Social Analysis to Predict Crime

The ability to predict crimes of the future has been an enticing concept for years. Most famously moving this idea out of its sci-fi niche and to the masses was Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. Earning over $358 million worldwide, the film became a huge success, receiving more than a handful of esteemed awards, and landing itself as one of the top ranking sci-fi films of all time.


On Monday night, Fox Network aired the series premiere of Minority Report, a television adaptation of the 2002 film. The premiere had over 3.1M viewers, but fell short against its 9PM broadcast competitor, CBS’s Scorpion (+11M viewers). Socially, however, the program generated 77% more buzz, pushing 28K mentions, though the verdict is still out on whether viewers will be returning next week. Regardless, the public’s interest in crime-focused predictive technology is still strong. Though we do not yet live in a world where PreCrime is possible (ethical or not), we can use today’s technology to become aware of overly aggressive behavior exhibited in social media – an industry in which over two billion people are involved – before a possible crime is committed.

In a 2013 survey by the IACP, more than 80% of law enforcement agencies stated that they used social media to help solve crimes. Criminals have increasingly been turning to social media after committing a violent crime, to confess or seek forgiveness. However, many violent criminals exhibit aggressive behavior online prior to committing a heinous act.

Not convinced? Take a look at a few of the more infamous killings of 2015:

  • August 26: Moneta, Virginia. Two news reporters were shot on live television while conducting an interview. The gunman, Vester Lee Flanagan II, actively posted claims against his former employer, WDBJ, for racial discrimination on social media profiles, specifically mentioning both of the victims, prior to the shooting. Vester recorded the killing, uploaded it to social media, and conversed via social media throughout the attack.
  • July 23: Lafayette, Louisiana. Eleven movie-goers were injured or killed by John Russell Houser, after he opened fire in a crowded movie theater. After a troubled history, including hospitalization, mental health issues, and anti-government/anti-women’s rights behavior, John then turned to message boards where he preached “the power of the lone wolf.”
  • July 16: Chattanooga, Tennessee. Seven military and police personnel were injured or killed by Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez in two separate shootouts, carried out within a thirty minute time-span. The shooter had been exhibiting concerning behavior both in real-life and online, which included suicidal warnings linked with martyrdom, and blogged only days before the attack.
  • June 17: Charleston, South Carolina. Nine church-goers were shot by Dylann Storm Roof, in one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history. Dylann published a racist manifesto on his personal blog, which included his reasoning for choosing the location, his motive, and his claim that “someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world…”
  • February 10: Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Three family members are shot and killed execution-style in their home by neighbor, Craig Stephen Hicks. Prior to the brutal killing, Hicks exhibited violent, often threatening behavior, in which police were involved, and actively condemned religious beliefs on his Facebook page.

The above is only a sample of the crimes which have occurred this year, on U.S. soil, which have resulted in deaths. Crimes that were attempted, such as the May 3rd attack on the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas, were not included, despite relevant activity (i.e. posting to Twitter prior to the attack).


In today’s digital age, the use of social media by criminals is only natural. Social media usage has grown substantially over the past few years to over two billion users. Over 50% of those users use more than one platform, multiple times a day. While the use of social media as evidence in the law system is a challenge, social media will continue to play an increasing role in the prevention of criminal activity as it continues to become more and more woven into the fabric of today’s society.

While not inherently connected, the number of shooter events is also growing. As previous mentioned, today’s law enforcement agencies use social media monitoring tools to track the behavior of previously identified individuals, as well as the use of specific keywords. One hopes that these agencies also use linguistic analysis to track increasing levels of aggression in order to help predict the possible occurrence of crimes. But the fact is, with billions of users, the sheer amount of data flowing into the hands of these professionals is mind-blowing. In order to sift through this data, while certainly valuable, is extremely costly, and way more than the government, let alone a single agency, can handle.

So, what is the solution? I’m not sure. The DHS has gone through great lengths to promote its “If You See Something, Say Something,” campaign, which was established back in 2002 for the NYC MTA. Over the years, this campaign has been adapted to cover a wide variety of purposes, with the single aim to help prevent crime. How much has this campaign translated into the digital age? Following every major crime, we see a huge influx of social media support, whether to find a culprit, support the victim, or bring awareness to an injustice. Either way, the social media world is ignited with activity. Is there a way to refocus our collective efforts to prevent a future crime, rather than mourning it after, without making the job of law enforcement officials even harder? Only time will tell.

Leave a Reply