Facebook can be your frenemy

Social media websites like Facebook give us the ability to share our lives with our families, friends, and schoolmates. But there is a danger inherent in social media use: many of us document our personal lives in ways that may later come back to haunt us in courts of law.

In family law cases, ranging from a divorce with division of your assets to a child custody or child support dispute, and anything in between, your Facebook account can be used against you. Most social media users are far too savvy to publicly post photographs that document misdeeds like extramarital affairs. But a series of screen captures showing post after post where you have publicly nagged, embarrassed, shamed, or argued with your spouse can be just as devastating to your case. Private messages to your spouse or ex can also come back to haunt you, along with any insults or admissions of bad behavior (abuse, infidelity, failure to support, etc.) you make.

Facebook crime scene
What you reveal online could be used against you later.

If you think, “well, that’s okay, I’ll just block him…,” don’t be too hasty. If you’ve ever shared the account, and he knows the password, he can still access the account and use its contents against you. Even if you create a new password, it’s hard to know which of your mutual friends (or even your own family members) are on her side, and willing to pass along screenshots to her after she’s been blocked.

Particularly in child custody disputes, you need to be cautious of what you post on Facebook. In a perfect world, divorce parents would not express their frustrations at each other in front of their children, or on social media. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and if your wife is late bringing the kids back from visitation a fifth or sixth time, it’s understandably upsetting. But posting a diatribe isn’t the best idea, especially if your children also have Facebook accounts. Many child custody orders include provisions that parents will not speak negatively about the other parent in the presence of the children, and even if you DON’T say anything to the kids, a slew of Facebook posts can certainly create the impression that you are.

What if you’ve been charged with committing a crime? While law enforcement generally can’t use your Facebook account against you in court without obtaining a subpoena and/or a search warrant, they CAN look at your publicly available Facebook content during an investigation. Law enforcement in Middle Georgia, including Macon and Warner Robins, often use your Facebook friends list to identify possible sources of information, including potential witnesses, who they will interview in their efforts to build a case against you.

Man messing with a cop car's fuel tank.
Sometimes a photo has the same effect as a signed confession.

Just as married men and women rarely post photographs of themselves cheating on their spouses, people rarely post photographs of themselves actively violating the law…with the possible exception of those under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Unlike with family law, we criminalize various forms of association, and if you’re on Facebook, you need to be aware of them.

In Georgia, there is a strong law enforcement effort to investigate and prosecute gang activity. The criminal street gang activity law is broadly written, and the penalties for violations are high. Facebook is a big source of information about who are members of gangs, and if you appear prominently in photographs “throwing gang signs,” these photographs can draw attention to your profile, your friends’ list, and your offline activities, even if you are not a member of a gang.

There is also a concept called party to a crime under Georgia law. Generally speaking, a party to a crime is someone who knowingly participates in the crime, even if that person doesn’t directly commit the crime herself. If you are on Facebook, publicly posting encouragement for your friend to commit a criminal act, perhaps beating up a common enemy, telling your friend when and where she can find this unknowing victim, and your friend follows through on your plan, you may become a party to that crime. Even if you delete your post, with a swipe, it can be captured forever in someone else’s iPhone.

The lesson in all of this is easy: don’t say anything on Facebook that you wouldn’t want repeated on a witness stand in a courtroom, or in front of your spouse and children. Choose your friends, and your privacy settings, carefully. Remember that what you post online can be forgotten, but it is never truly gone, even if you delete it or block another user.

Facebook can be your friend — but it can also become your enemy.