Social media has revolutionized most aspects of modern life, affecting personal relationships, privacy and more. Unfortunately, the rise of social media also has implications for anyone facing criminal charges, since social media can provide a wealth of information and potential evidence. It’s crucial for people who have been accused of crimes to recognize the many ways social media may affect their cases.

Self-incrimination

The FBI notes that information shared through social media activity can help investigators uncover new leads or build a case against a suspect. In some cases, posts on social media may directly implicate a person in a crime. In other cases, social media activity may suggest a person’s involvement in a criminal activity or group.

It’s becoming increasingly common for authorities to draw on this type of evidence; according to the New York Times, in a 2013 survey of more than 500 law enforcement agencies, over 80 percent of agencies used social media evidence in criminal cases. There are several potential sources of social media evidence, according to the New York Times. These include:

  • Information the defendant deliberately shared, including statuses, photos, videos and private messages. Unfortunately, innocent or poorly chosen comments may be taken out of context, especially in cases of alleged assault or domestic violence.
  • Information others have posted that pertains to the defendant. While statuses and messages may not hold up, evidence such as photos or videos may be damaging, particularly in crimes involving sex, drugs or weapons.
  • Information that is systematically recorded, such as location tags and time stamps. This information can be used to place someone at a crime scene or even find potential witnesses.

In the event of a conviction, social media activity may also influence sentencing. According to the New York Times, one young woman received a harsher sentence for a vehicular manslaughter conviction because of the attitude she displayed toward alcohol use on MySpace.

The growing use of social media evidence brings up concerns about Fifth Amendment rights, since people who are forced to provide access to their social media activity are essentially incriminating themselves. However, according to CNN, authorities can typically use information if someone else gives them legitimate access. For instance, an online friend could allow authorities to look at private messages sent from the defendant.

It’s clear that social media activity can have steep consequences for people facing criminal charges. However, in a few cases, savvy use of social media evidence may actually help a defendant.

Using social media favorably

People accused of crimes are not the only people who can make mistakes on social media. The New York Times reports that posts from law enforcement authorities can come into play in criminal cases. In 2009, an officer posted that he was feeling "devious" shortly before testifying in court; defense attorneys used the post as evidence that the police had planted evidence. The way jurors use social media to share case-related information or interact with other participants, such as attorneys, has also resulted in mistrials or successful appeals.

The complications that social media evidence can introduce illustrate why it is crucial for people facing criminal charges to work with attorneys. An attorney can help an accused person protect his or her rights and understand how factors like technology and social media may affect the case.