Category Archives: Criminal Justice

My Awesome Announcement

I hate tooting my own horn but this is one of the proudest moments in my still short social media law career.  Please forgive the somewhat staged presentation but those who know me know that if I’m going to tell a story I need to make it interesting.

I was at the University of Texas Co-op’s law school location last week browsing the Nutshell books.  (Go with me, people.)  For those of you not in the legal profession, congrats on that by the way, know that the Nutshell series is put out by West Academic (one of the biggest names, if not the biggest name, in the legal publishing world) and is a fantastic resource for an overview of legal issues in a particular topic.  They aren’t casebooks–larger books with often edited cases to look at judicial rulings on certain areas.  Nutshells get right to the point and provide essential information on the overall legal topic.  I used more than one when I was in law school and as a practicing attorney.

But I noticed something was missing from the Nutshell section.  Can you spot it?

Can you spot what's missing?

Can you spot what’s missing?

That’s right, there’s no Social Media Law in a Nutshell.

Let’s fix that, shall we?

I’m proud to announce that I will be writing Social Media Law in a Nutshell for West Academic.  My co-author, Thaddeus Hoffmeister, is a professor of law at the University of Dayton School of Law and has previously published a book on social media in the courtroom.  His knowledge of social media litigation, evidence uses, and applicability in criminal cases will combine with my information on the marketing, content, employment and other social media uses to make this a comprehensive review of social media across all legal channels.

Doing this as a Nutshell book feels perfect right now.  There isn’t a wealth of case law on social media issues, but there are certainly cases out there.  In some areas the most fascinating legal issues are taking place outside of a courtroom so a Nutshell allows us to cover those topics in ways a casebook couldn’t.  Plus, when the movie rights get picked up we all agree that Hugh Jackman can play me.  He’s just a more talented and better looking version of me who can also sing and dance and has a better accent.  The resemblance is uncanny.

I’m not sure when the book will be released but it certainly won’t be until 2015 at the earliest.  Rest assured I’ll let you all know as the process unfolds.

Yesterday I published the 100th blog post here on SoMeLaw Thoughts.  When I look back at how much has changed in social media since I started writing about it, not just my own professional involvement, it’s staggering.  I feel incredibly lucky to take this journey and contribute to the field as well as participate in a line of books that I personally value.  To join the ranks of the Nutshell books blows my mind.

Thanks to all of my readers and friends on social media who have pushed/pulled/heckled me along the way.  An even bigger thanks to my family for putting up with my little side projects.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some writing to do.



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Is Social Media Ever A Dilemma?

To the right, bacon. To the left, bacon. Which way do you go?

The story of an Indiana high school teacher who had his threatening message outed on social media and was forced to resign caught my eye this morning.  One significant reason was the headline of the story: “Social media a new dilemma for law enforcers.”  Dilemma?  That seemed an odd choice of words.  It made me wonder if social media truly was a dilemma or if this was just a link bait headline.

In this particular case the teacher was upset over the way his class had treated a substitute teacher.  Upon his return, the teacher wrote on the blackboard:

A. You are idiots!!!

B. The guns are loaded!!!

C. Care to try me???

The message was captured by a student and posted to Facebook and the teacher was placed on administrative leave before he retired.  The blackboard incident apparently came after some other Facebook comments posted by the teacher prior to his return to class.  There was a media storm and the teacher was gone.  Sounds like the right result.

So why is this a dilemma?

Merriam-Webster defines dilemma as one of three things: an argument with two equal sides, an unpleasant choice, or a difficult or persistent problem.  The quotes from law enforcement in the article suggest that social media has raised a number of concerns to the point where they needed to be addressed by law enforcement.  That doesn’t seem to fall under any definition of dilemma.

Social media, for the most part, allows information to be shared on a wider basis.  To the point that this has caused incidents that may have gone unnoticed or unaddressed to be dealt with thanks to social media, that’s a good thing.  Steubenville is a powerful example of social media forcing wrongs to be handled.  I suppose the flip side could also be true–an outcry on social media compelling law enforcement to take an action they otherwise don’t want to take.  But to the extent law enforcement has a decision made difficult because of public outcry there’s probably some other things going wrong.

