Social Media Investigations [A 2023 Guide]

Social media plays a major role in today’s world. As of January 2023, 4.76 billion people, or nearly 60% of the global population, used social media. With that many people posting the details of their lives online, social media reviews are increasingly becoming a necessary component of criminal investigations, background checks, and corporate investigations.

That’s why it’s so important for corporate investigation teams to understand how to conduct social media investigations and what steps they should take to set themselves up for success.

In this post, we’ll walk through the basics, starting with a definition of social media investigations and a discussion of when corporations should perform them. We’ll also consider the steps involved in a social media investigation, some of the challenges sit poses, and a few tips for performing them well.


What are social media investigations?
When corporations should perform social media investigations
Why social media investigations are essential for corporations
The steps of a social media investigation
The challenges of performing social media investigations
3 best practices for successfully performing social media investigations
How technology enables successful social media investigations

What are social media investigations?

Social media investigations represent search, analysis, and collection of a subject’s publicly available content on social media websites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter.

Individuals’ social media profiles usually contain a wealth of information. Some of this information, such as private messages, may require a subpoena to access. But an astonishing amount of social media content—including many posts, comments, and photos—is readily available to the public. This content can reveal:

  • drug use and other illegal activity,

  • violent threats and behavior,

  • discrimination against others or discriminatory views,

  • inappropriate sexual content or sexual harassment, and

  • violations of company policy.

Many corporations use their in-house investigators and staff to perform regular social media investigations into people and organizations.

So, when is a social media investigation necessary?

When corporations should perform social media investigations

There are a variety of reasons why corporations may perform social media investigations. The circumstances that may trigger a social media investigation include:

  • routine employee background checks;

  • HR, fraud, or other internal investigations;

  • regulatory or compliance investigations; and

  • potential or ongoing litigation matters.

A corporation should consider launching a social media investigation when any of these situations arise. With these type of investigations, time is of the essence, as individuals may remove, hide, or change information on their public-facing profile at any time.

What exactly can corporations learn from social media investigations, anyway? Let’s turn to the question of why an investigation into an individual’s associated social media accounts can be so useful.

Why social media investigations are essential for corporations

The short answer about why social media investigations are essential for corporations is that they can inform the corporations’ ultimate decision-making and litigation strategies.

There’s a tremendous amount that corporations can learn about individuals—or the facts underlying an investigation or litigation matter—from social media. This is no surprise; many people display countless intimate details about their lives and opinions on social media. And although social media has become more common over the years, its users haven’t always learned to be cautious about what they share online.

In the HR context, social media investigations can reveal important information about potential or current employees. HR departments can use that information to guide hiring decisions, promotion choices, and HR investigations, preventing issues and potential liability down the line.

When it comes to litigation, these investigations can strengthen a case or even reveal useful social media evidence that leads to an early settlement or outright win.

How does a social media investigation work?

The steps of a social media investigation

Social media investigations can be tedious, but the process is fairly straightforward. The steps of a social media investigation include the following:

  1. Obtain the subject’s personal information (including their name, date of birth, and photo).  

  2. Locate and verify the subject’s publicly available profiles across various social media platforms.

  3. Analyze online content by and about the subject for relevant information.

  4. Save any relevant information.

  5. Prepare a report.

  6. Monitor ongoing social media posts and activity by and about the subject.

If these steps sound familiar, that’s probably because the social media investigation process significantly overlaps with the standard background check process. The steps of a background investigation include:

  1. Obtain the subject’s personal information (including their name, date of birth, photo, resume, and references).  

  2. Inform the subject of the background check.

  3. Review any relevant EU and state laws and regulations, including European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

  4. Locate and verify the subject’s information (using their credit, criminal, education, employment, and military histories as well as their birth, citizenship, family, and driving records).

  5. Analyze information for inappropriate or troubling content.

  6. Save any relevant information.

  7. Make any necessary redactions.

  8. Prepare a final report.

A background check requires a few extra steps, most notably including giving notice to the subject. A social media investigation, on the other hand, is a bit procedurally simpler, but usually also requires ongoing monitoring that a background check does not.

