Security Social Media

Crime, Terrorism, and Security: The Dark Side of Social Media

Gavin Phillips 31-10-2016

When it comes to instant information dissemination, social media leads the way. In January 2016, there were an estimated 2.3 billion social media users. Global population stands at around 7.4 billion, so you understand the sheer power in numbers behind social media 12 Social Media Facts and Statistics You Should Know in 2016 Here are some interesting facts and statistics about the social media landscape that show where we are today and where we might eventually end up during 2016. Read More .


Of that figure, Facebook accounts for over 1.7 billion users. Social media users aren’t usually limited to one network either Here Are the Fastest Growing Social Networks You Need to Join While Facebook holds the lion's share of the social market, new services like Kik, Snapchat and WhatsApp threaten to break Facebook's stranglehold on the social Internet. Read More . Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Reddit and others all have their own enormous followings How Do You Use Social Media? A 20-Something's Theory of Social Media Niches With widespread use of social media platforms, it can be hard to understand why new ones are created. Could this be because each social network actually only fills one or two specific niches for users? Read More . As well as this, social messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Kik, Viber, and Telegram have encouraged millions of users to eschew traditional mobile device communication in favor of their integrated platforms.

Social Users Global Snapshot
Image Credit: @wearesocialsg

The result is an interconnected jumble of individual users able to seamlessly communicate across the globe. Social media isn’t just cat memes and prank videos, though. 21st Century social media users can just as easily run into much darker material distributed by technologically-skilled terrorist groups, for instance.

Social media isn’t all fun and games.

It Has a Dark Side

ISIS continue to make headlines around the world. Thankfully, this is because the insurgent terrorist group are losing swathes of territory. However, ISIS made nefarious use of social media The War Against ISIS Online - Is Your Security At Risk? Anonymous claim to be targeting ISIS websites, alerting many to the fact that the terrorists have an online presence. But how are they being fought? And what should you do if you discover ISIS online? Read More during their rapid expansion throughout the Middle East, broadcasting utterly barbaric atrocities BlockTogether: Why A Tool Built To Stop Harassment Is Now Used By ISIS Block Together's intentions are good, but the potential for it to go horribly wrong are extremely high. Twitter should step in and provide its own alternative. Read More directly into our homes, via our social media streams.


Other terrorist organizations make use of global news distribution networks to spread fear. ISIS made it personal, insidious, and inescapable by tapping into our personal news feeds, where we interact with friends and family.

Active Social Media Users
Image Credit: Statista

Closer to Home

ISIS are an extreme example. But they’re somewhat indicative of how social media can easily be bent to the will of an author.


Social media is frequently and increasingly used in crimes closer to home. The difficulty for law enforcement agencies is classifying the massive range of crimes From The Web To Jail: 6 Types of Computer Crimes You Can Get Arrested For Governments across the world have tried to tame the Internet as a tempest of new technology threatens everything from strict government censorship and control over the media to entrenched media conglomerates and old concepts of... Read More that directly involve social media. Some “only” use social media as a planning tool, while others take place entirely within a single network.

Furthermore, judging the severity of the crime perpetrated is equally challenging. Crimes may include racist abuse, incidents of homophobia, incidents of grooming, and stalking. These take place alongside the general background noise of “generally abusive behavior,” click-jacking, doxxing, pharming, and other devices designed to steal personal information.

In 2014, the FBI’s internet Crime Complain Centre (IC3) reported (PDF) that 12% of all logged complaints involved social media. That 12% equates to 32,330 complaints received during a 12-month period. Unfortunately, the 2015 IC3 report (PDF) neglected to include an accurate social media figure. However, as total complaints in 2015 rose from 269,422 to 288,012, alongside increased scrutiny of social media, I would suggest a further increase in social media incidents.

Complaints Reported to the IC3
Image Credit: IC3 2015 Report (PDF)


Finally, millions of U.S. citizens fall victim to cybercrime each year. Regardless of social media, IC3 estimate just “15% of the nation’s fraud victims report their crimes to law enforcement.” Millions of social media crimes evidently go unreported.

A Change in Crime?

Exact figures for individual social networks are incredibly difficult to find. Reported numbers vary based upon a number of identifiers, not least if a social media complaint is followed-up by law enforcement. At this point, the complaint may be registered directly as criminal activity. Furthermore, an operation involving the monitoring and recording of a potential suspect will not be recorded at all, but their social media activities may lead to an arrest.

Social Media in Law Enforcement
Image Credit: Lexis Nexis

In this instance, rather than trying to detail an accurate number, it is more useful to understand how social media is changing crime. For instance, a simple online search for “arrested for online threat” returns over 11 million results. The majority of these threats come through social media networks. While they vary wildly in severity, law enforcement and social media networks themselves have a duty to asses each threat posted.


Consequently, a group of teens posting a threat of killer clowns toward a school is taken extremely seriously From The Web To Jail: 6 Types of Computer Crimes You Can Get Arrested For Governments across the world have tried to tame the Internet as a tempest of new technology threatens everything from strict government censorship and control over the media to entrenched media conglomerates and old concepts of... Read More , hoax or not.


This is another unfortunate facet of internet culture, certainly exemplified throughout social media. There is a disconnection between actions and consequences, and a disassociation with potential victims 5 Life-Ruining Ways You Can Be Victimized Online The Internet is not as anonymous as you might think it is. If somebody wants to find out who you are and where you live, the tiniest bit of information can lead back to you... Read More . Correspondingly, perpetrators young and old commit crimes without hesitation, whereas outside the internet, IRL (In Real Life), we have to assume the power of consequence bears a heavier weight.

