Law Enforcement and Technology: Using Social Media

Congressional Research Service Report: “As the ways in which individuals interact continue to evolve, social media has had an increasing role in facilitating communication and the sharing of content online—including moderated and unmoderated, user-generated content. Over 70% of U.S. adults are estimated to have used social media in 2021. Law enforcement has also turned to social media to help in its operations. Broadly, law enforcement relies on social media as a tool for information sharing as well as for gathering information to assist in investigations.

Social Media as a Communications Tool. Social media is one of many tools law enforcement can use to connect with the community. They may use it, for instance, to push out bulletins on wanted persons and establish tip lines to crowdsource potential investigative leads. It provides degrees of speed and reach unmatched by many other forms of communication law enforcement can use to connect with the public. Officials and researchers have highlighted social media as a tool that, if used properly, can enhance community policing.

Social Media and Investigations. Social media is one tool in agencies’ investigative toolkits to help establish investigative leads and assemble evidence on potential suspects. There are no federal laws that specifically govern law enforcement agencies’ use of information obtained from social media sites, but their ability to obtain or use certain information may be influenced by social media companies’ policies as well as law enforcement agencies’ own social media policies and the rules of criminal procedure. When individuals post content on social media platforms without audience restrictions, anyone— including law enforcement—can access this content without court authorization. However, some information that individuals post on social media may be restricted—by user choice or platform policies—in the scope of audience that may access it. In the instances where law enforcement does not have public access to information, they may rely on a number of tools and techniques, such as informants or undercover operations, to gain access to it. Law enforcement may also require social media platforms to provide access to certain restricted information through a warrant, subpoena, or other court order.

Social Media and Intelligence Gathering. The use of social media to gather intelligence has generated particular interest from policymakers, analysts, and the public. Social media companies have weighed in on the issue of social media monitoring by law enforcement, and some platforms have modified their policies to expressly prohibit their user data from being used by law enforcement to monitor social media. Law enforcement agencies themselves have reportedly grappled with the extent to which they should gather and rely on information and intelligence gleaned from social media. For instance, some observers have suggested that agencies may be reluctant to regularly analyze public social media posts because that could be viewed as spying on the American public and could subsequently chill free speech protected under the First Amendment…(More)”.