Despite their relative simplicity, social media investigations can be challenging, especially when performed in house.

The challenges of performing social media investigations

Social media investigations often present a few unique challenges.

1. Lack of experience

Many corporations rely on in-house investigators and staff to perform social media investigations. While digital investigators typically have experience searching and analyzing online data, other corporate employees may not. This lack of experience can make it difficult for a corporation to find the results it needs without incurring significant expense, especially if the investigation team lacks investigation software that can streamline the process.

2. Identification issues

Social media investigations rely on proper subject information and social media account identification. Without both things, an investigation team can spend hours searching and collecting evidence about the wrong person or considering an irrelevant time frame. This wastes time and money and could result in misguided decision-making or an unfavorable litigation outcome.

3. Platform variation

There are hundreds of social media channels out there, but there are huge differences between even the top 15 most popular social media sites. These differences include layout, how posts are formatted (from simple text to photos to videos), and interactive elements (such as likes, comments, and shares). Each of these different variations can present a new learning curve for in-house teams seeking to search, analyze, and extract key evidence.

4. Data complexity

Social media includes many different types of data, including data that requires extraction. For example, embedded files are multimedia files that are included on a webpage, such as links, photos, videos, and gifs. Social media also includes metadata, or data that contains details about other data, including photos, documents, and videos. Metadata is valuable because it can reveal many things about a file—such as who owns it or when and where a photo or video was taken—and can be discoverable as well as admissible in legal cases. Even an experienced social media investigator needs specialized technology to handle certain types of data and make the information they contain accessible.

The good news is that these challenges are surmountable. Let’s take a look at three best practices for performing social media investigations.

3 best practices for successfully performing social media investigations

A social media investigation can be a powerful tool if used well. Here are three ways to successfully perform social media investigations.

1. Act as a neutral observer.

Investigation teams should review and collect only publicly available social media information. They should not “friend” or otherwise connect or interact with subjects on social media as part of their investigation. Creating a fake profile to gain access to private information can violate social media websites’ terms and conditions, and participating in a conversation or commenting on a post can compromise an investigation or litigation matter. Stay neutral and gather information without engaging with the subject.

2. Save information wisely.

When performing a social media investigation, be careful about how you save the information you find. The format of a message thread, comments on a post, or other data on social media can contain valuable contextual information. Therefore, investigation teams should save all relevant information in its native format so that it can be reconstructed in its original form should it be needed in litigation.

What about taking screenshots? Screenshots are a limited, but quick and easy way to capture online information. When taking screenshots, be sure to capture the entire screen, including the date and time. To ensure that screenshots are admissible in court, one must be able to authenticate them by using an authenticated web capture tool or hiring a notary or other neutral witness to confirm that the screenshots are accurate.

3. Leverage technology.

Technology can streamline and simplify social media investigations. From performing efficient search of enormous amounts of data to analyzing information for relevancy, the right tool can help you perform more thorough social investigations in less time. Social media investigation tools can also organize information and make it easier to digest.

Let’s take a closer look at how technology can make these type of investigations more manageable.

How technology enables successful social media investigations

Social media investigations are extremely valuable for corporations, but they can also drain organizational resources.

eDiscovery technology can help social media investigators break through these barriers to perform successful social media investigations faster. The right eDiscovery tool can be instrumental in identifying, collecting, and analyzing data from a social media platform.

For example, ZyLAB ONE is an end-to-end eDiscovery solution that allows digital investigators to search, review, and analyze data in place. The platform can handle large volumes of data and different types of data from multiple sources easily and efficiently. The platform can also deduplicate and automatically organize data, increasing accessibility.

By making eDiscovery technology a core part of your social media investigation practice, you can uncover more relevant information in less time and save your organization money.

To learn more about ZyLAB and ZyLAB ONE, contact us or schedule a demonstration.