The London School of Economics U.S. Center call these “Performance Crimes,” where people willing and knowingly create “accounts of their law-breaking through text, images and video, which are then digitally distributed to the public on a large scale.” Ray Surette, a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Central Florida notes in an article for the LSE U.S. Center that:

The growth of performance crime is additionally tied to the celebrity culture that emerged in the 20th century when celebrities became a focus of public interest and becoming a celebrity a career goal.

Feeding off of this celebrity culture, social media has resulted in offenders posting pre-crime confessions, videos of themselves committing offences, and post-crime footage holding evidence and bragging about their criminal acts. In the process, these enthusiastic crime performers often generate evidence used for their conviction.

Performance Crime

Crimes are committed through social media, but social media is also seen as a prime distribution network. Earlier we discussed ISIS’ use of social media to spread their insidious message. Surette also explains an aspect of this, too:

The regular online posting of terrorism videos and the numerous terrorist group internet sites further exemplify how social media is used to produce online performance terrorism specifically tailored to multiple audiences.

The over-sharing that lies at the core of self-incriminating performances is an extension of the significance that social media have come to play culturally. It is better to get your performance out there [Broken URL Removed] and be known than to be unknown in a celebrity culture, even if criminality is required.

Offline Crime

Social media isn’t always the scene of the crime. Modern burglars easily exploit our apparent dedication to broadcasting every detail about our day-to-day routine. A 2011 survey carried out by U.K. home security firm Friedland states:

An overwhelming 78% of ex-burglars interviewed said that they strongly believed social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Four Square are being used by current thieves when targeting properties, with nearly three quarters (74%) stating that in their expert opinion, Google Street View was playing a role in today’s home thefts.

Furthermore, 54% of those interviewed identified social media status and location updates as one the most common mistakes a homeowner can make. Check out U.K. insurance company Admiral’s scrolling social media burglary graphic for further facts.

Perhaps social media is not always the scene of the crime, but it is certainly an extremely useful planning accessory.

Holiday, It Would Be So Nice

The average burglary takes between 8–12 minutes. Tech-savvy burglars can use your photos to quickly gauge your actual location. Pretty much every digital photo contains EXIF data What EXIF Photo Data Is, How to Find It & How to Understand It Pretty much every digital camera available today records EXIF data within each image you take. The data is useful for improving your photography and can also be quite interesting, especially if you're a geek. Read More . EXIF data commonly details the camera settings used to capture the image. As well as this, modern, GPS-enabled devices may geotag the image with your exact coordinates What Is EXIF Data? 3 Ways to Remove Metadata From Photos Most cameras embed hidden information ("metadata") in photographs taken. For privacy's sake, here's how to remove that metadata. Read More .

Some social media sites, like Facebook, handily scrub your EXIF data when you upload an image. However, others do not.

EXIF Data Retention
Image Credit: Tech Fleece

Other quick tips include not signing in at restaurants, cafes, leisure centers, and other local amenities. As well as this, consider keeping travel sign-ins and location updates to a minimum.

Sure, you want your friends to know you’re having fun. But wouldn’t you rather come home to the same possessions?

Everything Is Bad

Yup. That about sums it up.

Okay, maybe not all entirely bad. I have read a number of heartwarming stories detailing stolen possessions returned to their rightful owners after being spotted on social media.

A quick search on Pinterest shows about 85 boards from police departments around the country — including Kansas City, Mo., police — who have used Pinterest to help solve burglary and robbery cases, locate missing people and educate parents about street drugs their kids may be using.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children uses social media to rapidly distribute Amber Alerts. An $800,000 project funded by the Department of Justice is underway at Cardiff University. The project will develop an algorithm to scan social media and automatically detect outbreaks of cyber-hate, leading to hate crimes. Furthermore, Chicago-based Geofeedia had their social media scanner shutdown after it received wide-ranging criticism from civil-rights activists.

But It’s Not All Doom and Gloom

Despite the doom and gloom I’ve shared with you, I do not want you to worry. The MakeUseOf team have already detailed exactly how to keep yourself much safer when using social media. Our look at 9 Things You Should Never Share on Social Media 10 Things You Should Never Share on Social Media Be careful what you share on social media because you never know when something could come back and ruin your life. Read More  should be your first stop, followed by Do You Share Too Much Information? Online Privacy: Do You Share Too Much Information? Sharing has always been a prominent part of what the Internet is and how it functions. And with social networks exploding in popularity in the past several years, sharing is probably the one aspect we... Read More  After, consider whether you should Protect Yourself With Facebook’s Privacy Check-up Tool Protect Yourself With Facebook's Privacy Check-up Tool Facebook has a privacy problem. It's no secret. You hear stories about that every other day. So to help users understand their settings better, Facebook has released a new tool called Privacy Check-up. Read More . Also, check:

Read through these articles. Understand just how much information is available through your social media accounts. Consider how that might be used against you. Not just in the instance of a criminal activity, but perhaps in a job interview, or an insurance claim, or simply later in life.

Have you seen a crime take place on social media? Did you report it? Or was it simply part and parcel of using social media? Finally, could social media do more to prevent crime? Let us know your thoughts below!

Image Credits: Stepan Kapl/Shutterstock

Related topics: Computer Security, Online Privacy.

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