Social listening research is often thought of from a marketing & sales perspective. However, it can be used in other industries as well. Private investigators and lawyers are finding social listening to be a valuable resource in their investigations.
Conducting social and online research on an individual or topic related basis can provide a great deal of insight about a person, topic of interest, or recent case that may be going to trial soon. It’s very similar to traditional social listening and research, but with a slightly different focus.
Do criminals really give themselves away online?
Do people really post content that can hurt them in a divorce or child custody situation? Despite what’s out there about privacy settings and controls on social sites, many people still reveal themselves by the content they are posting, both on social sites and off. Sometimes it’s something significant they forget to set behind privacy settings. Or they just get too comfortable and don’t think through the ramifications of what they’re sharing. Other times it can be a comment someone posts that, on the surface, is seemingly irrelevant, but in the context of a known investigation can make all the difference.
The most glaring (and dumb) example was recently highlighted in an article posted by WDTV in West Virginia. A Top 10 Most Wanted List was published on Facebook by the Greene County Sheriff’s office, which included the woman in question. The woman whose image was posted actually replied to the post asking if they do “pick up or delivery” and engaged in conversation with other people commenting on the post. She gave away some clues to her whereabouts, and was later arrested.
While this is a poor example because it’s just so bold and “too easy” to not be able to find this woman, it is an example of how content posted online can help solve crimes or win cases.
Another glaring example happened back in 2012 in which a man filed an insurance claim on his very expensive 2006 Bugatti Veyron. Interestingly, he had taken a $2.2M claim on just three weeks before this “accident”. He claimed that he dropped his phone while driving, and when he looked up he swerved due to a pelican in the road, and he drove into the water. However, video later surfaced showing no pelican and no attempt to slow down, and his claim was obviously denied.
We all post on a variety of sites, from Facebook to forums around our interests and hobbies. There is also a lot of other content posted about us – everything from organizational newsletters to family members’ obituaries or birth announcements, comments we make on blogs or news articles, to press releases about our work lives. When all of the information posted by and about an individual is collected in one place, it tells a story. Sometimes that story can give clues and insight needed to assist in a case, whether it’s divorce, crime, or an insurance claim.
How does social listening research help investigations?
From divorce cases to workman’s comp claims, online research can identify content that can easily help with a case. By researching public-facing content, investigators can view content that supports their side in a case. Need some examples?
A bad back won’t stop him
For a workman’s comp case, an individual claimed a back injury during work caused him to be unable to work. However, an investigator found that this individual posted pictures of a recent weekend trip where he was surfing. Since this was posted on a social site with no privacy settings, it was able to be used as evidence to deny benefits.
No alimony for you!
An ex-husband was paying alimony and believed that his ex-wife was potentially engaged to and/or living with another man but she was careful to not post anything on her social sites to give that impression. A deep web search identified an obituary for the ex-wife’s grandmother. Seemingly innocent, right? Not so much when the ex-wife was listed as a survivor and a gentleman was identified as her fiancé in the obituary. No more alimony for her.
The more information a lawyer has before a trial begins, the better he or she is to be able to win the case. This is where social listening research can be valuable. Social media and online research can be conducted on individuals and content collected to get a better understanding of an individual. As mentioned, everyone has a story, and once all content from or about an individual is collected and reviewed in one place, it can give great insight into that person’s thoughts, opinions, and way of thinking. It can also be used to confirm or deny details of a testimony given by the individual.
Jury selection is an integral part of any trial; a pre-screen of a potential juror’s social activity can easily assist lawyers in better understanding if a potential juror has a bias about the case itself or a topic related to the case, thereby being a good or not so good juror, thus making the process more efficient.
Monitoring orders of preservation
Any good lawyer will tell a client to “clean up” their social sites before a case goes under investigation or trial. Whether this means deleting photos or posts or simply putting them behind privacy settings, it is often a starting point for making sure evidence is limited. However, if an order of preservation is in place, nothing can be touched or changed as far as privacy settings or content that is on a person’s accounts. Collecting the content an individual has on their sites before this goes into effect and continually monitoring can detect any changes in content and determine if the order is violated. Furthermore, since all social content has a “fingerprint”, called metadata, it is easy to prove that a seemingly incriminating piece of content that was visible on a person’s Twitter account is now gone.
