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Wednesday, July 13 • 13:46 - 15:15
When status updates become evidence of gang involvement: The prosecutorial affordances of social media use in New York City courtrooms.

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Location: PSH (Professor Stuart Hall Building) - LG02, 
Goldsmiths, University of London, Building 2
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  • Jeffrey Lane, Rutgers University, United States
  • Fanny Ramirez, Rutgers University, United States 


Police departments across the United States have started to use social media for investigative purposes. A recent report from the International Association of Chiefs of Police found that 88.7% of law enforcement agencies use social media for criminal investigations (IACP, 2015). As policing extends online, questions arise about how social media content functions as evidence in criminal court proceedings and what leverage it provides in relation to other forms of evidence.


This paper uses data from seven New York City gang indictments to analyze how the District Attorney’s (DA) office translates communication on social media (e.g., Facebook messages, Tweets, photos on MySpace) by urban youth into acts of gang conspiracy. The goal of this paper is to highlight the affordances of social media as an operational tool for law enforcement and prosecutors.


Indictments in the Criminal Branch of the New York County Supreme Court are typically matters of public record. The seven indictments examined in this paper were collected through the Clerks’ Office or the DA’s office website. Each indictment consists of a series of overt acts - any behavior or action that advances the overall charge of conspiracy. All overt acts were coded by type and content based on the description of the activity in the document.


Across the seven indictments, the prosecution alleged a total of 1,281 overt acts of gang conspiracy, 617 (or 48%) of which were acts on social media. Our examination of the indictments led to the identification of six distinct ways in which prosecutors use evidence gleaned from social media to define and prosecute New York City youth gangs: 1) Communication on social media is seen as an active behavior that can be attributed to a defendant 2) Social media content allows prosecutors to establish associations between defendants  3) Social media posts allow prosecutors to redefine cases and charges 4) Social media evidence is used to show that defendants self-identify as gang members 5) Social media content (in the form of photos , status updates, and private messages) is used by the prosecution to tie defendants to particular presentations of the self 6) Social media posts function as time-stamped admissions of guilt. The most over-arching prosecutorial affordance was the conflation of saying and doing. This conflation took two forms. First, because communication took place on social media—where it was visible and persistent—prosecutors treated all communication as action. By communicating over social media, the defendants were alleged to have acted in furtherance of a crime. Second, saying was also doing insofar as the prosecutors weighted social media communication as admissions of guilt. Any communication was taken at face value as a statement that one was going to or had done something.



International Association of Chief of Police. (2015). 2015 IACP Social Media Survey. [PDF file]. Retrieved from http //www.iacpsocialmedia.org/Resources/Publications.aspx

Wednesday July 13, 2016 13:46 - 15:15 UTC
PSH (Professor Stuart Hall Building) - LG02 Goldsmiths University, Building 2

Attendees (6)