Social Media Has Changed Crime and the Justice System
Online confessions. Incriminating selfies. Crime experts tell us how social media has helped and hindered investigations.
Images via Waterloo Regional Police; Saskatoon Police Service
A year ago this April, 22-year-old Melinda Vasilije was found stabbed to death in her Kitchener, Ontario apartment.
Soon after, a Reddit post titled “Wanted for Kitchener murder my side” surfaced. It was allegedly authored by Ager Hasan, 24, Vasilije’s former boyfriend.
In what allegedly appeared to be a detailed confession, the post claimed Vasilije was the first to grab a knife. “She comes at me in full force, aiming towards my face... I tell her to stop,” reads part of the Reddit post. “She doesn't, I tried grabbing the knife but ended up cutting my hands. After a few cuts I lost it. I freaked out, I was scared and in a state of shock. Never in a hundred years did I think she would use a knife against me. Out of shock and fear I grab one. I hit her with it, almost blindly. A few times. I didn't know what happened. I was confused, shocked and scared."
Accompanying the written words were Imgur links to photos of the former couple together and screenshots of text messages between them. Hasan went on the run in the United States while a warrant was out for his arrested and was spotted in Pennsylvania and Tennessee.
He was apprehended in Texas two months later, eventually being extradited to Canada. Hasan has been charged with second-degree murder, and preliminary court proceedings are currently underway. The proceedings are under a publication ban.
Cases like Hasan’s garner viral audiences, perhaps because of the possibility of personal interaction: One can easily look up an alleged criminal’s online behaviour on their social media site of choice.
It’s an appetite criminal justice Professor Raymond Surette, of University of Central Florida, described as “voyeuristic” and rooted in celebrity culture.
“This is why they blow up: You no longer simply have to read just a news account of this; you can go online, you can interact, retweet, redistribute, add to the content if you want,” he said. “You’re not only looking over the shoulder—you’re actually participatory in this.”
Surette noted how some people will leave suggestions on social media posts that appear to be connected with a crime: “Turn yourself in, bro!” or “Head to the border!”
Indeed, on some of the Instagram posts Hasan appeared to have authored while he was on the run in the US, people who’d been following the case didn’t hold back in the comments. “I hope, Ager, that you will soon offer to plead #guilty to causing the #death of that ex-#girlfriend whose death you're accused of having caused,” one commenter said.
Another wrote: “I wish there was a different outcome because u two actually made a good couple. Smh... We have to stop letting the devil control us. I say devil meaning anger... It never hurts to walk away. Now this beautiful girl is gone and so is your freedom... I'm sending a silent praying for all involved and hurt by this tragedy.”
But, Surette says, people from the same generation as Hasan may create potentially incriminating content because they’ve accepted and embraced self-surveillance. They’re used to having their pictures taken and posted online, sharing intimate details about their lives, romantic relationships, opinions, and inner-thoughts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
But that’s not to say that crimes that intersect with social media are all just a side-effect of technology’s role in our culture. Performance crime—crimes committed with an audience in mind—have been around for a long time (see: terrorism).
Though it could be argued that social media in itself is performative in nature, Hasan’s purported posts while on the run seemed reactionary rather than motivated by an audience. However, there have been a number of cases in recent years where it’s been obvious that an audience was intended from the very beginning.
Take the “selfie killer” Amanda Taylor, who, at 24 years old, was convicted of murdering her father-in-law, 59-year-old Charlie Taylor. In April 2015 nearby Ironto, Virginia, Amanda took a selfie holding a bloody knife in front of the dead body of her father-in-law. She then posted it on her social media. Allegedly, she also contacted a crime blogger to submit the selfie. The blogger then contacted police. Amanda went on the run. Yet, she still found time to update social media again: a photo on Instagram of a gun in her lap and a note that seemed suicidal in tone. "Alright... It's about that time. I'm going to go find my husband in Hell and finally be at peace."
Amanda is now serving life in prison after being found guilty of first-degree murder.
When asked why she would post about committing murder on social media, she told local media: “I guess I was proud of what I had done and like I got online and saw a couple different news postings and me and Sean, like, we were wanted,” she said. "They were looking for us, and I don't know, I just felt the need… I was excited that I had finally [done] it.”
Though the Hasan and Taylor cases hinge more on the willingness to create incriminating content on social media, such as alleged written confessions or photos that could be used as evidence, sometimes the way social media interacts with crime is less intentional.
In January, Cheyenne Rose Antoine, a 21-year-old woman in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to seven years in prison for killing her best friend. A key piece of evidence that was used to prove she had killed her friend, 18-year-old Brittney Gargol, was a selfie of the two women that had been posted on Facebook the same day she died. In the selfie, Antoine was wearing a belt that was found next to Gargol’s body on a road near a landfill.
Gargol died on March 25, 2015. Antoine had originally told police that Gargol had gone home with a man she met while they were bar-hopping that night. The day of Gargol’s death, Antoine took to Facebook to comment on Gargol’s posts, which, in retrospect, may have been an attempt to throw people off her trail: “Aweh, I miss you so much bert! wish heaven had visiting hours so i could come see you… still can’t believe those last two days were going to be the last 2 days i got to be able to hug you, talk to you & laugh with you… You were truely (sic.) an angel, but i guess God needed you up there.”
Lisa Watson, who was Antoine’s criminal defence lawyer, said she’s been seeing social media come up more often in criminal cases since she started practicing law in 2010.
“When I first started out, Facebook was around, but it certainly wasn’t something that was common to be seen referenced in court,” Watson told VICE. “You would often see judges and more senior lawyers struggling to explain what social media was and how it worked, particularly when we had younger people coming before the court—witnesses and accused.”
“It was all very foreign when social media kind of started exploding onto the scene,” Watson said. “Courts now, at least in my experience, are much more familiar with the various social media platforms.” Watson said Facebook in particular is one platform she’s seen progress in recent years.
“It seems there’s more of an acceptance of evidence coming forth from social media in criminal courtroom now,” Watson said.
But, extracting evidence from social media presents its own set of issues. How do you know if screenshots are genuine and not altered? And how do you know who exactly is posting from an account? As was the case with Hasan, for example, police were not willing to tell the public whether or not the social media posts that appeared to be related to the case were authentic.
Watson referenced a case in Saskatchewan where a Facebook screenshot was submitted as evidence. Christopher Donald Hirsch, 40, threatened to choke and shoot his ex in a Facebook post in 2013. His threats were accompanied by a naked photo of his ex. Hirsch later appealed the court’s decision partially on the basis that screenshots were not proven to be authentic.
“The judge listened to the witness, who was able to give various reasons why she identified the screenshot as appearing to be the accused’s Facebook page,” Watson said. “The Court of Appeal said it was pure speculation that perhaps someone would have altered it. Unless the defence could point to something that would take it outside the realm of speculation and into the realm of likelihood, it’s a very difficult argument to make.”
As for proving that social media accounts do belong to an accused or that a post was authored by them, Watson said a number of factors could be looked at to determine authenticity.
One step of verifying who a social media account belongs to includes checking if the email associated with the account is known to have been used by the person. “There needs to be more than just a name attached to it—there needs to be other circumstantial evidence that they can connect to that particular accused in order to rely on it,” she said.
Watson said she has not personally seen full-on social media confessions so far in her work. She is, however, increasingly seeing content from Facebook and Snapchat coming up in criminal cases—though she stresses this is not in the majority of her cases.
“Anything that gets written down or recorded, posted, anything like that, people just don’t realize the amount that it can be used and the ways it can be used in a courtroom,” Watson said.
“What happens with these people, some of them anyway, they create content and consider it aimed at a small circle,” Surette explained. “It’s as if they either don’t realize or purposely forget that the content, once out there, is potentially consumable by millions and millions of people.”
So would deactivating a social media account do anything to help someone out who finds themselves in a precarious legal situation? Watson said that a lawyer may potentially advise you to step away from social media and to not comment further online about anything related to a case you’re involved in.
But, she said, deleting incriminating posts could be different. Though she said it would depend on the circumstances, “it is certainly a possibility” that someone could be charged with attempting to obstruct justice if they intentionally delete posts that could be used as evidence.
“Be cautious about what you post,” Watson warns, “and be aware that it can be used perhaps to help you, but perhaps to form a criminal prosecution against you in the future.”