The Best Process for the Best Evidence

Mary Riverso, MJLST Staffer

Social networking sites are now an integral part of American society. Almost everyone and everything has a profile, typically on multiple platforms. And people like to use them. Companies like having direct contact with their customers, media outlets like having access to viewer opinions, and people like to document their personal lives.

However, as the use of social-networking continues to increase in scope, the information placed in the public sphere is playing an increasingly centralized role in investigations and litigation. Many police departments conduct regular surveillance of public social media posts in their communities because these sites have become conduits for crimes and other wrongful behavior. As a result, litigants increasingly seek to offer records of statements made on social media sites as evidence. So how exactly can content from social media be used as evidence? Ira Robbins explores this issue in her article Writings on the Wall: The Need for an Authorship-Centric Approach to the Authentication of Social-Networking Evidence. The main hurdle is one of reliability. In order to be admitted as evidence, the source of information must be authentic so that a fact-finder may rely on the source and ultimately its content as trustworthy and accurate. However, social media sites are particularly susceptible to forgery, hacking, and alterations. Without a confession, it is often difficult to determine who is the actual author responsible for posting the content.

Courts grapple with this issue – some allow social media evidence only when the record establishes distinctive characteristics of the particular website under Federal Rule of Evidence 901(b)(4), other courts believe authentication is a relatively low bar and as long as the witness testifies to the process by which the record was obtained, then it is ultimately for the jury to determine the credibility of the content. But is that fair? If evidence is supposed to assist the fact-finder in “ascertaining the truth and securing a just determination,” should it not be of utmost importance to determine the author of the content? Is not a main purpose of authentication to attribute the content to the proper author? Social media records may well be the best evidence against a defendant, but without an authorship-centric approach, the current path to their admissibility may not yet be the best process.

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