Social media fair game in police investigations

Oversharing on social media can be innocuous enough, but it seems that some don’t realize that what they post on the Internet — especially if it’s offensive or illegal — can later land them in hot water.

Police arrested and charged a 16-year-old Pittsburgh teen with murder Monday after he sent a picture taken with the body to a friend using photo messaging app, Snapchat.

The incident has stirred an intense online debate about why people continue to use social media irresponsibly even though it’s proven to be far from harmless.

Recently, Ryerson students raised similar questions on campus due to their (not nearly as bad) behaviour on social media.

Fourth-year journalism student Eric Mark Do and two other men were arrested last week in what Toronto police called a “roof-topping investigation.”

Roof-topping, according to police, is the “practice of taking photographs from the roof of a building, particularly one accessed illegally, for profit or fun.”

Do keeps an Instagram account dedicated to posting pictures of views from highrises.

Law enforcement says social media posts are admissible in court. (Susana Gomez Baez / Ryersonian Staff)

Law enforcement says social media posts are admissible in court. (Susana Gomez Baez / Ryersonian Staff)

The week before, Unite Ryerson candidate Zidane Mohamed came under fire after screenshots of remarks he made via Facebook in December condoning the killing of two New York City police officers were released by The Ryersonian.

Tim Currie, journalism professor at King’s College in Halifax and social media expert, says it’s because most people still don’t realize how far a tweet or Facebook post can travel.

“We’ve always had conversations with people,” Currie said. “We’re now having them out in the open. That’s the biggest difference.” But according to Currie, legally, a Facebook post or tweet isn’t treated like a conversation.

“From a legal perspective, when you write things down, the law still treats that as publication,” said Currie.

“I’m not sure that that has caught up with the way most people view or use social media,” he said. “When you post something … you have a mental image of who you’re talking to. And generally people don’t think that includes law enforcement agencies.”

Det. Jeffrey Banglid of Toronto Police Services agrees. Banglid has been a police officer for 18 years. He works with the Computer Cyber Crime team, which began operating two summers ago. He says social media has become a tool in police investigations.

“When the evidence exists online, it just makes it that much more beneficial to present that case in court,” Banglid said. “To remove the social media aspect of it, it would be the same as myself standing in a corner overhearing two people conversing about a bank robbery they’re just about to commit. Yes, it was meant to be private, but it’s now being observed.”

Social media is no longer a new idea. Facebook was founded in 2004 and Twitter in 2006, so they’ve both been around for about a decade. There have been plenty social-media debacles, including the recent Dalhousie University scandal, where students posted misogynistic comments about female classmates on Facebook.

And yet, it seems people still don’t consider the consequences of what they share on social media.

Currie chalks that up to human behaviour.

“People are just careless in their daily lives,” he said. Humans have always been this irresponsible, but now it’s just that social media is “laying that bare,” he adds.

“I don’t see the laws changing. Those are centuries old,” Currie said.

“So what will have to change is people are going to have to think more seriously about what they’re posting and the ramifications.”

This story also appeared in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on Feb. 11, 2015.

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