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Can Social Media Help Improve Investigations?

A gift to investigators is our need to post what we witness on social media.

Matthew Spaier, a private investigator, author, and podcast host in New York City, shares the following insight about the relationship between technology and eyewitnesses:

"As an investigator, one is always driven to investigate and determine how and why a certain event has happened. Any quality investigator keeps the “witness interview” in their toolbox as a way to gather information. A direct eyewitness, or “notice witness,” can make or break a theory on how and why an event has occurred. As technology advances and the world moves ever further into the digital age, new ways to explore and dig up relevant information present themselves."

As Brianne Joseph stated in a recent article in PI (Private Investigator) Magazine, estimates the number of social media users at the end of 2019 to be 2.77 billion. For the private investigator, the information generated by so many users is a goldmine, provided one understands how to analyze and cull through the data.

Case in point: I have noticed a trend in social media when it comes to “events.” People have an innate desire to insert themselves into a story. This manifests as their feeling the need to share a newsworthy event and comment on what happens.

If you know where to look, you will occasionally find direct eyewitnesses to the event. Additionally, there are fantastic apps available that send notifications to their users that something has happened. These apps encourage anyone in the area to, essentially, become reporters to the event and to turn on the camera on their phones. The result is extensive during-the-crisis and after-the-fact reporting.

This was the case on October 1st, 2017, in Las Vegas, Nevada, when Stephen Paddock went on a rampage at the Route 66 Festival and began shooting concert goers. Law enforcement was able to use social media posts to help determine safe zones and rescue attendees who had found shelter. By using real-time monitoring software, law enforcement was able to get a read on events as they unfolded. In this instance, victims were not willing participants, but rather people in need of assistance. This is such a textbook example of technology use in an emergency setting that the event is now used for response training.

The phenomenon is applicable not only to emergency situations. The recording of incidents, mundane or monumental, never stops. A bystander may witness a motor vehicle accident or a construction site accident and post about it to social media. Typically, this person goes on with his or her life and by the time the police arrive, they have no idea the witness exists.

However, by including the person’s comments on social media, we as investigators have the ability to find the comments and thus track down the witness. It has been my experience that a person that posts a comment on social media wants to tell their story. They want to participate and help. They want their voice to be heard and contribute to the narrative of who, what, when, where, and how.

Technology allows us to conduct keyword searches and find such witnesses. Open-source resources, such as news articles or blogs, are also helpful in finding people. Most such sites have a comments section, which can prove an excellent resource.

Sometimes a found witness leads to an unexpected result. This past year I had a motorcycle accident case that involved two tractor-trailers. The driver of the motorcycle asserted that the accident happened a particular way. The police report was inconclusive. Social media research turned up a direct eyewitness that shed light on what really happened. The eyewitness placed the blame on the motorcycle driver and demonstrated that neither tractor-trailer had any liability. My client was able to mitigate its loss in a claim that otherwise would not have produced a positive result.

It’s fascinating to see the general population comment on and/or insert themselves into the narrative of an incident. Whereas previously investigators may have gleaned some helpful information from news sources, the proliferation of sources — as well as worldwide interconnectivity — have increased what we can know and when in ways unimaginable even a decade ago.

As technology improves, such resources will only become more prevalent and included in standard best practices for investigations. As humans, we will continue to have the desire to contribute and be part of the story. As investigators, it’s our job to stay on top of technological changes and learn how to conduct our work efficiently.

It has been my experience that people who are contacted are more often than not willing to stay involved and testify or give a deposition as needed. Some may describe this activity as a form of “social justice” or the need to see that “the right thing is being done.” Such people do not have a typical profile, but rather a sense to contribute to making sure “their story” is being told.

At first, the typical poster may be surprised that an investigator has contacted them. It has been my experience that once the reason for the call or email is explained, those contacted are more than willing to help.

Most attorneys will reimburse an individual for lost wages to give a deposition or to testify. This is a helpful tool when asking them to contribute as an eyewitness. When approaching such a witness, it is important to take a kid-glove approach and relay the importance of “their story”.

To date, I have not experienced a sense of exaggeration. A post on social media is an open door to information. A good investigator will use their interview skills to develop a relationship and a comfort level to fact check the story and determine if it is credible.

With the combination of technology and a strong interviewing skill set, the future truly looks bright for the investigator that learns to add such techniques to their set of skills.