These are all individually based examples where specific social research is conducted. It can be done fairly easily with the help of software programs and manual research. It’s very similar to Googling your name – once you start reviewing what comes up in the search results, you can get a picture of how you are presenting yourself to the world via online content.
Social listening research can also be used in a more general way by investigators and lawyers, similar to the traditional ways in which it is used for marketing when they need to identify key information related to an investigation or case.
People are drawn to taking pictures of most aspects of their lives, whether it’s what they’re eating for breakfast or why they’re stuck in traffic. There is no exception to picture taking either – people will take pictures of accidents they pass or mention random things they see during their day. With location based social content monitoring, this can be crucial to investigators. By using location based software, or even the public facing Snapchat map , investigators can identify those who have taken pictures or were in the area of the incident and reach out to them. This can be helpful in using the pictures they took as evidence or questioning them to see if they can provide any insight into the situation. This has been a blessing to investigators & lawyers when it comes to accidents and other such incidents.
Change of venue requests
Social listening related to a specific case, especially if it is a high profile or well known case, can help a lawyer present evidence to support a change of venue request for a trial. Secondarily, it can also help gauge public opinion and “hot buttons” surrounding an upcoming trial.
Witness questioning/trial performance
The most interesting, and possibly earliest instance, of social listening being used in a trial was the Casey Anthony case way back in 2008. The defense lawyer, Jose Baez, utilized the services of Amy Singer, a trial consultant, who helped him during this case. During one session, the lawyer went hard on George Anthony, Casey’s father; the next day he took a softer approach.
Later, after the trial, Ms. Singer revealed in an interview how social listening was used to gauge public sentiment and give insight into how the jurors may be thinking. She learned that the general public felt that the lawyer was being too hard on Mr. Anthony, and advised him to adjust his approach accordingly. In this interview she shares, “What blew my mind was that after George’s mistress testified, pro-prosecution bloggers said ‘Poor George, he’s not on trial.’ So we knew not to harp on George, because the more you harp on him, the more [the real jurors who may be leaning toward prosecution] were going to defend him.”
Wait..is this legal?
Of course, anytime we hear of social listening research focused on an individual, it raises red flags. This is in part thanks to all of the issues Facebook and other social sites have experienced related to privacy. There were also issues with a geofencing listening software program, Geofeedia, which was used with great success by many law enforcement agencies until the ACLU believed it to be used for racial profiling and the company eventually went under.
It should be noted that individual based and location based social listening research is entirely legal, as long as it’s done correctly. There are some important aspects to individual and location based social listening that need to be addressed.
Public facing content only
Legally, this is the only content that can be collected. What does this mean? For Facebook, as an example, if someone has their post settings to “friends only” there’s no way for that content to be collected. Unless a friend who has access to the content decides to share that post on their page and their content is under a “public” setting. If it is a forum that requires a login and password to enter, that’s off limits.
Social and online research cannot directly “touch” an individual
Thinking of becoming friends with someone to be able to see all of their content or strike up a private chat? If you’re using the content for investigative purposes, you may want to think twice. Ethically and even legally, this is content that will likely not be admissible in court. It can be argued that the person you are investigating accepted your friend request. So it’s their responsibility to vet potential connections, but because this was done with ill intent, it may not hold up in court.
Location based listening is limited too
Again, it has to be public in order to be viewed. Location based listening is also only as good as the people who are posting in the area. The user’s location has to be turned on in order for content to be viewed and collected.
The volume of content posted on an hourly basis is staggering; as more industries are learning what is available to them for research purposes, the more valuable social listening research has become. While only a small part of an investigation, private investigators and lawyers have embraced this form of research and incorporate it into their investigations.