Moments after the identity of a man suspected of being the shooter in the Las Vegas massacre, social media exploded with authorities search for information and people tweeting rumors. But is social media accurate in providing information about someone involved in such a tragedy? And where does social media as well as other online information in the form of “big data” fit into the investigation?

With so many hundreds of millions of people worldwide sharing their lives via social media, Facebook and more have become go-to sources for immediate searches. But are the results reliable?

As of noon Monday, little had been found in the Las Vegas incident. The search goes on.

Dr Steve McDonald, Director of the Graduate Program in Sociology at N.C. State, spoke with WRAL TechWire about the social media connections. And he pointed to a recently published study (“Big Data Surveillance: The Case of Policing”) by a University of Texas professor concerning how authorities are utilizing online data for investigations.

Are social media posts such as Facebook profiles and comments, Twitter posts, LinkedIn profiles and other writings truly reflective of the person posting them?

“There is a logic to self presentation on social media that is distinct from self presentation in a face-to-face setting,” McDonald explained. “In general, research suggests that people tend to be more revealing online than in person.”

He also pointed out that the trustworthiness of such information also varies by the venue used.

“[I]ndividual social media platforms maintain their own self-presentation norms,” he said.

“You can see this in how the commentary on Twitter is distinct from posts to LinkedIn.

“On Twitter, shock-value has cache because it gains you re-tweets and followers. On LinkedIn, people are attempting to protect and advance their professional reputations.”

The bottom line? Be wary.

“So this can lead to variation in both candidness and accuracy, which are really two separate issues),” he says.

McDonald points out that his research has focused on how employers search social media for attention about job candidates. And they take posts seriously.

“I can tell you that employers commonly rely on information from social media to:

1) verify information included in job applications and

2) to gain a deeper sense of a job candidate’s personality, belief system, and cultural proclivities,” Murphy explained.

“Online information can and does lead to misperceptions (especially with regard to item 2), but employers typically view the information as helpful nonetheless.”

Big data surveillance

The Skinny checked out the research paper Murphy recommended. It runs 32 pages, but the crucial points are made in the opening summary by Sarah Brayne, an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Faculty Research Associate in the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

Law enforcement can gather information from a huge tranche of big data for individuals to augment surveillance, she wrote. And big data analytics “facilitates amplifications of prior surveillance practices and fundamental transformations in surveillance activities.”

She argues five points:

“First, discretionary assessments of risk are supplemented and quantified using risk scores.

“Second, data are used for predictive, rather than reactive or explanatory, purposes.

“Third, the proliferation of automatic alert systems makes it possible to systematically surveil an unprecedentedly large number of people.

“Fourth, the threshold for inclusion in law enforcement databases is lower, now including individuals who have not had direct police contact.

“Fifth, previously separate data systems are merged, facilitating the spread of surveillance into a wide range of institutions.”

She also argues that “big data surveillance” can be “applied to institutional domains beyond the criminal justice system.”

Read the full paper at: