Real-World Social Media Investigations: Online Actions Have Consequences

| June 27 2019

Social media—from Facebook and Twitter to Instagram, LinkedIn, Reddit, YouTube, and more—has become the place where people go to find their tribe. Whatever their shared passion, from the pedestrian to the offbeat to the outright wacky, online communities provide a relatively safe space for like-minded people to obsess over it.

But not all interests are benign, and these online groups often turn into echo chambers, reinforcing and amplifying their participants’ beliefs. Shielded by distance and a degree of anonymity, and emboldened by the support of their online community, outwardly normal people can emerge as keyboard cowboys, willing to type things that reflect the prejudices they ordinarily keep hidden.

That’s when things can get ugly.

Employees Behaving Badly on Social Media

Starting in 2017, the Plain View Project analyzed thousands of Facebook posts associated with the accounts of nearly 3,000 current police officers from eight departments nationwide as well as another 600 officers who had retired from those departments. The results were shocking and disheartening, “replete with racist imagery and memes, and in some cases long, vitriolic exchanges involving multiple officers.” One officer declared it “a good day for a choke hold.”

Nor were these just words. Injustice Watch evaluated the Plain View Project’s research and determined that the officers who were posting these offensive remarks were also likely to have been accused of brutality or civil rights violations. For example, it reported that “Of 328 officers in Philadelphia who posted troubling content, more than a third—139 officers—appeared to have had one or more federal civil rights lawsuits filed against them … [of which] a hundred ended in settlements or verdicts against them or the city.”

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Their police departments are taking the news seriously. The Philadelphia police commissioner announced that he had put 72 officers on administrative duty due to their offensive social media content.

He stated that “We’ve talked about from the outset how disturbing, how disappointing and upsetting these posts are and how they will undeniably impact police-community relations.” The department’s actions were intended to show that “We’re not … dismissive of” those impacts.

Similarly, in St. Louis, several police officers were put on administrative duty due to their “inappropriate and disturbing” Facebook activity. Those included posts displaying the Confederate flag, encouraging rough treatment of protesters, and expressing anti-gay and anti-Muslim views. One city official noted that “this is more than just a violation of a social media policy,” as these posts could damage the community’s trust in its police officers.

While the police department only put a few officers on desk duty, St. Louis’s lead prosecutor, Kimberly Gardner, took a bigger step, adding the 22 current officers noted in the Plain View Project to her office’s “exclusion list.” That means that her office will not accept warrants or cases from those officers, effectively taking them off the street. As she said, “After careful examination of the underlying bias contained in those social media posts, we have concluded that this bias would likely influence an officer’s ability to perform his or her duties in an unbiased manner.”

Of course, it’s not just police officers who misbehave on social media.

A teacher in Fort Worth, Texas—who apparently thought she was messaging President Trump directly—complained on Twitter that her school district was overrun by undocumented Mexican immigrants. She tweeted that “Anything you can do to remove the illegals from Fort Worth would be greatly appreciated,” followed by a more direct request: “I really do need a contact here in Fort Worth who should be actively investigating and removing the illegals that are in public school system.”

She was promptly suspended and, a week later, fired.

As with the police officers whose online statements were correlated with on-the-job misconduct, the Texas teacher’s tweets were only the latest manifestation of a recurring pattern of racist statements and behaviors. She was disciplined in 2013 for calling a group of students “little Mexico,” and she was already under investigation for student-reported “racist incidents” before the tweets surfaced.

And it’s not just employees: Harvard made news recently for rescinding its offer of acceptance to Kyle Kashuv, one of the survivors of the mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida. After Harvard was tipped off—apparently by Kashuv’s classmates and a “former friend”—about his use of racial and anti-Semitic slurs in texts, Skypes, social media posts, and other conversations, it determined that he lacked the “maturity and moral character” it sought in its students.

The Moral of the Story

People reveal themselves—often more than they mean to—through their online activities. Their postings, comments, and displays of approval might be indicating ways that they’re breaking workplace rules or conducting themselves improperly.

In short, the clues from their online behavior can add up to vital evidence in a workplace investigation. It's true here, as it's been in the past with Elon Musk, Jenny and Omar Ambuila, and countless others

Around the country, organizations that find out about those online postings are taking action to ensure that their employees are upholding their workplace’s values.

Here’s the question, though: do you want to just wait for someone to bring online behavior to your attention? Or, when you develop concerns about an employee’s workplace behavior, do you want to be able to find it yourself?


If you’re intrigued about what social media and online information could add to your investigations, but stumped about where to begin, Hanzo can help. Our investigative tools use artificial intelligence to identify relevant online profiles and zero in on potentially relevant posts—which lets you go straight to the good stuff instead of wasting hours scrolling through multiple social media platforms. And our best-in-class web archiving tools can preserve whatever you find so you’re not at the mercy of a change in your subjects’ privacy settings. Don’t wait until your organization makes headlines for its employees’ or associates’ bad behavior. Learn more about Hanzo’s Dynamic Investigator and our web archiving tools to see how we can help you, and download our new eBook on Internal Investigation best practices

For the professionals reading this who have managed compliance, HR, eDiscovery, or legal investigations and hotline matters within their organizations before, you can share your insights and experiences with us in our 2019 State of Internal Investigations Survey.

It's 10 multiple-choice questions, won't take more than 5-minutes, and completing it will get you a $10 Starbucks gift card today and early access to our Internal Investigations report when it's published later this year. 


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