In the wake of this school incident the Indiana legislature has expanded crimes of intimidation to include social media postings.  While it seems to me that the original law shouldn’t have been limited in such a way as to need expanding to include social media (did it actually list where the intimidation could occur as opposed to it simply occurring?), that’s a needed expansion if they wrote it so narrowly in the first place.  Social media is a channel for information to be exchanged–good and bad.  Having access to that information shouldn’t create a dilemma if the information is true and the decision makers know what to do with it.

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Filed under Criminal Justice, Social Content, Social Platforms

Social Media Is Jimmy Olsen, Not Superman

Social media is a lot like Jimmy Olsen. Except we don’t have a signal watch.

Last week showed how social media can be incredibly powerful on the one hand and incredibly damaging on the other.  In the wake of the marathon bombings in Boston, social media communities rose up to offer assistance.  Some of it was valuable and helpful, like Google’s Person Finder tool which helped people in the Boston area find each other in the hectic aftermath, or the online document which connected people in need of places to stay with generous locals willing to house stranded runners or visitors.  Some of that offered assistance was less than helpful.

Two communities (which I’m not going to name but they’re easy to find) took it upon themselves to try and find the bomber(s) by combing through photos and videos taken near the scene and identify suspects.  While the sentiment behind the effort appears well intentioned, the results were anything but.  The groups focused their efforts on a number of people, inferring malicious motives to the way they carried bags or their proximity to some of the bombing locations or the fact that a single frame showed the person not intensely studying the runners still on the marathon course.  But what certainly stood out was one word.


For example:


The communities focused on a number of criteria: carrying bags, distracted, alone, pictures showing they did not have bags later, etc.  But one criteria that popped up numerous times was whether the individual had dark skin.  A factor that was ultimately wrong and ended up saying much more about the reviewing community than it did the actual suspects.  That thinking wasn’t alone on internet forums though.  Even the New York Post jumped in on the potentially racist, certainly irresponsible accusations as Deadspin called them out for falsely accusing a high school runner of being sought by authorities.  The real story was that the student saw his picture circulating online so he turned himself in to avoid anything bad happening.  One of the communities that contributed to this false identification later apologized for their part, but we should be thankful the harm was contained.

It turns out that social media may be good at reporting some facts, uploading photos, and providing video, but it’s really, really bad at forensic analysis.  One could easily say dangerously bad given the heightened emotions around this situation.

But the strength of providing information is certainly a good thing for social media, it’s just a question of what we do with it afterwards.  That’s what makes social media Jimmy Olsen rather than even Lois Lane–we can take pictures but collectively we might not be very good at analyzing or even accurately reporting on the information.  And we certainly can’t act on them (thank goodness).

Social media is still a valuable resource in the pursuit of justice.  Take, for example, the 2011 Vancouver riots where concerned citizens provided authorities with thousands of hours of video and over a million photos taken during the riots.  Analyzing video tape and pictures after a riot wasn’t a new experience, not even to Vancouver in 2011–after their 1994 riots they analyzed a bit over 100 hours of video footage but that took authorities four months.  In 2011, with the help of the Law Enforcement and Emergency Services Video Association (LEVA), authorities were able to analyze over 5,000 hours of footage and over a million photos in two weeks.  Authorities were able to tag 15,000 criminal acts which led to just over 300 convictions.  A fraction of the identified actions, but still a huge improvement over the time taken to analyze the resources in 1994 (which led to only around 100 convictions).

Social media’s application in criminal justice will only grow over time.  The value now in contributing photos and other information is incredible–but we must be very careful as the crowd starts to get involved beyond the purely objective.  It turns out there’s a reason why we have experts doing analytical work.

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Filed under Criminal Justice, Laws, Social Content