescinded the offers of 10 incoming freshman based on posts that were later discovered on social media [11]

Mass Shooters

Two of the deadliest mass shootings in the U.S occurred in 2017. In both of the shootings, the perpetrator's social media accounts were investigated after the shooting to help the police and public better understand the shooter's motives and behavior.

  • Texas Church Shooting

On November 5th, Devin Patrick Kelley opened fire on 46 churchgoers Sutherland Springs, Texas, ultimately killing himself at the scene.[12] The police's investigation into Kelley's Facebook activity revealed his interests in gun violence and mass shootings [13]. Just seven days before the shooting, Kelley posted a picture of a gun on his Facebook page, which was identified as a Ruger AR-556 by a gun expert after the shooting [14]. Kelley's abrasive and extreme views on atheism were posted often and noticed by his friends on Facebook. His activity become more intimate when Kelley began making personal attacks on his friends, leading to him being unfollowed by many[15]. Kelley's activity also consisted of picture posted of him and his baby [16] Soon after the shooting, Kelley's Facebook profile was taken down.

  • Marjory Stoneman Douglas Shooting

Nikolas Cruz, the mass shooter in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High case, had his social media activity investigated around a year and a half before he opened fire on students at the high school he attended in Parkland, Florida. [17] The Florida Department of Children and Families investigated Cruz's Snapchat activity after Cruz posted images of him self-harming and expressing interest in guns [18]. Cruz was investigated again by the state agency after posting more content on social media regarding self-harm. [19]. Cruz's depression and unstable personal life was made public on his social media accounts leading up to his mass shooting on February 14th. After the shooting, the police filed search warrants to look at Cruz's activity across several social media accounts including Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube [20]. The police are interested in knowing what Cruz was posting, liking, and watching in the months leading up to the shooting to find out why Cruz decided to target high school students. Some of the filed warrants are to evaluate the communication and activity of Cruz that could be classified pre-planning or premeditation of the crime of murder [21]. The police found Cruz commenting sentiments of becoming a professional school shooter, photos of guns, and Cruz holding knives while wearing a Make America Great Again hat and mask [22].

There are inconsistencies in the way authorities monitor users online as some flagged persons in the past have had greater prevention measures taken against them. In 2015, the FBI was able to prevent a potential school shooting at the University of Chicago through monitoring posts on social media [23]

Ethical Implications

Social media contains a vast amount of information in the form of posts, comments, images, videos, and beyond. This information, which is often publicly available on individuals' profiles, is increasingly being used by governments, businesses, and other institutions, to access knowledge that would otherwise be unavailable. The use of social media in investigations by entities such as governments, private investigators, insurance firms, law firms, and universities prompts a variety of ethical questions and implications for society, such as who should have the right to conduct social media investigations, and whether these social media investigations infringe upon citizens' rights to privacy.

  • Government & Privacy

The use of social media websites in investigations has many ethical implications, especially surrounding the use of social media investigations by governments as there is no clear indicator as to whether social media investigations impede upon citizens' rights to privacy.

In the United States, for example, the constitution outlines a variety of personal protections granted to citizens to prevent government intrusion into citizens' personal lives. For example, the fourth amendment states, "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized (National Archives, Constitution ..."

The right to constitutional rights social media are often questioned. Many opponents of social media investigations suggest that citizens are not adequately protected from the government on social media because information on social media is significantly more personal than information that could otherwise be obtained without a search warrant.

  • Liquid Surveillance

The concept of Liquid Surveillance prompts another ethical issue: information asymmetry.

David Lyon coins the term "liquid surveillance" to describe how surveillance is ever present in our modern society [24]." Given the constant technological advancements in technology and surveillance techniques (hence fluidity), citizens are unaware about the ways in which their personal information is being gathered, harvested, and tracked. In many instances, the fluidity of technological advances also outpaces the rate of legislation, meaning new technologies go largely unregulated by governments until individuals' rights to privacy have been violated [25].

The question of making technologies and surveillance techniques more transparent and the governments role hastening the legislation process in relation to these rapidly developing technologies is still one many intellectuals and government officials are trying to answer.

Related Information


Categories: Websites
  2. Knorr, Caroline. “Watch What You Tweet: Social Media Can Affect College Admissions.” CNN, Cable News Network, 21 Sept. 2016,
  3. Petroff, Alanna. “European Employers Must Warn Job Applicants before Checking Them out on Facebook.” CNNMoney, Cable News Network, 13 July 2017,
  4. Rysenbry, Elliot. “Social Media Investigations: What They're for & What They Find.” The Best Private Investigators Nationwide. Experienced and Trusted. For Personal and Business.,
  5. DHS Planning To Collect Social Media Info on All Immigrants
  6. [ Insurance Fraud Statistics ]
  7. Investigators Combing Social Media to Expose Insurance Scams
  8. [ The Basics of e-Discovery]
  11. These are the memes that caused Harvard to rescind offers to 10 incoming freshmen
  12. Manella, Morgan. “2017 Deemed America's Deadliest Year for Mass Shootings.”, AOL, 2 Jan. 2018,
  13. Grinberg, Emanuella, and Eliott C. McLaughlin. “Texas Church Shooter Devin Patrick Kelley's Troubled Past Emerges.” CNN, Cable News Network, 8 Nov. 2017,
  14. Grinberg, Emanuella, and Eliott C. McLaughlin. “Texas Church Shooter Devin Patrick Kelley's Troubled Past Emerges.” CNN, Cable News Network, 8 Nov. 2017,
  15. Grinberg, Emanuella, and Eliott C. McLaughlin. “Texas Church Shooter Devin Patrick Kelley's Troubled Past Emerges.” CNN, Cable News Network, 8 Nov. 2017,
  16. Hodge, Mark. “Rants of Texas Church Shooter Who Preached Atheism before Killing 26.” The Sun, The Sun, 8 Nov. 2017,
  17. Burch, Audra, et al. “Florida Agency Investigated Nikolas Cruz After Violent Social Media Posts.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 Feb. 2018,
  18. Burch, Audra, et al. “Florida Agency Investigated Nikolas Cruz After Violent Social Media Posts.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 Feb. 2018,
  19. Burch, Audra, et al. “Florida Agency Investigated Nikolas Cruz After Violent Social Media Posts.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 Feb. 2018,
  20. Olmeda, Rafael. “Investigators Hunt through Social Media Accounts of Nikolas Cruz.”, 27 Feb. 2018,
  21. Olmeda, Rafael. “Investigators Hunt through Social Media Accounts of Nikolas Cruz.”, 27 Feb. 2018,
  22. Cambridge, Ellie. “What Is Nikolas Cruz's Instagram Account and What Does the cruz_nikolas Feed Reveal about the Florida Shooter Suspect?” The Sun, The Sun, 16 Feb. 2018,
  23. FBI warns to watch those social media posts — or face the consequences
  24. [Lyon, David. Liquid Surveillance]
  25. What Happens When Technology is Faster Than The Law